The neon-green tennis ball: it may not be quite as bright as the sun, but for racket-sports enthusiasts, it’s just as enticing. With the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open broadcasting in the background, summer draws the weekend-warrior tennis player like no other season can. It also brings opportunities for tweaking backs and elbows.
Racket sports of all types—from badminton to ping-pong, pickleball to squash—require strength, power, and dynamic flexibility. I asked trainer Charlie Reid at MOVE SF gym about his favorite training tool for waking up your dormant racket-sports muscles before summer. His favorite? The medicine ball.
“A lot of tennis players will overuse their upper bodies,” Reid says, “playing from their arm or elbow.” He uses medicine balls to reinforce better movement patterns that transfer power from the lower body into the swing. Medicine balls offer great ways to learn how to play tennis “from the ground up,” as well as the chance to increase strength in your end ranges of motion (where that reach for a volley sometimes turns into a match-ending strain).
“What I like to tell people,” says Reid, “is just get stronger. If I know you’re stronger, I know you can generate more power. If you’re strength-training through a full range of motion, I know we can increase and maintain your mobility by being strong in end-range positions.”
He recommends adding these three basic medicine ball throws to your workout—only if your own health professional OKs them for you, of course—to get your strength, power, and flexibility in gear before summer.
For all of the throws, use a medicine ball whose weight you can throw explosively (not slowly)—usually, this is around 6 to 8 pounds.
1. Chest Pass
The chest pass, says Reid, is a great way to involve the sagittal plane, the one that powers our forward motion and volleys. It’s also the simplest way to teach the body how to move power from the ground through your hands.
For chest passes, begin by facing a wall about 1 yard (3 feet) away, holding the ball with both hands at chest height, elbows bent. Bend your knees and throw the ball at the wall by extending through your elbows. (Or try adding a forward step to the motion.) Catch the ball with soft knees.
2. Overhead Toss
Of course, the tennis serve is a key overhead motion, and so is that classic overhead slam. Reid says adding the weight of a medicine ball to the motions helps teach you how to link your core to your arms.
Using a ball that weighs a little less than the maximum you think you can throw overhead, station yourself about 1.5 to 2 yards from the wall, feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, and staggered. Bring arms overhead, push hips back, and with a quick motion throw the ball while moving your hips forward. The ball should be sent at a downward angle (not directly forward), to a point about 1 to 2 feet from the bottom of the wall.
3. Rotational Throw
Perhaps the most important movements in tennis come from rotation—transferring power from one side to the other with fluidity. The rotational throw can be used as a tool to assess functional movement, says Reid. “Some people will have restrictions that will show when you ask them to throw a medicine ball rotationally,” and that’s a sign that more work needs to be done on flexibility.
Stand perpendicular to the wall, about a yard away, ball at hip height. Bend your knees and send your hips back. Rotate through your hips (powering from that farthest hip) and send the ball slightly upward to the wall. Catch with soft knees.
One round of these three throws will certainly give you a chance to locate your weaknesses—and if you have someone who can help you correct your form, you can build from there with three sets of 8 to 10 repetitions each.
For some of us, there are also immediate psychological upsides to throwing a ball at a wall. But the physical benefits—improvements to your power, strength, flexibility, and confidence with a racket—will be just as satisfying this summer.
Susan Gerhard is a San Francisco–based writer/editor and coach/trainer. Her work on a wide variety of topics, from film and media to health and the environment, has appeared in a number of national, international, and local publications.