Why the key to getting faster is to step back first

When you go to a workshop, I bet you have been told that if you want to be fast you need to make sure you don’t step back first.  I read this on an American Baseball website recently:

”Standing up on the first step before accelerating is a common mistake that players make when breaking from a base and moving to a batter ball. Another mistake is taking a false or drop step.”

What everyone probably didn’t expect to hear at this latest APA workshop was that this advice and other comments like it are quite frankly totally wrong.

This blog is a summary of the recent APA Speed, Agility & Quickness Training for Sports Workshop, May 24th 2014 covering a lot of different hot topics and dispelling some myths along the way.  Buckle up!!

So what did we cover?

We started in the classroom and covered some training principles first



The APA  3 S System (copyright)

Speed- 3S

Then we went through some videos to better understand what good movement looks like.


Before we get to the videos just a few points.  The key to getting faster is:


1. The amount of force that an athlete puts into the ground (relative to body weight)  

2. The direction of that force  

The amount of force that an athlete puts into the ground is improved through strength and power training.  In biomechanics they call this ‘kinetics.’  These are trainable qualities.   The direction of that force is where the “skill of speed” comes into play. This can be improved through proper positioning and practice and these are coachable qualities .  This is known as ‘kinematics,’ and it is here that the workshop was targeted.  What does proper positioning look like, and how can we coach that?


Straight ahead Speed




We looked at proper start position and acceleration mechanics for a 20m sprint.  We discussed the differences between a 3 point start and a block start.    

Key points:


The stance and start sets the athlete’s force angles for the entire 20m and thus, improving these things will have the greatest improvement on overall 20m time. The key emphasis is to get the athlete to focus on driving (not stepping) out and pushing the ground back with as much force as possible.



We then looked at an example of how this acceleration position might be applied in the sport of Tennis, since the majority of attendees were Tennis coaches.



Top Speed:


We looked at proper foot position for the Top speed phase of a 40m sprint.  

Key points:


According to Carl Lewis’s coach (in a pod cast Interview with Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre) the heel DOES come down at foot strike when running at top speed.  But I know Dan Pfaff has said that it doesn’t.  My opinion is that the foot makes initial contact with the ball of the feet.  What we certainly don’t want to see is athletes making initial contact with the heel!!!


What do you think?  Leave me your comments below.



First Step Speed


We looked at a 5m start which focuses on the first two explosive steps.  Unlike Straight ahead speed used during the 100m sprint, we will typically express first step speed in multiple directions and in response to a random signal to move quickly.


Key points:


I need to give credit to Lee Taft and the IYCA for introducing me to what they call the ‘Plyo Step.’  In Tennis we call it a ‘Dig Step.’  Other coaches call this a ‘False Step.’  Like me, Lee Taft was never satisfied with the irrational explanation that it is a mistake to do this.

He says: ‘I think you will find the logic and the scientific basis of biomechanics and physics will offer enough backing to see the purpose for allowing the Plyo Step to be the way the athlete moves during a reactive setting and from a non-track stance.’

Innovation and creativity is to be congratulated.  I always say, ”be an innovator not an impersonator.” Coaches have looked at the plyo step (which is a natural stretch reflex) with this desire to improve sports performance  and said, well, this is surely a wasted step, and it must take longer to move forward.  But I think they are wrong!


Plyo step


Lee Taft explains:

”The fact that coaches call it a step back just isn’t true. If it were a step back, then the hips would have to travel back as well. This clearly doesn’t happen. Look at the picture of the Plyo Step and notice the position of the hips just prior to the Plyo Step and when the Plyo Step occurs.   It can be clearly seen that the center of mass only moves forward. The fallacy the movement brings the athlete backward first just isn’t true. Next, the old timers use to say, “It takes longer to get moving forward”. Wrong again. The reason I named this movement a Plyo Step is because of the stretch shortening action that occurs when the foot aggressively contacts the ground. There is a quick response (action reaction) that occurs from the ground which helps to move the athlete forward much quicker.”



It must be stated that the best position to be able to respond in all directions is the basic athletic stance, with a slight adjustment.  The key words here are’ slight adjustment.’  We use the plyo step to reorganise our body position so it is set up to produce force in the correct direction.


Who says, the first step is always going to go forward any way?


Detractors of the plyo step would say you need to step out of the athletic stance by pivoting forward from the ankle. That theory only works if you know the intended direction is going to be forward and you can already lean over the front foot to get into the optimal position to explode forward.  Yes, this is correct when talking about a rugby forward or a lineman in American football whose sole job is to move forward and make a tackle.  It is also fair to say that this is fairly common in Tennis too when the player knows where the ball is going.  But for other sports it has to come from a more neutral athletic stance!


First Step Lateral


In Tennis 80% of all movement is lateral so lateral first step speed is particularly important.  Ben Linder, Head Physical Trainer for the Swiss Tennis Federation, calls this ‘1-2 step movement’.  This refers to the first two steps being the most important.


Split Step: Jump into First step


In Tennis before the first step takes place the athlete will normally do a jump in the air as the opponent is about to strike the ball.  This is yet another example of using the stretch reflex to store and release additional elastic energy in the muscles to explode to the ball.


For this part of the classroom presentation we therefore looked at proper mechanics of the first step as it relates to the sport of Tennis.


Let’s look a bit closer


For me the first step is a powerful step in the intended direction.  By step I mean a powerful contraction of the quadriceps and glutes often using a pivoting type action.  However in Tennis, prior to this step there will usually be one of a few things that can happen before this powerful step takes place.

  • The body jumps in the air and the feet land simultaneously known in Tennis as a ‘simultaneous split step.’  This is usually followed by a pivoting action of the foot- the way most coaches would like you to teach it!  
  • The foot/hip nearest the intended direction opens up slightly- common when you are in motion or have read the situation- is usually part of a ‘staggered split step’  (see below)  
  • The foot nearest the intended direction falls under the body in the opposite direction- common when you are moving from a very wide foot position  
  • The foot furthest away the intended direction pushes in the opposite direction to the ball known as a ‘dig step’- common when your feet are quite close together or you’re quite upright and are reacting to the play.  


Staggered Split step


I wanted to focus on the staggered split step as it is similar to the plyo step/dig step but requires explanation


For me a plyo step or ‘dig step’ is a reflex response to a random signal to move.  The ‘staggered split step’ is applying the same laws of equal and opposite forces but it is more of a ‘conscious’ push with the foot furthest away from the direction of travel.   This happens when you read the game and can anticipate the direction of your first step.  The dig step will come into play when you have to react to the direction of the ball and is a reflex.  Somewhere between the two is the simultaneous split step where the athlete is able to pivot off the foot-like most coaches will want you to do in your first step!!


If you watch the clip carefully of Andre Agassi moving laterally above, you will see his left foot slightly hits the ground before his right.  This is known as a ‘staggered split step.’


Multi-directional Speed


We looked at a Pro Agility Shuttle (5-10-5) which focuses on the explosive change of direction.



Key points:


Again credit goes to Brian Grasso of the IYCA who showed me the 4 steps to a good body position for changing direction.


1.  Feet slightly wider than shoulders or ‘outside the box’ made by the shoulders and hips.  

2. Feet turned slightly toward direction of travel  

3. Hips back  

4.  Shift weight towards inside leg closest towards direction of travel  


Then we looked at how this would apply to the tennis court


Notice how after hitting the ball Djokovic is initially out of balance and in no position to effectively apply the forces in the correct positions.  But then he quickly reorganises his body so he can find the correct position to push himself back towards the centre of the court.




After about 40 minutes in the classroom going through these videos we went on to the court to look at some drills to develop the three types of Speed of the 3 S APA Training System (Straight ahead Speed, First step speed and Multi-directional Speed).


I will upload some videos to give you a taster in another blog but if you can’t wait to then, then you can get more information on these topics and over 200 video clips of drills at my new EBOOK.  Click HERE for more details.

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Top 5 Hamstring Exercises

 The hamstrings are a group of muscles located at the back of the upper leg, there are 3 muscles in the group; semi-membranosus, semi-tendinosus, and the bicep femoris. They act to flex the knee and help extend the hip as well as combining to assist rotation of the knee. The hamstring muscles also play a role in our posture by assisting to straighten out the lower curvature of the spine which curves the pelvis forward when sitting. The hamstrings work eccentrically to decelerate hip flexion (sprinting, kicking a ball, bending to touch your toes) and concentrically in the push off phase of gait. They are a common injury site amongst many athletes, predominantly due to an imbalance of strength between them, the glutes and the quadriceps group. As a result having a set of robust and strong hamstrings can help prevent you from injury. Try adding these exercises to your ‘leg day’ workouts.

Romanian Dead Lifts (straight leg dead lifts):

Holding either a bar or pair of dumbbells in an upright position, brace the core, keep the spine in neutral and begin to lower the weights down your legs by first pushing your butt backwards. Ensure you have ‘soft’ knees, continue lowering the weight until you have reached a point of full stretch in the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes in this case), this should take 3-5 seconds to reach. Pause for a second maintaining a maximum brace on the core and neutral spine, begin extending the hips to stand up tall – you should feel like you are driving your heels into the ground – keep the bar travelling up close to the thighs and squeeze your butt into the bar at the top – this can be done quickly (1 second) or more slowly (3-5 seconds) dependant on training goal. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps with strict form to help maintain good hamstring and posterior chain health and fitness.

Start position is stood upright, core braced and neutral spine 20140516_110334

End point – bar lowered towards the ground, close the thighs, neutral spine and tight core, the feeling of the exercise should be one of a loaded stretch. 20140516_110340

Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls:

An easier to complete exercise that can be done at home, the use of the Swiss ball however creates a great stability challenge transferring muscle activation through the hamstrings and utilising the core to again stabilise the spine and trunk. Lying on your back on the floor, place a Swiss ball under your calves. Firstly engage your core into a slightly flexed spinal position and squeeze your butt to lift your hips up towards the ceiling, thus creating a straight and neutral spine and body from feet to shoulders. Maintain this position as you pull your feet towards your butt and extend and slowly to the start position. Many variations of this exercise can be performed – single leg, super slow, fast curls or using other equipment such as a TRX to create varying challenges. As this exercise is a body weight controlled exercise, you can do a higher volume of reps to increase the workload – 3×15-20 reps will help keep those hamstrings strong and well integrated with the glutes and lower core musculature.

Start position, core braced, glutes firing to lift the hips, legs out straight.


End position, core braced, glutes firing to lift the hips, ball pulled in towards the butt.



A great exercise stolen from the world of dance. This challenges the body to be on a single base, engage multiple other muscle groups, improve balance and co-ordination as well as health and strength of the muscle. The aim is to again brace the core before beginning the exercise. Standing on a single leg with a ‘soft’ knee, hinge at the hips but maintain a straight neutral spine, extend the non-grounded leg away from the body in line with your hips squeeze the butt and pull the toes back towards the head for an increased ‘tightening’ of the leg and core muscles. At the same time lower the chest towards the floor maintaining a good posture through the upper back and pinch the shoulder blades together. Reach the point of full stretch in the hamstrings of the grounded leg and return to an upright position. This is great exercise to use in a warm up as part of a dynamic stretch or as an individual exercise in strength training. Increased difficulty can be added via weights, additional movements of the arm, however the speed again can be enough to increase the stimulus to the hamstrings for increasing strength. Complete 3 x 10-15 reps each leg.

Start position, single base, neutral spine and a braced core 20140516_112120

End position – straight back, toes pulled towards the head, slight softness in the knee


Nordic Hamstrings:

Arguably the toughest body weight hamstring exercise. Again eccentric loading is the primary focus of the exercise while it is really important to maintain pelvic alignment and core bracing. This exercise is also a partner assisted exercise – unless you have a glute-ham bench. Start in a kneeling position with your body upright (core braced, neutral spine), your partner then needs to hold your legs just above the ankles – a foam roller or cushion underneath is ideal so as to not place the ankle into forced plantar flexion – your partner needs to hold you down hard as this is the anchor of the pivot. Slowly begin lowering your body towards the floor, chest first, without ‘breaking’ or bending at the hips. You will only be able to hold the load for so long, but fight to hold the lowering for 4-5 seconds. There are a few options to this exercise at this point – you can either fall to the floor and return to the start position to begin another eccentric only repetition, you could spring back up to the start position after falling using a push up and your hamstrings or for the strongest athletes out there you can pull yourself back to the start position using just your hamstrings. This is a tough exercise and definitely induces DOMS so should not be done in under 72 hours before competition. Things to watch out for are – making sure the glutes fire to hold pelvic alignment, checking for any torsion or twisting to help generate force – this highlights a muscle imbalance somewhere in the chain and to make sure the athlete isn’t in lumbar extension or hip flexion. A tougher exercise, you can start with band assisted reps and progress to adding a weight jacket if an increased overload is needed. Try 3×6 to start, progress up to 3×12.

Start position 20140516_111830

Lower body down towards the floor 20140516_111840

Downhill Running – deceleration drills

Often when you see a hamstring injury occur it is during the deceleration phase of a sprint, where the hamstring comes under the greatest load. Often this is caused by a lack of strength or a muscle imbalance – the above exercises can help with the strengthening. However it is also important to practice movement based exercises if you are an athlete. This is where deceleration drills and landing mechanics become really important. There are hundreds that you could choose from, so I will give a few specific examples:

Landing from a box – start with a low height and practice landing in a solid position, knees bent, straight back, weight on the mid foot, quiet landing by using the leg muscles to ‘absorb’ the landing. Progress to higher boxes or weighted squat jumps with a landing.

Sprinting and then slowing down – sounds simple but worth practicing, build up gradually into a sprint 20-60m is ideal before working on coming to a stop as quickly as possible after a given point or line or on the reaction of ‘stop’ call from a partner. Ensure that as you decelerate, you lower your centre of mass by bending the knees, widening the base and keeping a straight back, weight should be mid foot still.

Downhill running – firstly don’t choose a hill that’s too steep or too short. Secondly you need to actively run/sprint down the hill. The slope will cause a breaking effect by using the hamstrings and glutes to try to slow you down. Start slow and build up gradually.


Finally and importantly as you can see there is a common trend in the strengthening process – to focus on the eccentric phase of muscle contraction. With this is mind some of your more well-known strength training exercises can also be excellent strengtheners of the hamstrings. Try eccentric based squats – a slow 5 second descend and a 2 second pause at the bottom of the squat before returning to an upright position will add volume to your leg session. Start with a manageable weight and have a spotter on hand; 4 x 10-12 will do the trick. Split squats or rear foot elevated lunges, again a slow descent will target the legs as a whole but will definitely help strengthen the hamstrings.

Similarly explosive power work will help as the body will learn to decelerate the movement efficiently for landing and changes of direction. The same principles of learning good technique, starting at light loads and intensities and building from there will ensure the best results and keep the risk of injury to a minimum. This is also where having a strength and conditioning coach becomes a great advantage so they can review technique, loading and intensity of training.

Happy Hamstring Training.

Fabrizio Gargiulo

3 Topics every S&C coach should have an opinion on!

This blog post is inspired by a really interesting Discussion Forum that recently took place at one of my visits to the National Strength & Conditioning Workshop, at the Lawn Tennis Association.  One of the perks of being the Head of S&C at Gosling Tennis Academy is getting the chance to go to these workshops 3 times a year to share best practice and learn from each other.


Discussion points


During one of the ‘break out’ sessions my friend and colleague Dominic King, lead a discussion on a number of key topics that come up as part of our interaction with coaches, medical professionals, and parents.  I thought I would select my Top 3 ‘Hot Topics’ and give you my opinion on them.


1.  LTAD Model


Check out this link HERE for a full text downloadable journal article: ‘The Long-term Athlete Development model: physiological evidence and application.’ 


Key points:


In this article, it highlights that there are key physical developmental processes that occur during childhood and adolescence that might influence short- and long-term athletic performance  

  • These  ”sensitive” developmental periods are known as “windows of opportunity”.  
  • There is a lack of empirical evidence upon which the model is based, questionable assumptions and erroneous methodologies.  
  • Fundamentally, this is a generic model rather than an individualized plan for athletes.  
  • It is crucial that the LTAD model is seen as a “work in progress”


My opinion:


Yes, there are accelerated periods of biological growth; in childhood athletes become more coordinated and in adolescence puberty creates gains in strength and aerobic/anaerobic performance and potential losses in flexibility.


Need Proof?




Brain Imaging


But I don’t like the term “window” because it suggests that the periods open and close, when in fact they may open and remain so on to and throughout adulthood.  Is an athlete suddenly going to reach a speed plateau or have a speed barrier when doing speed training at 16 because the speed window is now closed, I’m not convinced.


One critical biological marker is puberty.  I do feel that this is a good indication of when someone may be able to handle more intensive training methods (pre-supposing they have good movement efficiency and an appropriate training history).  For the period of training before puberty I still believe in training all the biomotor abilities including strength. I’m more inclined to have training priorities based on what my assessment of the athlete shows, rather than basing it blindly on a windows of opportunity framework.  A young athlete could already be lighting fast but lack stamina, but if I just hammer away at speed I will never be addressing their stamina until they are much older.


2. 10’000 hour Rule


The 10,000-hours concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.


Check out a great review of the topic HERE


Ericsson has pointed out that 10,000 was an average, and that many of the best musicians in his study had accumulated “substantially fewer” hours of practice. He underlined, also, that the quality of the practice was important.


Malcolm Gladwell places himself roughly in the middle of a sliding scale with Ericsson at one end, placing little emphasis on the role of natural talent, and at the other end a writer such as David Epstein, author of the The Sports Gene. Epstein is “a bit more of a talent person than me” Gladwell suggests.


My opinion:


I’m inclined to sit somewhere close to Gladwell.  I do believe that natural talent plays a big role.  I like the idea of ‘Nuturing Nature.’  I believe everyone has the capacity to improve and achieve their peak performance potential but I believe only those with an amount of natural talent will be able to perform at the elite level.  For some sports this is clear cut; a wannabe sprinter needs natural speed and a wannabe marathon runner needs natural endurance.  Other sports need high levels of skill requiring lots of practice- how much is the more difficult question to answer.


One of the difficulties with assessing whether expert-level performance can be obtained just through practice is that most studies are done after the subjects have reached that level.


It would be better to follow the progress of someone with no innate talent in a particular discipline who chooses to complete 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in it.


At Gosling Tennis Academy the parents are advised that the Tennis journey is a 20,000 hour one.  You need to aim to get to the first 10,000 hours in around 10 years so someone who starts at 5 years might reach expert level in the skills of Tennis by around 14 yrs old.  Then expect to spend another 10, 000 hours transitioning from junior ranks to professional level.


I personally feel that this guide needs a massive ‘caveat.’  That there is no guarantee that you will become an expert (read that as ‘professional’) if you commit to doing 20,000 hours.


I also feel you need to state that it is an individual journey and I believe that those who have more talent will need less hours of practice.


I prefer to say, you need ENOUGH practice to develop the skills of the sport to a competent level- so you have skills that will stand up to the demands of the game under time, space and fatigue pressure.  Those children who have less talent for the sport of Tennis may need to spend more of their time practising Tennis.  Those children who pick it up sooner can spend more of their time practising other sports.


I’m not prepared to say that everyone will need 10,000 hours to become an expert, and I’m not prepared to say that even if you do 10,000 hours you will become an expert, assuming for the sport of Tennis, for example, that expert means becoming a Pro.


3.  Sport Specialisation


Getting straight to the point I believe that all young athletes (pre-puberty) should be doing other sports, in addition to their favourite one.  My big 3 are:

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I also think that every child should ideally have exposure to a team sport environment, such as playing for a football, rugby, cricket, netball team etc.  This doesn’t have to be part of a sports club it can just be representing the school team.   

Ideally 2-5 hours of ‘other sports’ in addition to their main sport.  


Typically I find Tennis players are committing to playing Tennis any where from 3 hours at 5 years up to around 15 hours at 12 years.  But you do need to find time to get the other sports in.   At some point down the track, a young emerging athlete may need to specialise and the hours of other sports will be cut to just 1 or 2 so they need to be in sooner rather than later.


Early specialisation vs. Late specialisation


Some sports require more concentrated practise at an earlier age to develop the necessary skills. These are high skill dependant sports like gymnastics and diving.  From my experience I would also include Tennis in there too.  For example, we are seeing a growing number of younger players (pre-puberty) joining the Tennis Academy full-time, which can involve up to 20 hours of Activity per week (including Tennis and Strength & Conditioning/Other sports).


Is 20 hours a week too much for a young athlete?


Think ‘optimum’ not ‘maximum.’ 


If an athlete wants to develop the necessary skills in the sport of Tennis then this will require a certain amount of practice, more than the couple of times a week squad practice that you might normally commit to in a sport like Football.  But how much more is up for debate.


There are a couple of reasons for this.  Firstly, as said above, the skills are more complex.  Secondly, the amount of ‘free play’ opportunities  in sports like Tennis is less than in sports like football.


But……I believe that not all athletes will require the same amount of hours of Tennis to achieve the same level of skill. I’m not afraid to say that I believe that the more ‘talented’ players will pick things up quicker.


These young athletes have a long career ahead of them.  If I can work on an ‘optimum’ programme for them (that looks at the least amount of Tennis I can get them to achieve the desired skill level) I will do that over giving them the maximum amount available.  More is not always better.

Current Job Opportunities with APA

Team at APA




In September 2009 Gosling Tennis Academy became an International High Performance Centre (IHPC) as awarded by the Lawn Tennis Association.  Gosling Tennis Academy is one of only four academies in the country to be given this award based on the size and success of its performance programme.    Contributing to this success, and behind every successful academy, can be found a world class support team ‐ all focused on the achievement of peak performance. An opportunity exists to become a member of this team if you, like the tennis players we support, have the courage, excellence and commitment to be the best you can be.

Athletic Performance Academy (APA) Ltd is a dynamic, proactive organisation contracted to deliver Strength & Conditioning Coaching services to our partners in high performance Tennis.   A vacancy exists with Athletic Performance Academy (APA) Ltd for a part-time strength & conditioning coach based at Gosling IHPC in the Tennis Academy with the opportunity for private coaching to the tennis club members subject to payment of a monthly license fee.  This is a fixed 1-year position and would ideally suit someone who is looking to gain valuable experience in a high performance environment.


Based: Gosling IHPC

Remuneration: £10 per hour for programme coaching and a minimum of £22 per hour for private coaching

Hours: A minimum of 10 hours per week of regular programme coaching 37 weeks of year with unlimited opportunity to deliver private coaching throughout year

License Fee: £250 per month with a 1 month lead in period (only applicable if doing private coaching)


  • Staff uniform
  • Access to Coaching syllabus and additional DVD resources to use during programme hours
  • Access to Coach mentoring
  • Access to Tennis and Gym Members Database for lead generation
  • Access to potential work at other clubs in the APA organization

Your role will involve;

  • Delivery and development of strength and conditioning services to our athletes
  • Promotion of your own services to potential clients


Essential criteria for this role to include;

  •  A qualification at degree level (or equivalent) in sports science or related area specialising in the

area of physical preparation of athletes

  •  UK Strength and Conditioning Association Accreditation, or ability to obtain it within 6 months
  •  Experience in the provision of strength and conditioning support to young athletes

Desirable criteria for this role to include;

  •  Experience at having been self-employed and having ability to create your own client base
  •  LTA recognised Tennis Coach Qualification

YOU MAY APPLY VIA Email: daz@apacoaching.co.uk     Please quote ref: GOSAPA.01


Closing date: 13th June 2014 @ 12 noon (GMT). Interview date: 27th June 2014

Periodisation for Tennis- Part 3

Well we finally get to the last blog of the series on Periodisation- this one is about the actual exercises I think are appropriate for Tennis, from a more specific stand point.  If you haven’t read the previous blogs I suggest you do otherwise some of the terms I describe here might not make sense.


  • Periodisation for Tennis- Part 1  
  • Periodisation for Tennis- Part 2


The majority of my time is spent with developing athletes who are still fundamentally poor in the basic exercises. Having said that I now have the privilege of working more and more with professional athletes.  This means I need to reflect on how their preparation period needs to differ to a younger developing player.


Intensity vs.  Specificity


For the last few years I have focused less on the use of the word ‘general’ and ‘specific’ when referring to preparation phases.  I preferred instead to just say ‘preparation‘ and talk about whether the athlete was working on more ‘basic’ or more ‘advanced’ exercises. An advanced exercise implies it is of a higher intensity.  Therefore, the main variable I was changing was ‘intensity,’ as the athlete advances.


From my recent reading it is clear the training process, especially of high level athletes, must be highly specialized: the athlete must not perform useless activity that can’t positively contribute to the attainment of the specific objective.  So as well as increasing intensity we must also increase ‘specificity.’  This blog will develop some of my recent thoughts on how to do this.


Let’s get Specific


If people take this principle out of context (like a lot of trainers have done with ‘functional’ training) you end up with coaches just doing therapy band tennis serves, medicine ball throws, and jumps over hurdles.  Now these may all have a place but they are never a substitute for our bread and butter exercises that we know work!!!!


This does not mean that each training exercise must reproduce the competition exercise; it’s about the whole training means system.  But we do need some exercises which are closer to the actual sport skill!


Check out this video- it’s a training camp in East Germany and it shows great examples of very specific exercises for elite Javelin and Discuss throwers.  Please don’t judge their training by the 80’s style aerobics at 6:15 minute in!  They knew no better then!  But it illustrates the point of how specific you can be with your exercise prescription.


I particularly like the javelin contraption for measuring power output at 4:00 minutes in!!!



The APA system includes a large spectrum of exercises aimed at improving different determining factors for increasing the power output of competition exercises. We can use different exercises to focus on improving different strength abilities and different functional properties of different muscle groups.


It’s usually at this point that coaches may start to trade arguments about which method or methods are better for a particular sport/athlete and I don’t want to come across in that way, championing one exercise or method over another. In fact I think I already said in the last blog that:


”An important consideration to keep in mind is that sports movements are usually executed in a mixed regime of muscular contraction.”


But what can we take from the realm of Track & Field which the Soviets and East Germans dominated in the 1960-1980s and apply to other sports?  Clearly these coaches knew all about how to develop high levels of maximal strength and explosive power.


Take Tennis for example.  When you first look at Tennis you could be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t require a great deal of strength and explosive power. After all you are hitting a tennis ball; it’s not like you’re in a contact sport having to throw around another athlete or throw a weighted implement like a shot putt.


However, look a bit closer and you’ll see there are many different types of forces in play; some that you produce in order to overcome your own inertia, or to forcefully plant your foot down before you complete your stroke (both require maximal strength).  Or consider the ‘take off’ from the ground to jump up into a high ball or ‘take off’ to leap into a wide ball (explosive power) or the landing forces when you come back down (maximal strength).


When it comes to exercises this means that there can’t only be one tool in your tool box.  As Vern Gambetta says, ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer then you had better hope you are working with a nail.’  As it relates to Tennis this is particularly true.


What exactly constitutes the competition exercise for Tennis any way?  


Tennis involves elements of:


  • sprinting- acceleration
  • jumping and hopping
  • changing direction
  • rotations of the body


The Force-Velocity Curve  


By using the Force-Velocity curve I can look at the actions that take place in the sport and attempt to position them on the Force-Velocity curve.


I generally break my these actions down according to whether they mostly require:


  • Maximal Strength (to maintain a solid athletic look when hitting, to overcome inertia, to plant foot into the ground before a stroke, to absorb landing forces)
  • Explosive Strength (to generate power on take off when jumping up into a high ball or a wide shot
  • Reactive Strength (to generate elastic energy during use of stretch-shortening cycle on most ‘action’ events in Tennis- such as serve, normal ground strokes, accelerating to ball out of a split step, changing direction etc)

F-V curve

Speed-strength is pretty much the same as explosive strength accept the external resistance you are working against is less so it’s without the display of great power- but it is high speed


So you might do 8-10 reps with a lighter load, or do 8-10 hurdle jumps or 10 bounds (progressing to 50-60m bounds) for speed-strength but you would do half that if you were working on explosive power.


In terms of ‘specificity’ I’ve written down a few examples of ‘specific’ actions that happen on the Tennis court that require different strength  and speed characteristics:


Tennis Situations


Video: Hitting on the run- Explosive Strength during take off force (right leg) and Maximal Strength during the Impact force (left leg)



Jumping up into high ground strokes (Explosive Power)



I then like to have a categorisation of ‘specific’ exercises that I can use to develop the physical qualities mentioned above. Some of the exercises below would be appropriate for a range of sports and could be thought of as a general exercise, while most of the exercises are more specific to Tennis. If you’re not sure if an exercise is more ‘General’ or ‘Specific’ just ask yourself the question, ‘would it look appropriate for an athlete from another sport to do it?’  If the answer is yes then it is probably more general.


Strength and Power exercises


Resisted footwork



Drop back and jump- for training first step acceleration



Lunge return Hops– for developing reactive power when getting back into position after a serve


Progressing the Training Means throughout Preparation


Now clearly there are a lot of exercises above and you can’t expect to master them all at the same time, so you have to have a focus.


The shift in focus should move gently from more general to more specific means.  


Considering the important aspects of specificity, the means must be introduced in the following sequence for solving the following training tasks:


1) enforcing the main muscular synergies and the other body’s working mechanisms, involved in the competition exercises; (i.e. hypertrophy of gross muscle actions)

2) increasing the magnitude of force effort in the key movements; (i.e. maximal strength)

3) increasing the speed of the force employment in the key movements (i.e. explosive power)

In Fig. 3, it can be seen how this rule is applied for increasing the power output of the Track &
Field jumps through the following phases:


Tennis Experiment 3


1) bounds – for getting the motor apparatus ready for executing the subsequent training loads;
2) barbell exercises – for increasing the force component of the take-off power output;
3) kettlebell jumps – for increasing the speed component of the take-off power output;
4) depth jumps – for increasing both the force and speed components of the take-off power
output through the use of highly intensive training stimuli.


So how would we apply that process to Tennis?


1) low intensity jumps (slow-fast SSC)- for getting the motor apparatus ready for executing the subsequent training loads;
2) barbell exercises – for increasing the force component of the take-off power output;
3) explosive jumps (split clean/snatch) – for increasing the speed component of the take-off power output;
4) depth jumps – for increasing both the force and speed components of the take-off power
output through the use of highly intensive training stimuli


This rule also implies that one type of exercise is gradually replaced by another.  For me this means that for my young athletes I am doing a lot of work to reinforce the main muscle synergies (such as hypertrophy work in the gym or light bounding for runners) but for more advanced athletes they are doing a lot more maximal strength and power development work in the preparation period, and need to progressively add in more specific power modalities that replicates the demands of the competitive exercise (spending a lot more time doing the exercises in my categorisation list above).


The ‘general’ exercises are usually aimed at increasing the level of maximal strength of the primary large muscle groups involved in competition exercise; they are fundamental for the subsequent increase in working effect of the main force producing movements of competition exercise.




We have finally got to the end of this Blog series on Periodisation.  I hope you have enjoyed reading it.  The key take home message from this last post is to know your sport.  Think about what skill or skills are most needed in your sport and then plan the appropriate training means, working from a more general foundation of strength to more explosive activities and finally the sport skill itself.