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Core Performance

Ferrer© Getty ImagesDavid Ferrer's strong core allows him to transfer power from his legs to his upper body and arms.

With well-built cores, ATP World Tour players not only enhance performance but guard against injury by stabilising an integral part of their bodies. When players undertake a strengthening program, they quickly learn that that there’s a lot more to core stability thant good-looking abs.

“People mistakenly picture a guy in a Calvin Klein commercial with washboard abs,’ says Todd Ellenbecker, Director of Sports Medicine for the ATP World Tour. “The core is really an all-encompassing cylinder, including the abdominal musculature, the muscles on the side of the body like the obliques, lower back muscles, some of the muscles in the pelvic floor that go all the way into the pelvis, and as high up as the muscles that stabilize our scapulae. That’s a very large area of musculature.” 

ATP players spend a sizable amount of time off court building up their mid-sections to help combat future injuries. By bolstering the core it protects the spine, one of the most frequently injured areas among elite-level tennis players. “ATP players like to strengthen their core to minimize or reduce the risk of injuring their spines. It makes the spine more resilient against injury,” Ellenbecker says.


In addition to averting injuries, strong cores act as a performance enhancer on court. When you see Rafael Nadal hit a punishing forehand, or Novak Djokovic rip a backhand, the immediate thought is ‘his arm is really strong’. While that‘s true, it’s not the determining factor in the power they generate, says Ellenbecker. “We know that most of the power we get in tennis, 54%, comes from our legs and the core.”

The core plays a key role in a player’s ability to hit booming shots, as well as striking the ball with consistency, transferring power from the legs to the shoulders. “You have this very strong transference from the lower body to the upper body, and the core is exactly what fits in between that,” explains Ellenbecker. “By having a strong core then, they’re able to harness that power from the legs, transfer that into the upper body, and then ultimately into the ball and the racquet.”

Boosting Core Strength
The exercises below are great for ATP World Tour players and club players because they can be done at home or on the road.

Arm and Leg Extension ('Bird Dog')
This exercise strengthens lower-back muscles.
1. Lay face down on an exercise ball.
2. Place your arms, knees, hands and legs on the ground.
3. Extend your left arm and right leg, holding for two seconds, then return to the starting position.
4. Extend your right arm and left leg, and hold for two seconds, returning back to the starting position.
5. Go back and forth between the diagonals and try to keep yourself stable on top of the exercise ball.

Ellenbecker Says: “A lot of players already have strong abdominals, but where they’re particularly weak many times is in the low-back muscles. There’s a certain balance of strength that has to occur between the abdominal muscles and the low back muscles… otherwise it can leave them vulnerable to injury.” 

Seated Ball Rotation
This exercise works all of the core muscles, simulating forehands and backhands. It requires a partner.
1. Sit on an exercise ball with your feet on the ground, shoulder-width apart.
2. Using a four-to-six pound medicine ball, throw the ball to your partner with both hands as if you were hitting a forehand.
3. Mix up your simulation with cross-court and down-the-line patterns in sets of 30 seconds.
4. Switch to the backhand side, and repeat steps above.

Ellenbecker Says: “The advantage is that there is a lot of rotation. What we think about is that almost every shot, every movement we perform in tennis, involves a significant amount of rotation in the lower back. So if we use a rotation movement, a concept called ‘specificity,’ you actually train the body in the specific way it’s used on court. Players enjoy it, which is why you see a lot of them doing it.”

The Plank, The Plange, TV Watching
This exercise improves your core stability.
1. Assume a position on both elbows and your toes, maintaining a straight alignment.
2. Look straight down at a point slightly in front of you.
3. Maintain the pose for 30 seconds, doing several sets.

A Side Plank is a beneficial variation of the exercise, working the obliques and other side muscles.
1. Lie on your side and brace yourself on your right elbow and the outside of your right foot, again keeping a straight alignment.
2. Maintain the pose for 30 seconds, doing several sets.
3. Switch to your left side and repeat.

Ellenbecker Says: “This is really good for working the obliques, which helps to rotate the body on court.”

Core Myths

“In order to have a strong core, you have to go to a gym and use all sorts of fancy machines.”
Ellenbecker Says: “That’s actually quite far from true, as we’ve found it’s better to use things like the Swiss ball, medicine balls, and functional movements, which are more effective in many cases than machines. When using a machine, you’re only working in one direction.”

“A few sets of 10 sit-ups a day is enough for a strong core.”
Ellenbecker Says: “That’s just working the abdominals. You may look good, having nice-looking abs, but you won’t have the injury prevention protection that you would if you worked all areas of the core.”

“When I do sit-ups, I need my feet held to the ground by another person or a couch.”
Ellenbecker Says: “What we’ve found is that when you have your feet in a fixed manner, it actually ends up using more of your hip flexors than your abdominals. What we recommend is that the feet are just on the ground or even off the ground so that it takes the hip flexors out of the exercise. Very few people, especially athletes, have weak hip flexors. You don’t want to use the hip flexors to substitute for a weak core.”

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