Staying on top of your fitness game is a lot more fun when you train like an athlete. Take a cue from star players on the tennis court, the football field and the basketball court, and focus your gym time on honing your strength, power and agility. Here are three sports-inspired workouts designed to help get you in peak condition, whether you love to play or simply love the sport of being fit.
Pre- and Post-Workout Essentials.
Be sure to warm up properly—skip rope, go for a light jog or do some easy cycling to break a sweat. Diving into a workout with cold muscles only increases your risk for injury. “Your warm-up prepares your body for the work ahead,” says trainer Tarik Tyler. “That means if you’re planning an intense workout, put a little intensity into your warm-up. All that extra blood flow gets your muscles, your heart and even your lungs ready for the physical demands of your workout.” After you train, spend at least 15-20 minutes stretching. Even a little stretching will help keep your muscles and ligaments healthy and flexible. Stretching is also instrumental in maintaining or even increasing your range of motion.
Now, pick your sport and get moving.
Power up to raise a racket.
Think of it as: The sport of rotational power.
Focus on: Leg strength, core strength, speed, endurance, footwork.
Your Performance Coach: Kyle Morgan, M.S., New York City
No. 1 ranked tennis pro Mardy Fish may spend hours on the court, but it’s what he does off-court that ultimately takes his game to the next level. What’s the secret to his exceptional conditioning? “Every match puts a huge demand on a tennis player’s body,” says performance coach Kyle Morgan. “Mardy does these exercises off the court so he’s well prepared for the rigors of the game.”
1. Single-Leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts
Believe it or not, a great serve is in the legs. This move keeps the hamstrings strong so you can load them up for high-mileage serves.
With a dumbbell in each hand, stand on one leg with a slightly bent knee. Keep your back flat as you reach down with the dumbbells towards the foot on the ground, while the opposite leg lifts up behind you (it should be fairly straight). Pause once your body is in a “T” shape; then pull yourself back to the original one-legged position. Repeat 8-10 times.
2. 3-Way Dumbbell Lunges
These work your glutes and quadriceps through the same planes of motion as a tennis match.
a. With a dumbbell in each hand, take a medium step forward, lowering your hips until the back knee is close to the ground. Push off the front foot, driving through the heel, and return to the starting position.
b. Next, take a step to your side with your foot facing straight forward, bending your knee as you push your hip and glute straight back. You should feel a big stretch in the groin of the opposite leg. Drive back through your heel to the original starting position.
c. Finally, open up and take a step in the backwards/diagonal direction (approximately 270 degrees) until the back knee comes close the ground. Push off with the inside edge of the foot back to the starting position.
Do the entire 3-way sequence on each leg. Repeat for 4-5 complete sets.
Need to improve your forehand, your backhand? Your back muscles are the power behind every swing.
Grasp a pull-up bar with an underhand grip. Start with your arms fully extended and pull yourself up until your chin is parallel with the bar. Pause for a half second, then return to the starting position in a controlled manner. Do as many as you can for 3-4 sets. Can’t do a complete pull-up yet? Try the exercise on a lat pull-down machine.
4. Cable Side External Rotation
The game of tennis literally revolves around your rotator cuff muscles—they need to be strong, with a healthy range of motion. This exercise helps keep them in top form.
For proper alignment, use a small towel for this exercise. Start by adjusting a single-handle pulley machine to chest height. Stand sideways to the pulley, with the arm farthest from the machine holding the handle (the pulley cable will be in front of your body). Place a folded towel in the armpit of the working arm to help maintain correct form. Your elbow should be bent 90 degrees and held close to your ribcage throughout the exercise. Holding the pulley, move your hand outward until your range of motion prevents you from going any further (keep the wrist straight; avoid flexing it). Pause, then return to the starting position in a controlled manner.
5. Medicine Ball Lateral Scoop Throws
This exercise mimics the exact muscle recruitment and firing pattern that your body uses during forehands and backhands.
Stand with your feet together and a medicine ball dangling in your arms. Take a step to your side with the outside leg and lower to a quarter-lunge position, extending the medicine ball outside your hip. As you push out of the quarter-lunge back to the starting position, scoop-throw the medicine ball to your partner or against the wall as hard as you can.
6. Lateral Bounds
Improve your single-leg explosion and you may ultimately improve your tennis game.
Standing on your left leg, push the left glute back so you’re loading up to jump. Jump laterally to your right as high and as far as you can, landing softly on your right leg in the same loaded position. Repeat, jumping to the left. Do 6-8 repetitions each way.
7. Split Squat Cable Rows
A well-coordinated body has well-synchronized chains of kinetic movement. This row exercise trains your glutes to work in conjunction with your back muscles, just like they do in your tennis groundstrokes.
Using the pulley machine, adjust the single handle to hip height. Grab the handle with your right hand and take a big step back so there’s slack in the cable. Position yourself in a lunge with your left foot forward and your right foot behind you. As you push your left foot out of the lunge (press through the heel) and place it next to your right foot, drive your right elbow back tight toward your body so your knuckles touch your rib cage. Slowly extend your arm back toward the machine as you move back to the original lunge position. Do 8-12 repetitions on each side.
Kick off a whole new level of fitness.
Think of it as: The sport of power and explosiveness.
Focus on: Leg power, upper body strength, speed, agility, footwork.
Your Trainer: Tarik Tyler, Los Angeles
Look no further than the NFL Scouting Combine to see the physical intensity football requires. From a pedal-to-the-metal 40-yard dash to the strength and stamina it takes to bench press 225 pounds as many times as possible, players-to-be must be a fierce combination of ironman strength and sprinter-like speed. Says trainer Tarik Tyler, “Offensive players have to be quick on their feet to avoid getting hit. Defensive players have to be exceptionally strong, but also have explosive leg power—you have to catch the guy first before you tackle him.”
1. Agility Ladder Drills
Being quick on your feet requires neuromuscular coordination. Agility drills like this are a necessity.
Note: Be sure not to confuse “ladder” with the one in your garage! An agility ladder is an all-essential, easily transportable training tool that is typically made of nylon straps or rope, and lies flat on the ground. You can find one in many sporting goods stores. Another option: use evenly spaced strips of sturdy tape on the ground to create your “ladder.”
a. In & Out Drill
Start with your feet hip distance apart at one end of the ladder. Step into the first square with your left foot, immediately followed by your right foot. Then step your left foot outside of the second square on the left side, followed by your right foot outside of the second square on the right side. Then the left foot steps inside the third square followed by the right, etc. Rapidly move your feet in and out in this pattern until you reach the end of the ladder. At the end of the ladder, immediately turn around and continue the drill starting with your right foot. Repeat 3-4 times.
b. In & Out Hops
Similar to the In & Out Drill, but this time you hop both feet inside one square, then outside the next one, inside the next, and so on, moving rapidly down the ladder. Repeat 3-4 times.
2. Plyometric Pushups
Upper body explosion—that’s what it takes to throw a football 50 yards or to tackle an offensive linebacker built like a truck. These pushups will teach your body to move with force quickly and efficiently.
Start in plank position on a padded carpet or exercise mat. Bend your elbows for a classic pushup, then explode back up so your hands come off the floor. Control the descent so you’re not crash-landing. Do 8-12 repetitions. To make them a little easier, do them on your knees. To make them harder, elevate your feet on a step. You can also put an exercise step under your torso with your hands on each side, then explode back and forth—both hands land on the step, then both hands land on either side again. Keep going back and forth during your set.
3. Medicine Ball Overhead Tosses
You’ve seen pro ball players do it: jump up to intercept a pass, arching back as they complete the move. This drill teaches your body to do just that—explode fast with your hands up, getting to the ball in a split second.
(Have a partner make sure the space behind you is completely clear—if anyone is milling around they might get slammed with a medicine ball.) Place a 20-pound medicine ball on the ground in front of you. With your feet a little wider than hip distance, squat down and pick up the ball with your hands firmly on either side of it. Explode up as you forcefully swing and throw the ball overhead behind you, thrusting your hips forward and keeping your arms relatively straight throughout the overhead swing. Repeat 8-10 times.
4. Squat Jumps
Football is a game that often comes down to who can cover the most ground the quickest. Developing explosive leg power is essential.
With feet shoulder width apart, squat down so your thighs are parallel to the floor, then jump forcefully as high as you can, returning to the squat position as you land. Repeat 8-10 times for 4 sets, resting 2 minutes between sets.
5. Hang Cleans
Another explosive exercise that’s instrumental in developing the all-around body strength required for moving with speed and power.
Standing in front of a squat rack, position the bar on the rack so it’s right above your knees. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip at a comfortable carrying angle—some people like to hold it right in line with their quads, others prefer their hands to be right outside their thighs. Bend your knees, tighten your core, and in one explosive move, shoot up quickly, lifting your shoulders up towards your ears as you flip your hands over with your elbows bent (the shoulders-to-ears move helps engage your trapezius muscle, which spans your upper back and shoulders, and is a key muscle in this movement). The bar should land right at your collarbones, and your legs should be in a squat position as you catch it. Before adding weight, master the technique using just the bar. When you’re ready to add weight, a good starting range is about a quarter of your bodyweight. Do 4 sets of 5 repetitions, resting 2 minutes between sets.
Performing at your peak will be a slam-dunk.
Think of it as: The sport of lateral speed, anaerobic power and agility.
Focus on: Leg power, anaerobic conditioning, unilateral footwork.
Your Trainer: Jeremie Daniel, New York City
Basketball players are in constant motion—running, jumping, reaching, throwing, shuffling—with quick cuts and pivots interspersed throughout. They need to be fast and loose, with steel-like cores that keep them grounded during all that movement. Personal trainer Jeremie Daniel sees a parallel between the sport’s demand for multifaceted skills and the pursuit of fitness in general. “Whether you’re a pro basketball player or a three-days-a-week exerciser, there’s always something you can work on or a skill you can improve.” And it’s not just the physical side of exercise that’s important. “Physical conditioning is part of it, but there’s also a mental and spiritual side to it. When you train with focus and determination, you’re developing mental toughness, mindfulness—it’s a unique and personal experience for everyone.”
1. Active Stretching
The best way to loosen up your body is with dynamic movements that take your joints through their range of motion.
a. Walking knee lifts: Take an easy walk across the floor, lifting one knee with each step and squeezing it against your chest.
b. Standing quad stretch: Reach back and pull your ankle or shin toward your glute, keeping the bent knee under your hip. Repeat a few times on each side.
c. Dynamic lunges: Take a big step forward to a low lunge, putting your hands on the floor inside your foot. Hold for a few breaths, then switch legs. Do 4-5 times each leg.
d. Dynamic reverse lunges: Step one leg behind you and drop the knee close to the ground. Switch legs. Repeat 4-5 times.
e. Side-to-side lunges: Take a big step to the side, bend the knee and hold for a breath, then move to the other side. Go back and forth a few times.
f. Hand walking: Reach down and touch your toes, walk your hands out to a plank position, then walk your feet forward to meet your hands. Repeat 4-5 times.
g. Arm swings: Circle your arms forward and backward, then swing them back and forth in front of you.
2. Dumbbell Squat with Overhead Press
From layups to ball-handling, the ability to react with speed, power and control is essential for basketball. This functional, full-body move mimics the squat-to-full-body-reach that basketball players perform over and over during every game.
Choose a set of dumbbells you can press overhead without straining, and pick them up with an overhand grip. Bend your elbows and bring the dumbbells to shoulder height. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes rotated slightly outward, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Keep your head up and your weight primarily in your heels throughout the squat—your knees should bend comfortably over your toes. Driving through your heels, press back up to stand and shoot the dumbbells overhead, extending your arms fully. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Do 3-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions.
3. Agility Ladder – One-Legged Drills
With all the back-and-forth motion in basketball, one leg may be driving the movement at any given time. Unilateral training is a necessity to maximize performance on the court.
Balancing on one leg, hop from square to square of an agility ladder. Repeat on the other leg. Do this facing forward for 3-4 sets, then hop laterally (sideways) up and down the agility ladder, switching legs each way. Again, 3-4 sets.
4. Box Jumps
Every basketball player aspires to jump higher—who wouldn’t love the satisfaction of a slam-dunk? Box jumps help take vertical jumping to another level.
a. Basic box jumps: Stand in front of a plyometric box with knees slightly bent. Jump on top of the box, landing solidly on both feet, then immediately jump down. Repeat for 10 -15 repetitions. Start with a low box to develop proper form; gradually progress to higher boxes.
b. Lateral box jumps: Stand to the side of the box and jump on top with both feet 10-15 times. Repeat on the other side.
c. Straddle box jumps: Straddling a low box, explosively jump on top with both feet, then jump down to straddle the box again. Repeat rapidly in succession for 10-15 repetitions. Do 3-4 sets.
4. Speed Work: Suicides
The stop-and-go rhythm of basketball puts huge demands on a player’s anaerobic energy system. Sprint drills like this help increase the body’s stamina.
Pick four equidistant points in an area about the length of a basketball court (approximately 30 yards). Run from the starting line to the first point, then back to the starting line. Immediately run to the second point, then back to the starting line. Then run to the third point and back to the starting line, then to the last point and back to the starting line. Repeat the whole sequence 3 times, resting about 3 minutes between sets.
5. Core Work
A stronger core means stronger jumps. Plus, a well-conditioned core helps prevent hip and back injuries.
a. V-Ups: Lie on your back on a mat with arms extended along the ground overhead. Keep your legs and arms straight, and in one powerful movement, simultaneously raise your legs and torso, reaching your hands to touch your toes. Control the descent back to the starting position. Do 3 sets of 20 repetitions
b. Forearm plank: Lying on your belly, come to rest on your forearms—your elbows should be under your shoulders. Tuck your toes to lift your legs off the ground—now you’re in forearm plank. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Repeat 3 times.
c. Side plank: Lying on your side, prop yourself up on your forearm, lifting your hips off the ground so you’re supported only by your feet and your forearm. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Repeat 3 times on each side.
6. Foam Rolling
Knee injuries are common in basketball. Foam rolling helps stretch the muscles and tendons in the legs, breaking up trigger points and increasing blood flow to the tissues. Get a roller and start rolling around, experimenting with different angles—the front and back of the legs, the calves, the hips. Be sure to roll along the outside of the thigh to massage the IT band—it gets tight from all that running and jumping. Loosening it up may help keep knee pain at bay.
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