Training for Racquetball

Getting Started

Strength Training


This article is what I hope to be one of several articles to come on various topics related to racquetball and various aspects related to fitness in general. If you are curious as to who I am and why I am writing this . My name is Tim and among a wide variety of other things I am a researcher in exercise physiology and an avid racquetball player. My educational background includes a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, a M.S. in exercise science and a B.S. in physical education, coaching, nutrition and corporate/community fitness. I competed in my first racquetball tournament 10 years ago and have ever since been trying to use my knowledge of exercise physiology to increase my success in the racquetball court (however this might be one of my biggest in-court distractions as I find myself thinking about recovery times for various energy systems instead of the fact that my opponent is in the middle of a 3, 4, or 5 point run!! ha ha) I will be the first to say that I am in no means an accomplished racquetball player (I am just simply not smart enough to have been able to spend the time training for racquetball and studying as much as I needed too during my doctoral work!) as I went an entire season losing all but two first round matches! Thus, I am a true fan of the sport - even though my ego wished I had given it up!! Due to the fact that I am not a naturally gifted player I feel I have been forced to work on various ways to increase my success in the court and furthermore has allowed me to be able to relate well with the vast majority of players I have consulted with over the past few years.

As well, I try and let people know that I am not a fitness guru who works out 10 hours a day and thinks that everyone need to look like Arnold Schwartzenager or Denise Austin in order to be fit and healthy. (Personally, I enjoy life way too much to do that!) But what I do have are numerous years of education and personal experience which have provided me a broad knowledge base to draw from in order to work with anyone - from a professional athlete to an overweight 10 year old - to increase their fitness (endurance), strength, power and sport specific performance. My research experiences (both laboratory and field research) have been in areas such as: effects of exercise in the heat, fluid consumption, various ergogenic aids, effectiveness of fitness training for women on birth control, how aerobic and strength training in children effects their growth and development, low-carbohydrate diets, and cellular mechanisms leading to delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) associated with muscle damage.

Even though my main research interests are in hormonal and cellular adaptations that occur during and following various exercise stimuli, I have always maintained a keen interest in applied sport physiology (how to take what is discovered in the lab and actually use it to increase athletic performance). And thus I have been thinking, for a few years now, about writing articles on various topics pertaining to racquetball and exercise training, fitness, nutrition, etc. I feel it is part of my professional responsibility to share what I have learned and to interpret what is being discovered each and every day in various research labs with people who may be interested but are not as directly involved with something as vitally important and geeky as exercise physiology research. Therefore, if there are any particular questions you have or topics you would like to know more about please feel free to send me an email and I will address each question in a future article.

Part I - Getting started

Believe it or not there are racquetball players out there that actually have the time and the energy to go to the gym to train!! I know I know - I was just as amazed to find this out too. OK, I might be exaggerating just a bit but I am still struggling to find time to play more than twice a week - let alone time for training. However, for those of you who manage to find the time to engage in a training program or for those of you who would like to but do not know exactly what to do - this is for both of you.

Before I get into more specifics about training for racquetball I need to cover some terms. Research has shown that for optimal performance, training programs need to be designed with the specific needs of the sport in mind. A training program designed specifically for racquetball should include specific areas such as strength training (lifting weights) and both aerobic (fitness or endurance) and anaerobic (speed/power) conditioning. Research has also shown us that a specific training program for one individual is not necessarily the proper program for everyone. (i.e. Someone that has never lifted weights before needs to start with basic weight training to learn and maximize lifting techniques before they engage in a more demanding strength training program. Likewise someone that has never engaged in a cardiovascular program needs to learn how to predict relative fitness intensities and needs to familiarize themselves with the various pieces of cardiovascular equipment available prior to engaging in a strenuous cardiovascular conditioning program.) Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way that I can begin to discuss or teach familiarization through an article. Thus I highly recommended that if you are interested in beginning a training program of any type (not just specific for racquetball) that you contact a well-qualified personal trainer or fitness director at a local gym. A recent research study has shown that people who train under the guidance of a qualified trainer make significantly greater improvements in strength and power versus those that choose to train unsupervised. Now the question becomes: How do I know if the personal trainer or fitness director at my gym is qualified to teach me what I want to learn? A general guideline to follow is - ask them for their credentials. Most people in the fitness industry (especially directors) will have gone to school in a fitness related field (corporate and/or community fitness, fitness management, adult fitness, etc.) or will have attended a certification seminar and taken exams to become certified. Secondly, ask the fitness consultant or personal trainer about their personal philosophy on sport specific training (designing a training program to meet the specific needs of a particular sport - in this case - racquetball). As well, inquire about their previous participation as an athlete. I am not convinced that I want anyone training me that does not know what it is like to train and compete for athletic competition. Lastly, ask for references - get the names and numbers of current or past clients and talk to these people. Any personal trainer or fitness consultant who is confident in their abilities will gladly provide the names of satisfied customers.

Whether you choose to engage the use of a personal trainer or a fitness consultant or you decide to begin a training program on your own, the next step is to determine the specific goals you wish to achieve from your training program. There are a few major key concepts to remember whenever beginning a training program and these include: 1) this is your personal training program and thus it needs to be designed to fit your specific needs and as well, it will need to be regularly re-adjusted as your training progresses. 2) Set goals for yourself. These goals need to be specific, attainable, and constantly re-evaluated and re-set as your training progresses. 3) Realize that you will have both good and bad days in the gym. If you can realize that you are having a good day you might want to increase the intensity a bit and likewise if you feel like you are struggling to complete your training for the day - it is better to lower the intensity a bit and complete the workout than push too hard and cause an injury or make yourself feel as if you are not succeeding. Everyone has both good and bad days training but it is important to feel good about what you are doing in the long run and not get bogged down with one or two bad training days. 4) Be patient. Different people respond to training programs differently. Your basic genetic make-up has already determined whether you are going to be a strength/power athlete or an aerobic machine. Not every individual, despite how much training they do, will be able to gain a significant amount of muscle mass or vice versa be able to run a five-minute mile. Thus, it is better to set your realistic goals and work patiently towards them. Keep in mind that a person who has never strength trained (lifted weights) before will see relatively large increases in strength within the first six weeks of beginning their program and then they will begin to plateau and any further increases in strength will take much more time to accomplish. Thus, set your goals accordingly and be patient, if you train with the proper frequency, duration and intensity - you will improve with time. I guarantee it! 5) Don't push too hard and over train. Overtraining is a relatively new concept in exercise physiology and what research has shown is that the body can only withstand so much exercise before it begins to suffer negative consequences from subsequent exercise. Thus, be sure to allow for sufficient rest in your training program. The body actually breaks down during a training session and it is during the recovery/healing process that the body will make the adaptations required to with stand greater exercise stress (increase in strength, speed, power, etc.).

And finally, 6) Have fun! No matter if you decide to train on your own, with a training partner or with a professional above all else remember - training should be fun - otherwise. why are you doing it??

Part II - Strength training

In Part I of this series of articles I discussed a few ways in which you can decide how to find a qualified person to assist you with your training as well I provided a few key concepts to keep in mind whenever you are designing a training program. Now whether or not you take my advice is simply up to you. But whether or not you do, the next step in a training protocol will be to design the strength training portion of the program. The first thing we need to determine is: What exactly is strength training? Strength training is exactly that - a training program that is designed to cause an increase in either one or a combination of the following: muscular strength, muscular power, muscular size (hypertrophy) and/or muscular endurance. Muscular strength is defined as the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time whereas muscular power is defined as how fast you can move the weight. Muscular hypertrophy is an increase in muscle size and muscular endurance is defined as the ability to continue activity for a prolonged period of time. Whether or not you choose to believe that a weight training protocol can be specifically designed to increase strength and not hypertrophy is up to you; however, research has now shown that this is indeed possible. In fact a strength training program can be specifically designed to target any one or a combination of muscular strength, power, hypertrophy and/or endurance. Even though every strength training program involves muscle contractions using some form of resistance (weights, cables, bungee cords, rubber bands, etc) it is the number of sets per exercise, the number of repetitions per set and the amount of rest in between the sets that actually determines whether the eventual outcome is focused towards gains in muscular strength, power, hypertrophy and/or endurance.

If we specifically look at the sport of racquetball a strength training program needs to primarily focus on maximizing muscular power and secondarily focus on developing muscular endurance. Increasing muscular power will help increase racquet swing velocity and thus increase hitting power. Development of muscular endurance will help maintain consistency throughout your match and the tournament. Most racquetball players do not need to concern themselves with muscular strength since an average racquetball weighs less than two ounces and since we are not trying to hit the ball through the front wall (would that be considered a court hinder??) most of us have enough strength to hit a ball 40 feet. However, some (albeit a minor few) racquetball players do have great interest in showing off their bulging muscles while they skip - oops I mean - hit the perfect kill shot - it is only these few specific players that need to concern themselves with developing muscular hypertrophy. In fact, large increases in muscular hypertrophy may be counter productive to success in the racquetball court.

How do we train for power? Developing muscular power is one of the most difficult things to do. The types of lifts necessary are challenging and difficult to learn - yet are far from impossible! Exercises designed for muscular power need to be explosive, high intensity and performed with excellent technique and thus supervision is almost a necessity. (Trust me - you will have 99% of the people in the gym staring at you as you go through your workout. Training for muscular power is a relatively new concept and thus many people are not familiar with it and anything that is new and different is looked at with a discriminating eye.) It would be nearly impossible for me to write in the detail required how to perform many of the specific exercises that concentrate on developing muscular power; however, here are a few examples of exercises you can try: squat jumps, power cleans, hang cleans, snatch, hang snatch, push press, medicine ball chest pass, medicine ball overhead pass, medicine ball one arm pass, medicine ball underhand toss, and the medicine ball backward underhand pass. If you feel creative there is nothing from preventing you from making your own medicine ball from an old basketball or a cheap recreational ball (simply fill it with some water using an air needle) and then come up with your own arm motions that mimic the types of arm motions utilized during a match (forehands, backhands, overheads, etc). Training of this sort with a friend can be fun and used to alleviate boredom from performing the same old tired routine in the gym.

When developing a strength training program designed specifically for a racquetball player there are a few basics to keep in mind. 1) Any training program needs to specifically focus on the body areas specific to the sport of racquetball. The easiest way to determine which specific muscle groups are involved are to notice which muscles are sore the night of or the day following a strenuous racquetball match. Or if you wish to take a more scientific approach you can consult with a fitness consultant or personal trainer who will be able to breakdown the movements of the sport and determine which muscle groups are involved. 2) When designing the strength training program it is necessary to put the exercises in a specific order. The large muscle groups need to be worked first followed by the smaller muscle groups (i.e. chest before deltoids and triceps). As well, depending upon the specific goal of the training program it might be advantageous to alternate upper and lower body exercises or alternate chest, deltoid and triceps (pushing) exercises with back and biceps (pulling) exercises. However, depending upon the specific goal of the program this will vary. 3) Lastly, yet highly important, it is vital that any and all strength training programs are periodized. Periodizing is varying the amount and intensity of the training around the racquetball season (pre-season, in-season and off-season). An advanced periodized program would periodize the entire strength training program within each week of the whole training program. This is very complex and would require the assistance of a highly trained and experienced strength and conditioning professional.

The following are very general guidelines for the number of repetitions and rest time between sets for developing: strength 3-5 reps / 5-10 minutes; power 7-9 reps / 2-5 minutes; hypertrophy 10-12 reps / 1 minute; and endurance 15-20 reps / 1 minute. Finally, remember that rest is extremely important! Why? Rest provides time for the muscles to heal. Strength training tears the muscle fibers down and rest provides time for the damaged muscle fibers to heal and subsequently the muscles become stronger after they recover from the muscle damage induced during the training session. Thus when beginning a training program start SLOW (do not over due in the first week) and be sure to progress the intensity (amount of weight being lifted) so that you are always able to complete no more than the desired number of repetitions (reps) with each set - somedays you might have to decrease the weight as we all have off days and are not as strong - for example: if you are lifting for power aim for 7-9 repetitions per set. If you can complete 10 reps then increase the weight so that you can complete at least 7 but no more than 9 reps. If you cannot perform 7 good clean complete reps then decrease the weight so that you can complete at least 7 but no more than 9 reps.

Sample guideline to follow when starting to design a strength training program:

  # of sets
per muscle group
(days per week)
Beginner 1-2 1-2
Intermediate 2-3 2-3
Advanced 3-4 4-5

Even though weight training can be done on your own - it is a good idea to train with a partner for safety and as well you can also push each other. However, strength training under the guidance of a qualified personal trainer or fitness consultant is a good idea especially for beginners and intermediate lifters who want assistance with designing a specific strength training program. Here are a couple of excellent books on the topic: Designing Resistance Training Programs. Authors: Fleck & Kraemer, Human Kinetics Publishers or Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Authors: Baechle & Hoffman, Human Kinetics Publishers.

No matter if you decide to strength train on your own, with a training partner or with a professional above all else remember - training should be fun - otherwise. why are you doing it??

Part III - Conditioning

Now that I have provided a few ideas concerning how to find a qualified person to assist you with your training and key concepts to remember when designing a training program (Part 1) and provided a brief overview of how to design a strength training program (Part 2) I will now present an overview of the final component of a complete training program specifically designed for racquetball. The key component of any training program no matter the sport is a well designed conditioning program. As with a strength training program the same key concepts apply to a conditioning program. Conditioning can be done on your own, with a partner and/or under the guidance and supervision of a personal trainer or fitness consultant.

When designing a conditioning program specifically for racquetball or any other sport the two most important factors to keep in mind are: 1) not every individual is going to begin a conditioning program with the same basic level of fitness; thus, the program needs to take into consideration the general fitness of the specific individual and start at an appropriate level of intensity. And 2) every part of the conditioning program needs to be focused towards the specific demands of a racquetball match. For example, I would not recommend that a racquetball player spend an hour running repeat miles, nor would I recommend a racquetball player to go run five miles every day as part of the conditioning program. This may sound contradictory to what most people have experienced in their past athletic careers; however, the vast majority of athletic coaches do not have a degree in exercise physiology and thus do not fully comprehend the concept of sport specific training. To help clarify this very key concept I will use the game of football as a clear example. If you breakdown the game of football the offensive and defensive lineman very rarely ever run more than 10 yards on a given play. Thus, does it make sense to spend time in a conditioning program having these athletes run repeat 100 yard sprints? No! A more practical and beneficial conditioning program would focus on having these athletes running repeat 20 yard sprints and working on explosive power type activities which more closely mimic their actual performance requirements during the game. The exact same principles hold true for the sport of racquetball as well.

It is generally known that most racquetball rallies last approximately 10 seconds (99% last less than 30 seconds). Thus a condition program should include activities designed to maximize the energy systems responsible for supplying energy during short term, highly explosive activities as well as activities designed to maximize lower body power output. Without going into great detail (which may very well either bore you to tears or cause you to want to inflict serious harm on others - both of which are common in students studying these concepts! Ha ha) the body mainly utilizes three metabolic systems to produce energy for the specific demands of various activities. The first energy producing system is called the ATP-PC system (adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine system) and can only supply enough energy for activities VERY short in duration, typically less than 10 seconds (i.e. short sprints, jumping, bounding, throwing, etc.). The second energy producing system is called glycolysis which relies on glucose (sugar) as a fuel source and it can produce energy for moderately intense activities of about 3 minutes in duration; but for highly intense activities for only about 45 seconds. Most people are familiar with a by-product of incomplete glycolysis known as lactic acid or lactate. Lactic acid, in simple terms, is a short duration storage molecule produced when there is insufficient oxygen available to convert pyruvic acid (the end product of glycolysis) to acetyl CoA (the beginning product for a subsequent energy producing system in the body that works in conjunction with glycolysis, commonly known as the Krebs cycle). The third principle energy producing system of the body is called beta-oxidation and it utilizes fat as a fuel source and this energy system can theoretically supply energy for as long as there is fuel to burn. It is important to remember that each of these systems "kick-in" as soon as any work is performed (i.e. standing up, walking, running, whatever.) but it is the intensity of the activity being performed which will dictate which energy system needs to supply the majority of energy for that activity. (For example: an Olympic sprinter can run 100 meters in 10 seconds [or less] and will predominately use the ATP-PC system to supply the majority of the required energy. However within 10 seconds the ATP-PC system will be completely whipped out of its energy stores and since the Olympic sprinter needs to be able to have adequate energy to allow him to walk over to the medal stand - another energy system needs to be working to supply that additional energy. If the ATP-PC system were capable of producing an endless supply of energy Olympic runners would be able to run an Olympic mile in 2.5 minutes!) Research has shown that it is almost impossible to train the actual energy systems to work faster. However research clearly indicates that with training several systems in the body will adapt and these adaptations account for many of the improvements observed following a training program. Thus, a conditioning program specifically designed for racquetball needs to include specific activities which require the various energy systems and physiological systems of the body to adapt to the stressors of the conditioning program.

So far I have alluded to the fact that when designing a conditioning program that the specific demands of the sport need to be of primary concern. Now the question is: How do you select activities which will stress the necessary systems without knowing exactly what is going on within the muscle fibers and various cells of the body? Well, with most things there are several choices. 1) Enroll in a local university and get a degree in exercise physiology and then go on for your master's degree and hopefully by this point you will be able to begin to understand what is actually occurring at the cellular level in response to various exercise stimuli; or 2) engage the assistance of a personal trainer or fitness consultant who has experience with designing sport specific conditioning programs; or 3) simply sit back and watch a racquetball match with a different perspective. If you are serious about starting a well designed, well thought out conditioning program I would recommend sitting back and watching two players of similar ability as yourself play a competitive game. Use a stop watch and record the amount of time their rallies take and the amount of time in between the rallies (or you can trust me and believe that the answers are about 10 seconds and 30 seconds). Now you can select ANY piece of exercise equipment you desire (stationary cycle, stair climber, elliptical machine, treadmill, jump rope, etc.) and following a 5-10 minute warm-up of low to moderate intensity select two intensities or levels of resistance (one very high intensity at which you will only be able to work at for no more than 30 seconds and one at a relatively low intensity). As an easy guideline start out with choosing 15 cycles and alternate exercising at the high intensity and the low intensity using a work to rest ratio of: 1:3 (i.e. 10 seconds at the high intensity and 30 seconds at the low intensity). If you are just starting out you might need to adjust your work:rest ratio to 1:4 but with time you may want to shorten your work:rest ratio to 1:2 as well as changing your intensities. (Ok, you might be asking why 15 cycles? Well, how many points do you need to score to win a game?? However, if 15 cycles are too difficult to start with - choose a fewer number and work up to 15 work:rest cycles.) I would suggest completing the first 15 cycles and then choosing a different piece of equipment (if you want) and repeating this two or three times. Oh - if you decide to use a treadmill - BE CAREFUL! (Treadmills may not be the best choice as they take too much time to change the speed and the chance for injury is increased.) Furthermore, simply based on your personal preference this type of training can also be performed while running or cycling outside - simply alternate sprinting with slow cycling/jogging. The whole concept of this type of training is to simply mimic the on-court demands of the game of racquetball and through repetitive cycles of work and rest the body must adapt to the increase energy demands.

Additional types of training must all have a direct link to some aspect or basic requirement of the game of racquetball (foot quickness, speed, agility, power, etc.). Some basic training activities I can suggest would include (and of course these are only suggestions as your body may have pre-existing injuries which would only be further exacerbated by participating in some or all of these activities): running or sprinting up hills on bicycle, hill training on a stationary cycle or treadmill, running stairs, etc. Additionally, I would recommend a basic cardiovascular type of workout inconjunction with the sprint/speed work. Simply choose an exercise intensity which would elicit an increase in heart rate to about 70-80% of your maximum heart rate (see commonly posted signs in your gym or fitness center for your age-appropriate target heart rate range) and exercise for at least 20 minutes at a constant pace (this can get very complex but if you are training specifically for racquetball - just aim for the amount of time that an entire racquetball match lasts plus a little more and you will be OK).

If you want to get more involved and get into what can be some of the most intense and simply fun training that really works - I highly recommend incorporating plyometric training into your conditioning program. Plyometric training consists of various hopping, bounding, jumping and foot quickness drills all designed to increase the neuromuscular recruitment of muscle fibers (with plyometric training the actual number of muscle fibers recruited increases). Currently, the most creative and functionally sound collegiant and professional strength and conditioning coaches utilize plyometric training to increase both power and speed while decreasing reaction time of their athletes. A few simple plyometric drills would include hopping (1 foot) or jumping (2 feet) on and/or over a series of boxes and obstacles as quickly as possible. It is important to keep the amount of time that your feet are in contact with the floor or box to a minimum, thus altering the time it takes to change directions. Plyometric training does force you to become creative in your training. I have personally seen or have used various items such as racquets, bags, lines on the floor, milk crates, pylons, yard sticks, ladders, rope, etc. to layout an obstacle course to maneuver through by either hopping and/or jumping. The most important thing to remember about plyometric training is to be creative with your drills, make sure that your drills are always mimicking foot actions of the sport including forward, backward, and lateral movements (this can be done by selecting a place where two or more lines cross and simply jumping over the lines as quickly as possible in random directions), and finally, all drills need to be performed with quick foot actions to maximize agility and the ability to change directions quickly.

A few final points to keep in mind when designing a comprehensive racquetball specific training program are: 1) the program needs to include both a strength training program and a conditioning program; 2) if you have the time to strength train 2-3 days a week and condition 2-3 days a week - you should alternate strength training days with conditioning days; and 3) if you do not have the time to do separate workouts and are going to strength train and work on conditioning on the same day - you need to strength train before you condition (i.e. lift before you run).

And finally, I know I have said this before; however, it is definitely worth repeating over and over again: No matter if you decide to engage in a conditioning program on your own, with a training partner or with a professional above all else remember - training should be fun - otherwise. why are you doing it??

Timothy P. Scheett, Ph.D.
Exercise Physiologist Research Fellow and Semi-OK Racquetball Player
The Human Performance Laboratory
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47304

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