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Weight that counts on court

gaining weight in the form of increased muscle mass
By: Sally Parsonage


For many serious tennis players, gaining weight, in the form of increased muscle mass, is a vital part of improving their strength, speed and power and so enhancing their on-court performance. And for the fairer sex, maintaining body fat above a minimum level is also important for long term health.

Many of us know from bitter experience that losing weight can be hard work.  But few of us probably realise that gaining weight can also be tough, especially if you have a “long and lean” ectomorphic body type! So you need to take lots of factors into consideration – not just body type, but age, training and playing level, and performance goals.

Meeting energy needs

Teenage players, especially boys, in full time training playing several hours a day often struggle to consume enough calories to meet the additional needs for growth.  This means that in order to cover growth and energy requirements, a teenager could, depending on the individual, need to consume over 4,000 calories a day.  So if they stick to the old-fashioned three meals a day, they’re going to find it very difficult to get that number of calories in. 

Granola barIdeally snacks need to resemble a small meal of the right nutritional composition like a sandwich, cereal bar or banana.  Even for someone looking to put on weight, temptations like Coca Cola, doughnuts and crisps, are definitely not the right things to snack on! That’s because these kinds of foods provide ‘empty calories’.  They lack nutrition in terms of vitamins and minerals plus in the case of doughnuts and crisps they are high in fat, which is not good for long term health and won’t support someone with a high level of training.

High fat foods are not good for tennis because muscles need carbohydrate and not fat to fuel them.  Also, it’s important to remember that tennis is an intermittent exercise with a lot of stopping and starting, sometimes for up to two to three hours at a time. The type of fuel that the muscles need for this type of exercise is carbohydrate, which can only be obtained by eating carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, potatoes, rice and pasta. Having said all this, it’s important to realise that there’s no such thing as a good or bad food. Eating a doughnut once a week is not a problem, but every day it will have a significant negative impact on the quality of your diet. But if that’s all there is to eat, then you’re better off eating that than nothing at all!

Strategy for muscle gain

At some stage in their training, most players need to specifically gain muscle rather than just body weight. There is a common misconception that just consuming lots of protein will create new muscle, but unfortunately the body doesn’t work like that!  What you have to do is stimulate the muscles to make new tissue – and that’s what happens when you work with weight.  If you’re lifting  heavy weights it causes micro-damage to the muscle fibres, which stimulates the muscles to make more tissue, but this can only occur if there is enough protein available from what your food.  Fortunately most of us eat more protein than we need, so quantity is not usually a problem.  And it is worth remembering that excess protein actually gets used as energy, and excess energy can easily result in added body fat if you habitually eat too much!

Protein supplements can offer a way to enhance your muscle gain iBananaf you use them straight after a weights workout, but current science shows that if you take the protein along with carbohydrate, you can refuel the muscles AND the protein “building blocks” actually get into the muscle quicker. So read the labels of protein supplements and pick one that contains 2 - 4 times more carbohydrate than protein for maximum effect. And you can achieve the same with “real” food – even a simple yogurt plus banana will do the same job, but the US Olympic Training Centre uses low fat chocolate milk as their standard post-workout supplement!

Muscle and body types

KarlovicPutting on muscle is not a foregone conclusion - a lot will depend on the body type you were born with, so some people will be able to put on more muscle than others. A player like Karlovic, at 2.08m is a classic ‘ectomorph’ body shape – he is tall and lanky, a bit like a string bean, and no matter how much weight training he does,  he will never gain a huge amount of muscle.

Taylor Dent
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a player like Taylor Dent, mainly ‘mesomorphic’, and with a much bigger potential for muscle gain. You don’t see many true “endomorphs” in tennis – generally they have a high muscle mass that is too much to move round the tennis court at speed, but they can excel at contact sports like rugby!

Body composition

When you weigh yourself, you get the sum total of bones, muscles, fat and water.  If an athlete’s body weight changes, you can’t make any assumptions as to what has been gained or lost.  What matters is whether they have gained or lost fat or muscle.  The average for a lean, healthy woman is 25% of the body weight being fat and 15% for men.  For an elite athlete in a sport like tennis this will be around 20% for women and closer to 10% for men, but there is quite a wide range in the top world ranked men and women – think of the obvious difference between Serena Williams and Daniela Hantuchova! Changing the fat or muscle content of your body takes weeks and months, it is NOT a “quick fix” job, and you need to plan it well away from your most important tournaments – nutrition needs to be periodized as well as training!

Useful tips:

· Only weight yourself once a week, first thing in the morning
· Don’t just load up on protein shakes – take one right after your workout to optimize your muscle gain
· Weight loss during practices or workout means some dehydration – drink more fluids!
· Be realistic about muscle gain and fat loss – you can’t change your body type, but you can optimize it!

IMG Performance Institute is dedicated to the development of the “total athlete”, whether junior, adult, or professional, by providing programs in mental conditioning, nutrition, physical conditioning, sports medicine, athletic regeneration, communication, life skills, and vision training.

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