On May 9, 2012, Australian tennis player Sam Groth stunned spectators at the 2012 Busan Open with a tennis serve clocking in at an incredible 163.7 mph (264 kph). Groth’s high-speed serve continues to be the world record for the fastest tennis serve ever (Sabine Lisicki set the current female world record at 131 mph in 2014).
A fast serve is about more than just vanity and setting records. According to a complex data analysis of every single Association of Tennis Professionals match played in 2019 (nearly 3,000 different tennis matches), data scientist Andrea Cazzaro reports that a solid serve “is an essential aspect for every professional player.”
Put simply, if you’re serious about your tennis matches, increase your tennis serve speed. When you do, you’ll gain a concrete advantage over your opponent and increase your chances of getting an ace.
It’s not just about strength and power, but also about your technique. Today, let’s explore the physiological and biomechanical factors that affect your tennis serve speed. Then, we’ll share with you five strategic tennis exercises that will increase your tennis serve speed.
How to Increase Your Tennis Serve Speed
There are a few factors that immediately impact the speed of your serve:
- The player’s technology (i.e. shoes, racket, etc.)
- The player’s technique
- The player’s height (i.e. serving down utilizes the momentum of gravity; it’s no wonder most of the world’s best tennis stars are very tall)
- The player’s strength and flexibility
Even seasoned tennis pros who were gifted with great genetics, and have perfectly honed technique paired with the latest technology, still struggle with speed.
The reason lies in their ability to move with explosive power and drive the ball with sheer velocity.
In the sections below, we will:
- Break down the fundamentals of the tennis serve
- Discuss each phase of the basic serve
- Explain the importance of building your explosive strength and flexibility
Tennis Serve Fundamentals
The University of Kentucky recently conducted a biomechanical analysis of the standard tennis serve. When slowed down and analyzed, you can see how the typical serve can be categorized into five distinct stages:
- Starting stance
- Body rotation
- Power position
- Racquet drop and swing
- Follow through and completion
Think of your starting stance as the foundation for everything that will come after. Your serve is only as good as your initial set up. There are two main starting stances:
- The platform stance
- The pinpoint stance
In a platform stance, you stand with both feet apart, then jump with both feet. Your front foot powers the velocity of your jump. Famous players who use this starting stance include Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The platform stance is better for beginners because it needs less timing, and it’s typically chosen for both volleying and serving.
In contrast, the pinpoint starting stance distributes the jump more evenly between both of your legs, thus generating more power. It starts just like the platform stance, but both feet are brought together in the power position stage so they’re basically touching. Serena Williams and John Isner both favor the pinpoint stance.
Once your feet are in position (regardless of your chosen stance), players then rotate backwards so that their back is angled towards their opponent. Think of your body as a spring, coiling up to then recoil and generate high-speed power. This ensures your power is coming from your core and hips, and not just your arms and shoulders.
Along with the coiling is the preparation phase. Players often refer to this as the “trophy position” or “power position.” With the knees bent, the front arm outstretched and the racquet arm pulled back, it’s that unmistakable millisecond before every tennis player drives into action.
All of the above was simply gathering your kinetic energy. Now, we immediately leap into the swinging aspect of your serve.
Your racquet does a “loose drop” behind you (a gentle, backwards bounce) before you swing up and make contact with the ball. Here, shoulder and arm flexibility comes into play because the deeper you drop that racquet, the more power you generate (and the faster your serve):
- A deep drop means the racquet travels a further distance before making contact with the ball.
- The longer the distance, the more momentum created.
- The more momentum, the stronger the point of impact.
- The stronger the impact, the faster the speed of the ball.
As you swing up and jump into the serve, all the force of your legs drives up and forward. Your knees bend, then propel you forward, and all that force transfers from the ground up to the ball.
Finally, there’s the follow-through. Your arm finishes its pronation, the arm crosses your body and begins to decelerate, and your entire body relaxes as the tennis ball zips through the air.
While we’ve broken the swing into several distinct phases, it’s important to emphasize that there is a natural flow and momentum to this. It should appear effortless and fluid, even though each stage requires technique, strength and flexibility.
Building Strength, Flexibility and Explosiveness
When it comes to dynamic sports like tennis, people often focus on honing their playing technique. Yet strength training and flexibility remain critical for your performance, especially when it comes to your racquet drop (flexibility) and your jump and swing (explosive strength).
A study published in the Pediatric Exercise Science found that strength training for eight weeks increased serve speed significantly, adding approximately 15 km/h to a player’s velocity.
A similar study, published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, noted that strength training improved the following performance measures in tennis players:
- Your groundstroke velocity.
- Your leg strength when jumping.
- Your upper-body strength when twisting and swinging.
- Your overall serve speed.
That isn’t to say that technique isn’t vital, but finding the right balance between strength and technique is fundamental and often overlooked by many novice and intermediate players.
Specific muscle groups that you may want to focus on if your goal is increasing tennis serve speed include:
- Your shoulder strength and flexibility, specifically backwards mobility and protecting your rotator cuff.
- Your core, which keeps you stable and powers your kinetic energy as you twist backwards in the starting position.
- Your arms, including triceps and biceps, for a high-impact swing.
- Your legs, especially focusing on the fast-twist muscles (i.e. Type II muscle fibers) that are responsible for explosive, high-power jumps.
The following exercises can help you focus on exactly that!
5 Exercises to Increase Serving Speed
1. Dumbbell Tricep Extensions
Target muscle group: Primarily the triceps, with secondary activation of your deltoids (shoulders), wrist flexors and latissimus dorsi
Research studies highlight that your triceps are foundational for elbow stabilization during your swing.
During several phases of your serve, the triceps engage to assist the elbow. For example, your elbow is flexed at 90-degrees in the power position, and also flexes during the racquet drop. This engages your triceps, as does the actual upward swing during your serve.
Overhead dumbbell tricep extensions are effective for strengthening this muscle group.
- Hold a dumbbell in each of your hands.
- Stand tall with your core engaged and your feet spaced apart by the same width as your shoulders.
- Hold the dumbbells overhead with your arms straight, but your elbows NOT locked.
- While keeping your shoulders and upper arms stable, bend your elbows and let the dumbbells drop behind your head as far as they can go.
- Without swinging or swaying, raise the dumbbells back overhead to complete one rep.
- Aim for four sets of eight to 12 reps.
2. Medicine Ball Slams
Target muscle group: Legs (including quads, hamstrings and calves), glutes, core and your arms and shoulders (including deltoids, biceps and triceps)
The previously cited study in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise specifically used medicine ball slams as an exercise for improving tennis serve speed. The slams are a powerhouse for tennis players, improving your endurance while also training whole-body explosiveness. Few workouts hone your fast-twitch muscles like a medicine ball slam.
- Hold a medicine ball with both hands (if you’re a beginner, go light: a 4 lb or 6 lb ball should suffice).
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core and bend your knees slightly.
- Lift the ball above your head while bending forward slightly at the hips.
- Throw the ball as hard as possible down onto the floor in front of you, a few inches in front of your feet.
- Grab the ball again. If it doesn’t bounce, tighten your core and bend forward to pick it up. If it’s a ball that bounces, catch it in the air (improving your hand-eye coordination, which also boosts your tennis performance).
- Repeat. Do two to three sets of eight to 10 throws.
3. Kettlebell Snatch
Target muscle groups: Your lower body (primarily your glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors) and your upper body (core, shoulders, arms, back)
This full-body workout hits every major muscle group involved in sports performance. Due to its high-intensity strength focus, it activates the Type 2 muscle fibers responsible for quick, explosive tennis swings and jumps.
It also hones your cardio endurance, which brings secondary benefits to your next tennis match.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold a kettlebell in front of you with your right hand (relax and let it hang between your legs).
- Lean back very, very slightly so that your weight is loaded on your hips and heels.
- Crouch slightly, then stand quickly, using that momentum to swing the kettlebell forward.
- Use the momentum and as you straighten, pull the kettlebell in front of you and into a snatch (bending your right elbow, shrugging your right shoulder, and going from a swing to a lift overhead).
- Draw your shoulders back and down and press the kettlebell directly overhead.
- Lock your right elbow and pause. You’re now in the final, vertical position of the snatch.
- Engaging your core, lower the weight down to your shoulder.
- Bend your forearm in toward the center or your body while extending your elbow and letting the kettlebell drop with control back to the starting position.
- Aim to do four sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
4. Cable Chest Fly
Target muscle groups: As its name suggests, it engages your entire chest while also strengthening your rotator cuff and working on the flexibility that’s key for a strong tennis serve
The chest fly strikes a good balance between building your strength and muscle mass, enhancing flexibility (especially the backwards twisting that’s important in tennis) and placing some healthy stress on your rotator cuff to protect this important group of tendons in your shoulder joint.
Compared to other chest workouts, such as dumbbell bench presses, a cable chest fly is gentler on your joints. If you’re worried about overtraining injuries, especially if you do a lot of tennis drills, a cable fly is right for you.
- Adjust the cable/pulley settings on your cable fly machine so that the pulleys are at your shoulder height.
- Stand with your back to the cable machine and grab one pulley in each hand.
- Step with one foot forward so that you’re in a stable forward split stance.
- Bending gently at your hips, brace your core and pull the cables forward so that your hands meet in front of you, palms facing inward. Your arms should be straight, with elbows slightly bent, throughout the entire motion.
- Pause, feeling the stretch and flex in your chest.
- Return to the starting position with slow control.
- Repeat for four sets of eight to 15 reps.
5. Box Jumps
Target muscle groups: The entire lower body, primarily the glutes, quads, calves and hamstrings
A study conducted by Western Michigan University found that regular plyometric training significantly improved the speed and agility of tennis players. Box jumps are one of the most effective plyometric workouts for a tennis pro, specifically because it improves the jumping and landing power that’s critical in a strong serve.
A side benefit: Box jumps get your heart rate going and build endurance.
- Start with a low, 20-inch-high box to practice your form before graduating to higher boxes.
- Stand facing the box with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Get down into a semi-squat (about a quarter of the way down) and swing your arms back behind you.
- Swing your arms forward and explode upward, jumping as high as possible in a forward motion.
- Land on the box with your knees bent (at almost 90-degree angles) and your feet flat on the box.
- WARNING: Avoid injuries by landing fully on the box. Don’t land with your heels hanging off the edge of the box.
- Squat back down and jump back to land back in the starting position.
- Do five sets of 10-15 reps.
It’s clear that strength training — specifically workouts that build explosive power, plyometric agility, and strength in the muscles involved in your tennis swing — has measurable impacts on your tennis serve speed.
For the best results, and the fastest gains in your serve speed, specifically focus first on the above high-velocity tennis exercises (medicine ball slams, box jumps and kettlebell snatches).
When combined with a traditional strength training program that uses a heavy load, you’ll see the fastest increase in type 2, fast-twitch muscle recruitment, which will lead to the quickest speed increases.