The internet is full of articles and videos on pickleball strategy.
Topics include shot selection, shot placement, court positioning, communication for doubles matches and so on.
Lobs, dinks, volleys, smashes—they’re all important. So are serving, respecting the kitchen line and targeting an opponent’s weakness.
But what if you’re too tired to get to a well-placed volley at the end of a rally? Or what if you avoid smashes because of shoulder pain? What if you know exactly where to place a perfect shot, but you can’t quickly lunge into the no-volley zone to reach the ball?
All the strategy, tactics, planning, practice and technique work are useless if you aren’t fit enough.
Did you know that some people even work on certain shots simply to take advantage of unfit player or players who aren’t very mobile? Check out Joe Baker’s video on “Killer Drop Shots” for one technique used to beat players who can’t move quickly around the court.
Fitness for the Win
Here’s the good news: It doesn’t take long to improve overall fitness, cardiovascular endurance and strength. So before you start researching the finer points of strategy, talk to a fitness trainer who can get you into shape. With a fitness foundation in place, you’ll already be ahead of most of the people on the court.
When we set up a pickleball net and had our Legends clients play a pick-up game for the first time, they were immediately able to do so. They could move about the court and swing with ease, and within a few rallies they were figuring out how to place shots, put spin on the ball and work as a team—because they didn’t have to worry about their fitness.
So here’s your guide to fitness for the court. It’s designed to explain what elements of fitness will help pickleball players and then assist them in choosing an effective program.
Be Fitter Than Your Opponent
General Physical Preparedness
Also called GPP, general physical preparedness means you have a solid baseline level of fitness. You have a nice balance of strength, conditioning, agility, endurance, speed, power and so on. People with good levels of GPP are able to pick up grandkids, go for a hike, help a friend move or participate in the sports they love. Think of GPP as being fit to live a life full of activities and energy.
People who have trained for GPP pick up sports faster. Think of two people who want to learn how to play golf. One has poor flexibility and isn’t able to generate much power with the hips. The other has great mobility and some leg strength. Which one will be more likely to learn how to use a driver first?
The same principles apply to pickleball.
Players who have base levels of conditioning and strength are going to perform better on the court than those who do not. They’ll be fit enough to apply all the other technical aspects of the sport and implement all the pickleball strategies that are available. They’ll have fewer injuries, and they’ll be able to play longer. Even better, they can apply that fitness to other sports or aspects of their lives.
Video: how to perform lunges.
The Elements of GPP
The ideal pickleball fitness program must improve general physical preparedness. Our 50-plus Legends training program does this by targeting 10 well-recognized fitness domains—all of which can benefit a pickleball player:
- Cardiorespiratory endurance
In one hour, we combine safe, effective strength training with cardiovascular work to dramatically increase fitness.
Every class involves a coach-led warm-up, and then we get down to work. Sometimes we combine strength and conditioning in fun, challenging circuits, and sometimes we keep strength training separate from conditioning. By never falling into a rut, we keep challenging the body and forcing it to adapt.
Fitness adaptations occur at any age with the proper exercise. We have a gym full of people who are stronger at 50 or 60 than they were at 40 because they’re training now. Fitness training will have the same effect on you.
If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this: Fitness can be improved at any age through training.
Strength, Speed and Power
Everyone can benefit from increased strength. Strong muscles support and move the body, and trained muscles generate speed and power—even for older people. Strength training also creates strong bones and can prevent osteoporosis.
Combined with speed, strong muscles generate power: They move the body quickly. Power is important in every sport.
Strength training is the key to being able to use the various shots that can win points. To do anything on the court, you need to be able to get to the ball. Then you need to support your body in an athletic position and use core and upper-body muscles to make the shot.
In our program, we train strength through full-body movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses. We use dumbbells, barbells and other implements. We also teach the body to apply that strength quickly through power movements such as kettlebell swings (see above) and sled pushes.
As a side benefit, strong muscles support and protect joints—even joints that were injured previously in life. It’s not uncommon for people of any age to improve strength and enjoy reductions in joint pain.
The type of strength we create is functional. It’s not about great big bodybuilder muscles. We don’t create those. We create muscles that are perfect for moving objects and playing sports.
Your fitness program must include strength training to be effective!
Endurance and Stamina
Pickleball players—and people who play other racket/paddle sports–require the ability to generate power in a long series of short and medium bursts. In physiological terms, pickleball players need well-trained anaerobic and aerobic systems. The first is more important in pickleball: It fuels shorter bursts of power, and it wins rallies.
Your aerobic system works to a lesser degree during a pickleball match. Acccording to USAPA Pickleball, matches usually last 40-60 minutes. So this system is always working in the background to supply energy, and it becomes more and more important as matches and rallies get longer. But your aerobic system doesn’t drive the quick, explosive movement the best pickleball players use to win matches.
Pickleball Rally Analysis
How long is a pickleball rally? It varies, but here are some guidelines.
When Steve Dawson and Brian Staub played Glen Peterson and Del Krauss in the gold-medal match at the U.S. Open Pickelball Championships, our 10-rally audit gave an average rally time of 9.6 seconds.
When Joe Frasca took on Scott Moore in a Tournament of Champions singles match, a similar audit produced an average rally time of 4.8 seconds—but at much higher intensity due to the increased area each man had to cover. Because both men had very high levels of fitness, they had the physical capacity to move around the court quickly and get into position to make the shots they had developed in practice.
To train both energy systems, your pickleball fitness program needs to use intervals. Circuit training can also be very helpful because you perform short bursts of work, then move to another element without resting for long.
That sounds a lot like a series of pickleball rallies, doesn’t it?
What do rally and match times tell us? A pickleball fitness program needs to help people move quickly and with strength for short bursts, then recover with a very brief rest break.
That means you want interval training, not long, steady-state cardio sessions. There’s nothing wrong with running or biking, but if you truly want to improve fitness on the court, you need the kind of interval work we use with our Legends clients.
We specialize in creating interval workouts and short, effective workouts that build cardiovascular endurance and strength at the same time. Think about it like this: a steady-state cardio has one level of intensity, and it’s not particularly high because intensity cannot be sustained for long periods. But an interval workout has a baseline level of intensity with regular spikes in intensity for short periods.
This pattern mirrors that patterns of pickleball matches. So train how you’re going to play.
Even better: training with sensible levels of intensity will create physiological changes quickly. Your doctor will be thrilled to hear you’re improving both strength and conditioning, and your measurements in the doctor’s office will reflect your work in the gym.
Agility, Balance, Coordination, Accuracy and Flexibility
As people age, there’s often more sitting and less doing. Most people don’t learn new skills. And they often let the ones they have decay.
That’s not you, and it’s not the people in our Legends program.
Learning new things is a big part of fitness. It keeps the mind and body sharp, and it prevents loss of skills. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t juggle apples or play the guitar for 20 years. You’d lose the ability to do so.
But regular practice of any physical skill improves related skills. Imagine how the nimble fingers of a pianist could fly over a keyboard when typing. Coordination and accuracy can be trained and applied to a host of disciplines and pastimes.
Compound Movements: More Bang for Your Buck
To target agility, balance, coordination, balance and flexibility all at once, your fitness program should challenge you with multi-joint exercises, or “compound exercises.” They look different than the movements you see performed on the large machines in many gyms. There are no machines in pickleball, so you don’t need them in your gym. By exercising without machines, you train your body to provide the support—which results in agility and balance.
You also need movements that engage the whole body the same way a pickleball shot does. When you learn to perform movements such as kettlebell swings, dumbbell snatches and so on, your body makes neurological connections that improve coordination and accuracy. Both are essential in pickleball. And by learning to control various implements in the gym, you’ll develop accuracy that can be applied when swinging a paddle.
Finally, compound movements take joints through their full ranges of motion. This both preserves and improves flexibility. Think about all the shots you need to make in a game: lobs, volleys, dinks, smashes, drop shots and so on. All require flexibility, particularly in the hips and shoulders.
Remember Joe Baker’s video above? What if you had the strength and flexibility to lunge into no-volley zone and easily return a drop shot? Compound movements will help you do that.
How Often Should You Train?
We recommend fitness training about 3 times per week at any age. Some people work out up to 6 times per week, but most people do just fine with 3-5 sessions. Because you’re also playing pickleball, we recommend 3 gym sessions per week. But we’d adjust that prescription to 2 training sessions per week if you’re playing pickleball every day.
Overall, we want to make sure you’re doing enough work to change your body but not so much that you aren’t able to recover for the next session or match. An experienced coach can help you determine the exact amount of training you need.
No matter what, we recommend people of all ages do some form of physical activity every single day. Get out and move!
Train to Win—and to Live
You can win matches before they start if you arrive at the court fitter than your opponent.
But pickleball isn’t the only thing in the world, no matter how fun it is. Your best plan for life is to train to live well. Not just walking or general activity. But targeted, professional training designed to keep you healthy and help you accomplish your goals. An educated, experienced professional can make a targeted plan that’s perfect for your needs and goals.
If you’re a pickleball player and want to improve your fitness, we encourage you to find a functional fitness program or trainer in your city. You can often find them in CrossFit gyms, and many have programs tailored specifically to older clients.
Fitness in Winnipeg
If you’re a pickleball player in Winnipeg, check out our Legends program. It was designed over 5 years ago specifically to help people over 50 accomplish their health and fitness goals. But it’s also perfectly suited to help you avoid injury and win pickleball matches.
If you’d like to work one-on-one with a coach or with your doubles partner, we can make that happen, too. We’ll meet with you a tailor a program to your exact needs.
Finally, Rise Up Physiotherapy operates out of our facility. So if you’ve got a current injury or want to prevent injuries, we can help you do it. We work closely with Rise Up to ensure our clients can be pain-free in sports, training and life.
So before you invest a ton of hours watching pickleball videos and reading technique articles, invest just 3 hours a week in your fitness. Then you can read the articles and watch the videos as you recover from your workouts!