What’s the best way for a squash player to get and stay fit? Short answer: Play more squash. Yet, as younger players mature and experienced players start climbing the ranks it becomes even more important to add off-court physical training to both improve performance and prevent injuries.
With junior squash players, age 10-15 traditional weight training programs are not optimal for developing strength and are actually harmful to the athlete’s long term health. And for seasoned adult players, old-school weight-lifting may not give you the results you want on the court.
“Show muscles” aren’t going to help you be a better swimmer or squash player, yet many people train for their specific sport in the gym as if they’re going to be entering a body-building competition. You’ll probably get bigger biceps but what you really want is to be functionally stronger.
The Good News
Newly developed functional and core strength training routines are becoming increasingly popular, not only for squash players but for athletes in sports ranging from football and tennis to Formula 1 racing. Why? Because functional training works.
Bench pressing 3 times your bodyweight might be impressive but how often are you flat on your back in any sport? Where is the functional strength in a bench press or bicep curl? The benefits are limited.
In this article, we’ll provide examples of functional strength training most appropriate for squash players and give you a plan to develop sport-specific strength-the stuff that’s going to help you on the court. The plan will consist of three phases spread over 4-6 weeks. Ready to roll? Let’s go!
Phase One: Injury Prevention
We’ll get started with strengthening areas of the body that are prone to injury in squash, namely the ankle, knee, shins, lower back, shoulder, and elbow. This phase not only helps prevent future injuries to vulnerable areas but will build a foundation for strength training later in the season. We’re also building an aerobic base that will serve as a launching pad for the program as a whole.
Phase Two: Core Function
Here we’re building the core by concentrating on the abs, hips and lower back. We want to lay a foundation for power that can be transferred from the legs to the upper body and racquet arm as well as develop strength and endurance for the associated muscle groups. We’re also going to further maintain injury prevention and aerobic endurance started in Phase One.
Phase Three: Speed and Power
In this phase, we are developing speed coupled with power by training at a volume and intensity appropriate to the athlete’s age and strength training experience. In volume training, you are training for shorter amounts of time but training on more days-increasing the overall volume of the training you do.
Example: If the maximum amount of pull ups you can perform is 10 how many pull ups should you perform on Day 1? The answer is 5. Then the next day 6, followed by 7. At the end of the week you’re not sore and you’ve performed more pull ups than someone who maxed out on their first day of training and then had to rest for two days between training sessions. With volume training at the end of the month you’d have performed far more pull ups than someone who maxes out and only trains 3 days a week.
As opposed to training to exhaustion 3 times a week, you’ll be training for shorter periods more often at a higher intensity and be able to do more volume (more work) than someone doing traditional training methods.
These three phases of injury prevention, strength and speed/power conditioning can take place during your season (if competing at the high school or collegiate level) from September until June. If you’re a club player during your fall, winter and spring seasons. You can adjust accordingly but the most important aspect of the training is Phase One, as we’re building the foundation and working on injury prevention.
The goal is to make you a better squash player, and your first ability should be your availability, meaning you can’t progress if you’re constantly battling injuries and aren’t able to play.
Graduated increases of work from a low volume of training and intensity (speed of movement and resistance) at the beginning of the season to a higher level as your season peaks. You can also increase the complexity of the training as you progress. In the beginning, keep it simple. More on that soon.
It typically takes 3-4 sessions a week to develop a physical quality like strength and then only 1-2 sessions a week to maintain it once has been developed.
There are dozens of strength training exercises and it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the beginning. By keeping it simple and focusing on a few key areas you’ll be able to target your results to the areas we’ve discussed in Phase One and then build out from there.
- Injury Prevention
- Court Technique-Footwork, Shots, Racquet handling
- Aerobic Capacity
Suggested Exercises For Each Phase
Let’s now look at some example of the types of exercises we suggest you perform in each of the the three phases. You’ll notice that some of the exercises are found in more than one category, such as injury prevention or core stability/strength.
Athletes should have a physical exam before starting any fitness or conditioning program. Younger players should only perform these exercises under the supervision of their team coach or certified strength coach. No matter your age or level if at any time you experience pain or unusual soreness with any of these exercises, stop and consult your doctor or trainer immediately. We’ve culled these exercises from reliable sources such as collegiate squash training programs at Smith College and Yale University and assume no responsibility for any injury that may result from the use of this information or reliance on it.
Now that we’ve covered the legal bases let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the program.
Injury Prevention Phase
Warm-up: 3-5 minutes of light aerobic activity like jogging, followed by 5-10
minutes of static stretching. The static stretches should include stretches for each of the vulnerable areas in squash (ankles, knees, shoulders, knees)
Timing: Begin training 4-6 weeks prior to starting on-court squash practice. More likely, anytime there has been a layoff of more than 2 weeks of on-court training.
Speed/Pace: You’ll want to begin injury prevention exercises slowly in order to concentrate on form and establish good movements.
Resistance: Aim for low repetitions so that a minimum of 12 can be performed using only the athlete’s body weight, exercise bands or light to medium weight medicine balls (2-6kg). Raise resistance after 20 repetitions are reached, but concentrate more on maintaining proper form before you increase the weight significantly.
Recovery: Rest should be 1-3 minutes between exercises, alternate muscle groups can be worked during rest periods. For example, when you’re resting your upper body, you can perform a set of lower body exercises.
Cool-Down: 5-10 minutes of static stretching of tight areas (hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, shoulders, etc.)
Injury Prevention Circuit
Jog between two cones set about 10 yards apart while positioning your feet in different aspects. For example feet in/out, toes up/down for each lap. Keep legs mostly straight to place a load on the lower leg. This helps prevent ankle sprains and shin splints. Don’t run, but rather jog slowly in order to warm the muscles and increase flexibility.
Foot positions as follows: toes in/out, on toes/heels, on inside/outside edge of the foot. Perform 5-10 laps and incorporate as many different positions as you can.
Lying or sitting with one leg bent, straighten and tense the other while tightening the quadriceps muscles. Point toes outward and perform short arc leg circles with the straightened leg. Try for 5 reps each side with 45-second leg circles. This will help with your patella tracking, keeping your kneecap in place and preventing injuries and soreness.
Hamstrings: Lay on your back on an exercise mat, straighten your body, tighten your abs and place your heels in the center of an exercise ball. Bring the ball towards you by rolling it with your heels towards your core. This strengthens the hamstrings and core and helps to minimize knee injuries.
Squats: Place hands behind your head and loosely lock your fingers together. Drop the hips, thrust your buttocks out and back and bring your thighs parallel with the floor. Don’t extend your knees over your toes. Breathe normally. Return to the starting position and repeat. Works abs, quads, and glutes. Try for three sets of 10 reps each.
Crunches: On a stability ball fold arms across chest, with feet flat on the floor and legs at a 90-degree angle. Slowly raise your shoulders off the ball, looking towards the ceiling and keeping arms folded across chest. Bring yourself up until you are almost upright, slowly lower and repeat. Try for 10-12 repetitions. This exercise strengthens the core and prevents back injuries.
Side Plank: Lie on your side supporting yourself on one elbow with that elbow directly under your shoulder. Tighten your core and lower back and then lift your hips off the mat. Maintain for 30 seconds then switch sides. Try for 4 sets each side and build from there. Side planks strengthen the muscles that stabilize the lower back as well as build overall core strength.
Super-Human: Lie on your stomach flat on an exercise mat, tighten your core and slowly raise both your arms, head and feet together as if you’re “flying”. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Try for 3-5 sets. This exercise builds your lower back, core, and shoulders. Be cautious not to overarch your back.
Seated Row: For this exercise, you’ll need a TheraBand or exercise tubing. Wrap a band (tubing) around either one or two feet to provide desired resistance and pull the band towards you while seated on the mat as if rowing a boat. Maintain a flat, straight back and pull the band back using your shoulder blades and pulling through with your elbows. Try for 10 repetitions, 3 sets.
Even though you’re playing squash you may at some point suffer from “tennis elbow”, wrist overuse injuries are also common in racquet sports. The following are preventative exercises designed to strengthen your wrist and elbow joints.
Wrist Curl: Rest a forearm on your thigh, palm upwards and your wrists just beyond your knees. Using a light dumbbell slowly curl your hand up and down working the muscles of the forearm (forehand). Repeat and switch sides. Increases grip strength and flexibility in your wrist flexors.
Wrist Rotation: Sit with a squash racquet resting on your thigh, holding the racquet with a proper grip with the top pointing upwards. Slowly rotate the racquet from side to side-about 180 degrees. You can use a tennis racquet to increase resistance.
Squeeze Rotation: Grip a squash ball in the palm of your hand, extend your arm out straight in front of you and rotate your wrist. Replicate this movement but hold your arms straight out at your side. Builds strength and flexibility in your wrist. Improves grip strength.
Arm Over/Under: Reach over your shoulder with one hand behind your back with the other and try and mesh your fingers together, but pull slowly. You can use a towel or exercise band to improve your reach. Improves shoulder flexibility and joint mobility-prevents shoulder problems.
External Arm Rotation: Place your fist over your core at about waist level with your arm at a 45-degree angle. Using your other hand to provide resistance slowly rotate your arm outward so your fist is pointing straight ahead. Improves rotator cuff mobility.
Thumb Down Arm Raise: Stand with your arms fully extended outward to the side and slightly in front with your thumbs pointing down. Have a partner apply gentle pressure to your arms and then raise them to above shoulder level.
Core Functional Phase
We touched on this earlier but it bears repeating. Recent developments in training methods have emphasized the importance of core/functional exercises instead of developing muscle mass through traditional weight-training using free weights or machines. These “old-school” exercises consisted of the bench press, bicep curls, lat pull downs, and heavy squats and deadlifts. These still have a place in fitness training as they can quickly build muscle mass for contact sports like football, rugby and hockey.
In this program, while we want to build strength, we don’t want bulk. Instead, we’re concentrating on muscles that balance and complement each other and building them through compound movements. Here’s how will approach this phase:
- Core Training-train the ‘posture muscles”, abs, lower back in order to prevent injury and bolster power transfer from the legs through to the racquet.
- Functional Training-emphasis on multi-joint exercises and compound movements instead of single-joint exercises (bicep curls). Multi-joint exercises are more similar to squash movement patterns.
- Complementary Training-working muscles that work together (hamstrings, quads)
Fitness balls are ubiquitous in gyms and when used properly will help improve your core strength and balance. Engaging the core means keeping your abs firm for the duration of a set exercise in order to stabilize your body.
Medicine balls (handheld rubber or canvas balls of varying weights) can also be used either apart from or with fitness balls. When used separately a medicine ball can help you with actual squash movements.
Core/Functional Exercise Guidelines
Pre Season: 4-6 weeks prior to playing in the first tournament or team matches. For club players incorporate this into your off-season training.
Warm-Up: 3-5 minutes of light aerobics like jogging or jumping jacks, followed by 5 minutes of static stretching. Stretch squash-specific areas such as lower back, hips, hamstrings, etc.
Large body movements such as trunk circles, shoulder circles (arms extended) and leg swings are also beneficial.
Speed: In general exercises can be performed at a slow to medium speed.
Resistance: Keep the resistance levels low but enough so that a minimum of 12-15 repetitions can be performed. Most of the time these are going to be bodyweight exercises, exercises performed with tubing or Therabands or light to medium weighted medicine balls.
Be aware that you don’t want to train to failure. It is more important to maintain good form and give yourself the ability to do more volume work the following day.
Rest: Take 1-3 minutes break between exercises. Alternate muscle groups can be worked during the rest period.
Cool-Down: 5-10 minutes of static stretching of any tight areas.
Stability Ball Trunk Traction: Lie with your core across a stability ball with your body relaxed and taking shape and letting your lower back relax. Your back is towards the ceiling. Breathe normally and gently roll the ball back and forth supporting yourself on with your hands and feet. Roll backward and forwards to stretch the lower back. 2-3 minutes.
Stability Ball Back Relax: Simply reverse the previous position and lie with your back on the ball, knees bent at 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. Allow gravity to stretch your chest muscles. 2-3 minutes.
Stability Ball Wall Squat: Using a stability ball squat with the small of your back on the ball and the ball against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly lower yourself until your upper thighs are even with the floor, return to starting position. Make sure you don’t go too low-keep thighs parallel. Try for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Stability Ball Bridge: Sit on the ball and gradually walk your feet out in front of you until the ball is at the top your back about shoulder level. Activate your core, tighten your glutes and return the ball to the starting position. Keep feet flat on the floor during the duration of the movement. Try for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Are you getting the feeling that we think stability balls are useful? They are! As long as you use them properly, and that’s the point we hope to get across when illustrating the many ways stability ball exercises can benefit your game.
Stability Ball Back Extension: Kneel on a mat and lean your hips on the ball. Bend your arms and place your hands behind your head. Activate your core and do a slow back extension, don’t arch your back too much. Return to the starting position. Perform a few of these to warm and activate lower back and core muscles.
Stability Ball Incline Crunch: Position yourself with your lower back against the ball, feet flat on the floor at 90 degrees, cross arms over chest and perform a crunch. Make sure that you don’t put pressure on your neck, but instead, you want to stabilize your back against the ball as you gently raise yourself. Try for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Get On The Ball
For this next set of exercises, you won’t be using a stability ball but will instead be replacing it with a medicine ball. So how is using another ball going to help? Glad you asked!
Medicine ball workouts enable you to do exercises when off-balance helping to work deeper muscles, the ones that are vital to maintaining good form on the court. The result will be that you can exercise safely (better core stability, stronger back), as well as seeing the benefits in your game.
By using a medicine ball, you will be able to do movements that work an entire chain of muscles. This will develop your intermuscular coordination, build up your abs and lower back muscles, and build lean muscle mass. It’s an old school tool that’s become popular again and for good reason; they work! Rather, you do the work but you get the picture, right? Let’s take a look at some workouts that will fire up your training and improve your game.
Medicine Ball Wall Slam: Assume an athletic stance with knees bent and standing parallel to a wall. Grasping the ball in both hands, pivot and slam the ball against the wall catching it on the rebound and repeat for 30 seconds then switch sides. Don’t turn your whole body, but rather rotate your core and hips and propel the ball towards the wall with your legs. Catch the ball as it rebounds back to you and repeat. This is a great stamina builder that also builds functional core strength.
Medicine Ball Overhead Slam: The same concept as above only you are going to be using an overhead slam to propel the ball into the floor before catching and repeating. Assume an athletic stance, raise the ball over your head then bring the ball down, slamming it into the floor, catch the rebound and repeat for 30 seconds sets. You’ll be surprised how many muscle groups this exercise engages. Builds shoulders, core, quads and endurance.
Hint: You may want to check with your gym before trying this-but most spots have a dedicated space for this type of workout.
Medicine Ball Pushup: This is a twist on the basic pushup, which builds strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Using a medicine ball actively engages your core and improves stability and balance. Assume a pushup position and place a stability ball in front of you. Place both hands on the ball, fingers spread and achieve a solid grip with the ball under your shoulders. Now, perform a pushup while keeping the ball stable and in place. It’s harder than it sounds but once you get the hang of it this is a great addition to your core workouts.
This completes the Core/Functional phase of the program. Now, on to Speed and Power.
Speed and Power Phase
In squash, the technical aspect of speed and power is important. Your movement to the ball and through the “T” with skillful footwork help one to become game speed fast in squash just as proper stroke technique is key to bringing power to the ball. You’ll need speed to get to the front of the court to defend a drop shot and you’ll tap your power reserves to leap for lobs or volleys.
In the Speed and Power phase, the intensity of the training is high and you’ll be generating forces that are relatively greater than in the previous phases. If you’ve followed the first two phases and developed a solid foundation then you should be physically ready for the challenges of this phase. Before we begin let’s check the guidelines.
Speed/Power Exercise Guidelines
Warm-up: 3-5 minutes of light aerobic activity like jogging, followed by 5-10
minutes of static stretching. Some players tend to skip warm-ups. Don’t be one of those.
Speed of Movement: As fast as possible without breaking form, ensuring that the muscle groups being targeted have been warmed up.
Duration: Each exercised should last anywhere from 3-5 reps (a throw for example) to about 10 seconds for sprints and jumps.
Resistance: Low resistance with higher repetitions with bodyweight exercises or those supplemented with medicine balls or light dumbbells.
Rest: Rest for about 1 minute between repetitions and sets in order to replenish energy levels to be able to work at maximum intensity.
Cool-Down: 5-10 minutes of light stretching of tight areas. The cool down is just as important as the warm-up so don’t skip it.
Sprint and Go: After warm-up assume a stationary stance and start running in place, at the signal sprint forward 3-6 steps as fast as possible. Return and repeat.
Jump Jack Sprint: Similar to the above exercise but perform 10 jumping jacks before sprinting 3-6 steps before backpedalling to the starting position.
Side Shuffle and Go: From the starting position shuffle 3-6 steps to one side then sprint forward 3-6 steps. Return and repeat. Do 3-5 sets for each side. This replicates moving through the “T”, forward, backward and laterally.
Plyometric Line Jumps: With both feet together jump forward and across a line as fast as possible, vary this by jumping feet together laterally across a line and back again. Stick the landing and jump back as quickly as possible.
This next set of exercises will utilize medicine ball in order to build squash-specific power moves. They should be performed explosively using single throws with a one-minute rest between throws. They can be performed against a wall or with a partner. Exercise caution when throwing between partners and do not attempt to catch the medicine ball as it will be traveling at velocity and it’s easy to sprain a finger.
Medicine Ball Overhead Throw: With knees bent, throw a light medicine ball overhead as far as possible and make sure you start the movement from your legs. Imagine your body like a whip with the final throwing motion as the crack of the whip as you propel the ball forward from the overhead position.
Medicine Ball Side Throw: Throw a light medicine ball as far as possible using the same technique as above but this time you’ll be throwing the ball to the side, driving the throwing motion from your legs through your core and extending your arms. Make sure to exhale strongly with each effort.
We’ve laid out a comprehensive, sport-specific training plan in three phases. This plan should help you prepare your body for the rigors of squash by helping you stay injury free and developing the muscle groups and aerobic capacity necessary to excel on the court. As with any training program you’ll need to incorporate a diet plan that gives you the energy required for exercise and recovery. And speaking of recovery, we can’t overstate the need to get sufficient rest- at least 8 hours a night. If that’s not possible try to sneak in a power nap-especially on training days. Even 15 minutes helps.
Keep in touch and let us know how you do with this plan in the comments below or give us ideas on some training methods you’ve tried or suggestions for tweaking the plan we’ve laid out today. Good luck and see you on the court!