Five Fitness Exercises to Improve Your Pickleball Game

By: Jack Foster, Niupipo Athlete

As professional pickleball continues to evolve, new talent continuously flows into the sport thins the skill gap between athletes. New pickleball players joining the professional tour over the past 12-18 months have created depth, exciting rivalries, and an increase in competitiveness among pro tournament brackets. Almost everyone who enters a professional bracket now belongs there; there are very few “free” wins in the early rounds of tournaments anymore. With talent margins becoming razor thin, what can separate professional players from each other and give them an extra advantage? In my opinion, it’s fitness.

The way tournaments are currently structured requires three to four consecutive demanding days that are extremely gruelling on an athlete’s body. Fitness allows a professional to maximize their abilities and compete at a high level despite fatigue. Many of the top professionals have put an increased effort into their fitness regimen, including hiring a coach to help guide them in maximizing their abilities. Personally, I’ve made it a goal to increase my fitness level over the past year and feel it has aided me in keeping up with the new wave of players entering the sport. Here are five of my favorite exercises that I use in my daily fitness routine: 

Cardio: Intermittent sprinting

Pickleball is a sport full of stop-and-go action, with frequent back-and-forth (think of retrieving lobs and the return of serve) and side-to-side (think of volleying at the kitchen line or baselining in singles) movement. Pickleball athletes must be able to accelerate at any given time, and one thing that I’ve implemented is intermittent sprinting. 

Start out at a base speed, either at a walking or jogging speed that you can hold for several minutes at a time. Then, accelerate into a sprint and hold that sprinting speed for a set time or distance. Once complete, return to your base speed and repeat. The beautiful thing about intermittent sprinting is that there are so many ways to improve, either by increasing your sprinting speed/distance, shortening your recovery time in between, adding additional sprints, or jogging in between sprints versus walking, 

Strength Training: Single-Leg Deadlifts

Balance is essential in pickleball. Think of how many times you’ve had to quickly shuffle to a wide dink or had to sprint backward or forward to a ball out of reach. While it’s important to get to every ball possible, what’s even more crucial is maintaining your balance after this to stay in a point and allow yourself a chance on the next shot. 

Single-leg deadlifts allow us to develop our glute and hamstring muscles while also improving balance and stability. I recommend starting with little to no weight until you’ve mastered the movement and are able to complete 8-12 reps while maintaining your balance, then slowly building up with weight in one hand. 

Footwork: Ladder drills, jump roping

To improve agility, I highly advise purchasing an agility ladder and jump rope. Not only are these some of the cheapest and most accessible fitness tools available, but they are extremely effective for improving footwork and for being a great warm up tool prior to a match. Some agility ladder exercises include 1-in, single leg hop, 2-in, side shuffle, etc. For jump roping, I recommend beginning with a basic hop and increasing your time or distance as you become more comfortable.

Strength Training: Core work

A strong core works in harmony, creating balance and stability. Additionally, it strengthens hip, abdominal, and back muscles, improving flexibility. In pickleball, we often find ourselves learning out and down at the kitchen line, hoping to jump out and attack any high ball coming our way. Leaning out and down puts stress on our core muscles, and frequent movement across the kitchen line requires balance and flexibility to adjust to a fast ball headed our way. Core work improves all of these things, and it can only take 5-15 minutes out of your day on a consistent basis to begin to see improvements. Some of the top core exercises I recommend are planks/side planks, bicycle crunches, Russian twists with a dumbbell, mountain climbers, and sit-ups.

Cardio: Endurance runs

Anyone who competes on a regular basis knows that of the most brutal parts of a tournament weekend is the length of each day, then getting up the following morning to do it all over again. Especially with qualifying taking place in the sport now, it’s essential to be able to last over the course of several gruelling tournament days. Singles is usually where this comes in, I can’t count the number of times where I have beaten a much more talented player because I was able to endure the conditions of a long day. 

Endurance runs have aided my stamina tremendously and allowed me to enter a mindset that allows me to get through anything without overthinking it. I recommend starting slow, I began with 1-2 mile runs a couple of times per week, and worked my way up to the present, now running almost 25 miles per week. I highly advise you to set a baseline pace and hold yourself to it throughout the run, part of endurance runs is developing consistency/discipline and holding yourself accountable to a pace you know your body is capable of.

As the sport becomes more competitive, athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to gain any physical advantage that will assist them on the court. A dedicated cardio and strength training schedule allows you to make gains that will transfer over to improvements on the court. I’d love to hear what exercises you’re incorporating into your fitness plan to help improve your pickleball game. Be sure to check out the rest of the Niupipo blog for more pickleball tips and insight. 

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