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Planning Squash Fitness

There is an old saying in squash – “get fit to play squash, don’t play squash to get fit”. Squash is considered one of the best sports in terms of health benefits and the amount of calories used per session. This is mainly due to its repeated high-intensity nature as well as its demanding movement patterns, which require a huge amount of mobility, muscular strength, power and endurance.

Considering the demands of squash there are a number of physical attributes that need to be trained to improve squash performance (don’t forget that racquet skills are probably the number one determinant of performance, but all things being equal, fitness will help a lot).

These attributes include;

  • Mobility and Flexibility: the ease with which one moves their body through a range of motion, and specific to squash, how easily someone lunges around the court.
  • Strength: the amount of force the body can exert in specific movements. Strength helps to underpin speed and mobility.
  • Speed and agility: the ability to move fast in a variety of movements. To some extent determined by your genetics, but can be improved through training and practice.
  • Anaerobic endurance: is the physical attribute that delivers high-intensity bursts of work during a squash match.
  • Aerobic endurance: the attribute generally associated with fitness. On a squash court a high level of aerobic fitness is there to enhance recovery between high-intensity bursts of work to allow them to be repeated again.

Many physical attributes help squash performance so how can you train all these and have any time left during the day or week? The answer is sensible exercise prescription around each attribute, where different aspects of fitness can be combined into one workout to maximise time and impact. Each of these physical attributes has a required level of training stimulus to elicit improvements.

Improvement in Mobility and Flexibility requires frequent practice as the body needs to be stressed at the limits of its range of motion in a variety of ways to produce a positive change. Training for mobility and flexibility can be incorporated into warmups using various movement patterns that challenge the range of motion that squash requires, for example very deep, long lunges. Circuit based type mobility work is highly effective. It not only offers a stimulus to improve range of motion but can also stimulate an improvement in aerobic fitness. General static stretching should also be performed after training sessions to relax muscles but also to restore pre-session range of motion and help improve flexibility.

Speed and Agility work requires high-quality efforts done with maximum intensity and long rest in between. Speed and agility training is usually done at the start of a workout after a good warmup, to ensure the quality of the work is high and not performed in a fatigued state. It can be done using a number of methods but is best performed in a squash-specific task, for example ghosting.

Strength work or resistance training is important to ensure ease of movement into and out of the sometimes-extreme positions that a squash player can find themselves. It also enhances speed of movement as being stronger for your bodyweight equates to a higher relative strength, making it easier to move faster. A variety of strength exercises are available in order to impact on this attribute. A squash athlete’s strength training should include both general strength exercises (squats, deadlifts) and squash-specific strength exercises (lunges).

Anaerobic fitness – development of this fitness attribute will enhance the ability to perform high-intensity efforts during a squash match. It is also very important to be able to repeat these high-intensity efforts and learn how to deal with the dreaded lactic acid that slows down many a sportsperson when it accumulates in the working muscles. To train the anaerobic system, intensity needs to be very high for short (20-60 seconds) bursts with enough rest between these efforts (2-5 minutes) to allow intensity to be maintained. This quality is generally best developed in a non squash-specific exercise. For example running, cycling and rowing.

Aerobic fitness – developing a powerful and efficient aerobic system has been at the heart of sports training programmes for years. All other factors being equal, a fitter athlete will always stand a better chance of winning. To develop the aerobic system, training sessions need to be of a long enough duration and of a relatively continuous nature. There is a need to develop both a powerful aerobic system (how hard you can work for 2-4 minutes) but also one that can deliver a sustainable effort (being able to work solidly for 45-90 minutes). Within the training performed on court to develop the skills required for successful squash performance a lot of aerobic adaptations can be seen. The key is to balance this with high-intensity aerobic training that develops aerobic power and is the key to recovering quickly between very hard points during a squash match.

Clearly Squash presents a demanding multi-faceted fitness challenge and training for all these physical attributes as well as performing the court work needed to improve racquet skills can be a daunting task. It is possible to combine multiple sessions to ensure it’s not necessary to do 12 training sessions a week, trying to develop all these attributes separately. The off-season offers a fantastic opportunity to improve fitness without the pressure of having to be ready for competition where physical attributes cannot really be improved due to the need to rest and be fresh for matches.

To optimise fitness development for squash during the off-season it’s important to have a plan in place that emphasises what needs to be done to improve performance. With vast experience in physically preparing the world’s best squash players, both at the top of the game and as they develop from a young age, Moving Strong can develop off-season training plans that will transform fitness levels. Get in touch today and help push your squash to the next level.

High-intensity training – what is it good for?

High-Intensity training is all the rage and has been marketed strongly to the general population as a way to make rapid changes in body composition and fitness. From CrossFit’s workout of the day to P90X and Insanity training to Tabata training, working yourself into the ground with insanely hard workouts is often recommended as the best way to make significant changes in fitness and body composition. I certainly agree with the efficacy of these training methods in relation to the intended outcome, but for the general population this sort of physical training does not really promote the true outcome needed from exercise, which is a lifelong approach to staying fit and active.

High-intensity and the elite athlete

I expect with my background of training elite athletes the image created is one of getting sports people performing high-intensity workouts frequently, to help them reach phenomenal fitness levels and enhance their performance in sport. Yes, there are certainly times when you have to push an athlete really hard to help them take their fitness up to another level, but for most of the time an athletes training is kept at a level where they can sustain their motivation over a long period of time, such as a season or in fact an entire career. Too much high-intensity training, whether it is strength, speed or metabolic (fitness) based, will eventually burn an athlete out.

For top athletes there is a clear building process involved in preparing to do any high-intensity training. To get the most out of any block of high-intensity work I have to ensure that my athletes can perform the skills involved really well, so there is a high learning aspect and sensible progression around the building blocks of any high-intensity programme. It’s important that athletes can perform exercises well both when fresh and also when fatigued to avoid the risk of injury. The planning of this work is paramount to it being effective. It is placed in training programmes at the right time and for the right length of time to be most effective in relation to upcoming competitions. For example, it may be a four-week block of two high-intensity fitness sessions a week (along with the rest of their training), eight weeks before a competition. The last four weeks will then focus on sport specific court and physical work with high-intensity training tapering off to allow an athlete to freshen up and challenge these new found fitness levels in their sport specific training. The physical gains from this high-intensity block of work will be maintained through a more moderate training phase.

The level of planning and preparation required to safely and effectively apply these intense fitness techniques into an athletes training plan is extremely thorough and complex. So it seems strange to me that so many people are jumping straight into these very demanding and physically challenging workouts without the physical preparation required to be able to safely perform the workouts, let alone get the much publicised benefits from these training approaches. My recommendation for the majority of people would be to have a balanced approach to their physical activity that focuses more on frequency of activity rather than intensity.

High-intensity training and body composition

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that high-intensity exercise isn’t effective, in fact the science behind this training is sound. One of the main factors that really makes high-intensity training effective is Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). This process describes the calories needed to return the body back to its resting state following a workout. During low-intensity aerobic exercise the majority of calories are burnt during the exercise session, as the intensity is so low that the body can return back to a resting state quickly and doesn’t require a great deal of extra energy to do so. During high-intensity exercise a large proportion of the calories burnt overall are done so after the exercise bout. Exercise of a high-intensity nature disturbs the bodies’ equilibrium so much that there is a huge cost in returning it back to its resting level, which requires a high number of calories to do so. Hence high-intensity exercise has the ability to significantly change body composition in a very short space of time, even more so if it is performed using strength training, as there will be a double hit of metabolic impact; the calories burnt during and after the workout, and the workouts muscle building effects increases the number of calories burnt when the body is resting.

Strength training and body composition

High-intensity training isn’t the only way to improve your body composition. The number one training method that I believe all individuals should engage in is strength training. Maintenance of muscle mass is key in keeping basal metabolic rate high, as muscle tissue is extremely active and will do a lot of the work for you by burning calories just while you are sitting still, compared to less metabolically active tissue like fat (which just sits there being lazy and not burning much energy to survive). Strength training can take many forms – lifting weights, sprinting and bodyweight circuit classes. There are options that everyone can engage with.

High-intensity risk and reward

Despite its effectiveness in producing rapid results in fitness and body composition, the issues for high-intensity exercise lie in the safety of performing it and the motivation it requires. Many hi-intensity exercise routines involve exercises that require high levels of skill, coordination and in many cases exceptional strength and power to complete safely and effectively. This for many people will often result in ineffective training sessions as well as a high potential for injury, which in many cases prevents high-intensity training from being a long-term healthy exercise solution. The motivation levels that are required to push the limits of physical output regularly mean that many people that start down the high-intensity exercise route cannot maintain it and simply fall out with exercise and quit altogether.

What I would recommend for people wanting to stay healthy and active in life is to concentrate on improving flexibility and being able to move with strength, comfortably through various ranges of movement. Engaging in moderately challenging exercise that looks after the body will build a foundation of physical readiness that can let you engage occasionally in some high-intensity exercise should you choose to, but also allows a life-long approach that has you feeling better and can incorporate a fun, fit and flexible approach to exercise.

If you would like to try a gentler approach to getting your body moving and feeling better, come and try a Moving Strong class or look at some of our other programming options to improve your physical condition.