Thursday, September 4, 2014

Legs or Lungs?

Today I'm going to ask you a simple question..when you play a tough match what gets exhausted first your legs or your lungs? Or perhaps they both do. Today I'm going to talk about how to improve your lung capacity and your leg strength endurance.

Leg Strength Endurance: If you answered that your legs tire out first in a squash match, well you're not alone. This is common for those younger, taller, and that don't have a number of years as a training base. I should also warn some of the taller people that if they fail to bend at their hips and knees their legs may be be getting tired as they are bending with their back. But just like lifting heavy objects, you don't bend with at your back to hit a squash ball unless you are already full stretched out. I like to think about hitting the ball around the height of my waist and if the ball doesn't bounce that high, well I have to get my waist to the height of the ball to hit it. This means lowering my hips and bending my knees. When hitting the ball low, many people just drop the racquet head, but this means you have to hit up on the ball so I tell my students to keep their hand and their grip the same height as the ball (obviously this does not apply for specific shots like a lob or a volley).

Leg strength is something that we need to build up gradually. This is what is amazing about how Greg Gaultier moves and covers the court. He has such powerful lunges for a smaller player and it has taken him a career to build up this strength endurance in his legs to be able to sustain this for an entire match and tournament. I remember watching some of the top players live and you could see how strong their legs are.

For squash playing teenagers I don't recommend using any weights to do this. Potentially when you've stopped growing and you're in your late teens you can get into this. You also need to be careful about how frequently you do leg strength exercises during the season as it takes a while for your legs to recover from this. I am always weary of kids that only play squash because it's basically a unilateral sport. Most people rarely use their left leg to lung on. After a number of years of playing squash you will have a big discrepancy from your left and right side of your body. On top of just improving your leg strength I feel it is important to keep your body balanced and spend time doing this. As you're left leg strength improves you may even start to feel comfortable hitting balls off of it.

Now I'm going to discuss some exercises that are aimed at increasing your leg strength. Doing some walking lunging, forewords and backwards is a simple way to slowly build up your leg strength endurance. You don't need to do very many either. You can also do some small jumps up onto a box or step. I also like doing burpees, running stairs or hills, and touching the floor (bending at the knees) and jumping reaching for the sky. You can also do squats, but here the proper technique is essential, so if you are unsure speak to a certified personal trainer to learn how to do this. Other exercises that build up your quads and hamstrings include running, cycling/spinning, yoga, and playing a number of team sports. When you're a teenager you don't need to necessarily do training to build up your leg strength. Just play a second or third sport and maybe do a few simple exercises in gym class or at squash practice.

Lung Capacity: Okay, so you answered that your lungs get exhausted before your legs. What can you do? Just playing more will help. Just like strength, it takes time to increase your stamina. I recommend doing some cross training to improve this aspect of your game. You can do some of the same exercises I listed above that will increase your leg strength and they can also improve your aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Spin classes, jogging, running hills or stairs are all effective ways to improve both your leg strength and your cardio. Designing a programme that works for you and your schedule is the important part. I always find the hardest part is learning to schedule in time for rest. Your legs may not feel too tired, but sometimes they take time to recover from activities you are not used to doing. Especially when you use your legs in every exercise.

Over the years I've done a lot of different types of training and I can't say one was more effective than the others. I do like to think about the specificity of training for sport. This includes what heart rate I'm training at, what my work to rest ratio is and the duration of my training. But I also consider the fact that our bodies adapt to training quite quickly and I also like the element of surprise in a new workout routine. For these reasons I think it's best to mix up how you train and use a variety of methods. Psychologically this also keeps things fresh. Squash involves so many fitness aspects that it's hard to pick a single method of cross training training that will be enough.

I think early in the year it is also important to measure your fitness. This could be a simple hot long does it take you to run 5km? Or what level do you get on the beep test? I have some squash specific tests I like to use. And I feel it's important to slowly build up each week by adding a few extras seconds or minutes, laps or reps to your training. This way your routine is equally challenging but you also know that you're getting fitter because you're doing more week by week. You don't need to do this indefinitely or you'd exhaust yourself. Just for the first 6-8 weeks to get you back feel strong and fit. By then you shouldn't be getting nearly as exhausted in matches.

I also like to consider the time of the season when I'm working on my fitness. Early in the year most people are probably (and shouldn't be) in peak tournament season form. Over the summer you should have worked on your base training, for example your aerobic fitness and strength endurance training. The season coming up is over 6 months long, so you don't need to start doing wind sprints right off the bat. Early in the season I like to focus on court movement and footwork as it not only improves how people move but will also increase their aerobic fitness at the same time. I like to think of it as training 2 areas at once. Why just sprint the court when you can do squash specific movement patterns? Sure, maybe later in the season leading up to a big tournament you can throw in some speed and anaerobic training to try and increase your lactic threshold. So leading up to your big tournament you can plan 5 or 6 weeks ahead and add in some additional wind sprints.

Well that's about it for today. I hope you enjoyed my thoughts about getting your legs and lungs in shape for squash. There are lots of ways to do it and it doesn't have to be just hard or boring training to do so. Tonight is our first practice at the school. So if any of the kids I'll be coaching read this, they'll know what they are in for at practice!


  1. I lost you at "[Gaultier] has such powerful lunges for a smaller player..."

    This is backwards. The purpose of a strong lunge in squash is to get to the ball quickly and in balance, and to recover in good time to the middle (if a good lob is played off the lunge the recovery can be leisurely). We're not pushing any weight around except our own.

    A hard squash lunge is in all cases easier for the smaller player. (It had better be, to compensate for the reach disadvantage. This is why Gaultier and Shabana et al. can still be world number ones, but tennis elite must be tall- a squash match requires dozens of hard lunges whereas in tennis one can run through almost all shots with impunity.)
    Strenth held equivalent, the lighter build will give a better strenth-to-weight ratio for the lunge. Also, shorter players generally have a lower center of gravity which makes it easier to get down for shots played an inch or two off the floor-- i.e. most of the ones that require hard lunges. For one thing, the thigh has less distance to cover to get down parallel to the knee, so again all else equal it is a quicker move down and up than for a taller person.
    A better sentence woud read: "Mo. El Shorbagy has such powerful lunges for a larger player"...

    1. Mo has much larger lunges for such a powerful player

  2. [cont.]My first thought when playing a tall player is to attack the front more and keep crosscourts low. I want to test his lunge and take something out of his legs.

    Of course Greg needs and has developed tremendous leg strength and muscular endurance: all else equal... the steps, strides or lunges of the shorter squash player- to cover equal distance at equal speed- must be either quicker, or longer in relation to his height. This requires strength-to-weight... Greater leg strength also aids balance and supplies more torque for the swing. Perhaps most importantly, it protects the joints, which take a beating from squash movements.

    So many coaches and players tout "explosive" movements off the T. Power is power and squash demands quickness and agility- in addition to "lungs". Massive thighs are impressive; leaping splits are amazing. But the harder a body accelerates to the ball, the more work is required for it to decelerate and recover to the T.
    You might say that Jansher's approach- in fact his genius- was to play the game so as NEVER to have to explode off the T! Though he is still generally labelled the best "mover" ever, what many find most remarkable was his habit of walking to the ball and sauntering around the court.

    Jansher could retrieve anything and destroy the best "attacking" players of his day by attrition. But I would never call his lunges "powerful"; I would say "absurdly effortless". Because he was so lithe and his footwork so efficient, his lunges were smooth and measured, allowing him to conserve his leg strength for the end game.

    The game has changed- pro rallies contain the same average number of shots but are much shorter in duration- meaning more sprinting less sauntering. But Abdel Gawad and Farag have drawn comparisons to Jansher with their relaxed, languid movement.

    As for Greg, I realize this article is from 2014, but he has continued to have an incredible run of success into his mid-30's. There is no way he can cover the court faster and lunge harder and more often over the course of a tournament now than he could in his 20's. That is just not possible.

    What he can do (and has done) is: train to cover the court more efficiently (conserve power rather than build more capacity); read the game better and hit with greater accuracy and variety (reducing the number of hard lunges required to win); relax and enjoy the game (conserving psychic energy); still train really, really hard but smart to conserve as much strength and endurance as possible and avoid injury.

    It's true that teenagers don't seem to win any majors any more in squash or tennis, but 35 year olds now can! It's also true that developing peak strength and endurance takes years of training. But it's still true that biological capacity begins an inexorable decline around age 30 and any athletic performance gains after that devolve entirely from technique or experience.

    In my recollection it was never fitness that 'held Gaultier back' in his 20's -he managed plenty of great victories from the outset of his long career. It can't be denied that his recent wins have highlighted a greater maturity in handling the pressure of competition. Of course there is only one winner of a tournament and most of Greg's losses have been to experienced legends...

    Perhaps the best advice is still to do your hardest sprint and lunge training from around age 17-26 (while you can...) Your legs will be your only edge against the crafty, battle-hardened 35 year-old, and you need to get those matches in to become crafty and battle-hardened.

    1. Mo has much less lunges to power ratio than a normal short player

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