Would you believe me if I told you the shot Aryna Sabalenka is executing above can actually be practiced without a tennis court?
Well, it can. There exists one, singular habit you can adopt that will completely transform your stroke production: The weighted shadow swing.
The weighted shadow swing has three main advantages:
- It can be done without a court.
- It can be done alone.
- It provides amplified proprioceptive feedback.
Advantages #1 and #2 make this habit accessible. You can improve at tennis without access to a court, and without access to a hitting partner. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. A massive hurdle for most tennis players, especially non-professionals trying to work the sport into an already busy life, is the logistical difficulty of playing multiple times per week. It’s impossible to significantly improve at an athletic skill without repetition, and with tennis, live-ball, on-court repetitions can be difficult to get (especially during winter).
The primary purpose of today’s article is to discuss the proprioceptive advantages of weighting your shadow swings.
Proprioception is your sense of how your limbs are oriented in space. Unlike other human senses, proprioception is not a shared experience. Take vision as an example: you and your coach can both watch a video of your play, and both of you will see the same thing. You can both listen to the way the ball contacts your strings, and you will hear the same thing. Your coach, though, can never feel what the motion felt like when you performed it. That feeling, your proprioceptive experience of executing the movement, that feeling is yours alone.
By weighting your swing, you drastically increase the potency and vividness of this proprioceptive experience. When you swing something heavy, every part of the body that participates in that swing undergoes more stress than when you swing something light. This increased stress allows you feel that participation to a greater degree.
Learning Force Production
Your brain is smart, and one of the things your smart brain is an expert at is coordinating your body. You, as a human being, intuitively know how to swing something heavy. Even if it doesn’t feel natural right away, as you swing, you’ll slowly start to figure it out. Our tennis rackets are light, but we want to swing them as if they were heavy, so that they go really, really fast.
During a weighted shadow swing, you swing something heavy in a tennis like pattern – for example, you might swing a 1kg metal plate like you would a forehand. The swing object is heavy, so producing the swing requires significant force. The process teaches you to feel the movement that produces that force. If you do it wrong, the weight will feel awkward in your hand, and it won’t really go anywhere, and you’ll know to experiment with other movements until you find one that actually gets the weight moving.
Ensuring Your Practice Translates
On the forehand, watch out for the purely, underhand, pendulum swing. This might feel okay on the weight, but if you swing the weight underhand, it won’t translate at all to your tennis stroke. We aren’t training to hit forehands underhand – the forehand is a sidearm stroke. Keep your elbow away from your body like you would on your actual forehand. This doesn’t mean you can’t recruit gravity on your swing – you can – but ensure that swing takes place away from the body, so your trunk rotation can contribute to acceleration.
On the backhand, ensure the weight is moving fastest, during the strike, towards your imagined target. We aren’t pulling the weight across our body, we are driving the weight through the hitting zone. Many of my students pull across their body, instead of driving out into the court. If you’re having trouble, watch yourself in the mirror. Watch the weight. Is it moving quickly back-to-front, or only side-to-side?
Maximizing Practice Efficacy
Move your conscious focus around your body during your sessions. Take a few swings where you focus on how your hips, a few where you focus on your abs, a few where you focus on your pectorals, etc. The weighted shadow swing is the time to explore your proprioceptive experience of each and every piece of your kinetic chain.
I should stress that this is not appropriate on the court, not even in practice. When there’s a ball in front of you, you need to focus on the ball. See it in the air, see it bounce, see it before you hit it. You do NOT want to build a habit of focusing on non-ball things while on court, as this will severely worsen your play. That’s why the shadow swing is such an amazing tool. It gives us a place to feel and explore our swing mechanics without laying down poor visual habits on the court.
To this effect, towards the end of your shadow swing sets, stop focusing on your body and start practicing coordinating the motion with your eyes. Look at a spot in front of you – pretending the ball is there – and swing the weight through that spot. Stroke production is about generating force, in a direction, through a point in space. While we’re on the weight, we’re clearly training directional force production, but for the practice to be truly effective, we also have to train sending that directional force through a point we’re looking at.
How Much Weight?
The amount of weight you choose to swing depends on your goals. For most, I recommend between 1-3 lbs, or .5-1.5 kg. Swing heavy enough that you can feel the resistance as you swing, but not so heavy that the swing is exceptionally difficult.
If you go too heavy, your brain will begin eliminating pieces of the kinetic chain that are too weak to support it. For example, during the forehand, your forearm should supinate as you throw it forward and then pronate through contact. If you use a weight that’s too heavy, this won’t happen. In order to protect your forearm, your brain will tense it up, not allowing it to rotate at all.
This is totally safe, but it won’t allow you to practice the later links in your kinetic chain while shadow swinging. If your goal were only to practice the early links – leading with the left arm, hip drive, ab rotation, for example – then going extra heavy would be effective. If, however, you want the motion to feel very similar to swinging your actual racket, your arm has to be allowed to move the way it does during a racket swing.
We want a light level of fatigue as we swing. If you’re swinging at 50% intensity, you should be able to go almost indefinitely, but at 70% intensity or higher, you should slowly start to fatigue during your practice. This level of resistance – slight fatigue, but not heavy strain – will maximize your ability to feel the motion and train your proprioceptive system, while minimizing the chance of injury.
Safety (DO NOT SKIP)
Weight itself is not injurious, but weight makes an injurious motion more injurious. Always start slow when you’re shadow swinging – 20% intensity, 30% max. Get a feeling for the motion before you inject any real force into it.
If something is a little off, you won’t hurt yourself at 20%. Start higher, even at 50%, and you might. Your first swings will rarely be perfect (or even good). While perfect swings will never injure you, imperfect swings often will. As the swing quality goes up, and as you begin to feel your kinetic chain syncing itself together, you can increase your level of effort. Make sure your hitting arm feels perfect before you dial up the intensity. If anything in the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, biceps/triceps, shoulder area hurts during your slow swings, don’t increase the intensity until you fix it.
Here are a few other things to watch out for:
1. Knee Torsion
Don’t firmly plant your feet during weighted shadow swings. Always allow them to come off the ground whenever they want to. Our knee can handle a lot more twisting when we have a light racket in our hand than when we have a heavy weight. Make sure your feet are coming off the ground when necessary, so that your knee isn’t trying to decelerate your twist by itself.
2. Allow Rotation
Your weighted shadow swing follow-through will not look like your racket follow-through, because the physics of deceleration are different with something heavier. This is fine. Allow yourself to rotate as much as your body wants to. You might feel like “this would definitely constitute over-rotating on my actual forehand,” and you’re right, but that’s not actually an issue. Your body is merely decelerating the heavy weight you’ve just accelerated. Because it’s so heavy, it takes more space to decelerate. It won’t be an issue when you get back to the racket.
3. Foot Striking / Landing
The increased forces applied during the weighted shadow swing lead to more punishing landings. If you aren’t landing well, you can tweak your feet/ankles while shadow swinging. Again, start slow. The first few times you swing off the ground, don’t swing far off the ground. Work up to the full, flying off the ground swing where your legs kick up.
I prefer to shadow swing barefoot, so that I can really feel the ground and work on absorbing that force as I land. Whether you swing barefoot or in your tennis shoes, be cognizant of the fact that landing is a part of the motion. Just like you should allow yourself to “over rotate” on the follow-through, allow yourself to use multiple steps to land. Allow your feet to bounce off the ground until all the force has been dissipated, never fighting your body’s natural attempts to slow you down.
4. Hand / Blistering
Be aware of the skin that’s in contact with the weight you’re swinging. Because we’re increasing the forces involved in the swing, we’re increasing the stress on that skin. If you feel the skin starting to blister, stop for the day. It’s much better to let it recover, then train again tomorrow, than it is to get all the way to a blister, and then have to take a few days off while it heals.
Eventually, your skin will adapt to your routine, like it adapts to everything else, though if you ever change your routine or equipment, you may experience some form of blistering again.
5. HOLD the Weight
Speaking of contact with the weight – ensure you have at least three fingers and a thumb fully around the weight at all times. Swinging something heavy can be dangerous – if not for you, for other people and things in the room.
Again, start slow. If you somehow, absentmindedly, weren’t holding the weight properly, and you let go, you’re going to do a lot less damage with a slow swing than you would have with a fast one. Again, thumb and fingers around the weight at all times. The weight gains significant inertia when you swing it. You need to be holding it for this to be safe.
This really isn’t difficult to do, but I have to mention it because you could easily break something by accidentally throwing a 1kg weight in a random direction inside your house.
Your Shadow Swing Routine
A shadow swing routine is a self-driven exploration of your stroke. Your routine should be personalized to the things you find lacking in your game. Maybe it’s the low forehand. Maybe it’s the cross-court backhand. Maybe it’s the approach shot. Whatever movement pattern you want to improve, shadow it with weight, and it will improve.
You can even practice specific situations with the weight. If you want to be able to strike the on the run, backhand, down-the-line pass like Aryna Sabalenka, then mimic that movement while shadow swinging: move out to your backhand side while looking at a point in space, and see if you can get the weight flying through that point with velocity. You will be amazed at how much better you can get at a specific shot with even one week of dedicated shadow swing practice working on it.
Here’s a typical routine I give my students who are starting out. It’s a routine which practices the basics of generating force, in a direction, through a point in space, in the most common situations you find in singles tennis. Start here if you’re new to shadow swinging, and then adjust it as you see fit, adding or removing strokes based on how your individual game is progressing.