There are two kinds of “forehand power.”
The first is effortless power.
Effortless power is the power we gain simply by using proper biomechanics. It’s gained while barely sacrificing any consistency or fault tolerance, and utilizing it only slightly raises the shot’s degree of difficulty. All players should strive to practice the mechanics that yield effortless power.
The second is effortful power.
Effortful power is volitional – you’ve decided you’re in a situation where hitting really, really hard is appropriate, and so you’re going to try to hit really, really hard. The most obvious example of an appropriate situation for effortful power is a short, high, floating forehand. I want to be clear that effortful power is a personal choice; even on a floater, not every player elects to crush it.
Some players hardly ever choose to hit really, really hard and play almost every shot with lots of margin and spin, while other players (Nick Kyrgios and Jack Sock, for example) treat almost every high, slow, forehand as if it should break the sound barrier.
Almost every item on this list creates effortless power when applied, but can also be further focused on or exaggerated, to create additional effortful power. The decision as to whether or not to execute said exaggeration falls to you.
Before We Start…
Everything that follows is subordinate to a proper contact point. As you implement the tips below, it’s very easy to start messing up where you’re contacting the ball, relative to your body. In order for the modern swing to work as intended, the ball must be contacted away from the body – both laterally away from the body and out in front of it. That’s the only contact point that allows the racket to naturally flick through the ball and strike it in a topspin way.
If, in the course of implementing these checklist items, you start hitting the ball late, or start catching it too close to you, then any power gained from the implementing the change will be offset by the less efficient motion.
Also, you’ll notice that nothing we talk about here has anything to do with the arm itself. Power does not come from swinging harder with the arm; only tension, misses, and injury do. You can use your abs or your chest, you can drive forward with your legs, you can rotate your hips – there are many efficient ways to generate power, but pulling or twisting harder with your arm isn’t one of them.
Strong muscles create power, the arm muscles themselves merely stabilize and control.
1. Drive off of the back leg
This is a proprioceptive cue – to increase power, you should actually think about driving hard off your back leg and feel the hitting-leg butt muscle contracting. This drive will both push your whole body forward and cause your hips to rotate back towards the target. Both of those consequences – the hip rotation and the forward momentum – are essential for effortless power.
Here’s an experiment you can do to teach yourself the movement:
- Set your feet in a semi-open stance.
- Turn to your upper body to your forehand side.
- Shift your weight onto your back leg, bending it.
- Forcibly straigthen your back leg.
This contraction will both straighten out your hips, and if you drive hard enough, send your whole body forward. It is the primary muscle contraction that starts the rotational kinetic chain.
The degree to which you drive of your back leg will vary from situation to situation. On a particularly easy ball, you can elect to inject effortful power, by actively focusing on maximizing the strength of that hitting leg contraction: loading it lower, and exploding off of it as hard as you can.
Ideally, we’d like to do this on every ball, but we won’t always have the necessary time, or be in the correct position to. That said, unless you’re hitting on the dead run, still initiate the swing with your back leg, even if it isn’t as foreful as it would be if you’d had longer to prepare. Doing so will always add effortless power.
Force production necessitates tension; driving really really hard off the back leg, requires a really really tight contraction of the muscles in that leg – specifically the quad, glute, and hamstring, and calf.
The strange part about tennis, though, is that while some of our body parts forcefully contract to generate force, other body parts need to stay completely relaxed to transfer that force into the racket.
The wrist and the hand are two of the body parts that stay relaxed. The more relaxed they are, the faster the racket goes. Hold the racket just tight enough to prevent it from flying out of your hand, and use just enough wrist tension to maintain the string angle through contact.
2.5 The Arm, The Chest, and Relaxation
The arm itself functions as a rope to transfer the force generated by your core into the racket. Three common volitional force applications that will impede the swing are:
- Trying to twist the racket harder with your forearm (Trying to point your butt cap at the net?)
- Volitionally supinating the arm
- Volitionally pronating through the shot
These things will happen, but they will happen as a natural consequence of the way the arm was thrown into the shot. If they don’t, there’s an upstream kinetic chain issue – it will very rarely be fixed by focusing on the arm itself.
Though the hand and wrist stay loose during the swing, other parts of the arm will contract for stability. The biceps, for example, tighten up to prevent the elbow from hyper-extending, which is good.
The chest contracts to force the arm out in front of the body. It’s important we do not allow arm lag, the way we allow (and encourage) wrist lag. As the body explodes around, the chest muscle forces the arm out away from the trunk. We don’t let the arm lag back, stretching the chest.
You might wonder, why not? Wouldn’t we benefit from a stretch reflex of the pectoral muscles? Yes… kind of. In the end, tennis is still primarily a sport of control, not power. It’s amazing just how much power the modern swing lets us generate while still maintaining control, but control is always our first goal. Using a stretch reflex at the chest is, generally, not worth it.
Occasionally, on the dead run, with no ability to recruit the legs or hips for power, if you want to go for it, go ahead. Guys like Medvedev and Lopez will sometimes do this, and rip 100 mph forehands from seemingly impossible positions. But only try this on defense. In a neutral or offensive situation, force your arm to travel around with your chest, and your contact will be far more consistent.
3. Breath in, then exhale through contact
Always breathe in, relax, and then exhale as you swing.
If possible, breath in through the nose, rather than the mouth. Nasal breathing oxygenates the body better than mouth breathing – you actually get more oxygen per ounce of air inhaled through the nose, than you do through the mouth.
Of course, if your nose is congested, or if you’re so out of breath that the nasal pathway simply isn’t wide enough to get enough air, just inhale through the mouth and don’t worry about it. That said, during practice, and during any regularly strenuous rally, begin forming the habit of nasal breathing, and your conditioning will thank you.
As you swing, exhale.
The forceful contraction necessary to accelerate the racket happens at the beginning of the swing. Exhaling through this contraction is good. First, it functions as a rhythm cue, helping you execute your stroke the same way every time. Second, forceful exhalation or grunting will increase your force production, functioning similarly, but not identically, to the Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath through a contraction).
As the racket comes through the hitting zone, you should be nearing the end of your exhalation. The forceful contractions necessary to generate force are now mostly complete, and of critical importance now is to avoid impeding your relaxed racket whip through contact with tension.
4. Turn your shoulders
Let’s start with the effortless power version of the shoulder turn. A large amount of forehand power is generated when the player rotates their chest/shoulders forward towards the target as they swing.
This requires that their chest be turned away from the target during preparation, such that it can rotate back towards the target during the forward swing.
Ideally, you always want to turn your shoulders farther than you turn your hips. This creates something called “hip shoulder angle separation,” and this separation encourages the hips to unlock first, and then the chest/shoulders to follow, creating a rotational whip through contact.
The angle separation isn’t necessary for effortless power, though. As long as the hips unlock first, even if the shoulders and hips turn away by the same amount, the rotational kinetic chain will still accelerate the racket as expected.
4.5. Turn your shoulders a lot
All players initiate the swing with their hips, whipping them around before the shoulders, but not all decide to implement this by drastically turning their shoulders farther than their hips to begin with. Each player has a different preference for their personal balance between power and control. Every player needs to experiment with their own preparation.
That said, a huge shoulder turn is very helpful in generating power – it’s just hard to control. Next time you have a high, slow, short forehand, try turning your shoulders away more than usual. Just your shoulders, not your hips. You should feel the muscles in your core pre-stretch as you do this.
It might take some practice to get the timing down, but unlock all that loaded power correctly, and you’ll absolutely crush the ball. Just remember to relax, extend through contact, and watch the ball all the way in, otherwise you’re more likely to hit the back fence than a winner.
5. Pull your non-hitting elbow away
Both hip rotation and chest rotation create power. The easiest way to ensure your chest whips around towards the target is to consciously yank your non-hitting arm away from your body, thereby initiating that chest rotation.
Forget this part, and you may under-rotate, leaving significant power on the table.
6. Don’t over-rotate the hips
Optimal power is achieved when 100% of the force generated by hip rotation is transferred into the racket. This is really hard to do (although doing it with less than perfect efficiency will still result in blistering forehands).
Attempt to have your hip rotation stop right as they’re pointed at the target, or slightly past it. Rotational power is great, but a rotational whip is better. A whip isn’t just thrown hard at the target, it’s momentum is violently halted mid-flight in order to transfer all of its kinetic energy into its tip.
Your rotational whip doesn’t have to be perfect – many tour players often hit winners with their hips over-rotated a bit – but for that maximum biomechanical power, stop the rotation at precisely the correct time, and all of the trunk’s rotational energy will transform into racket head speed through the ball.
There are many players on the tour who routinely hit winners by throwing their hips through contact, and follow-through by bringing their back foot around. This is fine – if it suits your game, do it. However, if you want to slap 124mph forehands like Andy Murray, you’ll have to over-rotate less.
7. Are you still relaxed?
As you start focusing on other things, you’ll forget to relax. First you’re holding the racket too tightly. Next you’re forgetting to exhale through contact. Now you’re over-rotating your hips, now you’re under-rotating your hips.
Relaxation is the key that unlocks power, topspin, and consistency in the forehand. No matter what else you’re thinking about, no matter what technical improvement you’re currently working on, breathe in, relax, then exhale as you swing.