In Novak Djokovic’s book, Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence he conducts an in depth review of his diet (which I cover here) and provides some insights into the Djokovic training routines he uses to supercharge is mental and physical performance.
Djokovic has spent his fair share of time as the number 1 tennis player in the world and may be able to eclipse Roger Federer to become the greatest of all time. He is also the fittest in tennis (sorry Nadal) and many have stated he is the fittest athlete in the world. So how did a guy who in 2010 was literally collapsing on the court to what many attributed to poor conditioning achieve this level of fitness?
The Beginning of the Novak Djokovic Training Program and the Gluten-Free Diet
In Serve to Win, Djokovic recounts many stories about how his body just utterly failed him on the court mid match. He knew his body was “broken”, but he and his trainers missed the root cause and instead attributed it to asthma, allergies or just simply being out of shape.
The truth was that he has gluten and dairy intolerances and that his diet was causing the issues on the court, which were quickly resolved by adopting a new gluten free diet plan developed by his nutritionist Dr. Igor Cetojevic. For my full in-depth review of his diet including foods not to eat (gluten, dairy, processed foods), food to eat (clean meats, vegetables, carbohydrates, sports drinks with recipes), check out: The Novak Djokovic Diet – Gluten Free Tennis Player Nutrition.
Though the misdiagnosis undoubtedly cost Djokovic many championships, including the loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2010 Australian Open which he recounts as the rock bottom of his career, it caused him to approach his fitness with a level of intensity that enabled him to become one of the fittest athletes in the world once his dietary issues were properly addressed.
He adopted a 14 hour per day training schedule, “practiced every morning and every afternoon, lifted weights, biked or ran for hours at a stretch every day”. At one point, he even moved his training camp to Abu Dhabi where temperatures regularly exceed 38° C/100° F with high humidity.
Just like his dietary requirements described in Serve to Win, Novak Djokovic’s training routine isn’t something that is going to make sense for you unless you are playing against him, but he offers some insights into what he does that can make a big difference in your life and your performance on the court. Djokovic’s training routine and diet transformed his game so quickly that in 2011 he achieved his lifelong dreams of winning Wimbledon and becoming the world number 1.
We’ll cover Djokovic’s recommendations on stretching, foam rolling and yoga, how he accelerates his fitness with the use of the “egg pod” and my recommendations for a Minimum Effective Dose workout routine that can be completed in 20 minutes or less.
You were BORN TO MOVE, and even a little bit of exercise will make you happy – I guarantee it. Let’s get you moving!!
The Novak Djokovic Training Routine – Stretching and Achieving Real Flexibility
Every time Djokovic steps out on the court, he does a complete warm-up and stretching routine, even for something like a charity exhibition match. First, he starts with some light running or stationary biking until his body is warm and then moves into a dynamic stretching routine.
“Dynamic” stretching is different from “static” stretching where you stand still and hold a stretch for 30 seconds because it is movement based to replicate real world actions. After starting with 5 minutes of light jogging or stationary biking, Djokovic recommends you do 10-20 reps of the following exercises without resting in between:
- Jumping jacks
- Walking high knees
- Walking high kicks
- Squat thrusts
- Lunge with side bend
- Reverse lunge with backward reach
- Low side-to-side lunge
- Inverted hamstring
What the heck are those??? Djokovic describes each stretch in detail in Serve to Win, but it is always tough to explain body movements. There is an Optimum Tennis post on a dynamic warm up routine that includes video demos for many of these stretches and the foam rolling exercises below or you can just enter the terms into YouTube for these and the yoga poses.
The Novak Djokovic Training Program – Foam Rolling
One of the perks of being number 1 in the world is that you have a team of people following you wherever you go to make sure your body is in optimal shape. One of these people for Djokovic is a masseuse that he utilizes on a daily basis to assist with muscle recovery.
This is one of those things that just isn’t feasible for the rest of us, but utilizing a foam roller over different parts of your body will help loosen the tough connective tissue around your muscles and decrease stiffness to improve overall mobility.
Here is what he recommends doing for 30 seconds each (while pausing for an additional 5-10 seconds on any tender areas:
- Hamstring roll
- Glutes roll
- IT band roll
- Calf roll
- Quadriceps and hip flexors roll
- Lower-back roll
- Upper-back roll
- Shoulder blades roll
The Novak Djokovic Fitness Routine – Yoga for Your Body and Mind
Djokovic recommends doing a couple of the most basic yoga poses to help stay loose and relax either right after a workout, training session and/or before you go to bed at night. The following poses will stretch most of your body and help you unwind. Hold each for thirty seconds and work up to a minute. And remember to breathe
- Rabbit (child’s pose)
- Downward dog
Full explanations for all the poses above from the man himself are included in Serve to Win. You’ll notice that he doesn’t provide any strength training or conditioning exercises in the above routine. If you are short on time and want to incorporate some strength training into your routine, read on, but first, something a little more out there…
The Novak Djokovic Training Regimen – The Fitness “Egg” Pod
How do movie stars stay looking so young? Most have strict diets and exercise routines of some type, but they also spend a TON of money. You can usually pretty closely replicate the nutritional and fitness aspects, but certain things might just be out of your reach. Djokovic’s use of the CVAC fitness pod is one of those things.
One aspect of his training that he doesn’t write about in his book, but that received quite a bit of publicity is his frequent use of the fitness pod to improve his performance and endurance “naturally” and faster by improving his recovery process.
By “naturally” I mean without chemicals, steroids or anything illegal, but let’s be honest, sitting in a $100,000 egg shaped pod isn’t exactly a brisk walk through the woods.
Apparently, Djokovic spent much of his down time during 2011 in this rare egg-shaped pressure chamber about the size of a bobsled (good thing that Novak does not suffer from claustrophobia!).
The pod simulates vigorous exercise and adds oxygen-rich blood cells to the body while expelling lactic acid and other waste products naturally produced during past workouts.
Lot’s of jargon in there… basically, it simulates an intense workout without fatiguing the body, which enables you to work out harder and recover faster.
The key to the pod’s success is that it simulates high altitude training as it compresses muscles with a vacuum pump and computer-controlled valves, making it far superior to the hyperbaric chambers that many athletes have favored in recent years. The conditions in the pod can be adjusted by athletes to simulate just about any training that they desire.
It can help the body to absorb oxygen twice as well as even blood doping and its legal. Whether such pods will continue to be allowed within the rules remains to be seen, but the ATP hasn’t ruled it out yet.
Want to try one out? There are some high end fitness clubs and rehabilitation centers that offer sessions, otherwise, you’ll need some serious cash.
Now back to reality…
Enter a Minimum Effective Dose Workout
For the vast majority of recreational tennis players, the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) style fitness and workout routine I follow and detail below will meet your training needs and requires minimal equipment. Since it can be completed in about 15 minutes, this is ideal for those that are time strapped.
Time: 2 minutes
Goal: Remove restrictions, improve mobility, improve tissue quality
Self myofascial release with 30 seconds on each of quad, hip flexor and IT band.
When time is limited, I recommend you do only your tightest spots, and those most likely to impact on your performance. Invariably, people who SIT need to foam roll their quads and hip flexors. So this goes in at number one for me, and most likely for you too.
Secondly, since a tight IT band is more common than caffeine dependence in our society, and since some pretty important muscles connect to it and I LIKE my knee tracking properly, IT bands are next.
What is an IT band? The Ilio (hip) Tibial (shin bone) band runs directly down the outside of your thigh for the length of your femur. You will know it when you foam roll it the first time, trust me.
I got my foam roller from Amazon. It is an outstanding investment. Get the 6 x 12 if you travel a lot, I take mine everywhere. Get the 6 x 36 if for just at home. Make sure it is round not half or you won’t be doing much rolling.
Activation, Mobility, Dynamic Warm Up
Time: 3 minutes
Goal: Use some of that improved tissue work to immediately perform a series of activation and mobility exercises to improve movement patterns
This one can include the following:
- Glute Bridges x 10 with adduction (5 second squeeze at the top) I clamped the foam roller between my knees for the adduction part to save time
- Reverse lunges with rotation (arms overhead) x 6 each side – one of the BEST hip flexor mobilizers on the planet
- Hand walks x 6 (also called Inch Worms) out as far as sore shoulder was happy
- Walking quad stretch x 6 each leg with glute squeeze for 2 seconds
Again my focus here is on what needs waking up/mobilizing the most, not just in general, but thinking about what exercises I have planned later in the workout.
Glute bridges in all their varieties turn on glutes (and help turn off and stretch the hip flexors) nicely. This is generally a good idea for anyone who sits down, well, pretty much ever. (My other favorite is the Bird Dog exercise).
The lunge stretches, and just every every lunge variety, is a great way of mobilizing your hip flexors while prepping your body for exercise, since it reinforces firing patterns. Incorporate some today.
The hand walks wake up nearly every muscle in your body while providing a great hamstring, calf and lower back release, and the walking quad stretch is to ensure the quads and hip flexors are still loose (and glutes are firing, they go together) just prior to starting faster movement.
Neural Activation & Full Body Warm Up
Time: 3 minutes
Goal: As it reads, neural activation and full body warm up
For this I skip rope, 30 seconds flat out, 30 seconds very slow, for 3 “rounds”, totaling 3 minutes.
During the 30 seconds fast I try to move my feet and the rope as fast as I can. I include shuffles, side to side switches (think a boxer changing lead legs quickly) butt kicks and for the last 5 seconds, high knees to make this as dynamic as possible.
During the 30 seconds slow, I try to keep the rope moving at a steady pace, but not cranking it, the goal is to keep moving and have an active recovery.
For me, at this duration and volume this type of interval is far more neural than it is metabolic, and while I’ll feel warm at the end of it and begin to sweat a little, I don’t really start puffing.
I do however, feel very very alive and ready for action. Mission accomplished. If I keep going with the intervals, they would eventually start to slow down, movement quality would decrease, and it would cross into what I would consider metabolic conditioning.
A way around that would be to do 10 seconds “ON” and then 20 seconds “OFF” (or longer) to be able to maintain higher quality movement in the ON intervals if that was a goal for longer duration.
The goal is to get the system going.
Time: 3 minutes (and 19 seconds)
Goal: The “work” part of the workout – metabolic conditioning and hamstring/glutes strength endurance
100 x two handed swings with a 70lb bell (or whatever you can do 50-100 times) without stopping.
Why 3 minutes and 19 seconds? When I was timing this just before I grabbed the bell I hit play on my chosen workout song of the day, which happened to be 3 minutes and 19 seconds, and thought I would cruise to complete this in time…. Almost didn’t make it.
While this had me breathing and sweating nicely, I am embarrassed to say that it was my GRIP more than anything else that caused me to have to drop the weight at 80 reps, shake out my hands for ten seconds, and then continue. I was almost not able to finish this in time.
In terms of the grip, it could just be the general lack of loading I have been able to give my arms with the shoulder injury (no pulling, rowing, or pull ups), or maybe I am just weening out. Either way, please don’t tell my strength and conditioning coaching mates, they will laugh at me.
You can do swings in sets and reps. Or you can play for total reps or total time. Choice is yours, but as minimal effective dose “choose 1″ exercises go, the two handed kettlebell or dumbbell swing is an outstanding option for beginners and advanced trainees alike.
Time: 3 minutes
Goal: Extend the “work” part of the workout with further metabolic conditioning, while forcing active recovery
Simply do a medium paced skip without stopping.
This one is the most elective of the lot, and would be the first to go if wanting to shorten this further, but when I’m not happy with my swings performance, I’ll decide to add this in (see above).
Band “Pull Aparts”
Time: 1 minute
Goal: Try and counter the day’s sitting by working some volume into my upper back, specifically aiming at rear delts and mid trap.
100 reps with arms straight and done out in front of chest
Start with arms straight out in front of you, gripping your band (they vary greatly in strength/tension) about shoulder width apart with an overhand grip.
Start the movement by pulling your shoulder blades together and finish the movement by pulling your arms away from each other. Your arms will end up out to the sides then slightly behind you, the band will hit your chest. That is 1 rep. You can maintain tension on your shoulder blades by never returning the bands all the way in, or you can go all the way in all the way out, play with it.
You can mix up the focus of this and add in other muscles by adjusting hand position and arm angle, but assuming you are doing these with your arms straight out in front of you, this is what is going to be getting the bulk of the loading.
When I am recovering from a shoulder injury, these are done with the cute little pink band. Since we tend to sit a lot during the day in a shoulders rounded position, this causes what is called stretch-weakness in the scapular retractors (and frequently external rotator) muscles. Add to this that most people have vastly stronger internal rotators of the shoulder than the external rotators, and we have a need for corrective exercise. (You could also try NEVER SITTING, always walking with good posture and doing three or four pulling sets for your upper back for every set you do for your chest).
This is a phenomenally useful exercise and I highly recommend you start ASAP. They can be done throughout the day or at the end of workouts, and intensity can be modified by adjusting your hand position on the band and the band tension. Great for posture.
Coach and Author Jason Ferruggia shows how it is done here:
IMPORTANT: Before you lay out any cash for any elastic bands, go to a gym that has them and try out the various resistances. If you have never bought bands before, I recommend you also go to your nearest sporting goods store to make your first ever purchase. The range in tension is HUGE. Bands can be the little round ones with handles at each end (don’t grab the handles for this exercise) right up to big slabs of bands that are in a complete circle and can also be used for assistance or resistance in a number of other exercises such as pull ups (assistance), push ups, squats, deadlifts etc.
I have the latter in every size and use mine mostly for shoulder and upper back work, as well as for benching and press up varieties when I have a shoulder that works, grrrrr.
Here is an option from from Amazon.com.
Tennis Players’ Novak Djokovic Training Style Workout Recap
This entire workout takes exactly 15 minutes, start to finish.
If more pressed for time you could do 20 swings with a lighter weight to warm up, then go straight into the 100 swings for a four minute workout, but I highly recommend you add these other parts to your workout sessions since they will help you perform better, give you a better workout result, reduce likelihood of injury, and basically make you a happy camper.
All of which will make me a Happier Kiwi, which is why I am writing this in the first place.
I follow a pretty similar workout sequence for nearly every bit of training I do. They aren’t always in there, but they are there most of the time, and they are pretty much always in this order.
- Remove restrictions (foam roller and lately a baseball or lacrosse ball)
- Activate (usually stabilizers) with “pre-hab” type exercises and then Mobilize with a series of dynamic warm up exercises
- Neural activation of some variety
- Strength and power
- Strength endurance
- Metabolic conditioning/energy system work (usually in the form of circuits, giant sets, strongman type training, or intervals)
- Further foam roller work and stretching
In the routine above, the swings take care of 4 (to a minimal extent if a trained athlete), 5 and 6, with a focus on the all important prime movers of the posterior chain (lower back, glutes and hamstrings)
If you are looking for a more comprehensive strength training routine, check out this post by the strength and conditioning coach for the tennis teams at Florida State University.
Whether your lifestyle leads you to follow the Minimum Effective Dose approach or not (I prefer slightly longer, more neural and more intense workouts, personally) I hope you incorporate elements of this sequence into some of your own training.