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The Perfect Body Workout Plan for Pickleball Players

It’s not what you think…

Rick Witsken on the court playing pickleball
Rick Witsken in Naples. (Image credit: Kerry Pittenger)

You’re watching a pro pickleball match on TV and can’t help but admire the young, fit bodies on the screen, effortlessly getting to every ball and hardly breaking a sweat. This doesn’t look much like your typical group of weekend warriors, all shapes, sizes and ages… just trying to do their best and stay upright. 

Good news! You may not show up in a pickleball magazine model shoot any time soon, but you can definitely get your particular pickleball body to perform its best with a fitness program designed to meet your needs. And those needs don’t mean growing longer arms and being able to bench press your body weight. All any of us can do is work with what we’ve got. And yes, it takes some work and dedication. But the payoffs are better health, better performance, and a happier pickleball experience. Let’s get to it!

Getting in Prime Pickleball Shape

To improve your odds of playing healthily and playing well, build your cardio, strength, and flexibility prior to embarking on your quest to be world (or retirement community) champion. Pickleball-specific exercises should target cardio, agility, balance, core strength, and lower body strength. 

-Your cardiovascular fitness improves your pickleball. And your pickleball improves your cardio. Don’t you just love win-win scenarios? When you make cardio a priority, you get to more balls and can play longer at a higher level.

-For agility, practice shuffle steps and quick change of direction moves after warming up and before you play. You can also do drills that focus on quick movements in the dink game and proper footwork such as split-steps as you move from the baseline area to the kitchen.

-For balance, yoga poses are very helpful. Proper balance results in better shot-making. It also makes for fewer falls on and off the court. Falls are the most common injury for people over 65, according to the CDC. Improved balance and movement from playing pickleball enhances your overall health.

-Core strength is especially important for the twisting moves you make on the court. A strong core helps keep your back healthy, supporting your more fragile lower back and hip areas. (We may not all be able to rock that six-pack, but we can stay strong underneath those groceries we’re carrying around.)

-Squats and lunges strengthen your lower body and enable you to maintain a low, balanced posture as you play. Whole-body resistance exercises keep your bones and muscles functioning well and enable you to play more powerfully.

If necessary, find a personal trainer to gently encourage or whip you into shape depending on your goals. Every sport depends on a sound body, especially as we age. Prepare yours properly and you’ll play better, healthier, and happier. And that’s what we’re all here to do.

Flex-Ability

After experiencing severe back problems in my younger days, I developed a stretching program that has played a big part in keeping me almost pain-free for many years. Many people don’t stretch because they have trouble making time for it in their busy lives. Personally, I believe taking care of yourself should rank somewhere above getting irritated for hours on end by politicians as you doomscroll the news, or obsessively checking Facebook to see who “liked” that picture of your burrito combo from dinner yesterday.

As we age and tend to become more sedentary, stretching and flexibility become even more essential to our overall health. We just need to set aside time every day to do it. Also be sure to not limit your stretching to one five minute session a day. Continue to mindfully stretch as you go about your daily routines. Don’t stay seated for long periods without getting up and moving or stretching. You’ll feel the difference. 

There is also a direct correlation between flexibility and ability. I call this “flex-ability. Pickleball is best played low, from a balanced ready position. Improved flexibility enables you to get to more balls and hit better shots once you get there. In addition, a flexible body is likely to be a less painful body. When I occasionally miss a stretching session, I can feel the negative sensations all day. 

There are plenty of stretching routines to be found on the internet or in your community. Find one that works for you and stay at it. It’s not only good for you, it feels good too!

Warming Up

Congratulations! You embraced exercise and upped your strength and flexibility. You’re a pickleball machine! Then you hop out of your car, saunter over to the court, dink for two minutes, and yell, “Game on!” Five minutes into the game, you run up for a drop shot, and “Yowww!” 

When you show up to play, develop a warmup routine and stick to it. Your routine should consist of these four categories:

  1. Movement/Cardio

Literally warm up your body and get oxygen pumping through your system. Walk briskly, skip around on the balls of your feet, and get the blood flowing to those body parts that were snoring quietly while you were drinking coffee and sending emails.

  1. Joint rotation

Rotate your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders in both directions. This action lubricates your joints with synovial fluid that acts like oil in an engine, allowing your bones and ligaments to move past one another more smoothly.

  1. Stretching

Stretching loosens your muscles for the demands you are about to make on them. Feel free to use or modify my Morning Stretch and Back/Hamstring routines that you can find at mikebranon.com, or discover a program that best meets your needs. 

  1. Pickleball-specific movement

Standing flat-footed and dinking for a couple of minutes neither warms you up nor prepares you to play well. Move side to side, dink crosscourt, exchange groundstrokes, groove some third shot drops, and volley back and forth quickly at the net. Prepare yourself to hit every shot while acclimating your body to the moves you are about to make at full speed. Establishing a habitual warmup routine not only reduces the risk of injury, but enables you to play better from the very beginning of your match. 

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When you warm up properly, improve your cardiovascular fitness, utilize “pickleball-specific” strength training, and develop improved flexibility, you give your body the best chance of staying injury free and making the shots that can be the difference between winning and losing. 

It’s a lot easier to prepare and fortify your body with these healthy habits than it is to be constantly recovering from nagging injuries. Remember those times when you were watching from the sidelines and realizing that the only thing worse than playing poorly is not being able to play at all. Your perfect pickleball body is the one you’ve maximized by putting in the effort. Stay fit and play happy!

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