Do Squash Players Need Big Biceps? Part II

This post is a bit tongue-in-cheek since I have already blogged on this topic during last year’s Wimbledon where the British press was all in a tizzy about Andy Murray’s new training regime – a key part being building his biceps by doing chin-ups with a weights attached to a belt around his waist.  I pointed out the irony of the press reporting on his newly powerful 127 m.p.h. serves, while on the same page reporting on skinny Venus William’s setting a tournament record with a 128 m.p.h. serve.

One of the major points for squash coaches is that a player’s success can often be in spite of and not because of a given training activity – and that often there are unseen or unspoken factors involved that contribute to a player’s success.  The same of course would apply to squash coaches – if our players are being successful it does not mean that everything we are doing with them is contributing to their success.  For example the type of drills we do with them may have a negligible effect on their game, but our charismatic leadership style may be propelling them upward to unseen heights!  Without a careful and critical dissection of all training activities by coaching experts it would be difficult to determine.

In the case of Andy Murray, the use of intensive, upper body strength training methods was coincident with a new determination and focus to improve and achieve, this resultant attitude being mostly responsible for his rise in the tennis rankings (will he win the Australian Open?).

In the case of squash, it is even more clear that the size of the biceps (i.e., upper body strength) is irrelevant to both hitting the ball hard and a player’s squash ranking.  A prime example of this would be a casual inspection of John White’s upper body – John holds the official world record of 172 m.p.h. for a squash drive.  The average weight of the squash racquet is now about 140 grams unstrung, while the average tennis pro’s racquets are over 300 grams.

John White's Left Tricep/Bicep

John White's Left Tricep/Bicep

Rafael Nadal's left Tricep/Bicep

Rafael Nadal's left Tricep/Bicep

Certainly in the men’s game muscularity is not a significant factor, considering that the men usually hit harder than their female counterparts who often appear more cut with respect to this aspect of fitness.  Hitting the ball hard in squash is mostly a result of biomechanical factors such a lever length (e.g. John White), pre-impact prestretch, swing length, good technique (especially the kinetic chain) and of course timing, which is a result of movement and positioning, which is related to aerobic fitness and speed/agility. Hopefully the recent promotion of functional training has sounded the death knell on emphasizing traditional weight-training methods such a biceps curls, triceps extensions, squat with heavy weights and the bench press.


Here are two solid examples of hard-hitting:

Application for Squash Coaches:

  1. Use sport science and common sense to examine the world’s top player and coach training programs – not everything they do should be copied.
  2. Move towards functional versus body-building types of strength training.
  3. Focus on technique and timing – not strength to improve your player’s power.

5 Responses to Do Squash Players Need Big Biceps? Part II

  1. William Davis says:

    Interesting Tim.

    Hitting a squash ball hard can help a player win points, sometimes a game, sometimes a match, but rarely a tournament.

    Few players remain on the men’s PSA Squash tour from the same era as John White. Two particularly successful players from the same time that I’d like to point out are David Palmer and Peter Nicol.

    Now, both David and Peter have played and trained extensively with John White, but I would say that both David and Peter have also been more successful because of some of the things they do differently.

    These athletes all learned to swing a different squash racquet than the ones currently used on tour today. Mainly, their old racquets were heavier and had a much smaller face. From their ‘ready’ position at the start of the swing, these old racquets had more inertia than modern ones, and therefore required more initial force to accelerate the racquet. So, first these players all learned to generate that initial force to contribute to their swing power.

    The Biceps Femoris are not a major contributor to power generated in the squash swing, even the old squash swings demonstrated by John White and Sara Fitz-Gerald. The biceps and brachialis may play a more significant role in the preparation and stabilization of heavier racquets, such as tennis racquets or the old squash equipment. Perhaps the biceps may play a more significant performance role with different point scoring? Longer games? Longer matches?

    So, with a 140 gram racquet, I agree that the biceps plays little role.

    I do believe that the power of Pectoralis Major and Latissmus Dorsi play key roles in generating ‘old swing’ power along with the triceps. Dips and pullups would be great to develop strength that can be harnessed into the swing with proper training.

    Old racquets had the potential for more velocity at impact because of their mass and also had tighter stringing patterns with strings crossing closer to each other.

    Fred Flinstone also had a big club, but he had to swing it so hard to generate head speed and timing was essential.

    I’ll add that Mr. White’s bicep and tricep are larger than they appear with casual inspection of the previous photo, however, more importantly is the length of these muscles, rather than their girth.

    I did not take a close look at the above video, but I do know that most of White’s powerful swings take place with a great amount of force on one foot, the front foot of his hitting stance. Compared to other top modern players, this stance is very unusual. While it does create the longest levers, it also exerts an undesired amount of force on the front leg.

    Most of White’s hardest swings also occur behind the service box on balls that have come off the back wall. If you hit the ball that hard and it gets that hot, the ball is probably going to come off the back wall much more often, enabling the hard hitting players more time to pick an impact point, prepare, and slug away. More loose balls and more potential shot opportunities will probably arise too. The court becomes meters smaller, which also enables the players who are familiar to this style to conserve more energy.

    If you’re the power player hitting the ball 172mph or anywhere nearly as hard as you can with the ‘old power swing’ technique, you’re wasting a lot of energy and causing yourself a lot of unnecessary muscle damage, lactate, and hydrogen ions within those muscles which are working hardest and making anaerobic contractions. An anaerobic contraction is determined by the physiological load placed on the specific muscle fiber.

    The ‘old power swing’ has it’s place in squash, but no player reliant on this technique will ever be atop the world rankings ever again…never ever again. I will gladly eat my words if this ever happens, which it won’t, preferably in the form of alphabet soup.

    Peter Nicol never had the power to hit the ball very hard. Peter relied on the fact that he has a small body mass and uses less energy than his opponents on court and more refined skills with the new style racquets. He had the luxury of playing and training with White all the time, so he had the most experience with the fastest ball.

    David Palmer hits the ball at very high speeds also, however, David Palmer is a smart enough player or has a smart enough training camp that he understands that hitting the squash ball 172mph will not contribute to great or consistent tournament performance.

    Doing many single leg decelerations, basically plyometrics, for consecutive days will significantly diminish the squash player’s ability to move, in addition to generate power or swing accurately. So, the ‘old power swing’ loses it’s bang after about two tournament rounds unless the player can finish his matches quickly or has worked extensively on his fitness and the use of other more efficent swing techniques and decelerations.

    The longer a game lasts between an efficient player like Peter Nicol and a power player like John White, the more likely the efficient player will win.

    Back to David Palmer. He has a comprable body type to John White. They are about the same height and same build. They can both hit the heck out of the ball and both of them have been great PSA players for a long time. It would appear that David adapted more to the new equipment and designed his movement and technique on being more efficient.

    Two foot decelerations in the back court. Cover the swing. Give yourself plenty of time to return to the T. Stay aerobic as long as necessary. Use aerobic court time to rest from anaerobic court time. Reduce opponent options by keeping the ball tight.

    On that last point, reduce opponent options by keeping the ball tight, I’ll add that many of these hard ‘old power swings’ do not lend themselves to consistently hitting tight balls that reduce opponent options. In fact, in many cases, a hard-hit loose ball can interfere with the power player’s return to the T, create stroke opportunities for the opponent, or otherwise interfere with the hard-hitter’s performance by creating less time for him to get to his next impact point on top of having to return to the T very quickly at times and in certain areas disabling the hard-hitter’s view of his opponent’s retrieval.

    Hard hitting is good when you have plenty of time, plenty of space, and plenty of energy. These basic principals of time, space, and energy can and should be applied to all aspects of squash.

    The new swing technique is a smaller, more efficient swing. It is simpler, it has less room for error, it generates ample power, and offers more finishing variety. It’s primary movers, the Triceps brachii, Aconeus, Pronator teres, Pronator quadratus, Supinator, Biceps brachii, and Brachioradialis are all smaller muscles, with smaller motor units, more refined control, and a higher ratio of slow twich motor units to fast twitch motor units compared to those of the ‘old swing’.

    Because of the aerobic inclination of these muscles, less fatigue occurs, and therefore the swing is affected less over the course of a game, match, or tournament.

    Far less energy is exerted overall with the new swing.

    The new swing can be executed more quickly and in a smaller space with accuracy.

    The new swing is more deceptive.

    Power, Jonathon Power that is, was a pioneer of the new swing. Peter Nicol learned the new swing and David Palmer learned the new swing. Nearly every player in the PSA top 10 or 20 is very proficient at the new swing and opts to use this smaller, easier, accurate, more efficient technique over an ‘old power swing’.

    The new swing is used by Nicol David.

    The new swing is one of the foundational blocks for success at top level of squash. It allows for more efficient movement, and in many cases enables players to decelerate with less force than with a large swing.

    There should be fewer strokes with the new swing and perhaps PSA matches will be less entertaining because there will be less arguing with the refs. With the three ref system though, ref abuse seems to be a thing of the past…like the old big swing.

    Hitting the ball 172mph or anywhere close to that pace can land a few points. It’s a great skill to be able to put a ball away, to put your opponent on the back foot, or finish a point. Fit players with good movement who also make good movement and shot choices will prevail. For unlike in boxing, where landing a ‘hay-maker’ can win you the bout, big shots in squash will eventually be the cause of the hard-hitter knocking himself out. Arguably, they cause more muscle damage, more lactate, more work, and more mistakes for the hard-hitter than his opponent.

    All the best modern squash players have great jabs in the form of short, efficient swings that can generate ample power and run their opponents around the ring.

    The squash player’s mission is not to kill his opponent, but actually to capture and torture him. Bore your opponent, surprise your opponent, manipulate your opponent, but don’t just try to kill your opponent…for the longer you run him around, the more he will be his own cause of demise.

    Hitting with the ‘old power swing’ has it’s place and can be a great asset in a good squash player’s game, but it is a weak foundational block for a player at the highest level of the game today.

    Perhaps the old power swing has more benefit to players at the amatuer or collegiate level where players probably have longer reaction times are not as fit or don’t move as well as world class players. The power swing may be executed with more success at lower levels of squash against athletes who get overly excited at seeing a ball travel so fast. The power swing will probably play more of a determining factor among junior rankings than at higher levels.

    The combination of fast reaction times, better decision making, efficient body composition, efficient movement, vision, experience, strategy, tactical and technical and mental mastery trump power by far.

    Just look at John White’s record against players of his era like Peter Nicol, David Palmer, Jonathon Power. Then take a look at White’s record against players of the modern era also. One could argue that White is aging, but he’s also played alongside players of the same age his entire career.

    Why have modern players like Peter Nicol, Nicol David, Jonathon Power, Thierry Lincou, and Amr Shabana spent so many months as #1 in the world rankings? It wasn’t by hitting the ball 172mph.

  2. William Davis says:

    Paragraph 6. The Biceps “Brachii” are not a major…
    whoooops 🙂

  3. […] Do Squash Players Need Big Biceps? Part II […]

  4. […] We have blogged about appropriate physical training for squash before – both for juniors and adults. Just to punctuate the point, here is a video demonstrating three not so good strength training […]

  5. Excellent articles. I sometimes find it hard coming up with articles for my website but you did a great job here.

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