Over the past couple of decades, table tennis has become an intensely physical sport.
Indian players have adapted to the changes in the game by making fitness one of the most important aspects of their table tennis training.
“I think, by and large, Indian athletes started becoming conscious of physical conditioning in 2008,” says Achanta Sharath Kamal, the face of Indian table tennis over the past two decades. “It was around that time that people started to realise that you need to be fit to play table tennis.”
The game has enjoyed a spike in interest in the last few years, especially after team India’s richest medal haul at the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games, and the introduction of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), the franchise league which is now in its third season in 2019.
Some of the best players partaking in Ultimate Table Tennis discuss the more important areas of fitness required for table tennis.
1. Speed and agility
Table tennis is a fast-twitch muscle sport that demands bursts of energy from its athletes.
Given how quickly they need to react on the table, paddlers need to accelerate from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye. And they have to train their bodies like a well-oiled, quick-firing engine.
Some of the top Indian paddlers use a mix of hybrid training, high-intensity intervals and functional training to keep them in prime condition. High-intensity interval training is one of the most popular forms of training for table tennis. It incorporates a lot of explosive movements like tuck jumps or squat jumps, to get the fast-twitch muscles firing and helps push the anaerobic threshold.
To begin, table tennis enthusiasts can start with short sprints – as short as 10-20 metres – to get the heart pumping.
2. Dynamic movement
Given that the ping pong table is only nine feet long and five feet wide, there isn’t a great distance to cover. But the smaller space means less reaction time and that the players have to be in striking position much quicker.
Enter dynamic movement, whether it is lateral or front-and-back. You must build strength in the legs to power these quick shuffles. Once the base strength is built, there are plenty of drills to improve movement and footwork. One popular drill has the player surrounded by different coloured cones on the floor, and the trainer calling out which colour has to be shuffled towards and tapped.
“We also use a machine called Vertimax. It has a lot of wires and is purely for resistance training,” says Sathiyan Gnanasekaran of the Dabang Delhi franchise team. “We do a lot of jumps or one leg hops, running laterally or forwards and backwards with the harness on, so you go in all directions with resistance. It is controlled movement. In table tennis you move, stop, strike, and then again be ready for the next stroke. There is a lot of dynamic movement, in all directions. So you have to train for the small movements.”
For beginners, resistance tubes can help train for similar movements.
3. Hand-eye co-ordination
Like all racquet sports, good hand-eye coordination is a necessity for table tennis.
Former India player Neha Aggarwal says that professional table tennis players usually have better hand-eye coordination than most, but there are ways and means for everyone to improve on these skills.
“On the table, we use a lot of multi-ball training for this,” says Aggarwal. “They basically have a basket of balls and feed it quickly, in any direction, you have to react quickly, hit the stroke really fast and get ready for the next.”
Off the table, props like Dynavision are used by players to sharpen this aspect of the game. There are 100 lights in a circle, with one switching on at a time. The player has to tap the light, and as soon as that is done the next one comes on. Reaction time is calculated on the machine.
Apart from this, there are tried and tested methods to improve hand-eye coordination. Dropping an object and catching it before it hits the ground is a common drill. A more advanced variation to this drill is to turn your back and have a friend or trainer drop an object; you have to spin around and catch the object before it hits the ground.
4. Train wrists and forearm
Table tennis is executed with the hands, with the wrists and forearms doing the bulk of the work. The mesmerising, loopy forehand strokes of professional table tennis players are crafted with a simple flick of the wrist.
Weights and resistance bands are the go-to props to build strength in the forearm and wrists. A lot of bench presses, wrist curls, hammer curls and hand grippers are used for this.
“We also use hanging weights for this,” says Sharath Kamal. “A rope is tied to a bar with a weight hanging off it. You rotate the bar using only the wrists and forearms to pull the rope back and the weight up.” Once the weight is up and touching the bar, you rotate the bar the other way round to bring the weight back down, and repeat.
“We use resistance bands a lot to build strength in muscles, including the smaller ones in the forearm,” adds Aggarwal.
5. Increase endurance
Even though table tennis is not an endurance sport it needs a certain sustaining power.
“Our matches last for about an hour on average,” says Sharath Kamal. “You need to keep that explosive strength going for an hour.” Paddlers use a lot of anaerobic training off-court to help improve cardio-vascular performance and endurance.
The aspect of fitness has become even more important since plastic balls were introduced in the game in 2014. Harder than the celluloid balls they replaced, the plastic balls were also slightly bigger. They were mainly introduced for better TV viewership and to make the rallies longer.