When you think of a table tennis player, do you envision someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator” or more like Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump”?
There’s a reason why someone with big muscles doesn’t come to mind — and that’s because “if you have really big muscles as a table tennis player, it actually slows you down,” revealed 2012 Olympic table tennis player Timothy Wang. But that doesn’t mean these athletes don’t work out. So we asked Timothy and his U.S. teammate, 2008 Olympic table tennis player Chen Wang to share their exercise routines. You might be surprised to see how much they vary, yet both are very much key in helping them stay fit for their sport.
Timothy — who was the first (and only) table tennis player to join his athlete performance gym in Atlanta, which sees mostly professional baseball and football players — admitted the reason they don’t see more is “because there aren’t that many full-time table tennis players in the U.S. There are a few more now, but it’s still very rare,” he said. “So they were a little bit surprised when they heard what I did.”
Despite being unfamiliar territory, he said his trainer, former NFL player Corey Bridges, spent time learning what it takes to work with a table tennis player.
“He went online and looked at some of my videos,” Timothy remembered. “It takes a lot of communication to figure out what’s necessary for me because he’s never worked with a table tennis player before.”
Another person who had to brush up on their table tennis was Chen, who had retired from the sport after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But seven years later she decided to return to table tennis and credited her trainer for her comeback.
“Yu Tian Wang is a very important person for me this time,” she said. “If he was not here, I could not train. Because before he came to my club, I didn’t have anybody to train with.”
Chen practices table tennis with Yu five days a week. “He is like the top-10 player in the country,” she said. “So he is a very good practice partner and he has brought my level up for competing.”
Though when it comes to exercising, she mostly works out by herself at a local gym near where she lives in New York City (with her 4-year-old son, her reason for retiring).
Timothy and Chen revealed their training regimens to TeamUSA.org:
How often do you work out?
Timothy: On the table, I train about five hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. But I work out with my trainer at the gym for another hour and a half to two hours, every other day.
Chen: Usually I go to the gym two times a week, and I work out for two hours. Since I haven’t played table tennis for seven years, the first thing I did to get back in shape was physical training to build my muscle and lose weight.
What does your workout look like?
Timothy: My trainer has me do a little bit of everything, but mostly cardio with some weights added. I also do free weights because my trainer doesn’t really believe in using machines. We’ve been working a lot on stability and balance, lunges with weights or side-to-side movements with a medicine ball. Every workout is different, and it always challenges me until I can’t walk anymore.
Chen: I do one hour on the machines working my arms and legs, and the second hour I ride the bicycle. The bicycle is my main exercise — it helps build my leg muscle. I swim sometimes, too. I also lie down on the mat and focus on my stomach and back muscles. Because I had back pain before, and when my back hurt I couldn’t do anything. So now I do a lot of sit-ups.
Is it more important to work on your arms or legs?
Timothy: I focus on my legs maybe a little bit more, because for table tennis you have to be in a really good position to get the most out of a shot. So footwork is really important. And since stability comes from the legs and the core we work on those areas a lot — that means lots of deadlifts and plyometrics. And planks.
Chen: Because in table tennis you have to move from right to left a lot, the muscles start to hurt when you squat like that. So I do a lot of machines that help build the upper leg muscles.
What do you do for your arms?
Timothy: A lot of shoulder work — because in table tennis you always have to keep your arms up and ready. So we do a lot of movements with medicine balls. For example, the trainer is throwing a medicine ball at me on either side and I’m moving side to side while turning and exploding the ball back to the trainer.
Do you practice yoga or any other forms of exercise?
Timothy: Actually my trainer has been doing a lot of things very similar to yoga with me. We’ll do stretches that have movements very similar to yoga but we’ll use a little bit of weight, like maybe 10 pounds, too.
Chen: When I’m not playing table tennis I like to do a lot of things to keep in shape. I go ice skating, roller skating. I used to run. I loved running in Central Park, but I can’t jog now because my knee hurts.