"I walk through the club where I work and I get frustrated watching the poor people on the machines. They're attached to these medieval torture devices when they could be getting a much better workout, and having fun, playing racquetball."—Jim Winterton, former head coach of the US Racquetball Team

Indeed, an intense racquetball session burns more calories per hour than the stairmaster or stationary bike and does wonders for hand-eye coordination and reflexes. It also adds a competitive edge to your workout and it's a lot of fun. Even with all its benefits, racquetball remains underutilized as a fitness activity. Perhaps beginners think it will be difficult to learn, or maybe they are afraid of getting hit in the eye.

Fear not. "Racquetball is the easiest racquet sport to learn," says Winterton, who is currently head coach of the Junior US Racquetball Team. "The ball and the racquet are big, and you can hit the ball almost anywhere." As for getting hit in the eye, you just need to wear safety glasses . "Eyeguards are the first piece of equipment anyone needs. It only takes getting hit once to do serious damage, but if you wear eyeguards you will be safe," Winterton assures players.

The Basics

The rules of racquetball are fairly simple: "Just hit the hollow blue ball to the front wall. Do whatever it takes to get it there," says Kelley Beane, assistant coach of the Junior US Racquetball Team. Beane, who was ranked fifth nationally as a player in the 25+ age group, mentions that the ball is allowed to bounce once, but it's okay if beginners let it bounce two or three times as they learn how to hit and rally. "The important thing is to lighten up and have fun when you're first starting. If you like it, it becomes almost addictive. You'll get pretty good pretty quick," Beane adds.

Once you can keep a rally going, you can start keeping score. Winterton encourages match play because "competition pushes you and makes you work a little harder." Beane says as long as you play with an opponent whose ability level is well matched to yours, you will have a great time.

Scoring is simple. You only win points on your serve. In other words, if the server wins a rally, he or she scores a point. The non-server is fighting for the right to serve. Games are played to 15, and you only have to win by one point. Usually, matches are best two of three games. If the match goes to a third, tie-breaker, game, 11 points wins it.

What a Workout!

Spend an hour playing hard on the racquetball court, and you will walk off the court sweaty and spent. Even better, you will never watch the clock. "I never realized what a great workout racquetball is until I was injured and couldn't play. No workout I tried, not even spinning, could match it," Winterton attests.

Beane agrees, "Racquetball is second only to running in terms of calories burned per hour." She attributes this to the fact that the court, which is 20 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 20 feet tall, "is strategically designed to make you think you can get to everything. So you work really hard chasing down every last ball, but you're having a blast doing it."

Don't Forget Conditioning

To reap the most benefit from your court time, overall fitness is important, but a little racquetball-specific conditioning is a good idea. "Most racquet sports require short bursts of speed. Just going out and running won't help much with that," says David Watson, MD, who runs a sports medicine clinic. "Try wind sprints." He recommends 20-yard intervals of jogging and sprinting.

Beane conditions with crunches, push-ups, ladder drills for balance, and some "killer sprint workouts." For ten minutes at a time, she and her teammates sprint all out "until someone tells us to stop," jog to recover, then sprint again. They rest for a few minutes, then go for another ten-minute round of sprint intervals.

Dr. Watson suggests incorporating weight training into your workout. "You don't need to bulk up, but focus on strengthening the lower body with squats and leg presses." Exercises to strengthen the arms, wrists, and shoulders are also beneficial to your game.

How Not to Get Hurt

Good conditioning will go a long way to keeping you healthy on the court. It is also important to use the proper equipment and be wary of common injuries.

Wear Safety Glasses

This is a precaution that bears repeating several times. Dr. Watson agrees, "Eye protection is very important." A ball in the eye "could easily cause a detached retina," he warns. You definitely do not want one of those.

Get Good Shoes

In addition to safety glasses, Winterton recommends wearing a wide-bottomed shoe that can accommodate the quick starts and stops of a racquetball match. The right shoe can prevent the ankle sprains that might occur with this kind of movement.

Find the Right Racquet

Also make sure you have a racquet with a tether. Remember you will be sweating a lot, and the tether keeps the racquet from flying out of your hand and into your opponent's (or your) head.

Warm Up

Brad Quigley, a certified athletic trainer who works with the Harvard University men's and women's squash teams, recommends getting your body warm and stretching, especially the lower body, before beginning an intense speed workout like racquetball or squash. Concentrate on quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and buttocks.

Even if you warm up well and are in great shape, racquet sports are never injury-proof. Quigley says that the most common racquet sport-related injuries he sees are rotator cuff strains and tennis elbow ( tendonitis of the wrist extensors). Strength exercises for the shoulders and arms are good preventive measures. If you do encounter problems, these overuse injuries can be treated with rest, ice, and strengthening exercises, Quigley adds.

Dr. Watson says some common injuries are avoidable if you use proper technique. So before taking on racquetball for the first time, consider taking a lesson to make sure you're doing things right.

What About Squash?

Squash is another indoor racquet sport that provides a great workout and is a lot of fun, too. The ball and the racquet are smaller, and there are a few more restrictions as to where you can hit the ball, so it's a bit more difficult for a beginner to learn. "I usually tell beginners to take at least one lesson to find out how the ball should be hit," says Julie Greenwood, former All-American player and head coach of women's squash at Williams College. Beyond that, she says, "You just need to play a lot."

Like racquetball, squash is an intense, calorie burning form of exercise. "You're in a confined space and you are moving constantly," Greenwood says. It tires you out and makes you sweat and is "a great lower-body workout."