Tennis Conditioning

By David McGill

  • Your tennis swing may look correct to the coaching eye, but are you and your coach sure your body is functioning correctly internally to safely perform this movement?

  • During or after playing, do you feel upper or lower body pain or discomfort, otherwise preventable with the right exercise-therapy conditioning approach?

  • Would you like tennis-specific strength conditioning from a specialist, reputable service to complement your coaching, improve your game & prevent injury?

Many tennis players, particularly recreational, often ask the question: ‘Why do I need to physically condition myself using strength and flexibility exercises for an activity that I only play a few times each week?’

Let’s put this into perspective. Research by Copeland & Kaczmarek (2012) emphasises that the shoulder is a part of an integrated, chain of muscles which move the whole of the body when hitting a tennis ball. Injuries associated with tennis and other sports involving overhead hitting or throws are very common. As much as 75% of such injuries involve the upper body and most of these occur in the shoulder region.

Such statistics only refer to the upper body, but not the spinal or lower body hip, knee and ankle injuries which many tennis players also suffer from due to a lack of flexibility and strength in these regions.

By means of selective, progressive strength-conditioning exercises, many aforementioned upper and lower body injuries which commonly occur in tennis are preventable.  However, acknowledgement by the player and their coach of the importance of such exercise conditioning, plus a player’s commitment and willingness to do so will be an influential factor in preventing injury, otherwise prompting a recurrence.  Soligard et al (2012) emphasises the necessity for players and coaches to accept and work in conjunction with strength conditioning intervention.  Based upon their research, the risk of immediate or eventual injury was greatly reduced among players with a high compliance to specialist strength-conditioning exercise and that positive tennis coach attitudes to correctly prescribed exercise correlated with high player compliance to such exercise and lower injury risk.

Whether you play at a highly competitive level or just friendly recreational games at your local club, tennis demands considerable physical fitness from all who play.  The ability to move quickly in all directions with a sudden change of direction, and at the same time maintaining balance and correct posture whilst powerfully hitting the ball, places great pressure upon a player’s body. To play the game effectively, safely and to fully enjoy the experience;  speed, power, strength, balance, endurance and skill are vital, achievable by correct training conditioning.

Whilst swinging a tennis racket, your body moves rapidly and three dimensionally using many muscles in the upper and lower body to generate the power needed to strike the ball.  Your muscles have other responsibilities too, such as keeping you balanced, posturally aligned and finely altering your body position to ensure accuracy of the shot.

Most tennis shots are performed either at maximum, or close to maximum speed, starting, ending and often exceeding the limits of the player’s spine’s ability to rotate.  In elite tennis players, the fastest serve ever recorded exceeded 160mph.  During the course of a tennis match, players execute approximately 1000 shots; many of them high speed, and cover in excess of 3km with the running involved.  Back pain and associated problems commonly occur as a result of the powerful twisting and spine bending motion in the tennis swing, along with a lack of the upper body flexibility, strength and stability to perform this movement correctly and cope with such physical demands.

Repetitively using one side of your body to swing your racket causes tightness to increase disproportionately in certain muscles.  Muscles are designed to work together in pairs with equal length, strength and tension.  So, if one muscle tightens, its opposite muscle will lengthen, weaken, become inactive and be prevented from performing its essential purpose. This affects a player’s ability to generate power when hitting the ball, interfering with performance regardless of the practice they put in. If they neglect this issue, it will inevitably lead to postural misalignment, pain, injury, prompting frustration!

In addition to this problem, many recreational tennis players, whether working or retired, tend to sit for prolonged periods at a desk, in a car or on a sofa in front of the TV.  By doing so each day, certain muscles will tighten, which then prevents the activation and functioning of other important muscles essential for correct postural alignment and joint stability during dynamic tennis movements. Muscles most commonly affected by this are the stomach and bottom which are the key ones essential for a safe, effective, spine-friendly racket swing. If unable to assist as intended, these weakened muscles force the brain to compensate, activating and utilising other muscles such as the lower back, not only to maintain posture, but to also generate the high velocity movement required for the hitting the ball with the racket. A serve may look great physically yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that the right muscles are activating and working to perform this movement. These compensatory movement patterns will remain ingrained in a player’s serve/ shot and, like a vicious circle, despite their effort, pain and injury will eventually occur. With the right training guidance however, this is preventable.

Every recreational and professional tennis player wants to improve their game.  Some will spend much on rackets and/or have private lessons to try and perfect their serve and swing.  Despite this, performance and progression will be hindered on the court if strength and flexibility remain limited and muscles continue activating in place of weak, dormant ones during the high velocity movements. A coach can observe and correct a player’s ‘biomechanics’ where extrinsic body movements around a court are visually apparent. Through no fault of their own, coaches are often unaware of a player’s intrinsicpathomechanics’ where internal faults with sequential muscle activation, musculo-skeletal alignment and range-of muscular flexibility will otherwise prompt the body to adapt to be able to swing their racket to hit the ball.

For tennis players who seek the guidance of personal trainers or instructors to exercise and improve their game, many trainers may still encourage the use of seated or lying resistance exercises which only work muscles in isolation rather than involving them concurrently in their intended muscle groups. The aforementioned exercises also overlook and fail to adequately activate key muscles essential for correct alignment, stability and body functioning during tennis, ultimately leading to pain and injury.

Tennis and many common daily activities we do involve a standing body position requiring three-dimensional movement and simultaneous activation of groups of muscles. Exercisers however are often encouraged to do seated or floor-based, isolative muscle strength and abdominal exercises.  Despite their effort (and increased isolative muscle strength), these exercises aren’t specific to the concurrent, whole-body, multi-directional functional movements required in tennis and won’t contribute significantly to their improved athletic ability or performance on the court.

Contrary to this however, ‘functional training’ is often loosely referred to these days by many in the fitness industry. Unfortunately, it is subject to misinterpretation. Many trainers or coaches are quick to prescribe ‘whole body’ multidirectional exercises such as lunges and high velocity, rotational medicine ball throws. Such exercises are exciting for those they train and have the potential to be effective, when initially prepared for using Corrective Integrative Exercises.  All too often though, these ‘functional,’ whole body, high intensity exercises prematurely prescribed by trainers exceed the physical preparedness and capability of the exerciser and recreational tennis player.  This will cause the player or client’s body to compensate, prompting faulty movement patterns, discomfort and injury, inhibiting participation and performance.

An expert trainer will correctly precede exercise by identifying and assessing any muscle strength imbalances, dormancy or faulty movement patterns. Utilising specific ‘corrective’ exercises, they will help to selectively strengthen a “weak muscle link” that your body may have, allowing you to restore proper muscle balance, activation and function. This is essential for playing tennis safely and preventing injury (prehabilitation).

At Bodyrefine, our Corrective Exercise Specialists are qualified to treat and train the body as a unit. For all new clients who come to us in pain or injured from former activity; instead of assessing and treating in isolation the site where pain is felt (your symptom), we identify, address and eliminate the root cause of WHY the symptom occurred in the first place, preventing a recurrence.

If you see a physiotherapist for shoulder pain, you’ll most likely be given exercises to address issues specific to the isolated, affected area. Following assessment of the whole body, Corrective Exercise Therapists provide selective exercises and stretches to address weaknesses and excessive tightness in all areas of the upper and lower body, for which the shoulder will ultimately suffer. By not addressing the entirety of the body, the shoulder will repeatedly suffer, benefitting little from the isolative exercise otherwise prescribed. Like-wise with neck, back, hip and knee pain felt.

At Bodyrefine, we precede our specialist, bespoke training (general or tennis-specific) with a detailed assessment of our clients to identify postural misalignments and dormant muscle activation. It also allows us to establish a safe starting point for selective, corrective strength and flexibility exercises. Our primary objective is to ensure your muscles function properly with correct postural alignment, lessening the risk of further injury or physical complication.  Using our established, reputable, unique and effectively-proven training approach, we’ll then introduce your body to progressive, whole body, multi-directional strength and dynamic flexibility exercises, suited to your physical condition. These are highly beneficial for safe, efficient and effective tennis performance.

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