Stretching for Injury Prevention and More Importantly Enhancing Your Tennis Game

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You wouldn’t take your expensive Ferrari out for a race without properly warming it up. So why when going out to do battle on the tennis court as a weekend warrior, unless of course, you are fortunate enough to be a tennis pro or an exercise trainer, don’t you properly warm up your precious machine, to maxmize the body’s power output?

The muscles are the body’s main producers of force. Enhancing your speed and power is the way to optimize your game. To throw or serve faster you cock-back to fire, so to speak. To jump higher, you crouch deeper. To enhance your sporting ability, every activity has a pre-load phase. For example, in a backhand stroke, you move the racket head behind the body before swinging forward and following through.

Properly stretching muscles and tendons before playing is not only for injury prevention, but also for the enhancement of power and speed. In a study of power lifters doing bench presses, Wilson reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991, that by doing a pre-stretch move in a bench press, weight lifters could lift six percent more weight. Just imagine what some weight lifters would do to get a six percent improvement in strength. Not only were they stronger, but they were able to reach their peak lift 33 percent faster. So, if you want more power and speed, properly stretching will get more out of your muscles’ fibers. I learned that from training in martial arts, where you spend a significant part of the warm-up stretching muscles.

To properly stretch, you must first isolate the target muscles with proper positioning (and at the same time, be careful not to over-stretch or strain). Then, you have to apply the proper:

►Force (not hard and no bouncing, less is more);
Duration (25-30 seconds);
Rate (only move three or four millimeters or a quarter of an inch with each breath); and
Repetition (three stretches for each muscle).

Another important enhancement for optimizing the stretch is coordination of the gain (lengthening) on the exhale. A stretch technique called “hold-relax” (hold the position on the inhale, relax and gain on the exhale) optimizes the muscle stretch.

Once you stretch the target muscles in the Level 1 stretch, Level 2 and Level 3 stretches for that muscle moves deeper and then finally ballistically. Ballistic stretching is not bad, but it is not primary. After all, don’t you warm up with light overhead smashes or serves, gradually increasing to a full power serve?

The upper body muscles to target for tennis are:

The anterior and inferior rotator cuff;
Lateral epicondylar (outside elbow) muscles; and
Cervical spine (yes, the neck is needed because of the emphasis on the use of the arms and is especially stressed in overhead arm activity).

To stretch the shoulder, and most importantly, the dominant arm, use a wall to assist in stretching. There are three muscle bundles in the subscapularis muscle (the cocking/acceleration muscle):

A vertical component;
A diagonal component; and
A horizontal component.

For the vertical component, stand a few inches away from the doorway and gradually, on the exhale, lean into the wall, for five breathes, feeling a gentle, gradual increase in tension in the rib area. For the diagonal component, ease up, lower the arm slightly, step forward and gradually, on the exhale, move down and forward, on a diagonal (you’re stretching in the angle of the serve), feeling the stretch in the armpit. Finally, for the horizontal component, ease up, lower the arm to slightly above side arm and stretch forward, moving gradually on the exhale for five breathes, feeling the stretch in the pectoralis (chest muscle).

Second level shoulder stretches would be circumduction stretches, doing circles clockwise and counterclockwise five or six times and cross-chest pulling stretches. Third level (early ballistic) shoulder stretches would be throwing the arm four to five times in the overhead, then diagonal and then side arm positions simulating the earlier three-position wall stretches.

Forearm stretches require mobilizing the lateral (outside) and medial (inside) epicondylar muscle groups. Since these muscles cross both the elbow and wrist, the elbow must be maintained in full extension, while stretching the wrist down with the palm facing down (lateral group) and with the palm facing up.

Neck stretches include side bending by gradually letting the ear fall towards the shoulder. Second level (maybe not for the older crowd over 50) is circumduction.

The entire process of upper body stretching takes at least 10 minutes, but added to the pre-game warm-up should power up your game. Now take it out for a test drive.