Fit for Tennis
The Covid-19 lockdown has seen leisure facilities, such as tennis and squash clubs, being forced to close, compromising their members physical health and fitness. What was unknown, was the impact these closures would have on a person’s social and mental well-being, with these clubs being such a social hub for all ages. This can result in a feeling of loss, or bereavement if you will.
These same traits are witnessed in someone who cannot participate in their activity/ sport of choice due to an injury holding them back. Most people will not give a second thought to purchasing either the latest footwear or a new racket, however, investment in your physical capabilities will maximise the opportunity to do what you love whenever you want, whilst having greater longevity then said racket and trainer.
At an elite level, tennis has been dubbed one of the most physically demanding sports going, with extremes such as 11 hour matches, temperatures of 390C, unpredictable start and finish times (Johanna Konta took to the court in the 2018 Australian Open to face Gabriel Murgurza at 00:22am, finishing at 03:12am), and varying weather and surfaces. A player can cover between 5-8km in match, that often lasts between 2 and 5 hours long, with more than 1000 stokes being performed. During a match, only 15-25% of the time is spent actively playing, with average rally’s lasting between 5-9s. This implies that at an elite level, the game consists of short, high intensity, explosive movements, which is no surprise to anyone who watches the likes of Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams play.
At elite level a player’s physical preparation can be complex and yield only small, although vital gains. At clublevel, physical preparation for tennis can be much simpler and give significant benefits quickly.
So how do we take a complex sport and make it simple? Well first we need to understand what physical characteristics underpin Tennis. Then we need to look for commonalities within those characteristics, until what we are left with, are areas we can easily and progressively develop for all ages and abilities.
Physical Characteristics of Tennis….
The vast majority of tennis physical requirements can be achieved by focusing on four areas of development.
Perhaps surprisingly to most people, the first requirement is the ability to slow down. The body will not allow you to get into a position if it thinks it cannot get back out of it. Equally, the body will not speed up if it doesn’t think it can stop itself. Newton’s third law implies that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Which means that however much force you apply (foot hitting the ground), you will experience an equal force being returned (ground reaction force).
In a change of direction task at slow speed, the ground reaction force can be around 4x body weight, which implies that an 80kg person would be exposed to the equivalent of 320kg through the leg they are changing direction off. The highest loads in movement occur when the body tries to slow down. A failure to be able to cope with these high loads is the most common cause of injury.
To mitigate for these high loads, the first task is to ensure that you are able to produce sufficient force throughout your body, in particular your legs, in an effective and economical way. Simple exercises to develop the skill and musculature to slow down are drop landings, lunges, squats and actually stopping as quickly as possible at increased speeds in various positions. Key muscles groups are the calves, hamstrings, glutes and especially the quadriceps.
The second aspect is the ability to speed up. One of the primary roles of strength and conditioning is to overload the habitual load. In tennis this is to overload body weight movement through either speed or resistance (weights). By creating an environment that is more stressful than what is normal, the body adapts to the increased demand by recruiting more muscle fibres within the required muscles, and by forging a stronger neural pathway to recruit them faster. Performing jump-based exercises, either onto a box, or with bands or weights creates an intent that will overload the system and produce an explosive contraction. Performing hill sprints allows for the application of explosive acceleration mechanics, but importantly, with minimal ground reaction force. Both of these types of exercises allow the brain to utilise the muscle it needs, whilst reassuring the opposing muscles it is ok to move that quickly under that load.
To move quickly in any upright sport requires a significant contribution from the ankle complex, in particular the Achilles tendon. Its main role is to assist in projecting the body forward via an elastic recoil. In order to function as an elastic band, the calves have to be super strong to avoid lengthening on ground contact. If the calf muscles can contract sufficiently, they create conditions that enable the Achilles tendon to stretch and thus load with elastic energy. Performing plyometrics, which require high intensity fast ground contacts will develop both the tendon and calf muscles to function similar to a spring.
This links well with the third ability, which is to minimise the onset of fatigue. The use of elastic energy is more economical than muscle contractions, where the muscles use energy expensively to shorten and lengthen.
Tennis requires the whole kinetic chain to function simultaneously. This means that to perform a forehand, the body needs to be able to coordinate and utilise movement to generate force, which travels from the foot on ground contact, into the hips, up through the spine, into the shoulder and out through the racket and into the ball. If one of these joints was to be compromised, then the whole chain will become inefficient as the body compensates to ensure the outcome remains the same.
This inefficient movement pattern then becomes energy expensive. A good analogy of this is a bottle of water. When full the bottle is strong. If you start to put small holes into the bottle, the water escapes. The bottle then becomes more compliant as the structure and integrity is compromised. We call these holes energy leaks in movement. By assessing how a joint function’s in terms of mobility and strength, both in isolation and within a whole chain movement pattern we can easily assess where these leakages are occurring and what the best intervention is. A good example is when a player has weak core muscles. One of the main aims of the core is to protect the lower spine (lumbar) and prevent excessive movement.
When the core is strong, it acts as an anchor for the joints above (thoracic) and below (hips) to move around. If these muscles are not strong enough, then excessive movement will occur around the lumbar spine, and in response the hips and thoracic will move less. The result is an inefficient compensatory movement pattern. In tennis, this then may lead to lower back problems, or tennis elbow. The latter occurs as a breakdown in the kinetic chain results in the arm having to work harder to generate the required force for a shot. The lack of mobility in the thoracic then leads to an ineffective deceleration of the swing arm during the shot recovery, which in turn exposes the elbow of the racket arm.
This lack of mobility in the thoracic, coupled with a dominance of the anterior musculature of the chest can lead to rounded shoulders. This strength imbalance in the shoulders can result in the shoulder blade not being able to function and glide effectively. Coupled with the lack of mobility within the thoracic spine, a major component of the kinetic chain within a stroke can be compromised. Performing frequent shoulder external rotation and scapula retraction exercises can offset the functional imbalance.
Recreational tennis is an aerobic activity. By ensuring you are on the court as often as possible, you will naturally develop tennis specific cardiovascular fitness levels. The more competitive you play, then additional specific fitness training would be required. However, just being stronger, will increase blood flow and oxygen to the working muscles, which will improve recovery whilst you play and thusly also delay the onset of fatigue.
Finally, the ability to disassociate links heavily with the energy leakages theme. It refers to the ability to control one part of your body whilst moving another. In tennis, an example of this occurs during a ground stroke. During the wind-up phase, the feet and legs are planted to create a stable base, whilst the upper body rotates. The ability to maintain a stable ankle, knee and hip alignment, whilst the upper body rotates, allows for an elastic stretch to occur across the body, which in turn allows more force to be generated within the shot. A failure to disassociate, for example, would see the knee follow the rotation of the upper body, which can often lead to knee pain as the knee compensates for poor hip and thoracic mobility, the net result is an inefficient movement pattern. To generate high levels of force, you have to be stable. The ability to disassociate between upper and lower body allows for effective transfer of force from the ground up. Disassociation exercise examples are; woodchops, parlov press, Romanian deadlifts, rotating lunges, deadbugs and birddogs.
If you would like more information or a more in-depth personal programme, please do not hesitate to get in touch and we can talk about how PRIME can address your specific needs.
Even in perfect physical condition there’s no guarantee you will become the next Roger Federer. However, we are confident you will feel better on court whilst increasing your chance of avoiding injury, with even modest attention to your physical condition. Thanks for reading, enjoy your tennis!