I’m not sure if I’m right about this or not, but it sure seems to me that tennis is growing in popularity. I’m seeing far more coverage on television than ever before, and I’m meeting lots of young athletes that are competing seriously and are focused on their performance. When I work with these athletes, one area that always comes into play is their flexibility.
Tennis is primarily a one-sided sport, requiring much more activity from the dominant arm. In addition to the arm activity, the foot placement and torso motions can be asymmetrical, and after many days, months and years of play, the body can wind up getting a little imbalanced.
To make sure that you have adequate functional flexibility to play tennis, and to prevent your body from developing imbalances between your right and left sides, it’s a good idea to regularly perform a variety of sport-specific stretches. Think about what will happen if you try to perform a powerful overhand serve, but the muscles of your arm, shoulder, torso, hips or legs aren’t flexible enough to allow you to let loose with a smooth, powerful stroke. At the very least the performance of your shot will be compromised, but it’s also possible to injure yourself any time you attempt a powerful, dynamic movement through ranges of motion that your body isn’t ready for.
Following are three great exercises for flexibility and improved function during your tennis match. These stretches would primarily be performed after games or practice sessions, and on non-playing days. Hold each one for 30-60 seconds, breathing comfortably throughout. Always remember to do a proper warm-up, and make sure that you consult your physician before undertaking a new fitness program or making changes to your current routine.
Because there is a significant amount of rotation involved in tennis, it’s important to make sure that your trunk and spine can turn efficiently, without putting stress on your body. Sometimes we want the hips to turn during rotation, while other times the goal is to maintain lower body stability with movement between the pelvis and ribcage. This stretch is very effective for opening up this area and progressing your mobility. Start by standing with your side toward a pole or other vertical support. Place your feet roughly shoulder width apart and hinge forward at the hip joints, keeping your back flat and spine long. Reach to the side with your left arm and grasp the pole, then turn your shoulders and ribcage to the left as you reach across and grab on with the right hand. Hold this rotated position, gradually working to turn your body slightly further each time you exhale. Now repeat on the right side, looking for symmetry from one side to the other. Focus on good head position and spinal alignment, remembering to breathe comfortably throughout this stretch.
Standing cross-over side flexion
The mobility of the muscles along the side of your body (lateral slings) is most important during overhead shots where you must be able to reach overhead. This can become imbalanced because of the lack of reaching with the non-dominant arm. To stretch these slings, stand with your left side to a wall, and cross your right leg behind your left. This leg position will increase the stretch of your iliotibial band over your right hip and the outside of your leg. Now lean toward the wall and reach up and over your head with your right arm being careful not to twist your body. Breathe comfortably, letting your spine, shoulders and hips stretch out before taking a deep breath, exhaling and reaching even further upward. Perform this stretch on both sides of the body to ensure balanced flexibility.
In most sports, and most daily activities, there is a predominance for flexion positions, where the body bends forward. In tennis, the act of picking up the ball, or being in a flexed, ready position are examples of these actions. Less frequently the body is required to bend backward into a position of extension, and it’s important to maintain this mobility. A combined, passive/active exercise for this movement is something I call the sloppy pushup. Start on your stomach on the floor or mat, and gently press your body upward on your hands into an extended position until you feel a light stretch through your spine and abdomen. Keeping your hands side by side and your core engaged, slowly lift one hand 1” off the floor, without letting your body shift or tilt. Lower this hand and repeat with the other. Perform 20 lifts, gradually widening your hand position to increase the challenge on your core muscles. Raise you body slightly higher for an increased stretch.