With the easing of the lockdown measures for Covid-19, tennis courts are open across the country. This means many of you who are regular tennis players are back on the court, and some people are taking it up for the first time!
Get fit for tennis at home!
Whatever level tennis player you are, from novice to pro, it is fair to say that you will need to have some level of physical fitness. We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t get fit playing tennis, you have to get fit to play tennis”. We are wondering if now is actually the ideal scenario for this!
If you have had a long time away from your sport, now is the perfect time to focus on improving your basic fitness and addressing any imbalances or weaknesses you may have developed along the way.
So, what can you do at home to get fit for tennis and improve your game?
Benefits of home exercise
The benefits of home exercise are both physical and mental.
The aim of Pilates, or any kind of exercise at home, is not only maintain and improve our basic fitness, but also to reduce potential injury and help your mental health.
If you haven’t kept up a programme, you may increase your risk of injury or suffer severe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for a few days. This may mean you have to take more days off from your beloved game, which you certainly don’t want after a such a frustrating prolonged break.
For example, it is often time away from the court, either due to rest or injury, that can put you at risk of injuries like Achilles tendon problems or lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow). These happen because of a sudden increases in load. Like starting tennis a full speed after a long break!
Like all sports, tennis is a game that puts distinct stresses on the body. It requires sudden stops and starts, muscle extensions, rotation and impact. All of these combined can cause back pain – link to or damage the spine. As with golf, link to the repetitive nature of the sport and its one-sidedness, causes further problems by building up some muscles and neglecting others. This can lead to muscular imbalances which further puts you at risk of injury.
Tennis places huge demands on our spine.
Forehand and backhand shots require a large amount of rotation in the spine. The pressures created increase even more in the serve. During this, your spine has to both rotate and extend – almost to end range – as a ball is hit with great force.
Because of this, back injuries are relatively common in tennis. They can range from damage to the muscles and ligaments, to more serious disc problems.
When it comes to lower back injuries, a stiff mid or upper spine (the thoracic spine) is often to blame. This part of the spine is responsible for rotation, flexion and extension – movements vital for all the different tennis strokes. When there is a lack of mobility in this part of the spine, your lower (lumbar) spine has to compensate for it by acting in a way it’s not designed to – e.g. rotate more than a few degrees.
This means that improving mobility of your thoracic spine can help you avoid certain injuries. Doing so will also help improve your power production in forehand and backhand strokes. A win all around!
Because of this, it makes sense for you to work on your thoracic mobility – which is where Pilates exercises can come in and are a perfect solution!
Where to start?
Tennis uses short (anaerobic) explosive movement patterns repeated over longer periods of time. This means your training should reflect this!
Full-body exercises maximise efficiency in training for tennis and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) programmes can offer a specific form of exercise which complements normal match play.
Performing a full body programme which focuses on strength, endurance and your core will have a greater effect in keeping you fit to play tennis now we have the green light again!
Tennis uses all the components of fitness;
Because of this we know it can be confusing as to how and when to focus on a specific area of fitness.
For example, if your training is focused too much on strengthening, this could end up causing hypertrophy (bigger and heavier muscles). This can increase your body weight and size and therefore slow you down on court.
On the other hand, if you don’t perform regular strength training, you can lose power on court. Worst of all, after a prolonged time, the physical strain of the game could overload your tissues and contribute to injury.
You need to make sure you find a balance between the different types of requirements on your body.
Cardiovascular exercise at home
This means getting your heart and lungs working! For the cardiovascular fitness required in an average game, you can consider getting on your bike, running, skipping (great for foot work), jogging or even sprinting on the spot!
Recommendations for maintaining cardiovascular fitness does depend on your current fitness level. Start by working up to 30 minutes three days per week. If this is easy for you, you can do a run or bike 20-60 minutes 5-7 days per week. However, make sure to mix this up so you are not just doing the same thing all the time!
Remember, as with a HIIT circuit, you can make your cardiovascular sessions interval based for specificity as well. For example, if you’re using a bike or running for 30 minutes within that time do some short sprints at a moderate or high intensity pace. This can be anywhere from 15-45 seconds followed by a slower pace in order to recover. Then repeat this throughout your session.
Do you do a warm-up for tennis?
Maybe you have an ‘old-school’ approach of going on court stretching of your calves and quads? It is important to recognise that ‘stretching’ injury prevention is not supported by research. Flexibility is one of the main components of fitness, but we have to make sure we get this flexibility in an effective way. Overall, the research suggests it does not reduce risk of injury, improve performance or help influence pain levels.
So what do we do instead?!
The best way to think of a warm-up in tennis, like most other sports, is to make sure you increase your heart rate, allow your blood pressure to adapt and increase your body temperature.
You can do this on a bike, with a light jog, or even better, performing movements which you will shortly be performing during play.
For example, gradually increasing the intensity and speed of lunging forward, back, and side to side, squats, court jogs, doing some jumps and hops and gently swinging of the racket high and low will get you primed and ready for your game!
This can all be practised at home and is a great way of getting your body ready for your return to court!
How can Pilates exercises benefit tennis players?
As a method designed to mobilise and strengthen the body in all directions, and create an even musculature, Pilates is the perfect choice for tennis players looking to avoid injury.
But that is not its only benefit, as the likes of Serena Williams and Andy Murray can testify.
Pilates is brilliant for enhancing sports performance.
For these reasons, whether you are a pro and recreational player, you should think about adding in Pilates to your training. Ideally this is with a clinical instructor in a 1-2-1 environment.
However, if you’re yet to make it to the studio, or can’t at the moment due to Covid-19 our “5 exercises for a better swing motion” are a great place to start.
5 Pilates exercises for tennis players
These exercises are designed to improve spinal mobility. They’ll also help to mobilise your shoulders and strengthen your back, abdominals and obliques – areas involved in creating a powerful tennis racket swing.
1. Thread the needle
Benefits: Improves your spine rotation and shoulder flexibility.
How to: Come on to all fours with your hands under your shoulders, your knees under your hips.
Next, take your weight into your right hand. Then take your left hand and thread it, palm facing up, through the space between your right thigh and hand.
Keep your hips still and level to isolate the movement to your upper spine.
Return to all fours before repeating it on the other side.
Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
2. Book Opening
Benefits: Improved spine rotation and stretches your chest.
How to: Come into a side-lying position with your arms together in a straight line and resting on the mat. If you need to, prop your head up with a small pillow or folded towel.
Next, take a deep breath to prepare and then exhale with an open mouth as you open one arm up towards the ceiling and start to twist your spine.
Continue to move your arm in an arc until it rest on the mat next to you, remembering to turn your head as you move.
Keep your knees stacked throughout this movement. This should help you access the top part of your spine.
Reduce your range of movement (e.g. don’t let your arm come all the way to the ground) if you get any lower back pain. This exercise is designed to mobilise your upper spine and you should not be feeling it in your lower back.
Repeat 3 times on each side.
3. Criss Cross
Benefits: Better abdominal and oblique strength and torso rotation.
How to: With your hands behind your head and legs in table top, curl your upper body up until your shoulder blades are off the mat. This mirrors the starting position of the Pilates Hundred exercise.
Next, rotate your upper body by bringing your right elbow to the opposite knee. Extend and straighten your right leg as you do so. Then repeat these instructions on the other side.
Remember, this a dynamic move, so keep up the tempo by swapping between sides quickly. Also, keep your head heavy in your hands to avoiding straining your neck.
Repeat 6-10 times on each side focusing on keeping good form throughout.
Benefits: Improved spine mobility into lateral flexion (side-bending).
How to: Come into a “z-sit” position (pictured here) to start, with your right knee in front and left leg bent at your side. If that is uncomfortable, prop your hips up on a block or sit on a chair.
Next, place your right hand on the mat for support and allow your left arm to float up and over in an arc. Allow your spine to bend with it as you find a stretch in the left side of your body.
As you do so, imagine a pane of glass behind your spine. The back of your head should be resting against it and not jutting forward.
Repeat 3-5 repetitions and then move on to the other side.
Benefits: Stronger back-extension muscles. Improved shoulder mobility.
How to: Lie on your stomach with your arms down by your side. Your forehead can rest on a small pillow or folded towel.
Inhale and lengthen the crown of the head away from your shoulders.
Now, on an exhale, reach your hands towards your toes and allow your arms to lift off the ground. As you do so, allow your upper back to curl and lift slightly off the mat but keep your lower ribs in contact with the mat. To protect your lower back, engage your abdominals throughout and press your pubic bone into the mat.
Pause and inhale at the top of the movement, deepening the curl of the upper back if that feels comfortable. Exhale to lower back to the starting position. Remember not to look up as you lift your spine and instead keep the back of the neck long and your gaze towards your mat.
This shouldn’t hurt your lower back. If it does, focus on creating length through the spine even as you curl your spine. You can also try placing your hands on the mat to support your upper body during the exercise.
Repeat this exercise 3 times.
This exercise isn’t suitable for people with acute stenosis or acute facet syndrome.
Want to see how we can help your tennis game further? Try a 1:1 session in person or online so that we can develop a program specific for your needs.