Strength & Conditioning: Flexibility Training

By Todd S. Ellenbecker, MS, PT, SCS, OCS, CSCS

Introduction

Like many of you, when I attend a tennis tournament I spend most of my time watching players practice with their coaches.  This years US Open was no exception.  One of the interesting things to watch is how players warm-up prior to practice.  This year, I saw Gustavo Kuerten use elastic bands to warm up his shoulder before he ever hit a ball, and Jelena Dokic skip rope for 5-10 minutes before she walked on the court to start a practice session.  While each player uses his or her own methods, the common factor is that all of these players do some type of warm-up before they do anything strenuous on the court. 

Various methods of flexibility exercise and stretching have been recommended through the years with the purpose of improving performance as well as preventing injury.  Flexibility is typically defined as the range of motion available around a joint.  Research conducted by the USTA has identified several areas of inflexibility in elite tennis players most likely in response to the repeated stresses of playing the game.  The purpose of this article will be to briefly outline the types of flexibility exercise available to players and coaches, and to more specifically cover the area of dynamic flexibility and warm-up.

Types of Flexibility Exercise

The most commonly used and most frequently studied form of flexibility exercise is static stretching.  Static stretching is one of the most effective methods of stretching and is the safest way to encourage elongation of skeletal muscle.  It involves quite simply, isolation of the muscle’s origin and insertion through proper positioning of the joints followed by slow, steady movement to end range of motion and a period of static holding of the end position while breathing normally.  Variations on this form of stretching include “PNF” (a commonly used term) which is a technical procedure involving a therapist, trainer or educated partner who resists a contraction of the muscle just prior to stretching.  PNF uses the basic components of static stretching but requires the use of a partner that is not always available to an elite tennis player.

Dynamic stretching is quite simply the use of specific body movements to promote range of motion at the joints and ultimately elongation of the musculature.   Examples of dynamic stretching might include butt kicks, jogging place, or performing tennis strokes without ball contact prior to playing tennis.  Advantages of dynamic stretching are that tennis-specific movements can be used during dynamic stretching and it is easy to use these movements as part of a warm-up before playing.

Which Type of Flexibility is Best?

Until recently, sports scientists and sports medicine professionals always recommended static stretching before and after tennis play or any other type of vigorous exercise.  The slow movements and periods of holding at or near end range of motion were found in many studies to provide optimal lengthening of the muscle tissues.  Dynamic stretching and warm-up were mentioned but necessarily emphasized. 

Recent research however has identified temporary decreases in skeletal muscle performance immediately after static stretching.  This decrease in muscle performance includes decreases in muscular strength and power.  Applying this research to athletes has led sports scientists and medical professionals to now recommend static stretching before an activity such as tennis or training at least 30-60 minutes before that activity starts.  Additionally, the use of a warm-up (jogging in place, riding a stationary bicycle for 3-5 minutes to break a light sweat) is now highly recommended along with dynamic stretches immediately before the activity.  Static stretching is most commonly used and recommended now after the activity when the body is very warm, and maximal elongation via stretching can occur.  Static stretching after the workout is also thought to speed recovery and decrease soreness in addition to increase muscle length.  Table 1 summarizes the recommended sequence for tennis players.

Table 1

Recommended Stretching Sequence

1.) Active Warm-Up (3-5 minutes to break a light sweat)
2.) Dynamic Stretches (several repetitions of tennis specific movement patterns)
3.) Tennis Play or training
4.) Static Stretches (after activity when the body is very warm and static stretches can have an optimal benefit particularly for areas that are very tight and inflexible)

Dynamic Stretching Specifics

The best recommendation for integrating a series of dynamic stretches into a training program is to always perform a proper warm-up first.  The warm-up is one of the most important aspects of all types of stretching programs.  Recommended warm-up activities include slow jogging around the court, riding a bike, using a slide board or any other rhythmic aerobic type activity.  Typical durations of the warm-up should be 3-5 minutes or more, however these actions should be done a very low intensities. 

Once the player has performed the warm-up, several repetitions of dynamic stretches can be done each repetition with slightly greater intensity.  Examples of recommended dynamic stretches include butt kicks, front and side lunges, arm circles with racquet, jumping jacks and the stretch pictured in this article, high step trunk rotations.  Little guidance from the literature exists on how many repetitions of each stretch is optimal, however each player most likely will have individual needs. 

Performing multiple repetitions of each movement is recommended with more movements recommended in cooler temperatures and during tournaments where frequent matches and overtraining may increase stiffness between sessions.

Figure 1.  High Step Trunk Rotations.  Step high with right knee while rotating trunk and both arms to the right.  Repeat with next step using left knee and left trunk rotation.  Increase amount of trunk rotation and height of knee as you repeat several repetitions.  This can be done while walking across the court.

Should I Ignore Static Stretching Altogether?

Static stretching still clearly has a place in the tennis players’ training program.  As mentioned earlier, certain areas in the tennis player’s body become characteristically tight from tennis play.  Performing static stretching after tennis play and training sessions with particular emphasis on problem areas is still highly recommended.  The timing of static stretching has changed but the relative importance and effectiveness has not.  Performing the posterior shoulder stretch (racquet arm across body at chest level) is still a very important stretch for tennis players due to the specific range of motion adaptations that occur from repeated high intensity serving and tennis play.

Summary

A dynamic stretching program is an important part of a tennis players training program.  Proper use of the warm-up prior to dynamic stretching as well as use of tennis specific movement patterns can help to prepare the tennis player for practice and competition.  Time specific use of static stretching is still recommended to prevent flexibility deficits in problem areas.

 
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