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Ask the High Performance Lab

May 25, 2008 12:25 PM

PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the High Performance Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.

If you would like to submit a question that may be answered by our Health & Fitness team or want to share an idea for a future column, please click here.

Dr. Duane Knudson is internationally known as an expert on the biomechanics of tennis and has served several terms on the United States Tennis Association Sport Science Committee. He is Associate Dean of the College of Communication and Education and a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the California State University, Chico. His primary areas of research are the biomechanics of tennis, stretching, and the qualitative analysis of movement. Dr. Knudson also serves on the USTA’s Sport Science Committee.

Dr. Duane Knudson, an expert of tennis biomechanics, serves on the USTA Sport Science Committee.
Q: Our Tennis Club is adding a fitness center that will include some basic free weights and treadmills, among a few other equipment stations. Is there a source for promoting strength and/or flexibility exercises specifically useful in tennis stroke/movements? Illustrations would be great! We think it might be an incentive to relate a specific machine or a specific tennis stroke. Also, what age minimum would you recommend for users of machines? Thanks.

Dr. Knudson: Great questions. I like your idea to have a card or drawing on the machines that links the exercises to the tennis strokes. Physical therapists, physical educators or strength coaches can help you make these links. These health professionals use functional anatomy to link stroke movements to similar exercise motions that use the same major muscle groups. If your club has a physical therapist ask him or her to help with this.

Many clinics have software programs that have high-resolution drawings of exercises that are used for exercise prescriptions. The muscular origins of strokes are, of course, much more complex than discrete movements. If you are interested in a more complete discussion of training issues in tennis see the books listed below.

  • Reid, M., Quinn, A. & Crespo, M. (2003) ITF Strength and Conditioning for Tennis. London: ITF.
  • Roetert, E.P, & Ellenbecker, T. (1998) Complete conditioning for tennis. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association all support resistance training for young people, if the programs are appropriately designed and supervised. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement without knowing about your orientation and supervision at your facility.

The same local professionals I recommended you talk with at the web sites of the organizations above can help you set a fitness center policy that is safe and open to interested young players.

Q: Every time before practice or matches, my school coach never requires us to stretch or warm up. I find it odd, because I know it is important to stretch before doing any kind of exercise or sport. However, I end up not having enough time to stretch before practice or a game, so I, too, don't warm up. Is it absolutely necessary to stretch before playing tennis? If so, what do you recommend?

Dr. Knudson: Yes it is necessary to warm-up prior to any vigorous physical activity, but no it is not usually necessary to stretch. A good warm-up consists of whole body movements that begin slowly and gradually increase in range of motion and intensity. It might be that your coach has designed some stroking drills for the start of practice that progressively intensify the arm and leg movements required.

It might come as a surprise to most players, but the logic of stretching prior to competition (there was no science to back up the logic) has been refuted by dozens of studies. We now know that stretching prior to vigorous exercise does not affect risk of injury, and actually reduces most all kinds of performance. Most tennis players should stretch after matches to try to maintain normal levels of flexibility.

Q: Are there any exercises, stretching or strengthening, that will make my arm more "live" on serves and overheads that would facilitate greater pace? I always hear Andy Roddick has a "live arm" and so I wonder if that is something one can acquire or if that is purely genetics? Any light you could shed would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance for your time.

Dr. Knudson: There are many exercises that would be useful for improving racket speed in overarm strokes like the serve and overhead. Most strength coaches would recommend pullovers, bench presses, lat pulls, and triceps extensions. If you are serious about conditioning you might seek out a strength and conditioning coach who knows tennis and he or she will progress you into a program of upper body plyometrics to make the exercise program more stroke specific. There is evidence that these forms of training will increase your serve speed.

Now if this moderate improvement is the same as what coaches refer to as “live” no one truly knows. There is no accepted definition of a “live” arm and how much of this is genetics, training, or coordination. I cannot speak for all the tennis coaches, but I would suspect that most would use this term to refer to the genetic gift some players have that is not easily created by stretching or strengthening.

Q: I am not all that sure of the proper size grip. I often experience cramps in my hand and I am wondering if my grip size is contributing to it. I know that in the old days the large finger was used as a guide. Is that still the best guide for determining grip size?

Dr. Knudson: Most of the research on gripping involves hand tools and not tennis rackets, so most of the wisdom is still rules of thumb (no pun intended). In an eastern forehand you should be able to get you thumb to cover up some of the nail of your middle finger. The smaller the grip the harder the hand and forearm muscles will have to work. If you are getting cramps you might explore increasing your grip size slightly.

This can be experimented with easily with tape and overwraps. You might also do some grip exercises and not grip the racket so tightly during play. The grip should only firm up at impact. The belief that a very firm grip will increase ball speed is a persistent myth. Excessive grip pressure might actually slow down your stroke and may be contributing to your problem.

If you would like to submit a question that may be answered by our Health & Fitness team or want to share an idea for a future column, please click here.

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