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Ask the Lab: Back Exercises & Strong Arms

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.

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    Question: Are there any exercises or stretches I can do to improve my lower back strength?

    Dr. Riewald: Good question, especially since many tennis players experience low back pain or tightness at some point in their career. Just so that there is no confusion, exercises are used for strengthening muscles and improving coordination between muscles and stretches are performed to improve flexibility.

    There are a number of exercises you can do to strengthen your lower back – too many to actually list here. With that said, squats and “good mornings” are two good body weight exercises that can be used to improve lower back strength.

    Another exercise that you can do to improve lower back strength is the quadruped alternate limb extension.

    Download the attached exercise sheets to read how to perform the exercises.

    There are also several stretches that help improve flexibility in your lower back. One of the most effective is pulling your knee to your chest while lying on your back. You can do this one leg at a time or both legs simultaneously.

    Another stretch that targets the lower back is the “modified hurdler’s stretch”. This is commonly thought of as a hamstring stretch, but it also targets the lower back when performed properly. It is important to keep a “neutral spine” when performing the hurdler’s stretch. If you arch the back and/or roll the shoulders forward you put added stress on the spine.

    One leg knee to chest.© USTA

    Two legs knee to chest.© USTA

    Modified hurdler stretch© USTA

    Keep in mind that static stretching should be performed after exercise. Additionally, research has shown that performing lower back stretches like these in the morning after waking up places three times as much stress on the disks in your lower back compared to performing the same activities a few hours later.

    The same hold true for any exercise, even crunch sit-ups and good mornings. You should not perform any exercise that involves bending of the trunk until several hours after you wake-up. If you have a sore back and do these exercises to start your day, chances are you will feel the tightness and soreness again the next day.

    Question: I want to make my arms stronger so I can hit the ball harder when I play tennis. I don't know which exercise is just based on my arms for tennis. Can you show me which exercise?

    Question: My question is I have smaller arms and I want to strengthen them and make them thicker and stronger. I am also joining a tennis league for section summer session. With me playing I don't want to wear out my arms out, but I want to get them stronger at the same time. What would you recommend?

    Dr. Riewald:
    Many tennis players think that is important to have big, strong arms to hit the ball harder and play tennis more effectively. In reality, almost every shot you hit involves the entire body. All of the body parts are linked together.

    Power and strength are first generated in the legs, then the hips, the trunk, shoulders and arm before you finally hit the ball. It is not the arms, but the legs, trunk and shoulders that develop most of the power for your strokes.

    The arms are actually the last and one of the weakest links in the chain. Tennis players should engage in a full-body strength-training program. Strengthening the arms should be a part of that program, but should not be the primary focus. Focus first on building strength in the legs, core region and the shoulders – particularly the rotator cuff muscles.

    This will help with injury prevention and set the stage for improved performance. Also, don’t forget the role of proper technique when you play tennis. Sometimes hitting the ball harder simply means hitting the ball correctly.

    Specific exercises that will strengthen the arms include:

    • Arm curls will target the biceps muscles in the front of your upper arm.
    • Triceps extension exercises will target the triceps in the back of the upper arm.
    • Wrist curls will strengthen the forearm muscles.
    • Squeezing a tennis ball, or another softer ball, will help strengthen the forearm muscles and improve grip strength.
    • External rotation exercises will improve strength in the rotator cuff.

    About the Author:

    The answers to this week's column come from Scott Riewald, PhD. Dr. Riewald is the USTA Administrator of Sport Science, he reports to Paul Lubbers, Director of Coaching Education. Dr. Riewald and the Sport Science staff work with Coaching Education to provide information to the coaches of top American players through seminars, workshops and newsletters.

    Past Riewald Columns:
    Knee Problems & Tennis Elbow
    Strength & Flexibility Exercises
    Playing in the Sun & Jumping Rope
    Banned Substances & Youth Strength Training


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