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Anyone For Tennis? A Personal Trainers Guide To Building A Better Player

Jul 23, 2008
At last, spring has finally sprung and we can once again venture outside and enjoy the great outdoors. Traditionally, this is the time of year when weekend warriors all over the nation dust off their racquets and begin their mass exodus toward whatever passes for a tennis court in order to play what is arguably one of the most popular games in the UK.

Considering the popularity of the game, you'd think that those who play tennis would be serious about their conditioning. After all, with a sport that requires rapid direction change, explosive power output and a huge anaerobic component, the demands placed upon the body can be immense. Unfortunately though, many players rely on playing the game itself once or twice a week as their only means of physical preparation and often fall foul of injury as a result.

In fact, statistics tells us that over 6ooo UK adults are injured every year due to tennis participation (HASS Report 1998) with lateral ankle sprains, ACL/MCL/LCL and rotator cuff injuries becoming more and more prevalent. And lest you think these problems are confined to older adults only, think again. It has been reported that more than 4700 youths under 15 years of age are treated for tennis related injuries every year with many of these due to lack of physical preparation.

Clearly then, there is a great need (and a great market!) for Personal Trainers to develop conditioning plans that reduce injury risk and increase performance amongst tennis players. But where do we start?

Well, it has been argued that ANY conditioning programme is better than none and for the most part this has been found to be true. As Wayne Westcott demonstrated last year with golfers, a general programme of strength, flexibility and cardiovascular conditioning can have positive effects on sports people regardless of the sport or position they play. That said, it is important to recognise that all sports, and all players for that matter, have their own unique performance profiles which, when addressed through correct conditioning programmes, can dramatically reduce the chance of injury and increase player efficiency.

Player Profiling

Long before we ever put a weight into our budding tennis players' hands or suggest a stretching programme to address flexibility deficits, we need to learn about the 'machinery' that comprises the movement system of that unique individual. A thorough assessment of the individual joints, muscles and neurological recruitment patterns can tell us almost everything we need to know about the neuromuscular integrity of our athletes including:

- Which muscles are facilitated

- Which muscles are inhibited

- Patterns of synergistic dominance

- Postural distortion patterns

- Inner/outer unit dysfunctions

- Motor pattern irregularities

- Functional range of motion compensations

As complicated as this assessment may sound, it is in fact a relatively straight-forward process which, with a little study and practice, can remove the guesswork from your programming protocols, speeding up the results in the process and virtually eliminating the chances of injury.

For example, during a Kinetic Chain Assessment (KCA) of a tennis player we'll often find the following:

Static Posture

Regular tennis players will often exhibit forward head posture, depression and internal rotation of racquet arm, anterior tilting of pelvis and hyperextension of the knees. All of which are created by dominance patterns within the sport itself e.g. internal rotation and depression caused by myofascial shortening of the pectorals (major and minor), Latissimus dorsi, Teres major and Subscapularis as a result of overuse of the limb.

Fundamental Movement Profile

Using a standard lunge or squat pattern (both particularly relevant to the sport) often indicates the following movement dysfunctions:

- Pronation of the feet - Poor eccentric deceleration of the foot by the Tibialis anterior

- Medial tracking of the knees - Dominance of adductors over relatively weak gluteal group

- Abdominal protrusion - Weak inner unit

- Anterior pelvic tilt - Weak outer unit/ dominant erector spinae and lats

- Increased thoracic kyphosis - Inhibition of rhomboids by pectorals

Neurological Recruitment Assessment

When the reciprocal relationships between opposing muscle groups become affected by facilitation or inhibition there follows an altered recruitment sequence in the muscles creating movement around the joints.

In tennis players we'll often find that the muscles that abduct the shoulder 'fire' out of sequence leading to overuse of the Trapezius and cervical musculature creating a condition causing overuse and stress-type injuries to these areas. In addition, the gluteal musculature will often become inhibited by the overused quadriceps leading to a pattern of dominance in the lumbar erectors and hamstrings.

Space doesn't allow for a full description of the KCA but as you can see, the information gained from this type of assessment is invaluable in creating programmes that are specific to each and every individual player.

Tennis is a sport unlike any other. Played within a small confined area, players are expected to accelerate a ball at speeds often exceeding 100 mph whilst moving in any and all directions and from any number of body positions.

With so many variables to address it's often difficult for personal trainers to know where to begin with their programming efforts. Many place their emphasis on developing extra power for the serve (a mistake in an already overdeveloped area) whilst others focus on developing upper body strength-endurance for the rallies. This is the way it's always been done for tennis conditioning, after all it's predominantly an upper body game isn't it?

Well, the upper body may be responsible for delivering the ball to the opponent's side of the net, but in truth, the upper body has relatively little to do during the game (I said relatively!). For example, consider the following statistics:

- The ball is in play for a mere 23-26% of the total match time

- The ball is exchanged only 2.91 times per point

- A rally lasts between 4 and 4.5 seconds.

That's not a lot of upper body time is it? Yet how much 'gym time' gets devoted to upper body conditioning for tennis players? Clearly, we need to re-think our approach if we're going to affect our players performance and keep them from injury.

Activity Demand Analysis (ADA)

The key to creating a meaningful programme for any sport lies in gaining a clear understanding of the demands it places upon the body. For example:

Bio-energetic demands - Which energy systems dominate the activity? (All three energy systems are ALWAYS at work to a greater or lesser degree). With an average duration of only 4 or so seconds per rally it's clear that the phosphocreatine (PC) is the dominant energy system therefore any successful training programme needs to reflect this.

Muscle Contraction Spectrum - What form dominates the muscle contraction TYPE? For example, what is the ratio of eccentric, isometric and concentric contraction?

Tennis is clearly concentric dominant through the racquet arm yet the contribution of the core musculature and lower body clearly requires eccentric force reduction, isometric stabilisation and force production in almost equal measure.

Contraction Velocity Spectrum - What form do the muscle contractions take?

Are they slow, rhythmical, reactive or explosive?

Obviously, the nature of tennis and the skill of the player mean that contraction velocities will change but which dominate? During the serve, the action will be explosive for the racquet arm and core musculature yet will change to become more reactive during the rally as the player focuses slightly more on accuracy and less on pure power.

The lower body, by contrast, will often require a high level of isometric strength in order to create a stable base during the serve yet move to a more reactive and even explosive requirement during the rally.

Dominant plane of motion - Again, depending on the skill, experience and style of the player we need to emphasise the planes which require the most attention during conditioning.

For example, during the average game 47% of the time is spent moving forward (Saggital plane), 48% moving sideways (Frontal plane) and only 5% moving backward (Saggital). Therefore it makes sense to condition tennis players predominantly in the frontal and transverse planes (rotary) if we wish to reduce injury risk and increase player potential.

In contrast, the upper body movements required of tennis are predominantly transverse or rotary movements with almost no frontal plane (lateral) and only the occasional saggital plane work during service or 'smash' type movements.

Activity Duration - What is the work to rest ratio of the activity? How long will the player perform continuously and what sort of rest will they get before they perform again? These factors need to be ascertained and then programmed for.

In Conclusion

As you can see, tennis is a rather complex sport to programme for. With such far-ranging and often opposing demands from the upper and lower body, many personal trainers tend to either overcomplicate or oversimplify the training requirements for each of these areas leading to programmes that, at best, yield little if any improvement in performance and at worst, increase the likelihood of injury.

The answer to this problem is simple really.

First, identify the unique functional integrity of the individual.

Use a KCA or similar to identify weak links in the chain and endeavour to formulate a corrective exercise strategy that addresses any dysfunctions that are present. Often you'll find that just by correcting these dysfunctions with your player that their game will improve dramatically.

Second, with dysfunctions corrected, use the ADA to create a programme that addresses the various unique requirements of the sport.

Determine where your clients' strengths and weaknesses lie in relation to the sporting demands and endeavour to reduce any weaknesses (speed, strength, agility, flexibility etc).

This approach may sound far too simple for many of you, especially those who fancy themselves as 'conditioning specialists' and the like, but consider this; each and every aspect of the programme that you design this way is based upon hard scientific fact rather than personal preference and guesswork and as such is certain to bring your client real success.

And after all, isn't that why they hired you in the first place?
About the Author
Dax Moy is the UK's leading performance lifestyle coach with studios in and around London, England.

Dax trains fitness professionals from all around the world in advanced kinetic chain assessment and program design through his academy at www.fitsystemtraining.com
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