Gear Q&A: Elbow Issues

by: Jon Levey | April 21, 2021

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Jon Levey answers your equipment questions in Gear Q&A. Click here to email your question, or send him a tweet @levey_jon.


I played for two years with a Volkl VSense V1 Pro and never had any arm problems, even though it boasted a 66 RA stiffness rating and I played with polyester strings. I desired more power and started using the Yonex EZONE 100, which boasts a 69 RA stiffness rating. I played with it for nine months, also with polyester strings. Now, all of a sudden, I developed golfer’s elbow. ( I used similar strings/string tension on both racquets). 

Strings are of course very important, but I wanted to focus this question only on the racquet's impact on arm friendliness. Surely, there is more to arm comfort than just "stiffness"? I often see people speaking about "vibration frequency" and it seems some racquets with low stiffness ratings still give players elbow problems. Is this somehow related? What really makes a racquet "arm friendly"?Alexander

Alexander,

As someone who has, and continues to manage, creaky elbows for years—I’ve had both golfer’s and tennis elbow—I literally feel your pain. It sucks and can really take the joy out of playing. Unfortunately, whether it’s treatment, equipment or technical adjustment, there’s no foolproof fix. Otherwise it wouldn’t be such a prevalent problem. 

Racquet and string stiffness can certainly play a role. The more unforgiving the hitting platform, the more shock it will deliver, especially during imperfect contact. The fact that the EZONE 100 doesn’t flex as much as the Volkl could indeed be the root cause. Volkl racquets are also lauded for the vibration dampening system in the handles. That’s why they’re often recommended for players struggling with arm pain. 

This handle technology may also factor into the differing frequency aspect you mention. I once consulted with a racquet industry veteran when I was going through a particularly bad bout of elbow pain; he offered that my constant juggling of demo frames delivered varied feedback to my arm, doing it no favors. Your situation is a common one: A player has grown accustomed to a frame, playing pain-free with it for years, then switches to a new racquet and the unique stimulus results in arm issues. Even frames with a lower flex that earn an arm-friendly label.

The weight of a racquet also has an influence on its arm-friendliness. A lighter racquet, while generally easier to swing, absorbs less shock at impact than a heavier one. If you’re in a car crash, better to be driving a truck than a coupe. In order to imbue lighter racquets with enough stability to win the collision with the ball, the stiffness is often raised. Throw in a rigid polyester string and it can be a dangerous recipe for joint health. It might seem counterintuitive to use a heavier frame with an injured arm, but it will disperse more of the feedback before reaching the elbow. That’s why it has been speculated that when players used heavy, flexible, wooden racquets with softer strings, no one had arm problems.

However, we’ve all witnessed players use incredibly firm, light, arm-killing racquets and stiff strings and not struggle with an ounce of pain. This could be that they have exemplary technique, hit the sweet spot with regularity and therefore don’t receive as much shock from their equipment. Poor form is often cited as the prime culprit behind arm pain. There’s a deficiency or inefficiency in a stroke and its repetition gradually and eventually causes inflammation. An unforgiving racquet/string combo stands to exacerbate the problem. A consultation with an experienced coach could shed some light on whether swing adjustments could alleviate discomfort. 

A final consideration is that the source of your pain has nothing to do with your equipment, technique or even your elbow. I know, sounds daffy. But keep in mind that the elbow is a hinge joint. It’s primary function is to raise and lower the lower arm. Like the knee, it is often at the mercy of the two joints above and below it: the wrist and shoulder. Sitting all day, typing and streaming constantly hunched over laptops and smartphones can cause muscular imbalances, weaknesses and stiffness in these joints. Shortcomings that only get more pronounced with age.

That means when a tight pectoral causes a limited range of motion, or the stabilizer muscles around the shoulder weaken, the body compensates by passing the workload elsewhere, usually landing on the elbow. It’s not equipped to handle the added assignment and the overuse eventually causes pain. It manifests in the elbow, but the problem actually lies elsewhere. It won’t fully heal until the source is addressed. That’s why I have found that strengthening my shoulder and stretching the muscles surrounding it has done more to help my elbow problems than any equipment change, support device or treatment. 

So that’s a very roundabout way of saying that just because a racquet meets the supposed requirements of being arm-friendly, doesn’t mean it will solve your elbow problem. If I were to make a checklist of things to consider to help cure and bulletproof your arm, it might look like this:

  1. Drop the tension on the polyester strings. Go as low as you can while still maintaining reasonable control. Switching to a hybrid setup, or going to a full bed of a soft multifilament until the pain subsides would be even better.
  2. Add weight to the handle of the frame. Gradually build up a few grams at a time. You’ll be surprised how little it will impact the racquet’s handling—it may actually feel quicker—yet it will give it a more stable, comfortable response.
  3. Adopt a shoulder strengthening and flexibility regimen. It doesn’t have to be complicated—light weights and bands—but it couldn’t hurt to consult a personal trainer or physical therapist. If you’re looking for a recommendation, Mark Kovacs—a high performance coach with tons of experience with pro athletes—offers an effective program on his website (kovacsinstitute.com).
  4. Consider switching to a racquet with a lower flex and arm-friendly technologies. I’m not sure it’s necessary to completely abandon the EZONE, but something with more comfort features might cushion the blow. Volkl and Pro Kennex frames earn high marks for this, as does the Wilson Clash.

Sorry for the longwinded response. Hopefully there’s a nugget or two that applies to your game.

Good luck.    

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