Stretching: The Truth

by: Steve Milano | August 06, 2009

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Touching your toes and flexing your quads aren't the best ways to get loose before you play. Here's what to do instead.

If you're like most tennis players, you've been told that stretching just before you hit the court will help you play better and decrease your chances of injury. So you touch your toes, hold your stretches for counts of 30, and push against the fence or net post until it's ready to fall over. But there's a better way to loosen up.

Don't get me wrong, it's essential to stretch before you play-just not the way we've been told. Research shows that while traditional static stretches (stretching to the point of tension in the muscle and holding it) and the less frequently used dynamic stretches {quick sport-specific movements) are both beneficial to tennis players, their effectiveness is determined by when they're performed.

Static stretches, the type most recreational players do before a match, lengthen muscles and increase their flexi- bility; This is what you want over the long term, but during play muscles that have been lengthened will suffer tempo- rary decreases in power and therefore performance, according to Dr.]eff Chandler, associate professor of exer- cise science, sport, and recreation at Marshall University in Huntington, WVa., and an advisor to the PTR. This can include a decrease in your vertical jump.

These findings are echoed by Dr. Ben Kibler, medical director at the Lexington (K)') Clinic Sports Medicine Center and a founder of the Society for Tennis Medicine and Science. He says static stretching can cause decreases in muscle perform- ance for about 20 minutes.

Static stretches, according to Kibler, are best done immediately after you leave the court, when your blood is flowing and your muscles aren't tight, This will help you 9 reach your maximum stretch. For adult and senior players, in particular, stretching after matches will decrease post-play stiffness and soreness.

So what should you do before you play? The key is to get your muscles moving the way they will during the match. The best way to do this .is with a set of dynamic stretches that mimic the movements of tennis, including high-steps, arm circles, quick racquet swings, and lunges. What you shouldn't do are movements that stretch the muscles to extremes.

But don't ignore static stretches altogether. This ideal routine combines the two to help you perform better on court, recover from the stresses placed on your body during play and increase your long-term flexibility and power. Here's what to do when:

On-court warm-up
This should consist of light hitting, not high-intensity movements. That doesn't mean you should slouch at the baseline, however. If the other player hits a short ball during the warm'-up, don't play it on two bounces! You won't do that in practice or in a match, so warm up like you play and use good footwork to move around the court and put your body through a full range of motions.

Dynamic stretching
Do the stretches described on these pages right before you play (after your warm-up, if possible).

Static stretching
After you play but before you hop into that air-conditioned car, take the time to do a set of traditional static stretches. These are done by extending a muscle until you feel tension and then holding it for 15 to 30 seconds. Work your entire body to lengthen all of the key muscles you used on court. You'll be glad you did the next time you playas well as when you wake up in the morning.

Start your dynamic stretching routine when you get to the court.  Before practicing, take your time after the warm-up and do a full routine like the one below.  When you play a match, you won’t have as much time, so take a minute both before and after the warm-up and do as many exercises as you can.  Make sure to include your legs, trunk and arms.  Use the moves below as samples (jumping jacks are also effective) and quickly go from one to the next. There are no guidelines for how long you should perform a move, but try to do as many of the exercises as possible.

Stretching: The Truth

Standing in place or lightly jogging, bring heels up to buttocks rapidly. (If you have knee problems, skip this exercise.)

With arms bent inward (fists on chest), bring your right knee up high while rotating your trunk to the right (don't hold the stretch). For increased trunk rotation, extend one arm away from your body (parallel to the ground) in the direction of the stretch. Switch legs and repeat, rotating your trunk to the left.

Planting one foot, take a wide step across your body and slightly forward with the opposite leg and move into a quarter squat. Switch legs and repeat.

Planting one foot, take a wide step out to the side with the opposite leg and move into a quarter squat. Switch legs and repeat.

Planting one foot, take a long step forward with the opposite leg and move into a quarter squat and hold for two seconds. Switch legs and repeat. (Note: Do not literally "lunge." Stretching past your point of comfort can be detrimental.)

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