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A Pre-Tennis Shoulder Routine - Can You Afford NOT to Do One?

The differences that exist between junior players and pro players are more than meets the eye. Sure the pros have more experience, they’re fitter, have greater mental toughness and so on...but one area that the pros really excel at, especially compared to the juniors, is their warm-up. The warm-up is more than just a few arm circles and forehand swings (although I'm sure we've all been guilty of that before) - it could make the difference between incurring an injury or performing at your very best.

Now not every young player has a poor warm-up routine, I’m aware of that. There are some really diligent youngsters out there taking their time and performing a solid 20-30 minute pre-tennis routine (which is probably an appropriate amount of time needed, at the very least). And for those of you reading this who DO perform a regular warm-up, I salute you...but perhaps some of the advice below can take your routine to another level. In this article, I'm going to specifically tackle the shoulder/tennis arm. It’s an area of the body that doesn’t get any rest during tennis play - whether it’s serving bombs, reaching wide for a defensive forehand or volleying at net, the shoulder has many functions and should have it’s own set of rules. That’s what this post is about.

The Difference Between a Pro & Junior Warm-Up

I’ve traveled with both pro players and juniors and the biggest difference I found with the warm-up between the two, was focus. The pro was tuned in. For example, when working with a WTA pro, we would spend a good 30-45 minutes prepping before we even touched a racquet. We knew what needed to be done (it was all planned ahead of time). Yes there was a general component to the warm-up and this progressed into specific movements but there were also parts of the warm-up that addressed weaknesses and other parts that were focused on the long-term developmental vision. All facets of the individual player were taken into consideration. Now I know this is more difficult in team or academy settings where you’re dealing with big groups, but explaining various themes throughout the season is critical. This can provide players with the necessary tools to address problem areas on their own which could lead to improvements in performance, and injury prevention.

4 Reasons Every Tennis Player Needs a Thorough Shoulder Routine

Reason 1 - Injury Prevention

Although there’s no concrete evidence that a warm-up reduces the risk of injury - mainly because of the numerous variables involved in injury during sport - there are trends that shouldn’t be neglected. For example, over the years research has suggested that static stretching done prior to training & competition could lead to an increased chance of injury. But more recently, new research (Behm et al 2015), points towards a small decrease in injury risk. Who to believe?

I'd say there are a couple ways that static stretching prior to tennis might actually help prevent injury. First, static stretching, done at least 30 minutes before play, could help athletes improve the ranges that are involved during sport. For instance, when serving, external rotation can be severe (potentially more than 150 degrees - image below), this places a TON of stress on the internal rotators. If we predispose the shoulder into these extreme ranges, we’re effectively preparing the involved tissues ahead of time. Kind of like a warning - “just so you know, this is what to expect, I just want you to be ready”.

Secondly, static stretching with isometric holds not only helps us increase range and tells our brains what’s ahead, it also helps us better tolerate the loads that the tissues of the shoulder will be exposed to. Effectively recruiting all available motor units and increasing neural drive to that area.

This is why performing a variety of shoulder stretches (and any other body part stretches that can have a big impact on shoulder range of motion, like the lats for example) can have preventive attributes. Ideally, perform the stretches at least 30 minutes before playing, and for shorter time intervals - less than 60 seconds is probably ideal as more than that may increase injury risk by providing transient range of motion (i.e. you just want to give your tissues the range they actually have). 

Other methods for injury prevention of the shoulder include a variety of resistance band and plyometric exercises - especially with the deceleration component in mind. These movements are usually performed closer to the start of a practice or match and have benefits outside of injury prevention so we’ll address them in other sections below.

Reason 2 - Increased Performance

This is what we all want isn’t it? To perform at our very best. Any player that trains with me performs a thorough resistance band series for the shoulder before the first ball is even struck. This would include a variety of movements in a variety of directions, angles and planes. The structure would look something like this - 3-5 general shoulder exercises, 3-5 specific shoulder exercises and another 3-5 ballistic shoulder exercises. The ballistic exercises are the ones we can’t forget, as they begin to act as speed-specific exercises. You’ve built up some range with static & dynamic exercises, increased blood flow with some basic band work so it's now time to increase intensity with ballistic work. There’s a progression - and if followed - can have huge benefits on performance.

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Don’t believe me? Then maybe research can sway your opinion. Gelen (2012) compared 4 different warm-up protocols - which were performed by all players on separate days - with an evaluation of serve speed after each protocol. The first protocol was a no warm-up approach (some jogging then right into hitting). The second protocol involved static stretching along with light jogging. The 3rd warm-up included a series of dynamic stretches along with jogging while the 4th warm-up incorporated a series of ballistic exercises for the shoulder. The lowest serve speeds resulted from static stretching, then no warm-up followed by dynamic stretching and with the top spot, ballistic activities. You shouldn’t be surprised that ballistic exercises had the best results - a 3.5% increase in serve speed compared to static stretching.

The ballistic exercises in Gelen et al (2012):

  1. Resistance Band External Rotation at 0
  2. Resistance Band External Rotation at 90
  3. Overhead Soccer Throw
  4. 90/90 External Rotation Side Throw
  5. Deceleration Baseball Throw
  6. Baseball Throw

But why? This goes back to neural drive. We’re communicating with the body in a specific manner. If I want to run fast, I should perform a bunch of exercises (both static, dynamic and ballistic) that foster the movements, joint angles and contraction speeds that are involved in high-velocity running. This concept is no different for the serve. If I want to serve big, I have to recruit and fire the appropriate patterns in the most efficient sequences - a warm-up that includes static, dynamic and ballistic movements does just that. 

Reason 3 - Improved Stroke Mechanics

Like I mentioned previously,  the warm-up can also be an opportunity to develop certain abilities that may be important in the long-run. While working with a WTA player, one of our priority's was to improve rate of force development/reactive ability. So we incorporated exercises into the warm-up routine to target this quality. If it was a pre-practice warm-up, the volumes and intensities may have been higher. On the other hand, if it was a pre-match warm-up, both volumes and intensities were lower. Instead, it was a way to remind the nervous system what reactiveness felt like, before beginning the match.

There are also times that the service motion can be developed during the warm-up. Although I’ve already spoken a couple times about the differences between throwing and serving, there’s still some decent evidence to suggest that throwing can in fact help serving. One point, and of interest to many, is the link between serve speed and throwing speed. There is a positive correlation between the two (correlation, however, DOES NOT imply causation). But it’s perhaps other similarities between the two strokes that are more interesting.

First, the serve and throw have similar dynamics and activation patterns in the transverse plane. In other words, both actions - serving and throwing - are highly rotary and throwing may prime the interaction between a player’s hips & shoulders (i.e. more efficient transfer of kinetic energy). Second, external rotation patterns between elite tennis players and elite pitchers are similar. And research (Ellenbecker 2007) reveals that external rotation in pitchers leads to greater throwing velocities. So performing throws could lead to more angle specific strength and improvements in kinetic chain efficiency, all leading to increases in serve speeds. Perhaps throwing has a place in the tennis player’s warm-up routine after all.


Djokovic performing static, dynamic and ballistic exercises before tennis


Reason 4 - Psychological Readiness

Although not specific to a shoulder routine I feel this is an important strategy to touch on. We've all heard of 'the zone' but getting in the zone isn’t just a phenomenon. There’s evidence to suggest that athletes have experienced this state, both in real-life sporting events and in research settings. But what’s even more interesting is that certain athletes have the ability to get into the zone at any given moment.

There are a variety of ways that this can be done including visualization techniques, specific self-talk schemes, deep breathing etc. These would all fall under the umbrella of pre-performance routines (PPR). And because the mind and body cannot work independently of one another, when performing a physical warm-up, you’re also contributing to the mental aspect of the PPR in a positive manner...which may increase your chances of ‘zoning’. And if you don’t get into the zone, you’ll still be in a better state than if you did nothing at all.

In ‘Mental Preparation for Competitive Sprinting’, the authors suggest that a ‘Race Day Plan’ has 3 main objectives:

  1. To set out exactly what the athlete is going to/has to do before competing.
  2. To reinforce the athlete’s strengths/confidence. 
  3. To prevent (or minimize) ‘noise’ from potential disruptions.

Along with specific mental skills and coping strategies, the authors insist that a physical warm-up reinforces each component of the 'Race Day Plan'. It's also an integral component in improving both competitive focus and to keep pre-event emotions in check.

It's All Connected

I’ve separated many of the above exercises, movements and strategies into distinct categories but they're all interrelated. Getting mentally prepped in itself will help improve performance and may even help improve mechanics (you involuntarily begin visualizing the various strokes you’ll hit during the match). Improving ROM has benefits to injury prevention but can also improve racquet head speed and ultimately serve speed (because acquiring more range gives your shoulder more distance to travel and hence you gain more time to produce velocity). Are you beginning to see a pattern? Everything is interconnected and nothing is mutually exclusive.

Lastly, I do recommend that all tennis players perform a variety of static, dynamic and ballistic exercises for the shoulder before EVERY practice or match, no exceptions. 

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