This section will outline:
Stretching for flexibility vs. stretching for recovery
Diaphragmatic breathing guidelines
Key upper, lower & trunk stretches for tennis players
Stretching, flexibility and mobility have been hot topic concepts in the fitness industry for a number of years now. While many coaches, trainers and general folk use these terms interchangeably, they are NOT one and the same thing. Even within each of these terms lies a number of layers. While it’s not the purpose of this resource to outline all of the different subcomponents, we will attempt to briefly dissect each relevant quality and provide a framework for how to incorporate them into training programs for elite tennis players.
Broadly speaking, flexibility is an attainable range of motion (ROM) about a joint or series of joints in a PASSIVE sense. While most believe it’s only concerned with muscle tissue, it actually can include many tissues/structures (muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, bone, capsule etc.). Some of these structures are inherently flexible - i.e., genetically, you have a certain amount of ROM - but for the most part, these structures are influenced by environment (what your movement history has been from birth to this point in time).
Mobility is the ACTIVE form of flexibility. In other words, can someone control the ROM about a joint or series of joints actively via neuromuscular control. The distinction between flexibility and mobility is important as one can be very flexible yet have poor mobility. This may seem contradictory but consider the following example - If someone is lying in a supine position and uses either a rope or the resistance of someone’s hand to flex the leg, this would be considered passive ROM. Now, if the person attempts to flex the leg via a contraction, they are expressing their active ROM. Often times, we’ll notice that passive range is greater than active range (especially in younger athletes). This can be a problem and may lead to injury. If a tennis player, for instance, slides for a wide ball and the forces acting on the body enable them to reach some sort of splits position but they cannot actively get into this position (or out of it), the tissues involved are being loaded to a greater point then what they can handle. The formula for injury is thus the following:
INJURY = LOAD > CAPACITY
Given this, it’s important to be capable of achieving a particular ROM both passively AND actively - this will both help (key word here) mitigate injury while also improving performance.
Note: It used to be that only female players could achieve extreme ROM during tennis play with the likes of Serena, Halep, Klijsters and others performing these feats previously seen only in the gymnastics room. But now, many male players are able to get into these ranges as well - and they have the strength to produce power in these ranges! Consider Chung, Djokovic and others (images below).
Stretching, thus, is a form of training that has traditionally been used to increase ROM passively (i.e. to improve flexibility). But it can also be used in an active sense to help improve mobility.
The Distinction and Why It’s Important for Tennis
Before we continue, it’s important to highlight that flexibility and mobility are worthwhile pursuits (to some degree), for the modern tennis player. Many elite players these days are able to bend and contort themselves in a number of ways - whether that’s performing a split like action when running down a wide ball, extending and twisting the spine during a kick serve or getting into a low lunge position on deep balls. Having the necessary ROM to get into these positions is important (flexibility) - but perhaps more important is to have active strength in these ranges (mobility). Below, we will outline 2 routines - both can be performed using the same exercises, but the way in which they are executed, will elicit different and specific responses.
There are essentially 2 types of stretching routines that are outlined in this program - one that is more active, deep and engaging (via isometric contractions) and one which is more relaxation oriented. The active routine is aimed at increasing ROM using active measures (isometric contractions in particular), while the relaxation routine is used primarily as a recovery modality after/between training sessions. Both are appropriate and should be individually considered depending on the needs of each athlete. Below we will outline how each is performed as 2 exact positions could have significantly different protocols depending on the goal.
Note: passive stretching, performed for a lengthy time frame (greater than 5min per position), can also increase ROM and may be necessary in cases where athletes have limited flexibility.
Stretching Routine 1: Passive Stretching
Primary Aim: Relaxation/Recovery
Example: 90/90 Hip External Rotation Stretch
Note*: The instructions in the below video are intended towards the ‘Active Stretching’ protocol. The video is used to simply show the position of the movement/stretch.
While in the 90/90 position, maintain a tall spine.
Begin bending forward at the hips (don’t flex your spine), until you feel a slight restriction. Do not overdo it!
At this moment, begin deep/diaphragmatic breathing (this form of breathing is outlined below). The pattern of breathing should be 3-4 seconds IN through the nose and 6-8 seconds OUT through the mouth.
With each exhalation, go a little deeper into the stretch by bending further at the waist. Again, don’t overdo it - you should have a calm and relaxed feel throughout your body - especially in the face - NO TENSION and NO GRIMACING. This is often what players do during stretching routines which does them no good. Improving passive flexibility, restoring tissue extensibility and helping alleviate DOMS can only occur when stretching is done in a relaxed manner.
Continue this process for at least 60-90 seconds (if more time is available, there’s no problem extending this to several minutes).
Steps to Diaphragmatic Breathing - Practice this First
Lie on your back with your hands on top of your diaphragm (between your rib cage and belly button).
When inhaling, attempt to gather air into the diaphragm - your hands act as feedback - when inhaling, they should be rising. If your chest and shoulders are rising instead, you are not bringing air into the diaphragm - this restricts the flow of oxygenated blood into the bloodstream.
Open your mouth when exhaling, expelling your breath outward - your diaphragm will sink inwards towards your spine.
The feeling should be as if your muscles are melting/releasing tension (or that you’re sinking into the ground beneath you).
ALWAYS make sure your inhalation is twice as long as your exhalation (8 seconds in, 4 seconds out is ideal but if you’re new to this, you may have to start at 4 IN, 2 OUT and progress from there).
When using this form of breathing during stretching, it should be done continuously. Also, with every exhalation, a small amount of increased range should be achieved. Once no more range is attainable, simply continue breathing in a relaxed manner for the prescribed or desired time.
Stretching Routine 2: Active Isometric Stretching
Aim: Increasing Muscle/Joint Range of Motion (ROM)
Example: 90/90 Hip External Rotation Stretch
Note* - The instructions in the videos are related to this particular training protocol.
The beginning is the same as STEPS 1-4 of the ‘Passive Stretching’ protocol, outlined above.
This is where the difference lies. At this stage, the athlete will hold the position for at least 2 minutes while continuously breathing deeply.
After the 2 minute mark, the athlete will contract his/her front leg by pushing it into the ground - beginning with a contraction of about 20% and slowly working their way up to the ‘maximal safe tension’ (this tension differs from individual to individual and session to session - be careful not to overdo it and make sure to gradually increase the tension).
While at this tension mark, the athlete will hold the contraction for about 15-25 seconds. Once complete, a slow relaxation of the contracted muscles should occur.
The athlete then breathes deeply and should feel as though they can gain an increase in ROM.
They will again hold this position for 2 minutes while using STEPS 1-4 of the ‘Passive Stretching’ protocol.
This can be repeated 2-3 times to attempt to gain further increases in active AND passive flexibility.
Note: this form of flexibility training can be quite demanding and might even contribute to moderate to severe DOMS. As you’ll see in the program, its implementation is done strategically.
Below you will find a number of key flexibility exercises for high level tennis players. While more exercises exist, in my opinion, these are the most relevant during the general prep phase (you can add any exercises that you normally would do, simply adhere to the protocols from above). They are separated into 3 categories: upper-body, lower-body and spinal/trunk flexibility. Again, based on the recovery protocol for that particular training day (see program for details), each exercise can be done either for relaxation/recovery or as a more intense session to increase ROM.