The question of the best means of stretching has been debated for decades, and to answer a reader's recent question about the various techniques, we turn to Jim Hart, fitness trainer for the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Today's question: The USTA has recently encouraged some new and crazy-looking ways of stretching before a match. What do you think of these new stretching techniques, and do you recommend them for everyone or just serious players?
Everyone knows to do some form of a warm-up but no one really has a definitive answer as to how to do this most effectively. We have all been taught that a good warm-up will enhance your performance, prevent muscle soreness (called DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness) and decrease the risk of injuries. Everyone expects one conclusive answer from sport studies and unfortunately this has not happened. Static stretching (stretching a group of muscles in one direction for several seconds to promote the lengthening of those muscles) has been used for many years as the primary pre-exercise routine. Most studies, though, have inferred that it is less effective to perform static stretches prior to exercise or sports for various reasons.
Dr. Paul Meli from The Shoulder and Knee Center of South Florida, who is the official orthopedic surgeon of American Top Team (which has one of the largest numbers of professional UFC and mixed martial arts fighters in the world), reports statistically there is insufficient evidence to consistently promote or deny the effectiveness of static stretching prior to exercise. However, his suggestion for an effective warm-up does not include static stretching. Instead he suggests utilizing a light cardiovascular workout, dynamic stretching (a motion that creates a gentle stretch of the muscles and joint – see examples below on how to perform such stretches), and a light mimicking of your sport motions (such as light baseline hitting to get the feel of correct technique of your forehand/backhand).
Most players are familiar with static stretches but do not have a good understanding of dynamic stretching. Basically you are doing a motion that causes first a small, then a progressively larger stretch to the joint and muscle complex. You start with shallow range of motion, progressing to larger motions and start at a slow speed and increase the velocity. Never bounce or jerk the motion. Generally you would pick motions that are utilized in your sport. An Olympic dead lift competitor (lifting a barbell from the ground) probably does not need to do a lot of lateral hip motions, but a tennis player would need a lot of this motion. Some examples of dynamic stretches would be arm circles or windmills, walking lunges, lateral lunges, high knee walking, straight leg walk or toy solder walk. A professional can design and recommend a specific warm-up for you depending on your physicality and any underlying pathology.
This is not to say that static stretching isn’t important because we know that it has significant uses for sports. It is good in assisting motion-limited joints in obtaining full range so that more muscle fibers are utilized for your sport. Static stretching can assist in the healing of an injured area. A static stretch program either after exercise (when muscles and tendons are warm and more malleable) or at some other point in the day can actually assists in strengthening and improving the overall health of your body. As a pre-exercise routine it most likely is not very effective and a few studies have implied that it can even hinder performance temporarily.
This would be the recommendation for all types of players with the only difference the intensity and depth of motion of your warm-up. If you are elderly with an arthritic back but can still play tennis, it probably wouldn’t be wise to try to do a lot of torso twists (gently rotating your upper body from left to right with a stabilized lower body) with high velocity but maybe you can do some small ones at a lower speed. Realize that if you play tennis, you will rotate your spine with some velocity so you need to slowly approach what you are going to do when you play. It is best to have a professional assist with the level of warm-up program for your particular level of physicality. Bottom line is you don’t do a warm up that injures you – one of the reasons you are doing one in the first place!
If you insist on utilizing static stretches, it will not be significantly bad to do so. We are talking about minimal effects. You can even try experimenting yourself. Try one day of including static stretching and one with dynamic stretching. Did you play better, have fewer injuries, or feel less sore after one or the other techniques? Most likely you couldn’t tell the difference. The key point of a pre-exercise routine is to be pliant in all the motions that you may undertake in your sport and to be able to have an improved nerve-to-muscle reaction time. Such an improvement is most likely the key to preventing injuries as well as improving your performance. A light cardiovascular exercise would also theoretically decrease the risk of injury as the warmth of the muscles, ligaments and tendons will improve their ability to absorb some stress without disruption. As far as muscle soreness there does not appear to be any significant decrease in the levels of pain with any pre-exercise routine. Basically, don’t do too much new activity at too stressful a level and you will more likely avoid such after exercise pain.
If the USTA is recommending the discontinuation of static stretching then I would say that they are like most sports, leaning toward more dynamic stretching as part of their pre-exercise routine. If you are embarrassed to look like you are doing a Monty Python routine, have a professional help you pick other motions that are not so ridiculous looking. There are many ways to do dynamic stretching and they do not have to include such odd motions. Just remember that if you do dynamic stretches, do them safely so that you can hopefully enjoy good tennis and have fun.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009