How we prepare our athletes to practice and compete on a daily basis is an area of sports performance training that has seen significant changes over the past several years. Gone are the days of simply jogging a couple laps around the court and performing a few static stretches prior to beginning to hit. Even the term warm-up has been replaced by others such as movement preparation and muscle activation. As these terms suggest, what we do now prior to stepping onto the court is much more dynamic in nature than what has been done previously. Movement preparation and muscle activation exercises better prepare the body for activity by increasing core temperature and preparing the nervous system for the work ahead. In other words, these types of activities will help to prepare you both physically and mentally for a workout. When properly performed these types of dynamic movements will help to elongate muscles, improve balance and stability, increase mobility, make you stronger, and help to reduce the risk of injury.
One of the major benefits in performing these types of activities prior to playing tennis is their ability to “activate” muscles which have shut down. Nearly all athletes from professionals to the recreation player have at least one muscle group that is completely turned off. Commonly this is seen in the small muscles supporting the hips, pelvis, and low back. This can occur due to our lifestyles which involved prolonged sitting and poor postural habits. The problem is if these muscles are not activated or turned back on, other muscles will attempt to compensate which will ultimately lead to injury. Low back pain, knee pain, and groin injuries are commonly a result of a muscle in this region that has been de-activated. The good news is that it only takes a couple of workouts to reactivate these muscles.
What about static stretching, is there still a place for it? There is still great benefit in static stretching when done properly and at the correct time. The goal of static stretching is to relax muscles and while it has been shown to increase flexibility, those gains only last for a short time. Perhaps more importantly, research has shown that static stretching shuts muscles down and can actually decrease the amount of force a muscle can produce. Not exactly what we want going into an important match. In contrast, movement preparation activities have been shown to improve long term flexibility and mobility and activate muscles increasing their ability to produce force making you faster, stronger, and more stable. The bottom line is to save the static stretching for after your workouts.