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Rotator Cuff Strengthening for Tennis

At its core, tennis is an entertaining sport that can improve your social life, self-esteem, and overall wellbeing. However, hitting a tennis ball puts stress on specific joints, muscles, and tendons. Whether you’re serving or hitting a forehand, the mechanics involved in swinging a racquet can cause pain and discomfort. Tennis players need to assess the specific body parts that endure the most stress, and strengthen those muscles accordingly.

Most tennis injuries result from overuse. Players continually use the same muscles, and they can eventually breakdown over time. The shoulder joint is among the most commonly affected body parts for tennis players. Shoulder injuries can be debilitating, sidelining a player for months at a time while he undergoes physical therapy and, in the worst case scenario, surgery.

To avoid such injuries, you need to target and strengthen your shoulder muscles. This guide breaks down effective exercises for strengthening your rotator cuff, so you can stay on the court and hit with more power than ever before.

The Rotator Cuff Explained

The rotator cuff is composed of four separate muscles, and they work together to stabilize the shoulder joint. These muscles aid in movement and are especially strained during any over-the-head type of motion (like serving).

Causes of Pain

While there are a variety of causes for rotator cuff injuries, most are the result of overuse. The shoulder muscles are under constant stress in tennis, especially when serving, and they can strain without proper strengthening. Since an injury normally happens over time, it often goes unnoticed until the muscles are severely strained. It’s possible to have an acute injury where the muscle tears away completely from the joint; however, this is rare.

Rotator Cuff Exercises

Since the rotator cuff is a group of muscles, you can strengthen them with weights and range-of-motion exercises to prevent future injuries. For the following exercises, begin without any weights whatsoever. If the workout is too easy, incorporate lightweight dumbbells and progress to heavier weights when you’re ready to do so. You should be able to complete about 15 to 30 repetitions for each exercise, and repeat on each arm until your shoulder is tired. Your shoulders will be stronger than ever if you implement these exercises into your weekly routine and do them about four to five times every week.

Prone External Rotation

The following exercise requires a flat surface, such as a bench or table:

  1. Lie face down on a bench, with your arms to either side of the flat surface.
  2. Raise your right arm to shoulder level, so that your forearm and upper arm form a 90-degree angle at the elbow.
  3. Without moving your upper arm, raise your right hand until it’s even with your right shoulder. Do not raise your hand any higher than shoulder-height.
  4. Slowly lower your right hand, keeping it in the same plane as when you raised it.
  5. Repeat until you reach fatigue, and then switch arms.

Internal Rotation

You’ll need a flat surface, such as a bench or table, for this rotator cuff exercise:

  1. Lie on your left side with your left arm extended beyond your head, as if you were reaching for the top of the bench. Place a towel or t-shirt underneath your left armpit to make your upper body flush with the bench, and rest your head on your arm.
  2. Your right arm should be in front of your body, directly below your chest and pressing against your midsection. Keep your upper arm in close contact with your body.
  3. Raise your right arm, palm facing down, so that it forms a 90-degree angle at the elbow.
  4. As you slowly raise your right hand, keep the bend in your elbow and make sure your upper arm stays close to your body.
  5. Continue raising your right hand until it’s at shoulder-height.
  6. Slowly lower your hand to the starting position, keeping it in the same plane as when you raised it.
  7. Repeat until you reach fatigue, and then switch arms.

Standing Shoulder Internal Rotation

If you don’t have access to a gym or a cable pulley, the following exercise can be done with a resistance band. Simply tie your band to a doorknob, bedpost, or any other stationary object, and follow these instructions:

  1. While standing upright and keeping your elbow tight against your side, extend your lower arm directly in front of your body, so that your right arm forms a 90-degree angle at the elbow (like you’re shaking hands).
  2. Stand so that the cable is directly to your right side (if you’re using a resistance band, there should be some slack in it).
  3. Grip the cable and slowly pull it across your belly towards the left side of your abdomens. Keep your arm at a 90-degree angle and your elbow tight to your body throughout this motion.
  4. Hold the cable against your stomach for a brief moment, and then slowly return back to the starting point.
  5. Repeat this exercise until you reach fatigue, and then switch arms.
Hot Tip: Posture

It’s good practice while doing any of these exercises to maintain good posture. Most people internally rotate their shoulders, giving them a hunched-over posture. Keep your core tight, with your shoulder blades down and back.

Thumbs Down, 45-degree Raise

Even strong athletes struggle with the following exercise, so start slow and gradually build up strength:

  1. While standing upright, relax your arms to your sides.
  2. Form a circle with each thumb and index finger. Keep your thumbs facing down so that your fingers (when extended) point away from your body. This grip is commonly referred to as “emptying the can” because it imitates pouring out a can of soda.
  3. Slowly raise your arms to the side as high as possible (but, no higher than shoulder-height) within a pain-free range. Do not allow your shoulders to roll forward.
  4. Your arms should go directly outwards so that they form a “T” with your torso once they are raised. Again, do not raise your arms any higher than shoulder-height.
  5. Focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and back, and your chest up (toward your chin).
  6. Slowly lower your arms back to the starting point, and repeat this exercise until you reach fatigue.
Hot Tip: One Arm at a Time

If raising both arms at once is too difficult, simply start with one. There’s nothing wrong with targeting one muscle group at a time, but you should adjust your workout accordingly. Do no rest in between sets since your non-active arm is already taking a break.

Stay in the Game

While seemingly tedious and time-consuming, preventative strength training is absolutely necessary for competitive tennis players. There is nothing more frustrating than a debilitating injury. Watching from the sidelines simply isn’t the same as swinging a racquet, and an entire season can be lost before you return to full strength. Likewise, working off the rust after an extended absence can take weeks once you step back onto the court.

Injuries are unfortunate, but they can be averted with preventative measures. This tennis guide explains how to strengthen a vital group of muscles: The rotator cuff.
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