Exercises for helping tennis players to improve serves as well as forehand, backhand and overhead shots. The exercises are designed to improve strength, speed and flexibility and help prevent injury.

Tennis is a dynamic sport. Moving quickly around the court and making. shots that seem just out of reach call for strength, endurance and great range of motion. The following exercises will increase strength, speed and flexibility at extreme range of motion, while helping prevent injury from a weak extended position of joints. Do three sets of each exercise, aiming for 10 to 15 repetitions per set. Work with a weight that allows you to complete at least 10 repetitions but brings on total fatigue at 15.

Serve/everhead shots

  • Bent arm pullover: Lying on your back on a bench, use both hands to hold a dumbbell by its plate, positioning it above your nose. Your elbows should be bent. Make a big arc, bringing the dumbbell as far behind your head and as low as you can, then return. Always maintain the same flexion in your elbows.
  • Overhead tricep extension: Sit, with your back supported. Hold a dumbbell above your head; your arm should be straight and your elbow by your ear. Keeping your elbow still, lower the dumbbell behind your head as far as possible; then raise to starting position. Work one arm at a time.
  • Rotator cuff rotations: Lie on your side with your elbow bent 90 degrees and your upper arm close to your side. Hold a dumb-bell in your hand. Raise the lower part of your arm 90 degrees, keeping the upper part still.

Forehand

Flye: Lie on your back on a flat or incline (to 45 degrees) bench; bend your knees and place your feet on the bench to protect your back. Start with dumbbells above your shoulders with elbows slightly bent, then arc arms out to the side and down as far as possible. Return. Keep elbows back, in line with shoulders and hands, slightly bent and fixed. The motion is like hugging a big tree.

Backhand

One-arm side lateral: Standing, hold a dumbbell in your right hand with your hand resting against your left hip. Raise the weight laterally to shoulder height and return. Keep elbow bent but fixed, simulating a backhand stroke. Repeat on other side after each set.

All shots

  • Straight leg crunch: For those with no back problems, straight leg crunches effectively strengthen abdominals over a wide range of motion. Lie on your back with your arms crossed over your chest. Squeeze your ribs toward your pelvis, lifting only until you’ve cleared the floor with your shoulder blades.
  • Side sit-up: Lie on your side with your knees bent. Turn your upper body so your chest faces toward the ceiling. With your hands behind your head, curl up slowly.
  • Back raises: On a Roman chair or table with someone supporting your legs, drop from hips about 45 degrees, then raise to normal degree of extension, maintaining slight lower back arch.
  • Lunges: Step forward as far as possible with one leg and lower straight down until your back knee nearly touches the floor. Keep your back straight and weight your forward foot. Make sure the knee of your forward leg doesn’t extend beyond your foot. Change legs and repeat.
  • Single leg squat: Place the instep of your rear foot on a bench with your front leg as far out as comfortable. Lower your body vertically, being careful not to let your knee move beyond your foot.

Toxic glues, parasite rubbers, orange balls, magic bats-table tennis has come a long way since it served as an after-dinner amusement for army officers in the 19th century (who played with carved champagne corks, a row of books for a net and cigar-box lids as bats). It is now a furiously competitive modern sport played by professionals. The best players come from Western Europe and East Asia (see table), and some of them are as colourful as Jean- Philippe Gatien, a former world champion who, at this year’s world championships in Tianjing, China, walked off the court in a tantrum that would have cowed John McEnroe.

About 40m people from more than 156 countries have taken up bats (which now have more than 1,000 different surfaces). They compete each year in registered leagues to make it the world’s most popular competitive raquet sport. A success story? Not exactly.

Despite its popularity, the sport still suffers (along with croquet and billiards) from being regarded as a pastime. People may play table tennis, but they do not watch it. In the United States there are 19.8m registered players, yet the American Open gets a measly two hours of coverage on domestic television.

Ping-Pong

  • This causes some officials to talk of an identity crisis. There is the game that has been around since perhaps 1810-call it ping-pong-which people still play in garages and backyards around the world for fun, and in which one object is to keep the ball going back and forth across the net.
  • Then there is the fast modern sport it has spawned-call it table tennis-in which the object is to keep the ball from coming back across the net. Unfortunately, table tennis has outgrown the rules and equipment of ping-pong in ways that vex spectators.
  • Consider the bats, which now come armed with myriad bizarre coverings–called parasite rubbers because they feed off the spin of the ball coming towards them. Some add spin (“reversed” rubbers), some kill it (“anti-spin” rubbers), still others take an incoming spin and send it back reversed (the fiendish “long- pimpled” rubber).
  • Top players even use bats whose two surfaces have different covers–so called combination, or “magic”, bats (because of the havoc they wrought when first introduced).

Such bats have made a mockery of the sport. In the 1970s, Chinese players used them to fox their opponents in rallies that rarely lasted more than a few seconds and made top players look like rabbits. When Britain’s wily John Hilton and other Europeans started using the combination bat with success in the early 1980s, the Chinese perfected a way of listening to the sound of the ball to tell what side of the combination bat the ball was coming from. Spectators simply could not comprehend what was happening. As Jill Hammersley, a former English champion, put it:

Watching a game of table tennis between two combination-bat players is like watching fencing–meaningless, unless you are a player yourself. Only then can you understand why they look so amateurish when they misread the spin. The game will only survive if it remains a good spectator sport.

Table Tennis Federation International

That was in 1983. Admittedly, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has since then ruled that combination bats must be a different colour on each side, so that a player can see which surface his opponent is using. But there are still too many bat surfaces around for the sport’s good. The result is a game that puts an unhealthy emphasis on a player’s equipment, rather than his skill, and favours uninteresting errors over exciting rallies. As was pointed out at a recent ITTF executive board meeting:

Table tennis has to be a game of rallies. Too many people see it as a game of mistakes. Different rubbers are making the sport too difficult. In fact, they’re destroying it.

They may also be destroying the players. The latest fix is “speed glue”, which top competitors apply to their bats just before a game. As it dries the glue increases both speed and spin by up to 20%. Unfortunately, not only does the glue stink, it is also highly toxic. Officials fret, perhaps unnecessarily, about its long-term effect on players–some of whom will reglue their bat up to six times a day for 20 years. And some young players have found that they prefer the effect the glue has on them to the effect it has on their bats.

To its credit, the ITTF is trying to update the rules and make the game more fun for spectators and a bit safer for players. It has banned the most toxic glues (and even went so far as to throw a South Korean contestant, Kim Taek Soo, out of the semi-finals in this summer’s world championships for using a banned glue). There are plans to reduce the number of rubber variations to a more manageable double-digit figure, and strictly to regulate everything from the thickness of bat rubber to the weight of the ball. Officials are also seeking to make the sport more televisual.

They have their work cut out. The players themselves seem to enjoy the messiness of the present game. A planned ban on all liquid glues was overturned in May after top players protested.

The ITTF will also have to fight the manufacturers, who make money from players’ fickle tastes in bat rubbers. It should look to its history for encouragement: had the federation not been formed in 1926, the sport might still officially be called ping-pong (a term first coined by an English sports manufacturer). Or, worse, flim- flam or whif-whaf, as some manufacturers sought to call it.

Form: Back to Basics

In addition to muscle weakness and poor flexibility, certain on-court activities are leading contributors to back injuries. “Players hitting powerful, open-stance shots use a lot of upper-body rotation,” says Roetert. “And if your lower back muscles aren’t prepared for it, you’re set up for injury.” Today’s lighter, longer racquets exacerbate the problem by changing swing patterns and creating more torque on the back.

A supersonic serve can be another red flag. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy held the honor of being the fastest server on the WTA Tour from 1990 to ’97, logging a personal-best 123-m.p.h. zinger at Wimbledon. But she was forced to the sidelines early in ’98 because of a herniated disk, and she’s still recovering from surgery she had last fall. “If you arch your back too much in a serve, and your body can’t support it, you can wrench it badly,” says Groppel. Another danger point is overreaching for a backhand or extending for a volley. This can cause you to twist or turn your trunk too far.

Even the playing surface affects the back. Hard courts pound joints and stress the spine; clay courts mean long rallies and muscle fatigue. And on grass, players who reach down – instead of bending at the knees – to hit low-bouncing balls are prone to lower-back injuries.

Recovery: Back on your Feet

If your back goes out while you’re playing – or while you’re bending over to pick up the newspaper – grab an ice pack and swallow a couple of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (Advil, Aleve, or plain old aspirin). “It’s a good idea to get on top of the pain quickly, or it’ll cause your back to spasm even more,” Kibler says.

A note of caution before applying ice to your back: Steer clear of the spine. “Ice can cause problems with nerve tissue, so you have to be careful,” says Groppel. Your best bet is to keep a paper cup filled with ice in the freezer and massage the injured area, but for no more than 10 minutes at a time.

And while it’s tempting to retreat to bed when your back gives way, don’t get too comfortable. “We used to think that extended bed rest was the best treatment for back pain,” says Kibler, “but we now know that it’s not a good idea to immobilize your back for more than 36 to 48 hours. This causes even greater stiffness and weakness.” He recommends RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for a couple of days, then gradually adding light walking and flexibility exercises. If the pain persists for more than 10 days, consult a physician.

But don’t rush back to your racquet, either. “You have to let the injury heal,” says Gary Wadler, M.D., a sports-medicine internist in Manhasset, N.Y., and a former physician for the U.S. Open. “It’s easy to ignore the problem or wish it away, but if you try to do too much too soon, you’ll end up with a recurring problem.” To treat a basic muscle strain, refrain from play for at least two weeks. More intense pain may require a longer break from the courts.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Finally, if you really want to avoid becoming another back statistic, take steps to avoid the problem in the first place. Stretch regularly and keep your abs and back muscles strong and toned. “The underlying reasons for back injury,” says Kibler, “are most often inflexibility or muscle weakness. If you don’t address these issues, it’s just a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

You can banish back pain before it begins by toning your trunk muscles and increasing your flexibility. If you feel pain during any of the following movements, stop immediately and consult a physician.

Strengtheners

Reverse Hyperextension

Lie face down on the floor. Slowly lift and then lower legs, keeping both feet together throughout. Do two sets of 10 to 15 reps.

Crossover Crunch

Lie face up on floor, right knee bent, right foot flat on the floor, left heel crossed on right knee. Keeping right hand behind head and left arm flat on the floor palm down, curl right elbow diagonally toward left knee, leading from the shoulder. Do two sets of 10 to 15 resp on each side.

“Superman” Back Extension

Lie face down on the floor, arms extended directly overhead. Alternate between raising left arm and right leg simultaneously, then right arm and left leg. Do two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side.

Stretches

Spinal Twist

Sitting on floor, bend right leg so that right foot is outside left knee. Bring left arm around right knee, resting elbow on top of the knee. Slowly turn head and upper body to the right, looking over right shoulder. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; switch sides. Repeat three times.

Sit and Reach

Sit on floor, legs extended straight out in front, ankles flexed. Keeping back flat, lean forward with both arms outstretched and try to touch toes. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three times.

Consider Yourself Warned

You can back away from injury by incorporating the following into your on- and off-court play.

  1. Make like a Boy Scout. Before you ever get near a court, be prepared with a proper workout program. Start a series of stretching and strengthening exercises for a few weeks before beginning any serious training.
  2. Get warm. Don’t go from your car to the court without loosening up first. Trying to stretch for the ball or slam an overhead with tight, inflexible muscles will knock you down faster than a heavyweight’s uppercut. Spend at least five to 10 minutes doing light jogging and Stretching before you hit the court.
  3. Shoulder the load. If you’re prone to back problems, don’t play with an open stance. Stepping toward the ball and hitting from your shoulders will help reduce back stress.
  4. Kinder, gentler courts. Whenever possible, choose softer surfaces like clay or Har-Tru over bone-rattling hard courts, which can stress your joints and muscles and lead to chronic injuries.
  5. Serves you right. Certain tennis strokes make you more susceptible to back injuries. The serve is one of them. All that turning, tossing, and torqueing is bound to put some strain on your spine. To make sure you’re not compromising your skeletal structure, take a lesson from a pro and learn the proper technique for hitting a serve.

Haven’t got time for the pain? Make sure you cover your back.

Back Pain

Nearly 40 percent of the men on the ATP Tour suffer from back pain. At any given point in their lives, an estimated 80 percent of all Americans will be laid up with a back ailment. So let’s just say that if you haven’t already muttered the words, “Oh, my aching back,” odds are, someday you will.

The back is one of the most often injured parts of the body. Regardless of how we work at staying in shape, the torque of a backhand, the extended reach on a forehand, and the flexibility needed to unleash a serve can all strain the muscles, nerves, and skeleton of the trunk. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

A strong trunk is synonymous with a solid game: “The force in tennis is generated from the legs, but rotating your trunk is essential in transferring that power to the arms,” says Jack Groppel, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and executive vice president of LGE, a training facility in Orlando, Fla. “The trunk is the core of your body, and if it’s weak, you’ve got a problem.”

Essential to keeping the trunk strong is making sure your abdominal muscles (namely, the rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and the transverse abdominis) and lower-back muscles (primarily the erector spinae group) are in balance with each other.

For most people, weak abs make for a bad back. Yet in many tennis players, the abdominals are actually stronger than their rear counterparts. “We did a study a couple of years ago and found that even in recreational tennis players, the abdominals were stronger than their back muscles,” says Paul Roetert, Ph.D., head of the Sports Science Committee at the USTA. The reason? Every time you hit the ball, your abdominals contract – just like they do for a sit-up.

  • This doesn’t mean you can ignore your trunk when you’re off the court. Weak or tight back muscles and strong abs can lead to muscle strain, which is the most common back injury.
  • Basically an inflammation of the erector spinae group (and also known as the back extensors), the injury can be both acute (intense pain when stooping to hit a low volley, for example) or chronic (a general ache when you wake up in the morning or when you bend down).
  • At its worst, a strain might cause a painful muscle spasm that can lay you out flat and render you helpless. It’s also a leading reason that professional players like Pete Sampras and Monica Seles have to periodically withdraw from tournaments.

And remember, your back isn’t the only area of your body that needs to be toned and stretched. Tight hamstrings can often lead to poor hip flexibility, which is known to wreak havoc in the trunk area. “If you’re not able to flex forward easily, you’re inviting a chronic or acute injury,” says Groppel.

The trunk is filled with other trigger points for possible injury. Here’s a quick anatomy recap: The spine is composed of 33 vertebrae. Bearing the brunt of the body’s load are the five lumbar vertebrae-the thickest and heaviest section of the spinal column. In between all the vertebrae are gel-filled pads, or disks, that act as shock absorbers.

“If your back muscles remain stiff, tight, or weak, you can put the disks at risk,” says Ben Kibler, M.D., medical director of the Lexington (Ky.) Sports Medicine Center and a member of the USTA’s Sports Science Committee. When the disks compress or become overly stressed, the gel inside can bulge out and impinge on the network of nerves that branches out from the spinal column. The result can be a painful slipped or herniated disk.

If the sciatic nerve – which runs from the lower back, through the hip, and down the leg – becomes irritated by this impingement, it can result in sciatica, a common injury characterized by numbness, weakness, and pain up and down one leg and buttock.

Other potential trouble spots are facet joints, the “little feet” that connect one vertebra to the next. “Sometimes, the joint on one side of this column becomes inflamed or locked,” says Sue Fleshman, a physical therapist and the manager of health services for the WTA. This facet-joint impingement is often a result of having to reach down for a low-bouncing ball or stretching up to hit a serve or an overhead.

Younger players, whose bones are still developing, can be at risk for a condition called pars interarticularis. Essentially a series of cracks in the bones of the spinal column, this injury can be caused by repetitive hyperextension of the back and excessive rotation. “As a general rule, any young person who has a back injury that lasts more than three days should have it looked at by a physician immediately,” says Kibler.

It’s time someone stood up for the great game of Ping-Pong here in America. In France and Sweden and China, table tennis gets its proper due as a sport of the gods. We say it’s time for a stateside revival. We can’t wait for the day when the metronomic clatter of volleys fills the nation’s bars and basements once again. And besides, we’re tired of getting beaten by girls at pool. That’s why we’ve asked Ping-Pong legend Marty Reisman to volunteer some of his table wisdom and advice. For more than half a century, Reisman (aka the Neddle), winner of twenty titles, has contributed style, wit, and dash of theatrics to this simple game of wooden paddles.

The Gear

Ever since Japanese player Hiroji Satoh beat the Needle with a newfangled sponge bat in the 1952 World Championships in Bombay, the hard-rubber bat has faded in glory and use. The now ubiquitous sponge bat is squishy and padded with a thin layer of spongy rubber sandwiched between the wooden blade and the smooth, almost sticky rubber face. This extra girth and “stickiness” actually grips the ball, producing lightning speed and a feral spin, giving its owner the easy advantage. The hard-rubber bat–the one with protruding pips, or dimples–does have one advantage: It’s better for placing shots. Hard-rubber purists like the Needle also argue that rubber paddles make for longer rallies and better games.

Balls Our choice is the Stiga Three Star, which is used in international competition and is one of the best the Swedish company makes. ($5 for a box of three;)

The Rules

The official Ping-Pong regulations have gotten a makeover in recent years Here are the most important changes.

  1. Games now go to eleven instead of twenty-one, with service switching every two points
  2. The size of the official ball has jumped from thirty-eight to forty millimeters. It’s a dramatic change. The new ball tends to float more, which affects strategy.
  3. When you are serving, the ball must be tossed completely in front of the body. This makes it much easier for players to read serves and helps reduce serve-return errors, leading to longer points.

The Moves

The “shake-hands” grip style is the most often used, with all fingers gripping the handle and the forefinger extended on the blade.

The stance: Stand diagonally, about 45 degrees in relation to the table, knees bent, leaning forward at the waist.

The forehand drive: An offensive stroke involving an upward swing, like a salute, followed through almost to the middle of the forehead, like the flourish of a matador. The stroke creates top-spin by scraping the ball on the upward swing, causing it to drop when it crosses the net.

The backhand drive: An offensive stroke, similar to the forehand drive, that allows the paddle–thumb up to scrape over the ball at the top of its bounce to give it topspin. The follow-through should resemble flinging a Frisbee, with the paddle almost parallel to the net.

The forehand chop: A defensive stroke in which the paddle starts in an upward position, then slashes in and downward with the wrist snapping upon contact. The paddle scrapes underneath the ball, nearly at the bottom of its bounce and gives it enough backspin so that it drops just after clearing the net.

The backhand chop: A defensive stroke similar to the forehand chop, except the stroke is now an out-and-downward slashing motion. As in the forehand chop, the body should be slightly away from the table and weight should be distributed to the back foot.

Coach’s Corner

Along the way to becoming an international Ping-Pong celebrity, the Needle learned a thing or two.

“Don’t overwhelm your opponent with a barrage of smashes. The more aggressive your play, the greater the risk of missing. Keep it steady.”

“Buy your own racket and become used to using it. The touch is so critical. It’s as important to a Ping-Pong player as a Stradivarius would be to a concert violinist”

Your opponent’s most vulnerable part is his middle. That’s no-man’s-land and forces your adversary into choosing his backhand or forehand to execute the stroke. An aggressive attacking shot hit right into the gut usually scores the point.”

“The drop shot, a ball placed just over the net, should be used when your opponent is backed away from the table. The most effective drop shot is when your opponent’s ball bounces close to the net and you slap it delicately over to the other side; it is impossible to make a good drop shot when the ball bounces deep on your side of the table. However, a poorly executed drop, bouncing too high, may give your opponent the opportunity to seize the attack from you.”

“The nonplaying arm should never hang limply at your side. It must be extended during play as a counterbalance to your playing arm. All good players have an active nonplaying arm.”

The Table

“The table surface shall be divided into two `courts’ of equal size by a vertical net running parallel to the end lines.”

Random Facts

From Jerome Charyn, author of the recent book Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins:

  • Like tennis, Ping-Pong’s ancestor is jeu de paume, a game played by eleventh-century French monks with leather gloves and balls of cork, wool, or hair.
  • Ping-Pong is played by more than 250 million people worldwide. China has more than ten million registered players–more than a thousand times as many as the United States.
  • The longest point in tournament play was in 1936: It lasted two hours and twelve minutes.