It’s impossible to live life without developing wear and tear in our musculoskeletal system. And while rest is crucial in resolving microinjuries and remodelling our bones and soft tissue, rest alone isn’t always enough. Sometimes, like when there’s too much tension trapped in our soft tissue or one of our muscles isn’t firing properly, the body needs our help to heal and guide it as it remodels. This is where my favourite three tools come in—the 3 Rs: Relax, Rebalance, and Reactivate.
The physical movements and psychological stresses of everyday life create tension in our musculoskeletal system, often felt in our body as trigger points or, as you probably know them, knots. Tennis players are particularly prone to tension. Not only does all the training and playing stress the body, but high-level competitors also have to contend with travel, jet lag, and the pressure to win.
These musculoskeletal tensions can impede our range of motion, hamper recovery, and lead to future imbalances. So before you can restore the imbalance(s) in your body, you must first relax the affected muscle and surrounding fascia. To relax the tissue, you can use any number of techniques, such as foam rolling, massage therapy, mindful breathing, or acupuncture. While each of those modalities differ from one another in numerous ways, they all help relax the tissue by releasing the tension trapped within the musculoskeletal system. For high-level competitors, psychological relaxation modalities are equally important—in order to have a relaxed body, one must first have a relaxed mind.
An imbalance is when either our muscles aren’t working properly or our fascia is too tight, and the joint can’t go through its normal course of motion. For instance, if you’ve hit tens of thousands of serves over the course of your career, it’s likely the connective tissue around your shoulder has grown overly tight, leading to an imbalance that prevents your shoulder from fully rotating, and making it very hard to serve. Imbalances like this are quite common in tennis, as it’s a sport that involves ballistic movements, sudden changes of direction, and hours of practicing highly repetitive motions (like serves, forehands, backhands, etc).
To keep your body balanced, it’s important to develop good habits on and off the court. Try starting with a post-training routine of foam rolling and simple stretches to target your overworked muscles and fascia. Even just ten minutes of this can offset the damage done by all that repetitive motion, and can help restore your musculoskeletal equilibrium.
Think of an inactive muscle as someone who’s fallen asleep or a machine that’s been powered off. It’s not dead or broken, but it needs to be woken up and turned on before it can get to work again. Have you ever sat so long that your glutes (read: butt) fell asleep? It may not have seemed like a big deal at the time, but when one muscle group falls asleep, all the surrounding muscles have to pull double duty. And while you might be able to still hit 500 forehands with one of your glutes asleep, your other muscles will be forced to compensate, making themselves vulnerable to overuse and injury.
So how do you wake up a muscle that’s fallen asleep and not firing properly? Well, in the case of your glutes, you can start by tapping them. And yes, that means smacking your butt. You can also activate them, or any muscles failing to fire properly, by consciously contracting and relaxing the muscle, over and over again. However, doing this a few times won’t cut it. To ensure the muscles stay awake and keep firing, you should repeat these exercises 1-2 times every hour for a total of 10-15 times a day.
For tennis players, I recommend incorporating reactivation exercises into your warm-up routine. This ensures all the proper muscles are firing before you play, helping prevent imbalances before they develop.