Lateral Epicondylitis, or ‘tennis elbow’, is a repetitive stress injury affecting the tendons on the outside of the elbow. It can be caused by playing tennis, but it can arise due to other activities.
Tennis elbow can be very painful and difficult to get rid of, so in this article we will look at how you should train if you are unfortunate enough to suffer from this condition and, in particular, what are the upper body exercises safe for tennis elbow sufferers?
Exercises To Treat Tennis Elbow
It is vital that you consult a physiotherapist and carry out appropriate strengthening exercises for the wrist and forearm if you want your tennis elbow to improve. The following diagram, courtesy of SportEM Tennis, shows five simple exercises which can help your tennis elbow to heal and which can prevent it from worsening.
The diagram shows that they can be carried out with regular household items, but 1-3kg dumbbells and a wooden pole will also do the job.
Exercises like those in the diagram should be carried out regularly unless your doctor or physio recommends otherwise. Aside from this, if you are a keen tennis player you will want to maintain your training programme as far as possible while your elbow is healing. So, what do you need to be aware of?
Do You Need Upper Body Strength For Tennis?
This is a key question, as if upper body strength is not important for tennis you can presumably just rest your upper body until your tennis elbow recovers. Unfortunately, this is not the case- you definitely need upper body strength for tennis.
The muscles and tendons of the upper body play a key part in most of the movements which you will make during a tennis match. In particular, your body must be able to withstand rapid rotations, as well as frequent throwing motions with the racquet arm.
If you do not train your upper body in order to develop greater strength, you will be at substantial risk of incurring a different kind of damage, such as a rotator cuff injury, when you play tennis. A well-designed upper body training programme will give you the strength and stability to protect you from injury. At higher levels, it will also help you to develop more power in your strokes.
Does Upper Body Strength Training Cause Tennis Elbow?
Yes, it can.
Although upper body strength training is important for tennis, it is clearly not helpful if this training instigates or worsens tennis elbow.
The good news is that most types of upper body training, when carried out correctly, will NOT exacerbate or cause tennis elbow. Nonetheless, some caution is needed, and certain types of exercise should be avoided until your tennis elbow has improved.
In particular, you should be cautious about doing press-ups, chin-ups and bench presses, all of which strain your elbow flexors and can irritate the tendons.
Exercises which are done with straight arms are also inadvisable, as they can strain your wrist extensors. It is best to avoid exercises that require many repetitions, as they can aggravate your condition.
Specially designed wrist exercises with light weights are good for tennis elbow, but wrist exercises like forearm dumbbell curls with heavier weights can potentially worsen your condition.
What Upper Body Exercises Can I Do With Tennis Elbow?
Having discussed what not to do, you will obviously want to know what you can do in order to keep yourself in the best shape possible. The answer is, basically, anything that we haven’t ruled out so far, but there are six key principles which will need to be followed.
- Do not be afraid of reducing the weights you use for a time. You will be able to increase them again when your elbow has healed, and there is no benefit in persevering with heavy weights if it is just postponing your recovery.
- Reduce the number of repetitions for any exercises which bring your arm and elbow into play. Remember that tennis elbow is a repetitive strain injury.
- Start your session with a 10-15 minute cardio session to make sure that your muscles are thoroughly warmed up. Exercise your lower body and core before the upper body to ensure that you are as warm as possible before you start working on the latter.
- Stop if it hurts. Although the degree of pain does not necessarily correspond directly to the amount of damage being done, if an exercise causes you pain there is no sense in persevering with it.
- Consider using barbells instead of dumbbells in order to better control your movements.
- Follow the rules of safe bicep curls. Do not grip the bar or dumbbell too tightly, and keep your wrists in a strong, neutral position throughout the curl. Do not use too much weight, and vary the type of curl you do (there are many options) to avoid repetitive strain.
Upper Body Exercises Safe For Tennis Elbow
Any upper body exercise which follows the six principles set out above should be safe for tennis elbow. Avoid the most risky exercises and listen to your body.
Warm Up Upper Body Exercises Before Tennis
When you are ready to play tennis again following a break due to tennis elbow, it is vital to warm up thoroughly before beginning. The following six suggestions should get you ready to play, but as always if you are in any doubt about the suitability of the tennis exercises or the correct technique, consult a qualified fitness trainer.
- Stand with your feet apart, raise your arms to shoulder height, bending them slightly, and slowly twist your upper body from side to side.
- Hold an appropriate resistance band in both hands in front of your chest and spread your arms horizontally. Pulling the band stretches your wrists and upper back. (If you have a lot of space and an assistant, you may wish to copy the method used by Jiri Vesely in the image below).
- Tie a resistance band to the net post and turn your back to it. Hold the band in your racket hand with your upper arm pointing out horizontally to your side and your forearm vertical. Pull the band forward and down by moving your forearm. This will warm up your rotator cuff.
- Stand up straight, and, keeping your arms straight, rotate them forwards in large circles. Repeat in the opposite direction. This will work your back, shoulders and core.
- Loosen your back up further by laying on a foam roller, sliding forwards and backwards to move it between your scapula and lumbar area.
- Stretch your wrists and forearms by keeping your hand straight and pushing it forward and down with the other hand until it is at ninety degrees to your forearm. Hold for 20-40 seconds. Do this for both arms.
Each of the above exercises should be repeated according to your preference.
In this article, we have looked briefly at the upper body exercises safe for tennis elbow sufferers. If you are in any doubt, consult a physiotherapist or qualified fitness trainer.
- If you want your tennis elbow to improve, follow a programme of exercises specifically designed to help it, like those set out above.
- Upper body training is vital for tennis, so do not stop training when you have tennis elbow.
- Avoid press-ups, chin-ups, bench presses, straight-arm exercises and forearm dumbbell curls with heavy weights.
- Reduce weights and repetitions, warm up thoroughly, and do not push through the pain.
- Consider swapping to barbells from dumbbells, and do not grip too tightly during bicep curls.
- When you play tennis again, warm up thoroughly, using a programme like that suggested above, to ensure that you neither aggravate your tennis elbow nor incur a new injury.
Take care of your body, but do not let tennis elbow stop you training unless medical advice requires it.