Welcome to the July edition of our Pilates blog. Summer has truly arrived and we’re all still riding high on Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory; strawberries and Pimm’s have never tasted so good! And, as well as Andy Murray attributing his recovery from back surgery in 2013 to Reformer Pilates, many of world’s top tennis players, including Serena Williams, Pat Cash and Martina Navratilova have all credited Pilates with transforming their game.
In fact tennis players at every level are embracing Reformer Pilates, for everything from injury prevention, to rectifying muscle imbalance, improving flexibility and strengthening the core muscles.
If Pilates is good enough for the worlds top tennis players its good enough for us – and it can help you, whatever level you’re at.
So how can Pilates help you improve your game?
Racket sports are one-sided by nature. Most players repeatedly use the same hand and arm to hit the ball, generally in the same direction, with the head and neck adopting the same position. Such pronounced left- or right-sided movements load stress on the body, resulting in a physique that is out of balance and liable to over-use injuries.
Further problems can result from the fact that few tennis players have a bio-mechanically perfect serve. Repetitive, inefficient patterns of movement give rise to problems in the shoulder joints. ‘Tennis elbow’ or inflammation of the muscle tissue and ligaments at the base of the elbow is caused by chronic twisting of the arm, plus repeated shocks to the small bony ridge on the outer elbow.
Reformer Pilates to the rescue
Whether you’re a social player or a budding pro, machine Pilates can not only help reduce the number of tennis related injuries you pick up, it can also improve your range of motion, flexibility and power in your game.
And it’s all to do with core strength.
Most people associate Pilates with the core. This describes not only the abdominal muscles, but all the muscles that support the spine. They help you maintain alignment, which is key for precise body mechanics in ground movement and stroke execution in tennis.
Tennis is as much about mental strength as physical strength and the mind-body connection that Pilates employs is so complete that it contributes to mental discipline on the court. Being able to control the breath and mindfully move the body is crucial in situations requiring mental toughness. And it’s this mental toughness that will give you the edge in any performance situation.
While even the best Pilates instructor may not help you serve like Serena Williams or Roger Federer, a programme of specific Reformer Pilates exercises will work your body more uniformly to prevent overdevelopment of one side, while also strengthening the deep abdominal muscles needed for a stable base from which to hit that winning serve. Addressing flexibility through the shoulders and upper back while lengthening the tighter front muscles of the torso will boost your power and range of motion – and make it easier to reach for that drop shot at the net.
Exercise of the month: Plank
So we’ve established that a strong core will help you improve your tennis game. One of the best Reformer exercises to achieve this is the Plank. It’s a great full-body exercise (working the core, arms, legs and back) and doesn’t require a lot of flexion.
Here’s how it’s done:
With the plank, technique is everything. If you don’t get it right, it will prevent you from getting the most out of the exercise. But it can also feed into other muscle imbalances that may be hurting your posture and performance.
To get the most out of the plank, let’s look at a few of the most common flaws in technique and how to fix them.
Arching your back
The problem: If your abdominals aren’t engaged, your arms will tire from supporting the majority of your bodyweight. When that happens, your first inclination is to arch your back, which puts undue pressure on your spine.
The Fix: Make sure your shoulders are depressed (wide) and that your palms are also wide on the floor. By broadening your shoulders, you will take weight off of your upper body and engage those core muscles that need to be working.
Reaching your butt to the sky
The problem: You shouldn’t look like you are doing a downward dog while planking. You won’t necessarily cause yourself any damage, but you aren’t going to benefit from the exercise either.
The Fix: Get ‘long’ – meaning create some distance between your elbows and your feet. Make sure you are squeezing your glutes and keeping tension in your abs.
Lowering your hips
The problem: When your abdominal and arm muscles start to fatigue, it’s likely your hips will begin to sink. The downside to letting it all hang down is that your core muscles will be less challenged in this position, and you’ll be putting strain on your lower back.
The Fix: Keep your hips raised by tucking your butt in and squeezing your glutes. You can also walk your feet out from each other a bit to give yourself a more stable and solid base. Take deep breaths as you contract and engage your abdominal muscles. Still not sure if you’re doing it right? Balance a bar or a roller along the length of your back as an alignment check.
Looking straight ahead or up
The problem: Another common mistake is cranking your head too far back looking up at the ceiling or straight ahead. This can put a strain on your neck, and as a result, the rest of your form will fall apart.
The Fix: Keep your eyes looking down at so your head and neck are in alignment with the rest of your body. Also think about drawing your chin in towards you — especially when you hit that 60-second mark.
If you need some inspiration for your planks, take some from Mao Weidong – a Chinese policeman, who broke the world record for holding a plank position in May, for an eye-watering eight hours, one minute and one second.
‘Ask the Expert’
Here’s the part of the blog where we answer your burning questions about Pilates. So if you’re wondering which Reformer exercise will best target your glutes, or why your abs shake while you’re holding your plank, post them below, Tweet us, or send us a message on Facebook.
Q: At my Reformer class last week, I heard someone talking about how fun the jumpboard was. What is it?
A: The jumpboard is an attachment that converts a reformer into a horizontal jumping machine. It fixes to the front of the reformer where the footbar is.
While lying with your back on the carriage you can adjust the spring tension and jump on the board as if it were the floor. The spring tension takes gravity out of the equation, so it feels like you’re jumping on the moon.
The jumpboard provides an excellent and non-weight bearing method to increase heart rate, and as a bonus, a jumpboard workout is safe and much easier on the joints than running, as there is no jarring of the knee joints.
Q: I have really tight hip flexors. What’s the best stretch to do on the Reformer to loosen them?
A: All forms of cardiovascular exercise that work the leg muscles involve hip and leg flexion and extension. Over time your hip flexors can become very tight, causing imbalances in the lower body that may affect the spine, knees, ankles and feet. Floor stretches are effective, but exercises on the Pilates Reformer can also safely stretch the hip flexors and correct muscle imbalances in the body. Watch this video demo to find out how:
Q: How can I improve my balance on the Reformer?
A: Standing work on the reformer offers a perfect way to improve overall balance and posture.
When standing, we use our levers (arms, legs and torso) in a lengthened position, naturally improving our overall balance. And since the reformer carriage is anywhere from 5 to 30 inches off the ground, just getting onto the equipment provides a new perspective and challenges our proprioception and balance.
Standing Side Splits
The Standing Side Split is a great exercise for improving your balance, while strengthening the hip adductors.
Step onto the standing platform, with one foot on the headrest and the other on the moving part of the carriage. Hold the arms in a rounded position out in front of your shoulders.
Step 1: Inhale and press the carriage out, keeping the legs straight and the weight balanced evenly on both feet. Control the movement with your inner thigh muscles. Pause with the carriage at its widest point.
Step 3: Exhale and draw the carriage back to the starting position.
Hope enjoyed the blog, until next time.
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