Tennis players of all levels and ages may experience back pain at one time or another. The majority of players with back issues that I’ve treated over the years have usually had flexibility issues or weak muscles (often it's a combination of both). On the pro tour, back injuries can set a player back significantly. Last year, back problems caused Roger Federer to miss Roland Garros and forced Richard Gasquet out of the Olympics.
A high percentage of players that complain of back pain present with:
Tight hip rotators
Tight back muscles
I’ve always found it beneficial to begin the rehab process with flexibility training followed with strength training. The most successful stretching programs include static stretches with controlled breathing.
If your back hurts, stop playing immediately. It’s important to receive a sport specific evaluation by your physician or physical therapist prior to starting your corrective training. A qualified physician should treat more serious conditions like a spinal fracture, disc injury or extreme pain.
Having sufficient strength in all your joints is the optimal goal. Increasing the strength of your gluteus (rear end) muscles is the key to protecting your back. An added benefit of having properly trained glutes is that you will move better on the court.
Glute exercise examples include squats, mule kicks, single leg bridges and resistance band walks.
Another area that should be addressed with anyone complaining of back pain is posture. Whether it's your sitting, standing or playing posture, or a combination of all three, a successful return to physical activity will depend on improving your spine posture.
Try this simple posture restoration exercise:
Angel Wall Slides
Sit down with your back pressed against a wall and your legs out straight.
Place your arms against the wall with your elbows and shoulders at 90 degrees.
Try to slide your arms up and down on the wall while breathing steadily.
Do one set of 10 repetitions.
Gary Kitchell is a sports specific physical therapist, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a USPTA teaching professional. He has worked with 15 former number No. 1 players including John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl. Learn more at kitchtennisrx.com.