If you’re an avid tennis player, chances are you’ve encountered tennis elbow. It’s estimated that 50% of tennis players will have some varying degree of tennis elbow problems in their playing career. Although relatively uncontrollable, there are some steps and measures you can take to prevent tennis elbow and to help subdue already existing tennis elbow. We will explore these options along with some of the best racquets for tennis elbow in this post.
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What is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow, medically known as lateral epicondylitis, is the inflammation of tendons in the outer elbow. These tendons connect your elbow joints to your forearm muscles. Due to the repeated use of your forearm while playing tennis, these connecting tendons can become overused; resulting in small tears in your tendons. This causes the inflammation; and in many cases, extreme pain associated with tennis elbow. There are arm-friendly tennis racquets that can help avoid or ease this pain…we’ll get to those later.
Tennis Elbow: What’s to Blame?
There are varying opinions in the tennis world on what tends to cause the most problems with tennis elbow. Some argue it’s the racquet, others argue it’s the string in the racquet, and others claim it could be various other reasons such as technique, string tension, etc. These are all plausible explanations for your tennis elbow and really could be a combination of several of these factors causing your arm pain. So, let’s take a closer look at each of these to explain why it could be causing your tennis elbow and some products/remedies that may be beneficial.
If you’re like me, you probably have a strong loyalty to your racquet of choosing. It may be hard to hear, but your racquet could be the culprit in your struggles with tennis elbow. Long gone are the days of wooden and metal racquets; so, while your racquet is probably loaded with research & development and innovations, it doesn’t mean your racquet is incapable of causing injury. Several factors play a key role in determining if your racquet is causing issues: weight, balance, head size, length, and flex. Later in this post I’ll highlight what I consider to be the best racquets for tennis elbow.
It’s a common misconception that the heavier the racquet is, the worse it is for your arm and the lighter the racquet is, the easier it is on your arm. If a racquet is too heavy, it’s going to cause your technique to break down. Additionally, you will need to muster more power to obtain an appropriate racquet head speed which can lead to inflammation of your tendons. However, the heavier a racquet is, the more mass it has to absorb shock and vibration. On the flip side, a racquet that is too light reduces stability, resulting in increased mishits and vibrations into your arm. Most tennis experts recommend using the heaviest racquet that you’re able to comfortably control.
Balance and weight go a bit hand in hand. If a racquet is heavier towards the handle and lighter towards the head, the maneuverability of the racquet increases at the cost of increased shock and vibration straining your tendons. Reversely, as a racquet gets heavier towards the head and lighter towards the handle, vibration and shock is dampened at the cost of maneuverability. If you have concerns on the weight and balance of your racquet, you can experiment with lead tape that allows you to increase the weight of certain parts of your racquet and control the balance.
Racquet head sizes usually fall between 95-125 square inches. Like balance and weight, racquet head sizes have its costs and benefits. The larger the head size, the larger the sweet spot. This will reduce the amount of harsh vibrations and shocks sent to your arm, as mishits will be decreased. However, larger head sizes give up control of the racquet. Smaller head sizes will produce more harsh vibrations but offer greater control of the racquet.
In general, the longer a racquet is, the more stress will be put on the arm. As you make contact further away from the body, the more stress is put on the arm. This is due to contact being made further away from your center of gravity and the source of power in your shots: your legs. This doesn’t mean use to shortest length racquet you can find, as that will cause technique problems and a lot of mishits.
The flex of a racquet refers to how much the frame of the racquet bends when a player makes contact with a ball. Generally speaking, the stiffer a racquet is, the worse it will be on your arm. It’s important to consider that a stiffer racquet will provide more power and give up control. Racquet flex is measured using a Babolat developed machine and placed on the Babolat RDC Index. The scale goes from 0-100, lower numbers being stiffer or less flex. If you’re interested or concerned about the flex of your racquet, take a look at your racquet at Tennis Warehouse to see where it falls on the flex scale.
The Best Racquets for Tennis Elbow / Arm-Friendly Racquets
If you’re in the market for a racquet that is friendlier on the arm, here is a list of notoriously arm-friendly racquets:
Strings may be small in diameter; but they pack a punch in technology. Every string is designed for different purposes such as power, control, and comfortability. String is crucial in preventing and aiding tennis elbow as it’s what is making contact with the ball. Here are several factors in string to consider:
There are various types of tennis strings available: Natural gut, multifilament, monofilament, and synthetic gut. Simply put, if you can afford natural gut, absolutely use it. Natural gut strings are hands down the best strings you can use to prevent and aid with arm injuries; however, the costliest, as well. Not only is it the easiest on the arm, natural gut strings offer string tension and power that very few strings can replicate. If you don’t want to break the bank on tennis strings, the next best thing to use is a multifilament string. These strings are much less costly than natural gut; and over the years, have been innovated to closely replicate natural gut strings. For tennis elbow, it’s a good idea to stay away from monofilament strings such as polyester strings. These strings are notoriously hard on the arm and break less-often resulting in playing with dead strings. Here is our top five in best multifilament strings for your arm.
Tennis string gauge refers to the thickness of the string. String gauges typically vary between 15-18-gauge string, with 18 being thinner than 15. For tennis elbow, you want to use the thinnest gauge string you can. Thinner strings are more flexible; therefore, absorb more of the harsh shocks and vibrations than thicker strings do. The downside to this is that because the strings are thinner, they will wear down and break quicker.
In my opinion, when it comes to strings, tension is among the leaders in aiding with tennis elbow. A study done by researchers at Dundee University found that there is a “clear relationship” between string tension and force put on the elbow. To read more on the study, click here. The lower tension your racquet is strung at, the more comfortable it will be for your arm. However, be aware that low string tension provides greater comfortability and power but sacrifices some control on your shots.
Tennis is a game of replicating technique and tennis elbow is an injury caused by repetition of the technique. With that in mind, a player’s technique is critical in preventing tennis elbow. If there is an issue in your technique that is causing arm problems, it will only get worse as you consistently replicate it. A small hitch in your swing could be the cause of the strong pain in your arm. Generally, a one-handed backhand is more strenuous on the arm than a two-handed backhand; however, don’t completely change your swing if not necessary. Another common technique issue associated with tennis elbow is the deviation of your wrist on contact. The next time you play, pay attention to if your wrist is deviated slightly up or deviated slightly down when you make contact. A wrist slightly deviated down will likely cause much more stress and harm on your arm. If you’re worried that technique is causing tennis elbow, seek help from a certified tennis professional at your next lesson who may be able to pin-point problem areas in your technique that could be contributing to injury.
Before playing, it’s crucial that you stretch the tendons and muscles in your arm. Common stretches for tennis elbow and one’s my athletic trainers in college made me do are wrist curls (both palm down and palm up), wrist flexor and extension stretch, forearm pronation and supination, and squeezing a ball. For wrist curls and forearm pronation/supination, it’s recommended to use a dumbbell or band that is low in weight. 5-15 pound weight should suffice; remember you’re stretching and not working out your arm. Additionally, it’s just as important to heat your arm before playing and to ice it afterwards.
While playing, an arm sleeve can improve circulation and comfort in your arm by providing compression. If you’re uncomfortable with wearing a colored sleeve, many sleeves offer a nude colored option to be less apparent. An additional padded or bubble brace, such as this one, can be worn over the sleeve to further alleviate the pressure away from your problem tendons.
Resting is the most effective preventive measure, yet hardest to implement. No one wants to stop playing but it is the only sure way to alleviate tennis elbow. As a stubborn headed college kid, I played through tennis elbow instead of resting, sometimes resulting in not having enough strength to lift a glass of water after a match and still sometimes feel the affects of it while not playing. If you’re able to and willing, rest.