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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Tips for exercising at home amid pandemic

Tennis player Naomi Osaka is seen doing a side plank during training in this photo provided by her trainer Yutaka Nakamura.

TOKYO -- While people remain at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, some have no doubt pondered how they can stay fit. Below, Yutaka Nakamura, who has been a trainer for tennis star Naomi Osaka since June 2020, answers some questions from readers, including easy and effective ways to exercise.

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    Yutaka Nakamura (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

    Question: Please tell me how I can exercise at home every day for 15 minutes to improve my tennis skills. (Submission from a female reader in her 40s)

    Answer: If you're seeking stability, and are going to exercise for a limited time of 15 minutes, it may be good to strengthen your core. The body's core strength is built not just around the stomach, but with the whole torso, ranging from the shoulder joints to the hip joints. I especially recommend doing planks (an exercise in which you hold your body straight while resting on your elbows in a push-up position). It's important that your body doesn't shake during the exercise. Start with a 30-second plank, and build up to one minute if you can. If you're a tennis player, your body also has a strong and weak side depending on whether you're right-handed or left-handed, so it's good if you can also do side planks.

    I think that setting a fixed workout time is good in order to stick to it. I myself have arranged a time schedule. It's good if you can work out once a day, whether it's in the morning or in the afternoon; it's fine as long as you can maintain an orderly routine, like exercising once every 24 hours. I like to wake up in the morning and start off my day by rousing my body and prepping for what's ahead, but for those who prefer to exercise at night, there is the option of loosening up your body before going to sleep. Opportunities to go outside have decreased due to the pandemic, and I think that many of us have not been walking as much as usual. I recommend doing these training exercises before or after walks, and making a habit of it, just like eating meals or brushing your teeth. It's great if you can set a minimum goal, and step up from there by increasing the time from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, or shifting from one exercise to two.

    Q: When I watch tennis nowadays, the outstanding performances of athletes aged 30 or above and mothers stand out. The top four players in the 2018 Wimbledon men's singles were all above the age of 30. I hear often that this is a result of advances in training and equipment. I also reap the benefits of a racket that puts a spin on balls, and strings that produce a great rebound. I can understand that advances have been made in equipment, but what kind of progress has been made in training? And why do the careers of athletes become longer due to this? I play tennis during my free time on the weekend, and would like to enjoy the sport long into the future through effective training. (Submission from a male reader in his 40s)

    A: This is a good question that I'm pleased to answer. Nowadays, normal 40-year-olds, not just athletes, look younger than their age. For athletes today, too, the body movements, ability to recover, and amount of exercise are different from the past. Sports science has developed, along with various medical research, and I think that many people are knowledgeable about and are reaping the benefits of information regarding the human body. The mindset surrounding training has changed from the kind of thinking in the past that it's good as long as you run and push yourself, to the question of how much the body should be moved functionally in order to achieve effective results. That is the biggest factor.

    Another factor is the rapid sharing of information. On social media and other platforms, information on what other athletes are doing comes in quickly, from their workout methods to their diets and methods of recovery. We have also revealed parts of Naomi's training on the internet. Although we're not showing everything, we want to let others know about what she's working hard on.

    As you age, I think it's good to try to stimulate your body all around and maintain conditions that enable you to move it freely, rather than going after the build or physical strength you had when you were young. There are now more types of training around, too, from flexibility exercises to muscle exercises and cardio. Although things may not be the same as when you were in your 20s, I think you'll be able to move your body as you wish without getting injured.

    Q: Is there training that's crucial for gaining a sense of stability when running across the tennis court, just like how Osaka has improved her footwork? (Submission from a male reader in his 50s)

    A: It's important to be conscious of the purpose of each movement. Squats can help to strengthen your body and core, and can also contribute to building strength to persist with both legs planted firmly on the ground when you need to run back and forth. Besides pursuing an accurate form, if you envision being on the court when you're at the gym, and being in the gym while on the court, I think you'll see a difference in effectiveness. As you get older, the amount of exercise you get decreases, and there are many people who lose weight as their muscle mass decreases, so I'd advise those aged in their 30s or above to engage in muscle training. Squats and lunges, where you thrust your body forward and down while leaving one leg behind you, among other exercises help to maintain muscles. If you don't have weights, you can put water or books inside a backpack and carry it on your back or hold it to add resistance.

    Q: Do you have a recommended drink for tennis practice? (Submission from a female reader in her 40s)

    I think water is fine if the exercise lasts under an hour and is done at an intensity of the average person. You'll save yourself from taking in extra calories that way. On occasions where you exercise vigorously and for those who sweat a lot, it's good to take sports drinks and alternate between them and water. Top athletes exercise a lot, and accordingly consume drinks containing sugar, magnesium, and potassium, but taking water is sufficient for exercises lasting around an hour.

    Q: What do you think of Osaka tilting her head when she makes a forehand hit? Is this good, bad, or neither? (Submission from a male reader in his 50s)

    A: It's neither. Each athlete has their own habits, and I don't think that she's tilting her face on purpose. The way athletes hold and swing rackets vary for each individual as well. However, top athletes do have some things in common, such as the accuracy of the contact point where the racket connects with the ball. By mimicking the movements of your favorite athletes, it's easier to envision the ideal body movements that you're striving toward.

    This situation, in which you can't train the way you want to, may continue due to the pandemic. The gesture of gripping a racket is important in tennis. With tennis, as is true with baseball, practice swings are quite important, and it's good to do them while watching yourself in a mirror. I also recommend combining them with other exercises as part of interval training -- say, a repetition of 10 squats and 10 practice swings.

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    Naomi Osaka's trainer Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating a stretching method in this photo provided by him.

    Nakamura has demonstrated stretching methods that expand the range of motion and enhance flexibility while stimulating the muscles (pictures provided below). He recommends repeating the exercises 10 times for each side of the body.

    Naomi Osaka's trainer Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating a stretching method in this photo provided by him.

    The first method involves placing your palms on the floor, directly under the shoulder joints, with your arms positioned perpendicular to the floor. The shin of your right leg should be placed parallel to your arms, while making sure to keep your left leg and knee straight. Keep this position for three seconds, while keeping your arms straight, and holding your hips as close to the floor as possible.

    After the steps mentioned above, shift your weight onto your left arm gradually, without changing the angles of your lower limbs. Raise your right arm toward the ceiling, while keeping your left hand and both feet on the floor. Try to keep both of your arms in one straight line, and hold this position for three seconds.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, City News Department)

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