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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: How to stay in shape amid COVID and other tips

Naomi Osaka is seen during a match at ITC Utsubo Tennis Center in the city of Osaka's Nishi Ward on Sept. 22, 2019. (Mainichi/Tadashi Kako)

Yutaka Nakamura, 49, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is expected to compete next in the Tokyo Olympics in July. In this edition of his regular series, Nakamura answers readers' questions from his home in the United States, and discusses tips to combat exercise slumps as people have been staying at home for longer periods amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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    Question: I feel out of shape amid this COVID-19 crisis. Please tell me an easy way to strengthen my abdominal muscles. (Submission from a female reader in her 70s)

    Answer: I recommend doing planks the most. Hold your body straight while resting on your elbows in a push-up position for 30 seconds. Your body grows accustomed to movements which you use frequently, like sitting at your desk while slouching, so it's good to engage in different movements while straightening your back. If you have less opportunities to go out due to telework and other reasons, your body movement and cognitive processes will receive only the same kinds of stimulation. This tends to lead to a lifestyle where you only come in contact with information of your choice, such as that from YouTube and social media. When you go outside, you encounter various information. There's a complete difference between information you access on your own online, and raw information you come across unexpectedly. Therefore, when you spend long hours at home, it's good to be conscious of seeking different stimuli for your mind and body. I think going out for walks to do planks in parks and other places is also a good option.

    Q: I'm always torn between resting or practicing to a certain extent on the day before tennis matches. Please give me advice on how to spend the day before, including the kinds of meals I should eat. (male reader in his 50s)

    A: Professional tennis players engage in practice and training so that their fatigue won't accumulate, so I think it's good to move your body. However, we like to avoid becoming exhausted the next day. For physical preparation, please go over everything again, and check your technical skills such as serves and returns. Although it may also be important to simply sweat while practicing shots, I recommend engaging in practice in a match-form, while simultaneously making mental preparations for the real match.

    The tennis players I've been involved with quickly wrap up their practice at tournament venues and go home in an instant in many cases. During the period of the four grand slam tournaments, players will practice tennis and take part in training in succession for around 1 1/2 to two hours on days when they have no matches. There are also cases where they go into tennis practice after training, as an extension of their warm-up. If you're not too tired, I think it's good to move your body even if it's for only 30 minutes.

    As for meals, you should consume the same things you normally eat. Rather than making a change because it's before a match, I think this is the option that places the least strain on your body. It's better to avoid caffeine from the evening of the day before, as I think you will be able to sleep better.

    Q: I'm a veteran tennis player who competes in matches. I've been keeping up the habit of doing long-distance running as training for my legs and loins. Although I get to build stamina by strengthening slow-twitch fibers, my ability to output high power instantaneously has dropped remarkably. I think this also has something to do with age, but there has been a great deterioration in my fast-twitch muscle fibers as can be seen in responses when making returns as well as reacting to shots coming to both sides of the court near the net, and taking the first step when receiving short balls. Could you give me guidance on the kind of training most suitable for strengthening these muscles? (51-year-old male reader)

    A: I think that the ability to output high power instantaneously tends to decline more easily than endurance if not trained consciously. If you wish to strengthen fast-twitch fiber muscles, I recommend sprinting short distances of 10 to 15 meters, and repeat this exercise while taking intervals of around 30 seconds, which is about the same time that elapses between points in tennis matches. While those accustomed to long distance running find it hard to wait for 30 seconds, when pushing yourself, you need to take time to rest and recover, or you won't be able to run at 100% power. Otherwise, you'll end up doing training that builds stamina instead of strengthening high output power. In order to run at full speed, first run in a straight line ahead of you. However, tennis also involves horizontal movements and changes in direction. So I recommend doing exercises such as shuffle-stepping from the center of the court's baseline to the singles sideline, before running to the service line at full speed. You should repeat this exercise three times each for both sides.

    Q: Baseball pitchers ice their shoulders immediately after games, but I don't see tennis players doing the same thing in press conferences. Don't tennis players ice their muscles? (male reader)

    A: I think you made this observation because for sports like baseball, players answer interviews shortly after their games. As for tennis, press conferences take place around 30 minutes to one hour after matches end, and icing and cooldown are finished during this time in between. Tennis players ice for preventative purposes even if they don't have injuries, and also sometimes stretch and jog lightly after matches.

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    This month's exercise: T balance

    Hip joints play a central role that is linked with various movements of the human body, and is said to be the part that has the highest output. Stimulating the gluteal muscles is essential for strengthening the hip joints, and the following exercise focuses on moving this body part.

    Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating the first step of the "T balance" exercise, where one stands on their right leg with both hands resting on his waist, in this image provided by him.

    First, stand on your right leg, and rest both hands on your waist. If possible, do this barefoot and maintain a state where your knee joints are slightly bent. Draw both elbows to your side, and squeeze your shoulder blades together, and hold your upper body upright as if to put your chest forward. Keep this position, draw your breath in slowly, and count to three.

    With your body still in the same position, count to three while slowly exhaling, and bend your upper body forward. If you are barefoot, you can feel all your five toes on the ground being activated.

    Next, keep your upper body in a position parallel with the ground, and draw your breath in slowly and count to three; then, exhale and count to three. When doing this, make sure to keep your pelvis level with the ground so that there is no difference on the left and right side as much as possible. As both hands are placed on your waist, I think it's rather easy to be conscious of where your joints are located. I think it's difficult at first to keep balance, so it may be better to do the exercise while resting your hands on a chair, wall or other objects.

    After this, slowly bring your body to the first state of standing upright on your right leg, and repeat this cycle five to 10 times, with each session lasting around 15 seconds each.

    Yutaka Nakamura is seen lowering his upper body while exhaling and counting to three, as part of the "T balance exercise," in this image provided by him.

    An important point to take note of is improving the gap between the left and right side of your body. Regarding players' movement on the tennis court, if you're a right-handed player, your movements for serves and forehand receives mainly involve rotating from the right to left, giving rise to a considerable difference between clockwise and counterclockwise movements. In addition, you readers may have a specific side you put weight on and shift balance to when crossing your legs or standing. I think that such habits that arise when doing sports or in daily life accumulate little by little, with this imbalance leading to a burden on and pain of joints.

    Yutaka Nakamura is seen slowly inhaling and counting to three while maintaining his upper body in a position level to the ground, as part of the "T balance exercise," in this image provided by him.

    Please proceed with this exercise while making a conscious effort to minimize imbalance on your left and right sides. For example, if you get used to this exercise, I recommend being flexible, such as doing the exercise on the side you are better at five times, and exert double the time and effort on the other side you have trouble with by doing the exercise 10 times.

    (Interview by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department. Nagano is a former professional tennis player who has competed in all four major tournaments.)

    Profile: Yutaka Nakamura is originally from Tokyo and is currently the strength and conditioning coach for Naomi Osaka, the 2020 U.S. Open and 2021 Australian Open champion. Nakamura has led training programs for many professionals including Maria Sharapova, Kei Nishikori, Tommy Haas, Mary Pierce, and Jennifer Capriati.

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