Training to Cheer (not an oxymoron)

I’m teaching a strength and conditioning class right now, and on Monday night we went through the basics of how to set up a program. We went through how you modify it to help the athletes you work with in their sport be the best that they can be. It was a good time and got me thinking.

I know a number of people that read this are actual (or were) cheerleaders so this can apply directly to them or someone that they know. Also, this is just my logic of how I set things up/look at things and you can feel free to appropriate it yourself and use it with the sport you play. I hope this will make sense to everyone and please comment if you want me to go in to any component to a high degree for a later post.

Needs Analysis

First and foremost before you start writing the program you need to know two things about your athletes; where they are at, and where they need to be. Now this happens to bring up a wide variety of performance factors, but you can start to figure out where the biggest discrepancies of where someone is at and where they need to be. When you know that, then you know what needs to be focused on first in their program.

Take some time and watch the sport (and participate in it as well) and you will learn what is needed for the athletes to excel. The sport of cheerleading (let’s call it a sport for this post) requires a team to perform a routine that lasts about two and a half minute that will be filled with a variety of high power stunts, baskets, tumbling, and pyramids that also require strength, precision, and enough conditioning to be able to do each part (especially hit the end of their routine).

Different Roles

Now in cheerleading there are a number of different roles an athlete can have (much like positions in other sports like football or basketball). Each role has different requirements and priorities to do well. In my mind they break down in to three different roles when it comes to stunting and pyramids. Those three roles are:

Base – This is the person on the bottom lifting people overhead. It comes in various flavors such as coed where it is just one guy holding up a flyer or with all girl where you have three bases (main base, side base, back). If you are the base of a pyramid congrats you have someone standing on your shoulders (most of the time) (this is not a party), if not you are in charge of throwing the girl up there which has its own demands. A pro to this position is you can be as big as you want to be since you just have to throw yourself in tumbling (or not tumble) and throw other people in the air. This person needs to have enough strength to not only hold someone overhead but to potentially press them up, spin them, flip them, etc. So this athlete needs to be strong plain and simple.

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Example of Top girl, Midlayer, and Bases. Notice how the enthusiasm decreases as you go down in levels. Hope all is well Matt and everyone else from KU cheer.
old cheer nationals missouri state
Coed Bases and Flyers.
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Sisters that cheer at Eastern. One is a base and the other is a flyer. Notice the lack of any big difference between the two of them. However, notice the ravages of age for the guy on the right.

Flyer – These are the people that you see up in the air. Part of their “skill” is literally the ability to be small. That however, does not do justice to what they need to do in the air. They have two basic subsets of their role:

Midlayer – this is the girl holding the top girl (get to that in a second) in the air. They are typically small (but fierce), and need to be strong, specifically in their ability to hold a static position and sometimes hold another person overhead with their arms. This is an interesting combination in that you need someone who is strong (which requires muscle) and yet is still small (muscle is heavy).

Top girl – This is not a social status, this is simply where they actual are situated on the pyramid. Top girl is literally the one on the top. Typically this is one of your smallest athletes, and this is the highest risk position on the entire pyramid. Typically they are standing at least eight feet off the ground and when pyramids go down they have a long way to go. This position requires some strength (specifically to hold body positions), but the key here is body control and the power to get up in the air (the people tossing them have a huge part here).

From there you can have folks that tumble (do gymnastic moves), basket (get thrown in the air by three people and do flips and twists in them), and rock spirit fingers. Those all have their own demands, but I’m going to be lazy here and just note they exist and have their own demands.

So at the end of the day I think of most sport as revolving around five different basic components, which can be broken down further, but I’ll leave that for later posts if anyone is interested (comment if you are).

Strength

This is simply the ability to produce force, you need enough of this to get a human being off the ground (or yourself) and especially to hold them there. If you have to get a 100lbs. person in the air up to your hands and you are only strong enough to lift a 99lbs. person that 100lbs. person is not getting up there. Now that being said, if you are only strong enough to get the 100lbs. person in the air without an ounce to spare you aren’t going to get not just anyone heavier in the air, but you won’t be able to get that same person in the air twice in a row with a few seconds apart (like in a routine). So your goal as an athlete is to be not just strong enough to lift your partner, but to lift them for reps.

The same concept goes for all girl (3 bases), only now figure each person is taking close to a third (for time sake here, I’m being lazy). Now the issue with all girl stunts is that often you can find yourself in a situation where the top girl gets shifted to one side or another and now suddenly your third becomes more like half her weight or even all of her weight. Hopefully, you can see how having an excess of strength pays dividends for bases.

Having an excess amount of strength will allow to save stunts that don’t go right ask just about any girl that ever stunted with me about how bad my grips would be in games (sorry again to Morgan, Kat, Ally, and many more), but I was strong enough to often save the stunts and keep them up in the air. We have a group at Eastern right now that the ladies are so strong (collectively) they can make nearly anything you want hit (though we can’t promise it will look good).

Strength is also for the flyers since they need to be able to not only hold positions in the air, but sometimes hold up one another. Those with better strength can hold things longer, and fix stunts that don’t go well. This strength is very much so vertical in direction, so how much you bench is not that important unless you plan to stunt while lying on the ground. Things like military press, squats, and deadlifts will pay dividends here along with some pull ups just for a bit more of an ability to stabilize overhead.

Power

Now this is different from strength, in that it is your ability to produce force in a short period of time. Athletes that are more powerful can jump higher, toss higher, and hit their tumbling much more easily. Just like the arguments with strength, if you have an excess of power it is always useful in that you can easily toss up a pyramid or stunt.

Girls that can jump higher are easier to throw up in stunts or in pyramids, bases that are more powerful can throw their flyer higher in the air. The other positive of this is you then have more time to make sure you see their feet and catch the grip you want when you toss them higher. Girls in baskets have more time to throw their trick if their basket group is more powerful.

Power is reliant on strength, but the two do not perfectly correlate. So they must both be built, the good news is that stunting itself can be a way to build it, if you don’t have that available doing things like plyometrics, the Olympic lifts, and med ball tosses can be ways to help build it up.

Conditioning

This employs a wide variety of energy systems. Since cheerleading requires a two and a half minute routine it is very intensive on the anaerobic glycolytic system (without oxygen where you feel the burn), but the base underneath it is your aerobic glycolytic system (think working hard enough aerobically that it is getting hard to talk). Since you are working so hard in both of these systems you want to develop them both well enough, but the key is to develop the aerobic first then work on your anaerobic (specifically by running the routine over and over).  Develop the aerobic system by doing a wide variety of things, but steady state work for half an hour at a moderate intensity if a good place to start (3 times a week).

Mobility

This is simply the ability to move in the body positions required for your sport. Turns out you don’t need to be Gumby to be a base, but for some flyers this can be pretty useful. Having the mobility in your shoulders, wrists, hips, ankles, and upper back will allow you to put people in the air without risking your joints. Guys with tight shoulders (often lats) have a hard time with locking out stunts and getting their stunt placed directly above them and have to make up for this by arching their back. Flyers that aren’t flexible enough in their hip flexors and hamstrings have a hard time holding a heel stretch and have to pull it violently to get it to hit often. Being able to move well enough is key to health and movement efficiency so check this according to the role. This goes further than just stretching out in some cases, but doing movements that require you to work on your mobility and otherwise can help with this (things like Romanian deadlifts for hamstring flexibility, dead hang pull ups and leg raises to loosen up the lats a bit, etc.).

Coordination

This is your technique, you need this to do your job. Doesn’t matter how great any of the other variables are if you don’t have this you won’t succeed. This is also important in that the better you are with your technique the more efficient your movements become. This has a domino effect of helping you use less energy to perform your stunts, pyramids, etc. and not having to waste strength in fighting to save things. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HAVING BETTER TECHNIQUE FOR PERFORMANCE.

Wrap Up

So this was a simple needs analysis for cheerleading. If people are interested (please comment if you are) I will write up the programming for what I would do with a cheer team to help them prep for cheer in general, much less for a competition.

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