Training to Cheer 2: The Cheerening

Ok that title wasn’t a word, but I’m going to see this through a bit more. So the previous post on this talked about the basics needs of the sport. The goal with this one is to start to outline the training program. This includes exercise selection, frequency, loading, and progression. This will hopefully make sense and I’m going to throw in a number of my thoughts and ideas in this as I lay it out. If you have questions please feel free to comment below and I will try and answer it accordingly. Also, don’t get upset if I don’t use the exact muscle groups (latissimus dorsi, anterior deltoid, blah, blah, blah). I’m writing this for cheerleaders after all (hi EKU team, please use this).

Starting Off

Right now (March 2016) for a team that will be competing in January the focuses of training are on gaining muscle mass and building some strength. The athlete themselves should be practicing their sports skills (stunting, tumbling, etc.). I’m going to aim this towards an athlete that has not done much weight lifting in the past, or at least they haven’t done a true total body strength program before. Exercises will be selected for having the greatest degree of carryover (transfer to sports performance) starting off with a more general sense and then escalating to being very specific (generally mimics the movement pattern in a manner that carries over to a wide variety to patterns (think squat carries over to any lower body movement, but the lateral lunge is more specific to lateral movement)). So with this context in mind here is my basic exercise selection with these athletes:

Squat: This is a lower body movement which involves your trunk and for the most part neglects your arms (boo hoo), but having greater strength here will transfer to not only greater toss power, but also stability for holding stunts and pyramids. The squat can be done in a number of varieties (back, front, overhead), but for the sake of a beginners program the back and front squat will be programmed for. The advantage of doing the barbell variety of this movement is that you can use a greater load. With a greater load you can apply a greater stimulus (amount of stress) this in turn can cause greater improvements in performance. How strong should you be here, well for guys I like to aim for twice bodyweight and ladies one and a half times bodyweight. A big key to keep in mind with squats is range of motion. Bros can have issues with actually sitting all the way down, and once the weight gets heavy it is easy to start to cut depth. Your goal is to descend (with good posture) to the point where the top of your knees is as high or higher than the crease of your hip, you could also think of this as the top of your thigh is parallel to the floor. Bigger range of motion here with good technique allows you to apply a larger stimulus to the muscle and will help with sports carryover since you will not only have better strength, but be able to transfer that to a higher degree since you are used to working in bigger ranges.

Yeah being strong helps with cheerleading regardless your gender. Crazy stuff happens in it.

Military press (standing press): Due to the great degree of overhead strength needed in cheerleading is this movement of pushing the bar overhead is very important. By doing this with a barbell (bilateral) you are able to use a greater load which in turn helps increase the stimulus. By doing this movement while standing on your own two feet (standing up) you are going to not only train your shoulders and arms, but you are going to increase your trunk stability and lower body stability. If you don’t believe me try and press something overhead that is heavy standing on one foot (don’t say this is your flyer). Goal here is full range of motion and aim to press your bodyweight over head or a bit more than that if you are male, if you are female then aim for three quarters of your body weight. Also for all pressing work, I’m a fan of taking a narrow grip in that your pointer fingers are just outside the smooth part of the bar in the center.

Overhead strength, it comes in handy. Also notice how the mid-layers in the back (catching a full up 2-2-1) have to work hard to hold the top girl in the air.

Push press is a slight variation to the military press where now you initiate the movement with leg drive (try and jump it up) and then finish the movement to lockout with your arms. The reps and sets will stay the same, just use a slightly higher weight than what you use on the military press. Do still try to control the weight down.

Deadlift: This is picking the bar off the ground. This trains not only your lower body, but your torso (specifically your back) and your grip. This is important not just for getting greater force production ability, but in the sense that it helps you build muscle that protects you. Having stronger hands not only helps for your ability to lift more weight, but it adds to your ability to hold on to stunts where your grip isn’t optimal, along with increasing the strength of your connective tissue. Having a stronger upper back allows you to hold a shoulder stand more comfortably, but also a stronger neck is related with a lower risk of getting concussions and that is very much so a real problem for cheerleaders.

Incline Bench Press: bench press just with an incline. I’m really not excited about talking about benching, but it helps with maximal force development. You are laying down so it easier to press maximal weights since you have extra stability compared to standing up with the weight on your own two feet. Feel free to do incline push-ups instead here if you just need more strength in general.

Pull ups: they are awesome, and everyone should do them. Grab the bar and pull your chin over it. The grip choice here is yours, just do what you want. You can also use assisted pull ups if your strength is not there yet. So the why here, turns out this gets you stronger arms and forearms which is important for stability and importantly controlling people down. Aim for higher reps here.

Bodyweight low rows (aka fat man pull ups): this is where you grab the bar set about waist high with your feet on the floor and pull yourself up, this builds your upper back and arms. Same programming as you do with the pull ups, but this will be easier. If it is difficult to do this with your legs straight then do it with your knees bent.

Dumbbell row: This is another pulling movement to bring the weight to your sternum building your back and your arms. Goal here is to work in sets of ten and aim to get up to rowing a dumbbell that weighs at least half as much as you do.

So with these starter exercises we come up with three training days each week. The goal here is to train every other day and then take two days off at the end of the week. Each training day will be a total body day as a means to get in quality work frequently. Move your weight up whenever you get a chance (when your technique is good and you are hitting more quality reps on the movement than you had before).

Weekly set up for a beginner:

Day 1: Squat

Military Press

Body weight low rows

Day 2: Deadlift

Incline Press

Pull ups

Day 3: Front Squat

Push Press

Dumbbell Row


So this brings us to sets and reps. When you first start off, GET SOMEONE TO TEACH YOU THE CORRECT TECHNIQUE. Initially starting off on ingraining correct technique working in sets of 5-10 reps will be best to start for only 3-5 real work sets (warm up first to real weight, aka when it starts feeling hard). Once you feel comfortable with the technique go and follow a simple linear progression. This for a beginner, is take one month where you work in tens until you are no longer able to increase your max weight on your final set. The next month sets of 8 reps, then 5 reps, then maybe one month of 3 reps sets. Once you hit your peak or test your lifting max drop back down and do it again (take four months to build up again). Following progressions on your heavy movements like written by Jim Wendler in his 5/3/1 is a great choice, along with Chad Wesley Smith’s Juggernaut training programming.

Assistance Work

Notice the program is pretty bare, your goal would be to add in some assistance according your needs (or arm work for vanity). Your goal with your assistance work is to build some strength and preemptive work to minimize your risk of injury. I would suggest picking some ab movement for stability (planks) and then something for actual flexion (hanging leg raises). I would also pick some external rotation/upper back work to keep the shoulders healthy (google face pulls or band pull aparts). Back extensions or glute ham raises are a good choice to do also. Pick one or two exercises to do at the end of your workouts and rotate them each day.

Wrap Up

So this was the basics of setting up your program for getting better as a cheerleader when it comes to strength. Take the time to try the program if you want, and let me know how it goes. Also, look at your own program and check your own exercise selection for what carryover it may or may not have. I’ll start working on the power (Olympic lifts and plyometrics) or conditioning piece next (because why not). Let me know if you have any questions or any adaptations you would want me to outline. Thanks again for taking the time to read this.


One thought on “Training to Cheer 2: The Cheerening

  1. Mike,

    I have been very curious on this subject as of recent but in regards to training female flyers. Training guys for cheerleading seems pretty basic because one can easily compare it to college football linebacker (quick, strong, explosive). But with females (especially flyers) I feel like it becomes increasingly complex because you must account for weight increase. Yes making flyers stronger increases their body control and strength which in turns makes you a better cheerleader. But increase in strength, at a certain point, means increase in weight… which for a flyer isn’t (always) advantageous. Is there a cut-off for flyers or should flyers only ever focus on body weight exercises? Hopefully this makes sense. I would love to talk about it further with you.

    Ryan Blanford
    UC Cheerleader


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