This is the series that wouldn’t end, yes it goes on and on my friend… Well we’ve looked at the basics of cheer, strength training for it, power training for it, and conditioning for it. That leaves flexibility and a bonus article that honestly I’m a lot more enthusiastic for that one, then talking about flexibility. Now for a baseline I’m a fan of a simple two part test, stand up tall with your feet together. Now look down. Do you see your toes? (yes/no). Now bend down and try to touch your toes (yes/no). If you can answer yes to both questions you are doing fine.
Ok, well it is not that easy. Your goal is to be mobile enough to get in all the positions that you sport requires. This involves differing levels of flexibility in different joints and muscles. For the sake of this post, mobility is the ability to move in to and out of different body positions. Flexibility is your ability to force yourself in to a position and hold it. Think the difference between doing a squat and using weight to push yourself down (or using your own muscles to pull you down) a bit farther. We strive for better mobility, but sometimes this requires better flexibility.
If you have inadequate flexibility/mobility you are either not going to be able to perform a movement (like holding a heel stretch) or you will have to perform it in a method that is more dangerous/inefficient to hold (holding a coed extension and leaning back too much with your spine or pressing her in front of you). Let’s go through a basic list of common areas that can be tight on cheer athletes and what we can do to increase that mobility and hence their own performance.
There is a little physiology that I will bring up here which is your muscle spindle (detects stretch on the muscle) which causes a muscle to contract, and your golgi tendon organ (GTO) (detects stretch on the tendon) which causes a muscle to relax. So holding a stretch you will feel your muscle tighten due to the muscle spindle. Certain techniques will activate your GTO which in turn will allow you to go further in to the stretch than you did before. This is why we like to think about relaxing in to a stretch, not fighting in to it.
There are a few subtly different ways to help enhance flexibility. Most folks think of just straight up stretching (holding a position while you are lengthening a muscle of multiple muscles). This does work, but there are slightly more effective (and brutal) methods to helping increase your flexibility. These methods are PNF, band assisted, and myofascial release stretching. Be careful when using these methods to not go too overboard on this and risk injury. Hard training always has its risks no matter if you are talking lifting, running, or stretching. So be sure to start easy and work your way up.
Like anything else you do you want to program for it. Doing this infrequently enough will get you no changes. Doing this too frequently will find you greatly increase your risk for injury like any other type of training. Your initial goal should be to do this twice a week (as in intense sessions). If progress is not made on that amount, add it up to four or five sessions a week. I’m more of a fan of not doing a dedicated flexibility training session, but building this in to the cool downs of my other training days. Try actively stretching the musculature that you just trained at the end of the workout and that seems to help with recovery and performance. Also, don’t be afraid to stretch a bit before your training. Yes, research shows when you hold a stretch for a long period of time (more than a minute) it decreases peak power output, but riddle me who the hell holds a hamstring stretch for five minutes and then tries to do max deadlifting? Just show some reason and try to advance your stretching over time by holding your stretch longer, or using more intense modalities (methods) to increase the flexibility. Keep in mind like everything else that you train this ability is constantly in flux, spending all day sitting and standing will just tighten you up. Your flexibility training has to have a greater cumulative effect than the rest of your life where you might not move much at all.
You don’t need to be the best contortionist for this, but having good enough mobility will keep you healthy and allow you to actually stunt with greater ease. The goal here is to mobile enough to be safe with your performance, not to turn in to a pretzel with this training. There are a few joints that you want to make sure that you highlight:
Shoulder mobility, specifically your ability to hold a person overhead without having to hyper extend your low back. This is often due to having tight lats and other pulling musculature which will in turn limit your overhead holding position. You also want to have enough range of motion in your shoulder so that you can hold a good position with your elbows up and not straining your rotator cuffs.
If your wrists are tight you won’t be able to hold a person in the air comfortably, or it will force you to put them in a forward toe position (makes the girl fall forward some, not comfortable at all). Hitting the wrist flexors and extensors with not just resistance training but also with stretching will allow for better movement quality and less discomfort.
Tight hip flexors and glutes will make it difficult to tumble well, much less will you be able to hold someone overhead or on your shoulders without having to hyper extend your spine (back). Hip flexor stretches are easy to find online and are easy to do along with glute stretching. Just take a little time to read up on this.
Your ability to ankle dorsiflex and plantar flex (feel free to google) is important, specifically your dorsiflex range of motion since this will allow you to use your leg drive in stunts from hands to extension without risking pushing the stunt forward due to lack of mobility.
Well they need pretty much everything to be flexible and mobile to do their job. Really having high levels of flexibility and mobility will make it easier to hit just about any stunt and make them less likely to be injured (to a point, hypermobility will increase this risk). There are a few joints to highlight that need extra flexibility to allow for certain stunts.
Really this is the big one, since holding a heel stretch requires large amount of flexibility. If you are tight you are not going to be able to hold a stretch for long, much less will it look good in the air. This comes down to hamstring flexibility and hip flexor flexibility since the leg up in the air needs to have flexible hamstrings and the leg they are standing on needs loose enough hip flexors to let them hit that position without being hunched over. Key here is to attack both sides individually and together. So do some work stretching the hamstrings (one at a time to increase the intensity) and the same with the hip flexor work. Then do some actual stretches where you pull the stretch either on the ground or standing.
Stretch out accordingly folks. A mobile cheerleader is a good cheerleader. You don’t need to be like Gumby here, but make sure that you are working on this. Your body is constantly shortening your muscles when you aren’t using them, so be sure to do this frequently and listen to your body accordingly when you are trying to increase range of motion.