Sports

Flexibility in Gymnastics


Flexibility in Gymnastics

Gymnasts need to be flexibile and strong to succeed at gymnastics. Improving flexibility is one of the main ways that gymnasts can improve their gymnastics skills and it’s a great way to try to improve at home.

There is a lot more that goes into gymnastics flexibility than just stretching. Physical therapists and other experts continually do research on the best way for gymnasts to improve their flexibility.

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flexibility in gymnastics

Hazel, a level 3 gymnast, showing off her flexibility–You can check her facebook page out here.

Disclaimer: We are not doctors and you should consult a physical therapist before starting any new flexibility regimen. We cannot be held responsible for any injuries. We are not sharing our own thoughts, but information we’ve learned from others and from reading research. 

  • There are many components to improving your flexibility as a gymnast- static stretching, dynamic stretching along with soft tissue work.
  • Any flexibility move should be accompanied with a strength move for that part of the body.

What is Flexibility?

Now that we have that out of the way, what is flexibility? Flexibility is the range of motion you have in a joint or a group of joints. Being flexible in one joint doesn’t necessarily mean you will be flexible in another.

Why is Flexibility Important in Gymnastics?

So first, why is flexibility important in gymnastics?

Flexibility is important in gymnastics because without the right range of motion, gymnasts will be unable to learn how to do certain skills. They will also receive deductions when they cannot reach a certain position. As an example, when gymnasts do not perform split leaps at the angle required by their gymnastics level, they receive a deduction.

Different sports require flexibility at different places in the body. For gymnasts, hip and shoulder flexibility is important in order to do many skills. Hip flexibility is important for splits, jumps and leaps. Shoulder flexibility is important in order to do bridges, back handsprings and numerous other skills.

Another reason flexibility is important is that it is believed to reduce injuries. However, flexibility can be overdone.

How We are Made Affects Our Flexibility

The way our bones come together affects how much flexibility we will be able to achieve. Not all gymnasts are going to be able to do every skill because of how they are composed. So if a skill causes a gymnast pain, she should look for another skill that will get her the same credit and fill the requirement

One important takeaway when reading Dr. Tilley’s work is that we should always think about what kind of flexibility gymnasts need in order to perform the skills they are trying to learn. We should not just be trying to gain flexibility in order to impress others. Because in some cases, too much stretching can cause a loss of mobility. Also, never do a stretch that causes pain.

So, How Do Gymnasts Increase Flexibility?

Here are some methods that are currently believed to increase flexibility for gymnasts that we will discuss in more depth below:

  • Dynamic Stretching
  • Static Stretching
  • Self Massage with Foam Rollers
  • Breathing Exercises

Dynamic stretching is one of the most important ways of increasing flexibility for gymnasts, and it’s what we focus on in our SkillTrakker program.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is when you do stretches as part of a movement. An example of this would be a controlled lift of one leg, or controlled arm swings. The key to dynamic stretching is that you gently take your body to the end of its range of motion. Dynamic stretching is great for warming up because it is more similar to the motions that a gymnast will be performing later on in the workout. It also helps to get the body and muscles warm, since the gymnast is moving while performing the stretches.

We hesitate to mention what we’re about to tell you because we don’t want to encourage anyone to do flexibility moves with resistance. Dr. Tilley suggests that you should do any move assisted, then with gravity alone, before you add resistance.

There was a study done by Dr. Sands with elite gymnasts to try to increase their flexibility. (Because they are elite is why they used resistance.)  In the study, they began by measuring the degree of split of the gymnasts’ split leaps with video. Then the gymnasts began a training program where they used therabands to add resistance to the following moves:

  • Kicks forward
  • Kicks sideward
  • Kicks rearward
  • Straddle jumps
  • Split jumps

They slowly increased the amount of repetitions and sets. At the end of the study all of the gymnasts had improved their split leaps, jumps and kicks. We want to re-emphasize, this may not be appropriate for young gymnasts. However, it seems like doing a similar program without the resistance would still lead to improvement.

Drills for Improving your Flexibility as a Gymnast

  • Gravity Assisted Floor Angels: You can do these on the floor or against a wall. You want to extend your arms straight and then bend until your elbows are at a 90º angle. Extend back through to complete the range of motion. Do 10x.
  • Gravity Resisted Floor Angels: Flip over onto your stomach and you’ll do the same motion as the gravity assisted floor angels, but this time you’ll want to keep your arms raised and not touch the floor. Do 10x.
  • Stick Shoulder Stretch: Find something in your house that you can use as a “stick”. Rest your elbows at the edge of a couch or ottoman. Hold your stick and get into a rounded back position. You want your hands to be wider than your elbows and your head even with the couch/ottoman. You also want to make sure that our palms are facing your head. Hold the stretch for 1 minute.
  • Kick Complex: You’re going to do 10 alternating front kicks while walking forwards, then do 10 alternating side kicks while walking forwards and finally, do 10 alternating backward kicks while walking backwards. If this is too easy, complete the same drill while in high relevé.
  • Needle Kicks: You want to stretch tall, your back leg goes back, through and then step. Switch to the other side. Hinge by your hips and make sure that your arms are by your ears. Do 4 kicks each leg, repeat 4 sets.
  • Hamstring Leg Lowers: You will want to lay down on the couch or bed, with your bottom half off of the edge. You will keep one leg straight out while pulling your other leg straight up while holding onto your calf or ankle to get a good hamstring stretch. Hold for 20 seconds for 12x and then repeat on the other leg.

Beginner Flexibility Routine for Gymnasts

These flexibility motions will definitely help you improve!

  • Kick Complex: You’re going to do 10 alternating front kicks while walking forwards, then do 10 alternating side kicks while walking forwards and finally, do 10 alternating backward kicks while walking backwards. If this is too easy, complete the same drill while in high relevé.
  • Needle Kicks: You want to stretch tall, your back leg goes back, through and then step. Switch to the other side. Hinge by your hips and make sure that your arms are by your ears. Do 4 kicks each leg, repeat 4 sets.
  • Hip Lift with Kick: You will need to find somewhere to elevate your feet (a beam, stair, etc). You will lay down on your back with your feet up on the beam or stair. Lift your hips up so that your leg is a straight angle from your knees down to your hips. Make sure your legs are straight and kick your leg over your head then return back to the beam or step and release your bottom back to the ground. Repeat 15x each leg.
  • Hamstring Leg Lowers: You will want to lay down on the couch or bed, with your bottom half off of the edge. You will keep one leg straight out while pulling your other leg straight up while holding onto your calf or ankle to get a good hamstring stretch. Hold for 20 seconds for 12x and then repeat on the other leg.
  • Hip Flexor & Quad Stretch: Start with one knee on the ground and your other leg at a 90º angle at your knee. Lean forward so that you get a good stretch in your hips. Then, raise your back leg and hold at your ankle for the quad stretch. Hold for 20 seconds in the hip flexor stretch then lift your back leg up and hold for another 20 seconds for the quad stretch. Repeat on the other leg, completing 10 full sets with each leg.
  • U’s with Light Weights: Start by laying on the edge of a bed or couch. You’ll want to hold your weight on the side that is hanging off of the bed/couch. Raise your arm up towards the ceiling so that your elbow and shoulder are even with your elbow and hand at a 90º angle. Then rotate your hand up even with your elbow so you have a 90º angle between your shoulder/elbow and elbow/hand. Rotate your hand back down so that you’re at the position you were previously and then return to starting position. Do 5 on each arm.
  • Gravity Resisted Floor Angels: Flip over onto your stomach and you’ll do the same motion as the gravity assisted floor angels, but this time you’ll want to keep your arms raised and not touch the floor. Do 10x.
  • Gravity Assisted Floor Angels: You can do these on the floor or against a wall. You want to extend your arms straight and then bend until your elbows are at a 90º angle. Extend back through to complete the range of motion. Do 10x.
  • Gravity Resisted Floor Angels: Flip over onto your stomach and you’ll do the same motion as the gravity assisted floor angels, but this time you’ll want to keep your arms raised and not touch the floor. Do 10x.

Beginner Flexibility Drills

All of the drills we’ve listed can be modified for beginner or advanced gymnasts. Drills that are easier for beginners include:

  • Kick Comple
  • Gravity Assisted/Resisted Floor Angels
  • Hamstring Leg Lowers
  • Splits

Advanced Flexibility Drills

  • Stick Shoulder Stretch
  • Needle Kicks
  • U’s with Light Weights
  • Hip Lift with Kick

Static Stretching

Static stretching is when you get into a position and hold it without moving. An example of a static stretch is a split, since you sit still while you are in it. When performing static stretches you should only go as far as you can without pain. Static stretches are the least likely type of stretches to cause injury, and they are great for warming up and cooling down.

Let us reiterate again:

If a movement, or stretch, puts you in an uncomfortable position, you should not do it. 

Not every stretch is meant for every person.

Benefits of Static Stretching

There are some benefits of static stretching:

  • can help you maintain or increase your range of motion
  • can increase muscle tone
  • helps you warm up before a workout
  • can relieve stress
  • helps you relax
  • may help to prevent injuries

There is conflicting information about how long you should hold a static stretch, but this article from MIT suggests that children should be holding stretches for about 7-10 seconds.

self massage foam rollers gymnastics

Self-Massage

One thing that Dr. Tilley believes is very important is self-massage with a foam roller. He has his gymnasts come in 10 minutes before practice and foam roll head to toe. Current research believes this self-massage may increase flexibility after being done for 2 weeks. It is also believed that it helps relieve muscle soreness. So gymnasts can foam roll their sore muscles after a workout to try to ease their soreness for the next day.

Foam Rollersfoam roll gymnastics

Basic Foam Roller– Beginners should start with a basic foam roller.

Foam Roller with Bumps– A foam roller with bumps is for those who have already mastered self-massage with the basic foam roller.

What Muscles to Foam Roll

So, what muscles should you foam roll?

You can foam roll your:

  • Hamstrings (behind your thighs)
  • Quads (front of your thighs)
  • Lats (underneath your arm)
  • Groin (right at your hip, between your hip and the front of your thighs)
  • Calves

Do not foam roll your lower back. (We’ve read conflicting information on this, but just don’t do it.)

How to Use the Foam Roller

To use the foam roller, put the foam roller on the floor and put the body part you are trying to foam roll on top of it. Slowly use your body to roll back and forth on top of it. Doing it slowly will cause more blood to flow to those muscles.

Breathing Exercises

In order to get the maximum benefit from stretching, you must control your breathing. According to information from MIT, you should be taking slow, relaxed breaths while you are stretching. You should inhale in through your nose while expanding your belly not your chest, hold the breath in a moment and then exhale slowly through the nose or mouth. Ideally, you want to be exhaling during the most intense part of the stretch.

Practice these breathing exercises before you stretch so that you can execute them while you are stretching.

Drink More Water

Some suggest that increasing the amount of water you drink a day will lead your body to be more relaxed, and therefore increase your mobility or your flexibility. We felt it important to mention this factor that might help you increase your flexibility because it’s something you can do that can’t hurt! It’s important to stay hydrated anyways, so you might as well make sure you drink your recommended water intake per day.

 

improve split gymnastics

How does this help me improve my splits?

Well, if you want to learn your splits so that you can do a split, be patient. Stretch only to the point of mild discomfort, and with weeks of consistent stretching you should begin to see improvement.

You can also reference this MIT Working Towards the Splits page for information on stretches they suggest.

See some of the tools and gymnastics equipment mentioned above to help you improve your flexibility in gymnastics.

If you want to improve your splits so that you can kick higher, or perform a leap with a bigger split, know that kicking higher requires dynamic flexibility. So the moves you should be practicing are dynamic stretches, like lifting one leg at a time as high as you can. Gradually you should improve.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we think it’s important to be aware of what stretches you are doing in order to get the flexibility you need to perform the skills you are trying to learn. And also, it’s important to have patience when trying to improve your flexibility.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why is flexibility important in gymnastics?

A: Flexibility is crucial in gymnastics as it enhances performance, allows for a greater range of motion, reduces the risk of injuries, and enables gymnasts to execute advanced skills and routines with grace and precision.

Q: What are the best stretches to improve flexibility for gymnastics?

A: Some of the best stretches include the splits (both front and middle), bridge stretches, pike stretches, straddle stretches, and shoulder stretches. These target key muscle groups used in gymnastics.

Q: How often should gymnasts stretch to improve flexibility?

A: Gymnasts should stretch daily to see significant improvements in flexibility. Consistency is key, and incorporating stretching routines before and after training sessions can yield the best results.

Q: Can anyone improve their flexibility, or is it genetic?

A: While genetics can play a role in natural flexibility, most people can significantly improve their flexibility with consistent and proper stretching techniques over time.

Q: Are there specific exercises that can help with flexibility in gymnastics?

A: Yes, exercises such as dynamic stretches (like leg swings and arm circles), static stretches (like splits and backbends), and strength-building exercises (like core workouts and leg lifts) can all help improve flexibility.

Q: How long should each stretch be held to improve flexibility?

A: For static stretches, it’s recommended to hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds and repeat 2-3 times. This allows the muscles to gradually lengthen and adapt.

Q: What role does warm-up play in flexibility training for gymnastics?

A: Warming up is essential as it increases blood flow to the muscles, making them more pliable and less prone to injury. A proper warm-up should include light aerobic activity followed by dynamic stretches.

Q: Can flexibility training help prevent injuries in gymnastics?

A: Yes, flexibility training can help prevent injuries by increasing the range of motion in joints and reducing muscle stiffness, which allows for better movement mechanics and reduces the likelihood of strains and sprains.

Q: Are there any tools or equipment that can aid in flexibility training?

A: Tools like resistance bands, yoga blocks, foam rollers, and stretching straps can aid in flexibility training by providing support and helping to deepen stretches safely.

Q: How can I measure my progress in flexibility for gymnastics?

A: Progress can be measured by tracking your ability to perform certain stretches or skills, such as getting closer to achieving the splits, deeper backbends, or improved form in leaps and jumps. Regularly taking notes or pictures can help visualize improvements over time.

 

How to increase flexibility in gymnastics

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