Coming back to training in early February, I was inspired to focus on increasing my gymnasts’ mobility and active flexibility- both in their leaps/jumps and in passive stretches. A few years ago, we had a strength and conditioning coach come into our gym to talk about how strength is a crucial aspect in achieving active flexibility. Being strong enough at the end range of movements is key for achieving maximum range in skills such as back handsprings, jumps/leaps, etc. After testing out lots of different exercises and stretches, today I share a few of my favourite exercises that I have discovered over the years.
1. Superwoman Lifts
There are two types of superwoman lifts I like to use to achieve maximum shoulder mobility and flexibility in skills like handsprings, walkovers, etc. The first has the gymnast lying on their stomach, nose on the ground. Keeping the nose on the ground and elbows straight, they focus on lifting their palms off the ground as high as they can, holding at the top for a second, then slowly lowering back down to the ground. I used this recently before practicing Yurchenko vaults, and the girls were able to open their shoulders and block more effectively. I find that 10 repetitions of this exercise before performing skills is typically enough to see direct improvement.
Superwoman 4-point lifts:
The second variation of these lifts is the 4-point variation. In this, the gymnast lifts her palms off the ground, hitting 4 different points until her arms are by her sides. This is particularly important in improving overall shoulder mobility for the skills mentioned above, but also to keep the chest open and maintain/improve posture. I use this exercise more as a preventative measure in terms of keeping the shoulders moving well, and for developing mobility for overall shoulder health.
Exercise tips– keep nose to the floor, elbows straight, hold at the top of each lift for one second before lowering arms
2. Straddle Lifts
Perhaps the most difficult exercise I have listed, gymnasts begin on their elbows in froggy, next to a panel mat. One leg then extends onto the panel mat so that the gymnast is in half middle splits and half froggy. The gymnast then pulses the straight leg up and down, lightly tapping the mat. This works on strengthening the gymnast’s glutes and external hip rotation, which are crucial to improving active flexibility in skills such as straddle jumps. To make this exercise easier, have the gymnast bring her bent leg in so that it is directly underneath her. I start with 2 sets of 5 repetitions per side and increase accordingly as strength improves. Starting difficult exercises with low repetitions is crucial to maintain form and have them performed correctly.
Exercise tips– keep hips square and straight leg in line with hips
3. Isolated Leg Lifts
A common exercise used in gymnastics, I slightly modify it by having the gymnast place her arms down by her sides, palms facing the wall.
Front scale lifts:
For the front scale leg lifts, I have the gymnast start with her heel against the wall, shoulders down, ribs in, and hands down at her sides, palms facing the wall. This allows her to completely focus on her lower body. The exercise begins by the gymnast lifting her leg up as high and fast as she can, followed by a slow lower.
Exercise tips– keep hips square, engage lower core and hip to lift the leg, keep both legs straight
During arabesque lifts, I have the gymnast place her arms and chest on that well, as all too often girls will lean forward to kick their back leg high. For this exercise, I am less concerned about the height, and more focused on keeping the back hip stretched open with a straight leg, and strengthening the glute to lift the leg. In this exercise, the gymnast begins with hips square, and with the top of her foot pushing into the box, so that the back hip is extended and the leg is straight. She then puts her chest and arms on the wall (a wall “hug” I call it) to minimize upper body compensation in the kick. She then lifts her leg up and down, fast on the way up, with a slow lower. In order to make this exercise easier or harder, the box can be made lower or higher accordingly.
In both these exercises, it is important that the gymnast lifts quickly and lowers slowly. Going fast on the way up teaches those muscles that they need to be quick (necessary for jumps/leaps), and the slow lower strengthens the core/hip.
Exercise tips– maintain stretch through the back hip, keep hips square, minimize upper body movement
4. Hamstring Rolls
This exercise is the simplest on the list to teach. The gymnast begins in a half split stretch, with the bottom of her calf on the foam roller. From there, she puts both hands on her calf, applying pressure, and begins rolling her leg back and forth. To be effective, adequate weight must be placed on the calf for the hamstring to lengthen during the rolls. Please note that the roller does not need to move more than a few inches when going back and forth, even with flexible hamstrings. This exercise should be carefully supervised to ensure it is being done correctly to avoid excess strain on the hamstrings.
Exercise tips- keep hips square, keep rolls small, maintain adequate pressure on calf
5. Modified Runner’s Lunge with Slider
This is possibly my favourite exercise/stretch ever. I would even argue that it is somewhat magical! I do this all the time before jumps/leaps, and have seen improvement in overall split, stretching of the back hip, and maintaining a straight back leg in dynamic movements.
The key to doing this exercise is to engage the lower core. In the starting position, the gymnast is to engage her lower core, standing with hands on the hips and legs straight prior, with a slider underneath one foot. To initiate the exercise, the gymnast begins to push the slider back with the ball of her foot, while simultaneously bending into the front knee. She must keep the core engaged and the back leg straight, until arrival into a runner’s lunge. Once achieving maximum mobility, the gymnast drags the slider back in until she is back to her starting position.
This is an effective stretch, as stabilizing the core puts focus on stretching the hip flexor instead of the ligaments in the hip joint capsule. The use of the slider also causes active work of the muscles (glute, hips, etc) to reach the extended hip position. These same muscles are those that are used in achieving the split in dynamic movements such as jumps or leaps. We stretch the antagonist muscle (hip flexor) in the straight leg, while we strengthen the agonist muscles (hamstring/glutes), a concept used often in the world of strength and conditioning.
Exercise tips- keep lower core engaged, keep back leg straight, go slowly for maximum benefit
So there you go, five of my favourite exercises to improve mobility and flexibility. Let me know what you think of these exercises, and any ones not mentioned that you like to use in your home gym!
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