5 Exercises to Improve Active Flexibility and Mobility

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 lifts:

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

Arabesque lifts:

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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Working with the Cycle- Coaching Female Gymnasts Through Puberty

A few weeks ago I went in to see my massage therapist. As always, we chatted about a variety of things- then, the topic of periods came up. I currently struggle with an irregular cycle and ovarian cysts so needless to say, my cycle has been a mess since can I remember. She told me I might like this app called Flo that allows you to track your period and makes suggestions for you based on which phase of the cycle you are in. I downloaded it and immediately fell in love with it. One of the features that intrigued me was the one that suggested different types of exercise (HIIT, restorative yoga, etc.) for each phase of your cycle. This got me thinking- with the overwhelming amount of changes that puberty brings- hormonal changes, body changes, growth related pain/injuries, etc., maybe there are changes we can make in gymnastics training to better work with the gymnast’s body. Today I discuss the idea of exercise in relation to the female menstrual cycle, along with other aspects of puberty and how we can best support our athletes. 

A rundown of the cycle: the basics and what you need to know 

As noted by the popular app Clue, the menstrual cycle is composed of six general parts- menstruation, the follicular phase, the proliferative phase, ovulation, the luteal phase and the secretory phase. 

Menstruation: aka: the period- shedding of the uterine lining, estrogen and progesterone levels low. 

Follicular phase: time of the period between menstruation and ovulation- uterine lining slowly starts to build back up again and as this happens, estrogen production occurs.  

Ovulation: release of egg from ovary mid-cycle. Estrogen peaks just beforehand and drops right afterwards. 

Luteal phase: Time between ovulation and before start of menstruation. Progesterone is produced, peaks, then drops.  

Secretory phase: Uterine lining produces chemicals that will either help support an early pregnancy or will help prepare the lining to break down and shed if no pregnancy occurs.  

Image taken from helloclue.com

Then, you are back to the beginning.  

A cycle typically lasts 24-38 days (though cycle lengths can vary/be irregular, especially during puberty). Changes after the onset of menstruation can not only include changes in the body (hair, skin, weight, etc.), but also psychological impacts such as migraine headaches and decreased mental health.  

Om for the flow?  

There are few studies that examine exercise for distinct phases of the cycle and virtually none that include gymnastics. However, a few related to general exercise do exist. For example, this study examined the use of yoga and determining its effects on heart rate and blood pressure pre and post cycle. Historically, these parameters are higher in the pre-menstrual phase of the cycle and are correlated with increased levels of anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, etc. Yoga was found to decrease blood pressure and heart rate in both the pre and post menstrual phases of the cycle. In gymnastics specifically, my first thought is that use of yoga in training may increase performance, especially on an event like balance beam where controlled nerves and a positive mindset are so important. We all have those girls that hit 12/13 and start experiencing increased emotions due to puberty, and yoga may be a coping mechanism we can use to help regulate emotions and in turn improve performance. 

Cycle research in relation to sport is lacking 

When researching for this article, overall I was disappointed to find that there were very limited studies surrounding menstruation and exercise, and virtually none in relation to gymnastics. One 2020 study did say that that there was no performance change in relation to the cycle for distance covered in matches in female soccer players. While I have no doubt that athletes are capable of playing throughs aches and pains and are mentally tough, I wonder what research would say in terms of maximizing performance in sport. This study looked at current game performance and how it was affected, but I would be more interested in seeing studies done that investigate optimizing training to facilitate high performance. While we cannot control the days competitions occur, we can control when we introduce certain training techniques such as learning new skills, working on strength/conditioning and when we ease off. We periodize our schedules to account for off-season, pre-season, season, etc., so why can’t we partially periodize the training for bodies? You may think I am out to lunch on this (which is completely fair), but the female is so under researched in the science community (specifically in relation to sport) that I can only imagine what is left to discover. 

The female athlete triadwhat it is and what we can do to help  

This is something we’ve known about for quite a long time. While not directly relevant to physical programming, I thought it was important to include. If you’ve never heard of it before, the female athlete triad is a combination of disordered eating, osteoporosis and amenorrhea (loss of period). It is important to note that all three factors are related to each other, as disordered eating can lead to amenorrhea, which in turn is associated with osteoporosis. In a sport that has a history of all three of these factors, this is definitely something we need to keep in mind when coaching our athletes. Though we are making improvements, the journey to positive body image and healthy bodies is far from over. This is especially important for our sport as we deal with high impact loading and dangerous skills on a regular basis. A 2017 study suggested some effective treatment/prevention strategies in terms of the female athlete triad from a multidisciplinary team. Below are some roles and responsibilities I extracted from a table in the article that I think coaches need to be informed about.

Team MemberRole
Athlete– Abides by the guidelines established with other team members
– Communicates concerns (and successes) with team members
– Keeps lines of communication open
Family members (parents, siblings)– Support and encourage athlete
– Create a positive environment for the athlete
– Provide an environment for success (purchase healthy food choices, set a good example by making good food and exercise choices
Registered dietician/nutritionist– Educates the athlete regarding general health, good choices and sport-specific food choices (training and competition)
– Oversees restoration of positive energy balance (refuelling)
Physical therapist– Provides rehab guidelines for injury management (stress fractures, overuse injuries) and recovery
– Make exercise recommendations to promote bone acquisition
Psychologist/psychiatrist– Determines if there is an underlying diagnosis (anxiety, depression) that may be triggering
– Triad-related conditions, psychiatrist prescribes medication when necessary
– Provides support and management strategies for coping with the condition

While it is not our job as coaches to act as a nutritionist or psychologist, I think it is important to be informed of potential risks for developing the female athlete triad, and then being able to refer gymnasts and parents to the appropriate practitioner. Risks associated with the development of the female athlete triad include weight loss, difficulty concentrating and irregular or absence of periods. Catching potential problems early is key in protecting our athletes. 

Not scientific, but I think it is also important that we as coaches are careful to how we discuss appearance, and how we frame an athlete’s health in the gym. In the past, I have walked by and heard coaches discussing how so and so gained weight, or how someone else needs to lose five pounds. Sometimes, this has even been in the ear shot of the gymnasts. In my personal experience, 9/10 times these discussions occurred around an athlete who was in the midst of hitting puberty. While I understand that gymnastics is a strength to weight ratio-based sport, I think it is important we focus on our athlete’s happiness and health in the gym. You cannot control what they do at home, what they eat or what happens when nature takes control, but you can help them become strong and independent athletes with healthy mindsets and boundaries.  

Preventing stress fractures 

One of the main types of injuries seen in gymnastics are stress fractures. In a sport with high loading and high repetition, it is no wonder that we struggle with broken bones. My opinion stands that as coaches, we need to design our programs intelligently to effectively manage the load on our gymnasts’ bodies. In terms of preventing spinal stress fractures, we need to make sure we are teaching gymnasts to use their deep core muscles to keep the spine protected (you can find the information in last week’s article here). Along with muscular control, it is important to generally understand the changes bone undergoes through puberty. When speaking of bone, we refer to bone mineral density (BMD) as a measure of bone strength. According to Bone Mass Gain and Adolescence, bone remodelling rate is highest in girls from ages 11-14. In a sport where girls are learning double backs at age 10, we are teaching them skills that have astronomical force on their joints, when they haven’t even come close to hitting their peak BMD (females usually achieve 98% of their peak BMD by age 16). Keeping this in mind, it may be that we need to adjust our training plans in terms of teaching extremely difficult skills. Perhaps we should stick to drills, softer landings and longer periods of training a skill before we introduce it into competition. How many of the top level junior gymnasts competing double twisting double backs at age 12 make it to the senior elite ranks? Not many.  

In my research for this piece, I found in this article published in 2019 that discusses different injuries and their prevalence in gymnastics. One of the most common wrist injuries this paper named was a stress fracture of the scaphoid bone. The scaphoid bone is a tiny little bone in your wrist found near your thumb right above the radius bone. The mechanism for this injury is repetitive wrist extension (position the hand is in in a handstand) with compressive axial forces. The comment in the article I found most interesting was that this type of wrist injury is “particularly seen in gymnasts who have rapidly increased their level of training”. This is a serious injury that leaves a gymnast out 8-12 weeks in a cast with no weight bearing, so my thought is that the rapid increase in training is NOT worth it if you are then sidelined three months with an injury. While I am completely cognizant that gymnastic requires lots of hours of training, I think the evidence demonstrates that what we are currently doing is not working for us. Evidence of BMD and injuries further reinforces the idea that we need to pace our gymnasts better. Training them for longevity with an end goal in mind- may that be completing a gymnastics career relatively healthy or competing in college- is crucial in helping them achieve their goals.  

Final thoughts

Overall, I wrote this article to open a discussion about the best training practices through puberty. While I am no gymnastics expert by any means, my experiences coaching in the sport have taught me that the teenage years are crucial in developing a healthy athlete. Not only do we want to keep them physically healthy, but we also want to help them develop a positive mindset and high self-esteem. In the future I would like to see increased studies on female gymnasts, specifically in terms of quantifying load and effects of certain skills on pre-pubertal bones/joints.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think!

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