Posted By Clod on July 10, 2012
Have you ever marveled at the athleticism of gymnasts? Maybe you thought it looked exhilarating to swing on uneven bars or handspring across a mat. You may have even wondered if it was something you could try yourself.
If you are considering a recreational gymnastics program, make sure you get proper instruction on how to develop the strength and flexibility that you’ll need to participate in the sport.
A certain amount of flexibility is imperative. According to David A. Feigley, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, and director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University, the most important parts of the body that need to be flexible for gymnastics are:
hamstrings and lower back
hips and legs
A good stretch for developing hamstring and lower back flexibility is to stand with your legs straight, bending over at the waist and touching your toes to the floor (or as close as possible). Feigley says a sit-and-reach, or pike, stretch is also effective.
To stretch the shoulders, Feigley suggests performing bridges if the gymnast is strong enough to support his or her weight while bridging in the inverted, or upside-down, position. Bridging involves lying on your back with your feet parallel and your hands placed over your head with palms down on the mat, fingers pointing back to your shoulder. Then, to execute the bridge, straighten your legs and extend your arms so your body is raised off the floor, your stomach lifted toward the ceiling.
To train your body to execute left and right splits, simply sit in the split position with either the left or right leg forward. Make sure your pelvis is facing directly forward without turning out. Although the weight can be partially supported by your knee if your beginning range of flexibility is limited, the emphasis is on stretching the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, Feigley points out.
Straddle splits, often called Russian splits, can eventually be achieved by sitting on the floor with the knees pointing directly up to avoid undue stress on the knee joint. The ankles, knees and buttocks should all form a single, straight line.
Avoid bouncing when you stretch, which often decreases flexibility and can damage ligaments, tendons and muscles. The stretches should produce a mild, tingling sensation — not a burning sensation or sharp, excessive pain — in order to be effective.
Feigley recommends proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, stretching to increase range of motion. PNF involves alternately contracting and stretching the muscles. For example, forcefully attempt to close the split for five seconds, and then open the split as far as possible for five seconds. Repeat three to five times.
Strength training is also essential for gymnasts, Feigley says, who also owns Feigley’s School of Gymnastics. “Gymnasts must be capable of supporting their body in an inverted position [a handstand],” he explains. “Many preschoolers are not ready for such movements because of their lack of strength and lack of body awareness.”
Prepubescent gymnasts will benefit from strength training, Feigley asserts, but they should focus on muscular endurance exercises, which involve high repetitions of light weights, to avoid straining ligaments and tendons.
He recommends sit-ups and leg lifts for abdominal strength, pushups to develop the triceps, and reverse leg lifts or arches to strengthen the lower back.