TRAINING THE CHEERLEADER

When observing the detailed movement requirements of a cheerleader we can see the broad range of movement capacity required out of the athlete. In our context, movement capacity can be described as the ability to perform a wide range of patterns (jumping, twisting, flipping, landing, balance on a single leg, handstand, etc.) with efficiency and stability. With this, a successful cheerleader must possess the prerequisite strength to produce a massive amount of force as well as have the stability to absorb such a force to avoid injury.

In all sports, athletes from youth division up through elite levels deal with overload injury. “Overload injury” is commonly synonymous with “overuse injury”. These injuries are those such as stress fractures, tendonitis/tendinopathy, muscle pull/tear. “Overuse” implies that the athlete is at imminent risk of these conditions upon too much volume of their sport, which is most certainly not the case. “Overload” describes these conditions as a result of the athlete not possessing the physical requirements to handle what their sport is throwing at them. While athletes may get hurt while exposed to repetitive movement patterns, this only becomes an issue when their bodies can no longer handle the load placed upon it.

In terms of cheerleading, athletes have such a variety of physical demands. From holding as a base support, sprinting and tumbling, to jumping and landing, and everything in-between. The injuries stated before happen as a result of an unprepared athlete. As strength and conditioning professionals, our skill set is not in coaching the fine movement patterns required of cheer, but to build the capacity of the athlete’s muscular and connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and bones) to handle the forces that they will receive throughout a cheer season.

Movement’s that we implement with a cheerleader may be scaled dependent on age. However, the planes of motion, as well as muscle groups that we train, will be relatively similar across the board. Here is a simple list of sample exercises that we would implement upon training cheerleaders:

Landing: One of the first things we do with any athlete is teaching them how to properly land and absorb the force of their own body dropping from an elevated surface. The drill begins with two-foot landings and progresses to one foot as well as implementing rotation and lateral movement too. This will inevitably be a prerequisite for any complex plyometric drills that we implement in the future.

Squat: Shown here, one can see the similar mechanics squat to the landing. We train our athlete’s to create a stable and strong squat stance that will allow them to build strength that will carry over to the landing itself.

Quadruped/Crawling: By getting the athlete to crawl with opposite arm to leg, it forces them to create a cross body and torso stabilization. This is an incredibly important strength requirement whenever an athlete is rotating, twisting, or changing direction. Proper crawling is also key in building transferable upper body strength in athletes as they are forced to coordinate their upper body with their lower body. Spending time supporting their body weight on their hands will also build stability in the elbow and wrists.

Box Jumps: Shown here is a box jump, which is a useful tool in any training program. It allows the athlete to produce a tremendous amount of force and athleticism in landing on an elevated surface. Box Jumps are a very good tool for increasing vertical power, which when done properly can increase an athlete’s vertical jump. Again, whenever we complete this movement we are always reverting back to our landing/squat position to ingrain those proper force absorbing movement patterns.

Sled Pushing and Pulling. This is by far one of the greatest ways for an athlete to express and build their absolute strength. This will be the primary platform that we utilize in providing a younger athlete with an external load other than their bodyweight. The reason being is that the weight never leaves the floor. Upon fatigue or technique breakdown, the athlete is never in a position of vulnerability or injury as they only bare the weight when they are pushing or pulling it. These are great movements in building strong and stable ankles, knees, hips, torso, and shoulders.

Pushups and Pullups. Finally, these two movements have stood the test of time in strength training for a reason. Similar to the crawling pattern stated above, the pushup teaches the athlete to support their body weight on their hands and press with a stable torso. Moreover, the pull up is another foundational movement as we are going to build shoulder stability by teaching athletes to support their body weight from a hanging position. These are the starting points to building strength through the upper body for an athlete who is going to be supporting their own bodyweight, or in this case someone else’s body weight, with their arms.

Strength and conditioning for cheerleaders is an integral part of both their performance as well as their health and longevity in the sport. Regardless of the sport, our goal is to create resilient athletes who are able to handle the demands of what their sport throws at them. An important takeaway message is to realize that many of the muscular and connective tissue injuries that youth athletes constantly suffer from are those of overload. Their bodies simply were not capable of handling the force or volume placed upon it. These issues are preventable with a well planned progressive training program.

WHAT COACH JACK IS LEARNING ABOUT THIS WEEK

While we have had the luxury of getting our athletes in the building multiple times per week, many of these athletes are practicing the specific skills of their sport simultaneously in the same week or even in the same day. We generally see two types of back dysfunction that are exposed during movements performed in the weight room.

Extension-Based Back Pain

This is usually a result of an aggravated joint in the lower back. Where this pain is usually exposed is during a Squat or Deadlift where the athlete experiences discomfort while setting their back. These are athletes that we commonly see as slightly lordotic, and therefore when setting their back before a lift tend to overemphasize extension. The athlete experiences pain in this position due to extension sensitivity, yet interestingly enough, these athletes also lack adequate ranges of flexion. What I have found to be a fantastic training tool for athletes like this is utilizing flexion exercises like a segmented rounding over to touch the toes (even with a light load in some of the stronger high level athletes), reverse hyper, or even many of our quadruped crawling drills that emphasize a global rounded position of the spine.

Flexion-Based Back Pain

This is much less common in many of our athletes as it is usually associated with a disk issue. Simply enough, these athletes usually lack sufficient extension capacity. These are athletes that a coach would see having the opposite problem as stated above. They would have difficulty even expressing any form of extension when setting themselves up for a lift. These athletes tend to benefit from extension based exercises. Movements like an active cobra pose, supermans, bird dogs, or even just a straight up back extension.

Some athletes come out of a long season with mild discomfort in the lower back. It’s important for us as the coach, and often times the first point of contact in identifying an athletes pain, to understand when an athlete must be referred out to see a specialist. Overall, I have found this to be a great guideline to prescribe proper exercise that avoids exacerbating dysfunction, and can even help an athlete build strength and range of motion in areas that they may be deficient.

WHY ANTI-ROTATION IS MAKING OUR ATHLETES BULLETPROOF

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It has become conventional wisdom that training the core is an essential part of every strength training program. From the world’s best athletes to the average Joe at your local gym, everyone is obsessed with training the CORE! But what is considered the core and how can it be trained optimally?

The core consists of more than just the 6 muscles that you would consider your abs (the six-pack). The whole core is actually made up of over 20 muscles including obliques, which are the muscles on the sides of your abdomen and deeper muscles that wrap around your spine and midsection. The core can include or be considered anything besides your arms and legs. The main purpose of the core muscles is to stabilize, not to move. Core strength comes from the ability to stabilize both the upper and lower parts of the body. So given all of that, why do so many people train the core in only one plane of motion? They shouldn’t!  Training the core should be done in multiple ways since the core is used in almost every movement we do as humans. Anti-rotation is a type of core training that has recently become more popularized in sports performance. It is especially good for athletes who generate a lot of power through their core such as baseball players, tennis players or any sport that requires a lot of rotational power. It can also be used for anyone who is looking for different ways to effectively strengthen and stabilize their core.

So what is anti-rotation and how can it be used to improve my overall performance?

An anti-rotation exercise is generally an exercise where the core is contracted and its job is to hold the rest of the body still in a singular plane, direction or motion. It is essentially a tug of war but instead of you pulling back on the resistance, you are holding still, trying to keep the resistance from moving or pulling you. Unlike crunches and sit-ups or other general core exercises, anti-rotation movements maintain the body in a still position as opposed to moving through a range of motion. The ability to resist or prevent motion (or rotation) may be just as important as it is to create motion (or rotation). It is important to understand that athletes should be able to resist rotation before they are able to produce rotation. Too many times you see athletes injured because they are able to produce more force than their body can resist.  That’s why when training to throw a punch or swing a baseball bat, it is essential to train the core in multiple planes of motion. Anti-rotation movements such as the paloff hold or press and difference plank variations are examples of different anti-rotation movements that can be used or added to any core training routine. Improving the core improves stability, balance and prevents injury. Try adding a few anti rotations movements to your workout to improve overall core strength and prevent injuries. The key to optimal performance is to stay healthy with a solid core.