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.