Subject: leaps, straddle jumps, wolf jumps
My daughter is a level 6, and is a very good tumbler. However, compared to other girls on the team, her leaps, wolf jumps, and straddle jumps are terrible.
She can do all splits, and is very strong. She has no problem with pike-ups etc. However, her legs don’t seem to get even close to a split position on any of these skills. Her legs on the straddle are only about 60 degrees. The leap is better, however, nowhere close to 180 degrees.
Is this a strength issue, practice issue, what? Are there any drills she can do at home to improve these skills? She has a trampoline.
Normally, we would give our standard lecture on the importance of flexibility, but it is apparent you are already aware of the benefits of being flexible and the drawbacks of being an inflexible gymnast.
Your daughter’s problem is a combination of a strength through the full range of leg flexibility and a basic lack of flexibility problem. There are three ways to work on flexibility – Passive Stretching, Partner Stretching and Active Stretching.
Passive Stretching, in this case, would refer to sitting in splits. Normally we would recommend sitting in oversplits (splits with your leg up on a mat or other raised surface). Since she is really not very flexible, she will need to start just working on sitting in splits. Passive stretching is primarily a function of time. The longer she sits in splits, the more flexible she will get. Gymnasts sometime sit in splits while watching TV to maximize their use of time (assuming they have any time to watch TV). This method works and is safe with little danger of injury or pulled muscles although it is the slowest of the three methods.
We highly recommend Partner Stretching. It is relatively safe and works faster than passive stretching. Parents can do this with their gymnasts at home. Basically the partner assists in the stretching process by pushing on the legs, holding them down and straight and then progressively during the exercise and over time) leans their weight on the gymnast’s back stretching them.
Active Stretching, in terms of leap and jump flexibility, involves dynamic, ballistic kicking actions to the front side and back. Active stretching involves somewhat more risk of pulled or strained muscles, but trained gymnasts are likely to be fine if they work in a deliberate and controlled progression into the exercises. Active kick stretching can be done with or without ankle weights. Ankle weights should be added only after the gymnast has acclimated themselves to this type of workout.
One of the most effective, in terms of time-efficiency and rapid progress, and scientifically documented (by renowned U.S. gymnastics scientist, Bill Sands) methods of stretching involves using TheraBand™ elastic resistance bands in active stretching.
The black TheraBands™ (and then after working for some time, and later in the training, the gray) elastic bands are the ones that have been determined to work best. The black is the second stiffest band and gray is the stiffest. These can be purchased at a medical supply store, although we get them donated by local physical therapists.
We cut the TheraBand™ in 4&½ – 5&½ foot lengths (depending on the height of the gymnast). Using at least a double knot, tie small loops in each end of the TheraBand™ to fit snugly around the gymnast’s foot or ankle. The loop needs to be small and snug to keep it from sliding up the leg during the various exercises.
With the TheraBand™ on the bottom foot and upper ankle, gymnasts perform sets of ballistic ballet kicks to the front back and side. The use of a ballet barre (or any other object to maintain stability and balance) for support is necessary. Gymnasts should likely start with 3 sets of 5 – 10 kicks and work up to 5 sets of 15 kicks. Gymnasts need to be instructed to kick (not slowly lift) their legs as high as possible, maintaining perfect form (straight legs, pointed toes and correct turn-out). We encourage gymnasts to do at least one set where they kick and hold the leg up to build leg hold strength.
Gymnasts can also do another different set of exercises using TheraBands™ involving right and left split jumps and straddle jumps. Our gymnasts much prefer doing these on trampoline and we encourage that because it allows them more dynamics. We don’t have any problem getting them to do 50 – 100 of these at a time on trampoline or tumble tramp. We also make them do the right/left split jumps and straddle jumps on floor jumps on floor in sets similar in number to the ballet kicks. We also have them do similar numbers of sets of split leaps and side leaps wearing the TheraBands™ on both their good and bad side leaps. (OK, we don’t usually have them do bad-side side leaps usually, unless we want a laugh).
Please note that we consider this rehab work. Our gymnasts who already have exceptional flexibility would only do these once a week at most. We use these exercises primarily to improve the flexibility of gymnasts who are lacking in that area and we spend the time to do all of the above exercises with them because flexibility is so key to how many skills look when performed and to success in the sport.
This Theraband™ training may be particularly suited to your daughter as it is actually somewhat more of strength training than passive stretching and it can be done on a trampoline, which you already have. We have found that gymnasts’ splits can improve 6 – 25% per month using this training technique. The less flexible they are, the more monthly improvement. As they get more flexible, progress slows but continues. Our goal is always 190-degree plus splits in leaps and jumps.
Please note that we have also used surgical tubing and slit and cut bicycle tubes for exercises of these types in addition to Theraband™ elastic strips.
Please note also that to quickly improve her wolf jumps, likely the best exercise will be partner pike stretching (gymnast sits in pike, partner holds the knees down and straight, and progressively leans more and more of their weight on the back of the gymnast). Stalder and straddle stretching can also be done this way.
All of this work can be done in or out of the gym and parents can help. There is very little likelihood that gymnasts will over train or be seriously injured doing flexibility exercises. This is one of the few instances (and few that we recommend) where parents may help their gymnasts improve.
Incidentally, you should check your daughter’s shoulder flexibility, as well. If she is that tight in her legs, she may lack shoulder flexibility as well. For more information on improving shoulder flexibility you can read our article on back walkover problems.
One other factor is the quickness with which she does her jumps. In order to reach a full split and then get the feet back down to land requires that the gymnast move quickly to the ideal jump position and quickly feet back down to land. Having her focus on the quickness with which she does her jumps could be the problem or, at least, part of the problems as well. The solution is to mentally focus on moving more quickly.
Hope that helps. We wish you luck and if there is anything else we can help with, please let us know.