Cheerleading – Exercises to Stretch & Strengthen and Avoid Injury

cheer team

Be Aggressive. Be Be Aggressive. B-E-A-GG-R-ESS-IVE!

How can you be aggressive or help your team be aggressive if you are stuck dealing with any number of injuries associated with the sport of cheerleading? The truth is that you can’t, but there are some preventive activities cheer athletes can work on to improve their conditioning to best meet the physical demands of their sport.

Movements associated with cheerleading require the participant to be in top physical condition to perform jumps, tumbling movements and flips, and be able to throw and catch their teammates safely. 

Depending on their role on the team, cheer athletes may need to jump as high as a basketball player while also performing kicking motions while airborne. 

To complete their routines, some cheerleaders must be strong like powerlifters in order to propel their teammates into the air.  Others need to maintain rigidity throughout their entire body to enable their team to lift and throw them into the air.  These same athletes may also be called upon to flip and twist through the air and return to a rigid state for their teammates to then safely catch them.

Various body regions can be at risk for serious injury during cheerleading. Knees can sustain ACL tears, meniscus damage or both. Ankles can sprain or even fracture. Low back injuries can include strain or even herniate discs with certain throwing stunts or aerial maneuvers. Shoulders, elbows and wrists bear the brunt of all tumbling activities during cheer and can strain, sprain, or even dislocate/fracture. 

Many of these areas for cheer athletes often require strengthening/conditioning and flexibility comparable to gymnasts in order to tolerate their sports.

cheer team

Base positions require lower extremity power, core strength, and the ability to maintain a stable platform with the shoulder girdle for their “flyers” to be successful. Flyers are required to maintain rigid torsos and limbs to allow their bases to lift them. This demands intense core stability, shoulder girdle strength and hip strength for the cheerleader to hold their body rigid while being lifted or thrown into the air. Once at the top of their stunt position, they must have the balance and coordination to maintain their alignment on top of the palms of their base teammates. For those at the base, this is analogous to trying to balance a 120-pound broomstick on their palms while that broomstick moves their arms to engage with the audience. All cheerleading team participants require the power and flexibility to jump into the air, touch their toes with knees straight and land safely into a squatted position.

Having never participated in the sport personally, I gained an appreciation for just how athletically demanding cheerleading can be through working with local cheer teams. Like with any sport, an exercise program targeting flexibility in the musculature that is most often used as well as strength training to replicate movements performed during competition is the ideal way to optimize performance and avoid injury.

Below is a program designed to target the flexibility requirements and strength demands tailored to the movements seen in cheerleading.

FLEXIBILITY FOR CHEERLEADERS

  • Begin by opening your legs into a split position.
  • Lean forward with arms overhead to minimize low back use and to help improve your ability to perform a split jump
  • Hold for 60 seconds.
SPLIT STRETCH
  • Place one foot on a sturdy chair behind you and the other in front of your knee pad.
  • Slowly descend into a lunge position where you feel a hip flexor and quad stretch on the leg that you are kneeling on.
  • Hold for 60 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
hip flexor exercise
lunge hip flexor stretch

*Be sure not to fall into compensatory movements such as pictured below.

bad position lunge
leaning back too far in lunge
bad posture in lunge
  • Lay flat on your back and pull your left leg across your body to the right side.
  • Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the second side.
stretch begin position
lumbar stretch postion

STRENGTH FOR CHEERLEADERS

  • Assume a plank position with good abdominal engagement. Avoid arching/sagging of the pelvis.
  • Hold this position for 30-90 seconds while lifting your legs into the air and out to the side. Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed
plank w/ hip extention
  • Begin in a squat position and explode upward into the air. While in the air, reach high, emphasizing the position you might be in during a jumping stunt, such as hurdler jumps or toe touch jumps.
  • Land softly and quietly into the same squat position. Repeatedly perform this 10-15 times in quick succession to work to develop power in your legs and increase your jump height.  Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed.

*This helps develop the power needed to complete all standing jump stunts performed during a routine.

  • Begin with your hands resting on the arm rests of a sturdy chair.
  • Lift one of your legs into the air and lower your body down towards the floor with your arms.
  • Return to the top, switch legs, and repeat for 10-20 reps. Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed.
chair dip
chair dip lower

*Chair dips are a great challenge for “flyers” to improve their dynamic shoulder stability in the position they assume while being lifted by their bases or while entering certain stunts.

  • Begin in the seated Splits position.
  • Maintain a tall torso throughout this movement.
  • With toes pointed, lift your thighs and heels off the ground and hold for 3-5 seconds. Return to the ground and perform 10-15 reps to failure.  Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed.
split sit
lifted split sit

*credit for this move to coaches Pumma and Nelke at Northcreek Cheerleading. This works on improving core strength and stability as well as working on lower extremity strength required to perform any number of individual jumping stunts such as a toe touch or side hurdler jump.

  • Begin in a push up position.
  • Lift one leg into the air and perform a push-up.
  • Return to the top, switch legs, and repeat.
  • Perform 10-20 reps to fatigue while alternating which leg is in the air. Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed.
push up with leg elevated 2

*This helps to replicate pushing movements a “base” or “flyer” may need to perform during a routine while adding a dynamic core stability challenge.

  • Begin in downward dog or modified downward dog position.
  • Lower your head downward towards your hands
  • Press yourself back up into your starting position.
  • Repeat 10-15 times to fatigue. Complete 3 rounds with rest as needed
dogward dog
downward dog pushup

*This helps to replicate pushing movements a “base” or “flyer” may need to perform during a routine while adding a dynamic core stability challenge.

  • Place an exercise band around your palms, pull band downward around your Left elbow toward your ribcage.
  • With your wrist and forearm muscles engaged against the band (wrist flexion) press the band upward while holding the bottom hand tight to your rib cage.
wrist flexion
wrist flexion shoulder press

*This replicates the wrist and scapular stability demands for a base to lift their flier into the air during a stunt. It also helps to improve pressing motions seen during tumbling routines.

  • While standing on something unstable, such as a rolled towel. Begin in a high kick position, with your leg out to the side.
  • Slowly tilt forward into an arabesque or single leg deadlift position. This will be difficult to maintain stability while moving, which is the goal.
high kick
high back kick

*Cheer athletes often land in awkward positions as they complete both individual jumps as well as team stunts. Improving stability and strength in ankle stabilizers helps reduce the risk of ankle sprains.

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