Beginning Core, Landing, and Jumping Technique for Gymnasts

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How Do We Protect The Knees and Backs of Gymnasts?

Why gymnasts get injured

Gymnasts land and jump thousands of times per day and these forces create incredible amounts of tension on young bodies.  On top of this, studies have shown most injuries occur during the landing phase of athletics.  99% of injuries seen in gyms occur because of improper landings. So what injuries do we see most often as a result of landing?

  • Ankle sprains (the most common injury in sports)
  • Foot Injuries
  • Knee injury, both overuse and traumatic
  • Hip Injuries
  • Back Injuries

Proper positioning when landing

When a gymnast lands, there are a few specific things we are looking for.  If you received a video from Gymnast Care of your athlete landing, compare it to this position:

  • Knees stay tracking the straight line created between the hip and the first and second toes.  Knees should not deviate inside or outside of this line.  Seeing a deviation from this line has been shown to increase the chance of knee injury
  • Chest up and bodily control, landing where the gymnast expects
  • The landing should not be overcome by the forces of the landing, making her step on her landing, or wobble uncontrolled

When we see a gymnast land differently than what is stated, we need to start looking at the best ways to make them stronger and less susceptible to injury.

How do we protect gymnasts from these injuries

It’s a proven fact, through overwhelming research, injuries in female athletes can be prevented when they increase their ability to control themselves.  This control is most commonly referred to as NEUROMUSCULAR CONTROL.

Gymnasts are strong and gain strength every day.  Strength is usually not the issue.  The issue is the brain and spinal cord communicating effectively with the muscles controlling the stability of the structures protecting the central nervous system…or in other words, TRUE CORE STRENGTH!

But our gymnasts do what’s called “core strength” at the gym everyday.

Not exactly.  Many times, they focus on abdominal strengthening or shortening the abdominal muscles to facilitate core strength.  While this type of exercise can be sport specific and can help with aspects of gymnastics, it doesn’t promote neuromuscular control.  It rather only promotes abdominal strengthening.

This is why for a gymnast, it is essential they learn to control their core muscles, without shortening their abdominal muscles.  When abdominal muscles are shortened, the back muscles are elongated and are not able to respond with quickness and strength, putting spinal joints and back muscles at risk for injury.

The exercises Gymnast Care promotes, increase the neuromuscular control of an athlete’s core.  This allows them to protect their central nervous system and give their arms and legs the ability to do more intense work!

The following is a list of our basic core exercises with instructions.

Tight Core

Lying on your back, with knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, knees in a strong position, shoulders relaxed, tighten the abdominal muscles not allowing the hips to rotate up and back (posterior pelvic tilt).

The other important key aspect of position in this pose, is to make sure the young gymnast does not have a tunnel or arch in their lower back.  They should try to push down their spine while not allowing their pelvis to tilt posterior as described above.

To begin, young gymnasts should hold this position while continuing to take deep breaths.  Begin every night with 3 sets of ten second holds.  The gymnast, or parent, can gently poke on the belly to make sure they are tightening these muscles.

Many athletes say they can’t hold tight while breathing or they just suck in without tightening their muscles.  Make sure they keep trying.  As they start building communication with their core, they will begin to tighten these muscles!

The gymnast should practice this for 30 seconds per night.

Cross Crawl

Starting position for a gymnast during Cross Crawl

One of the most important concepts a young gymnast can learn is how to maintain the proper back position needed to land safely.  It’s been shown that young athletes that pooch their belly (anterior pelvic tilt) upon landing are more likely to suffer a back fracture (pars fracture or spondylolysis).  We see this position in the gym every day, and it is even encouraged by some. The opposite of “pooching” is also unhealthy.

Tucking your hips under is dangerous because it puts the back muscles that protect spinal joints at a disadvantage, and you’ve now opened your athlete up to every injury that is common to individuals with tight hamstrings even though their hamstrings are not tight.

This position will also increased hip flexor activity and decreased the ability of the gluteus maximus (butt muscle) to slow the gymnast down upon landing.

So how do we teach gymnasts to start using the right muscles to keep their back strong?  The Cross Crawl.  The cross crawl allows the gymnast to feel the position of a straight back, without pooching and hips neutral, creating strength in both the abdominal muscles and back muscles.

With the athlete on all 4’s, have the athlete first do a cat stretch (which is tucking the hips under) then have them go down into a dog stretch (which is pooching the belly), and then have the gymnast find the spot in the middle in which their back is straight and strong.

Place your hand on the athletes back, and have them tighten their stomach and back muscles without moving your hand.  With this cue, they will do it right every time!

Now they can begin bringing up their right arm and left leg.  Very slowly and very deliberately.  When they begin to shake, or wobble, have them stop and return to the starting position.  Always have them hold the top position for at least a second to allow their bodies to respond to the stimuli.  Next, do the opposite arm and leg with the same guidance.

During the cross crawl, the athlete must keep the strong back position without allowing their hips to fall to either side or allow their hips to move.

The gymnast should practice this for 30 seconds per night.

The Squat

The beginning of the squat with core tight and gluteal region moving to the rear. Arms can be overhead or in front.

The squat is the most important maneuver in athletics.  Without the ability to squat, you have no ability to land safely.  The jump and the landing are just variations of the squat and it must be started there, perfected, and then stressed.  As we said at the beginning, gymnasts jump and land thousands of times a week…or, they squat thousands of times per week.  When done improperly, gymnasts have a great chance of overuse injury and acute injury. Here are the steps of a proper squat for gymnasts:

  • Always start with core tight and gluteus muscles contracted
  • The first part of the body to move is the gluteal region (butt) moves back and continues this path for the entire down phase of the squat
  • Knees bend in accordance with the gluteal region moving backwards as one controlled unit
  • Knees always stay behind toes
  • The down phase of the squat ends when the hips are just below the knees
  • The up phase begins with the gymnast squeezing their glute muscles as hard as possible
  • Knees do not translate, rather they hinge as a door would open allowing the hips/glutes to slam forward
  • And as always, the core stays tight the entire time

Have your gymnast complete 10 squats per night.

The Beginning of Core

This is the beginning of protecting your gymnast.  It is only the beginning!  Core work, and learning landing technique is an intense process, but the great news is that young athletes learning these techniques are 80-90% less likely to suffer career ending injuries than their peers not learning these technique.

Core strength must be progressive and continue to increase in difficulty as the young athletes increases in age and ability level.  This is why Gymnast Care has developed a core strength progression that creates neuromuscular control and helps our young athletes decrease their chance for injury.

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Thank you so much for spending this time to invest in your gymnast.  If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section or send us a message.

Stay safe and we’ll see you in the gym!.

Dr. Joshua Eldridge

About Dr. Joshua Eldridge

Dr. Joshua Eldridge has specialized in protecting gymnasts from injury. He is the inventor of The X Brace, and has developed a treatment protocol for Sever's disease and heel pain that has helped thousands of gymnasts throughout the world. Dr. Eldridge brings practical, easy injury care and prevention that can be done at home.