Jan 29, 2015Flying High
The new sport of acrobatics and tumbling requires athletes to be incredibly strong, flexible, and explosive. At the University of Oregon, the squad’s strength coach has developed a unique program to keep them flying high.
By Geoff Ginther
Geoff Ginther, MS, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Oregon, where he has worked for 24 years. He is responsible for training the acrobatics and tumbling and women’s lacrosse teams and assists with football. He can be reached at: [email protected].
It is always an interesting challenge and valuable learning experience to figure out how to train and condition athletes in a new sport. When the acrobatics and tumbling team was formed here at the University of Oregon almost three years ago, that’s exactly what I was faced with.
Overall, acrobatics and tumbling is best described as gymnastics mixed with the athletic aspects of competitive cheer. Anywhere from one to 24 female athletes are on the floor performing acrobatics, building pyramids, and throwing each other into the air, where they flip and twist before being caught. It is fast moving and very athletic.
Having worked with 15 different sports in 30 years as a strength and conditioning coach, and having done some gymnastics and dance in high school and college myself, I had a good understanding of certain parts of this new sport. But while I was familiar with some of the acrobatic and tumbling gymnastic elements, the competitive cheer influences were new to me.
To start the learning process, I constantly observed the sport so I could fully understand the physiological requirements and figure out which movements were most common. I needed answers to a lot of questions: What areas of the body need to be developed in order to hold and throw teammates overhead? What tests can we come up with to assess strengths and weaknesses of our athletes specific to the sport? Can the flyers get stronger and more flexible without adding bodyweight?
Two years after the sport’s debut, it’s safe to say that our team is very talented and on its way to becoming a perennial powerhouse. Oregon has won the national championship both of the years that one has been held and currently sits at the top of next season’s rankings. The athletes work hard for that success, which is especially evident in the weightroom and at our conditioning sessions.
A CLOSER LOOK
While acrobatics and tumbling vies for official NCAA status (for more on this process, see “Emerging Sport Status”), the National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association (NCATA) is the governing body of the sport. The NCATA is backed by USA Gymnastics, which certifies the coaches and sanctions the meets, including the national tournament.
Oregon is one of eight schools that currently make up the NCATA. Though most were previously competitive cheer teams, acrobatics and tumbling squads are completely separate from any sideline cheerleading groups. A team usually consists of about 35 women with 28 eligible to compete in any one meet. The season begins in late winter and culminates with the national championship in late spring.
There are two positions in the sport: bases and flyers. Bases push their teammates overhead and catch them, while flyers are balanced overhead and thrown in the air.
Competitions are structured similar to gymnastics meets and are held on a non-spring mat of two-inch thick foam that is 42 feet long and 54 feet wide, placed on an arena floor. Most regular season meets comprise of two to three teams and take 90 to 105 minutes. They consist of six events: compulsories, acro, pyramid building, toss, tumbling, and a team routine. Judges award scores based on pre-established standards.
Compulsories: The compulsory event is made up of four heats: acro, pyramid, toss, and tumbling. There are established baseline skills for each heat that college-level athletes are expected to complete with a high level of proficiency. In the acro heat, eight athletes make up two groups that perform a synchronized sequence. In the pyramid heat, 15 athletes perform a standard pyramid build. In the toss heat, 10 athletes make up two groups that perform a standard synchronized toss. And in the final heat, eight athletes perform four different synchronized tumbling skills.
Acro: There are three heats in the acro event, with two to four athletes competing in each. The skills are a series of acrobatic lifts that can’t last longer than 45 seconds. The first heat must have a flipping element of at least 360 degrees and can contain no more than five elements. The second heat must contain two twisting skills of more than 90 degrees and can contain no more than six elements. And the third heat must include five release skills and can contain only seven elements.
Pyramid building: The pyramid event is also made up of three heats. Up to 24 athletes can compete in each heat. The athletes have 30 seconds to build a standard pyramid with dynamic entry and dismount skills. Heat one requires a flipping skill, heat two a twisting skill, and heat three a release skill.
Toss: The three heats in the toss event have been compared to diving because so much body control and awareness is required on the part of the flyer. Four athletes toss a fifth athlete (the flyer) into the air, where she twists and flips before being caught by the bases. The first heat requires the flyer to perform a skill in the air in a laid out flipping body position. The second heat requires two groups to perform a synchronized toss. And the third heat is open where the group can perform the toss of their choice.
Tumbling: There are six heats in the tumbling event. Three are group heats and three are individual. The first is a quad heat where four athletes perform a synchronized tumbling pass. The second is a trio heat where three athletes do the same. Two athletes perform in the third heat. The final three are performed by one athlete. All three must include a pass and other specific requirements.
Team routine: The final event brings all of the skills performed in the first five heats together into a dynamic group routine set to music that is two-and-a-half minutes long. It is much like a floor routine in artistic gymnastics mixed with an acrobatic gymnastics routine–all synchronized with 24 athletes.
As in any sport that requires elements of power, strength, and balance, injury prevention is a primary concern in acrobatics and tumbling. The first year the team started training was our worst in terms of injuries suffered. We had the most total injuries and the most severe, including three that resulted in knee surgeries.
The most commonly injured lower body parts are the ankles (evenly split between impact and overuse injuries), shins, and knees. The most commonly injured upper body parts are the head (our athletes suffer an average of seven concussions per year), hands (thumb and wrist), and shoulders. Concussions continue to be a problem in acrobatics and tumbling–not so much from flyers being dropped, but more often from head-to-head contact when a base catches a flyer or takes an elbow to the head.
Since that first injury-plagued year, however, there has been considerable improvement in the athletes’ strength and conditioning levels. Instituting regular strength training, conditioning, and testing has helped our athletes become better able to handle some of the high-impact movements of the sport. Other elements of our program that focus on injury prevention include:
– Consistent total body warmups that are more dynamic than static
– Post-practice cool-downs that include partner-assisted proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)
– Recovery methods such as ice baths, static stretching, rest, and proper nutrition.
Injury prevention also improved when we stopped doing explosive weight training on days when practice focused on tumbling, which is high impact. The athletes also started to take one full day off in the middle of the week. And we had them practice improved landing and catching skills on the mat and in the weightroom, which lessens impact on their ankles, shins, and knees.
The main needs of all acrobatics and tumbling athletes are upper body strength, power and explosiveness, flexibility, and core strength. Here is how we work on each of them:
Upper body strength: When I started working with the team, the athletes were underdeveloped in this area. It was evident early on that most had little weight lifting experience, so we started by working mostly on muscular endurance training (few sets, light to medium weight, and higher repetitions). We also used teaching progressions of multi-joint exercises (pull, push, and squat), and made sure to do lots of opposing muscle exercises (push-pull, flex-extend).
Both the base and flyer positions require the ability to do tumbling activities, which utilize mainly the shoulder and back muscles. We place equal emphasis on the three upper body areas of pushing, pulling, and stability. For pushing, we train the shoulders with an overhead lifting progression using dumbbells, the push press, and push jerk. For pulling, we use pull-ups, lat pull-downs, upright rows, clean pulls, bent-over rows, and low cable rows.
Bases, in addition to overall upper body strength, need to develop overhead stability. We work on this by having them push and hold various objects overhead, including dumbbells, large sections of PVC pipe loaded with sand, weighted sandbags, and four- to five-foot long logs. These exercise challenges have the added bonus of mimicking a base’s common sport specific motions and developing deep joint strength and flexibility.
Power and explosiveness: We have the acrobatics and tumbling athletes do Olympic lifts to develop explosiveness for a number of reasons. The pulling motion in cleans and snatches develops good hip extension power for our bases. This movement is also very similar to the beginning phase of tossing.
Push presses and push jerks develop the overhead pushing power needed in acrobatics. And for bases, the eccentric loading on the way down from these lifts is similar to catching a flyer. We make sure to concentrate on good posture and have the athletes drop their hips instead of using their low backs to catch the weight.
Flexibility: Flipping and twisting at high speeds places high impact demands on the hips, knees, and ankle joints, which makes flexibility and mobility in these areas paramount. The athletes consistently perform two sessions per day that include dynamic stretches (circular movements to loosen joints, ligaments, and tendons) and static stretches (for shoulder, low back, leg, and hip muscles). We also increase flexibility by doing post-practice partner-assisted PNF stretching.
Core strength: In order to train the core, which encompasses the hips, low back, abdominals, and glutes, the athletes perform exercises in all potential movement patterns, including flexion, extension, rotation, and changing levels. We use medicine balls, physio balls, and plank exercises. Learning how to control the hips and activate the muscles of the glutes and abdominals is important for developing overall core strength.
While the acrobatic portion of this sport requires strength, power, balance, and flexibility, the tumbling portion emphasizes speed and higher impact training. Conditioning includes a base level of cardiovascular fitness, acceleration and speed development, and foot quickness and agility. We base our conditioning methods on the movement patterns of the sport, which for acrobatics and tumbling are mostly forward accelerations and upward and downward motions.
Cardiovascular fitness and speed endurance: It is important to develop these areas in the preseason. This is when the squad does multiple reps (up to 24) of uphill sprints, short stair sprints, towing and dragging sleds, multiple sprints of 10 to 30 yards, and fartlek training. Twice a week during the season, we do cardiovascular training for fitness and speed endurance that lasts 15 to 20 minutes.
Acceleration and speed development: Tumbling from opposing corners of a competition-size mat covers only about 20 yards, so acceleration as quickly as possible (top speed in four to six seconds) is important. Our athletes perform resisted and assisted running exercises for this purpose. Speed and acceleration mechanics and methods such as proper starts and running form are trained as well.
Foot quickness and agility: The athletes do ladder and stair drills and jump and plyometric training. But because of the number of passes athletes make across the mat during a typical tumbling practice (20 to 30 in a two-hour session), we tend to do this training only during the preseason. Cone hops in three directions and a box jump progression are usually the employed methods.
Our acrobatics and tumbling athletes do strength and conditioning training year-round. Preseason training starts prior to the start of school in late September. We begin by testing flexibility, core strength, lower body power and speed, upper body muscular endurance, and cardiovascular fitness to determine individual strengths and weaknesses.
The first preseason phase is nine weeks long, and concludes in late November when we perform a second round of tests to measure strength and power. We do this with a one-rep max power clean, push jerk, squat, and bench press.
After the holiday break in December, we conduct a second short preseason phase in January. Then, the in-season phase runs from early February all the way through to the national championship tournament in late April. The team then completes a short postseason phase early-May to mid-June before they go home for the summer. And finally, the off-season phase runs from late June to mid-September.
The fitness running test is a two-mile track run with a goal time of 16 minutes. The flexibility test includes the sit-and-reach, back bend, leg splits, and prone shoulder elevation. The core strength test includes the V-up hold, weighted plank hold, and two-minute sit-up test. Lower body and speed tests include the vertical jump and 20-yard sprint. And the upper body and muscular endurance tests include pull-ups, dips, and a one-minute pushup test.
We test twice a year. In September, it’s to see if the athletes stayed in shape over the summer. In November, it’s to evaluate our preseason training phase, which includes the longest and most demanding workouts of the year.
During the preseason, postseason, and off-season, three workouts are completed per week. Each workout takes 75 to 90 minutes, including warmup, lifting, and conditioning. In-season, we do two 60-minute workouts per week, including warmup, lifting, and conditioning.
In-season strength and conditioning workouts are always done before practice, which we believe is a benefit to the athletes because lifting encourages proper posture and warms up the muscles and joints for practice. The team’s athletic trainer, coaches, and myself have also noticed that lifting and conditioning before practice stimulates and enhances the athletes’ performance at practice. (See “Exercises By Position” for more details on our workouts.)
The Oregon squad’s two national tournament wins showed what can happen when athletes train consistently in an intelligent and enthusiastic manner. And as long as the athletes continue their hard work, the Ducks will continue to be successful as acrobatics and tumbling takes off.
Sidebar: EXERCISES BY POSITION
Below is a list of some of the most important and unique exercises done by each position.
Clean pull to power clean Push press to push jerk Dumbbell single-arm snatch to power snatch Explosive step-up with squat jump Front squat to squat Overhead lunge to lunge Overhead stability and balance (logs, dumbbells, chains, loaded PVC pipes) Overhead toss (med balls, sandbags, logs)
Step-up Single-leg V-up, bridge, plank, and variety of physio ball exercises Dumbbell shoulder raise (front and lateral) Good morning and reverse back extension Upright row and triceps extension Balance stretches (double- and single-leg) on Bosu ball
Sidebar: EMERGING SPORT STATUS
Acrobatics and tumbling is in the pipeline to become an NCAA emerging sport. NCAA guidelines for emerging sports require 20 active collegiate varsity or club teams, and 10 schools must sign letters saying their athletic department sponsors or commits to sponsor it. Presently, there are seven other universities in addition to the University of Oregon that offer it at the varsity level.
If acrobatics and tumbling is approved by the NCAA Committee for Women’s Sports, each NCAA division would vote on whether to adopt it as an emerging sport. Once 40 NCAA schools sponsor the sport, it is then eligible to become a full championship sport. Four women’s sports–ice hockey, rowing, water polo, and bowling–have progressed from emerging to championship status since the process was established in 1996.
The future of acrobatics and tumbling is promising. The sport has low expenses, high interest and participation among young athletes, and spectators love it–Oregon has drawn 2,000 fans at several home meets.
These athletes want the sport to be nationally recognized and respected. The support it has received thus far is a great start. Hopefully, in the very near future, acrobatics and tumbling will be accepted by the NCAA as a new and exciting sport to be enjoyed by participants and spectators across the nation.
For more information on acrobatics and tumbling, including videos of events, go to: www.thencata.org.