Jan 29, 2015Strength of Spirit
The sport of cheerleading requires agility, flexibility, and power. At the University of Tennessee, strength coaches have developed a customized program to help the Volunteers reach new heights.
By Dan Hamilton & Brian Gearity
Dan Hamilton, MS, ATC, CSCS, SCCC, and Brian Gearity, MS, ATC, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, are Assistant Strength Coaches at the University of Tennessee. Hamilton works directly with the cheerleading, dance, and golf teams, while Gearity has worked with baseball, cheerleading, dance, and football.
It’s a co-ed team with a longer season than any other sport on campus. Some of its athletes are ex-linebackers while others have rarely set a foot in a weightroom before. There’s no doubt that developing a strength and conditioning program for a cheerleading team presents an unusual set of challenges for a strength and conditioning coach.
While the application of our strength and conditioning efforts may take a different form when working with cheerleaders, the goals of a cheerleading team’s program are the same as those for any other team. We want to increase their performance and at the same time reduce the risk of injury.
Here at the University of Tennessee, we do that by emphasizing core strength, explosive strength, and flexibility. As the same time, we must also accommodate the unique demands cheerleaders face and stay in constant communication with their coach.
When designing a program for our cheerleaders, we first analyze the abilities they will need to be successful. These include, but are not limited to, explosive power, balance, stability, flexibility, and conditioning. From this point, we decide the exercises we will use and how they will be performed, dividing the program into male and female workouts.
In our efforts to increase the ability of our cheerleaders to meet the demands of their sport, we must be aware that the skills and strength levels presented by the athletes are going to be different between the genders. While many of the male athletes played another sport in high school and come in with some strength-training experience, we have found that the females are usually a little less experienced in strength training. Despite their lack of weightroom experience, the female athletes exhibit an equal desire to learn about strength training’s benefits and often show greater performance gains since they are strength training for the first time.
Regardless of the athletes’ experience with strength training, we have found that if we take the time to teach the importance of training, they take a greater interest in learning the proper techniques and understanding its benefits. As a result, the upperclassmen actually become an extension of the coaching staff and are able to assist new athletes on the team. This is especially beneficial with cheerleading because of the large team size and separate workouts.
We do occasionally run into initial resistance to strength training, especially lifting weights, from female cheerleaders who are concerned it will bulk them up. We counter this by explaining from the very beginning that the program is designed to help them improve their strength and flexibility, not to increase mass. Once they have been in the weightroom a couple of times, the women see that they spend far less time on the platform lifting weights than the men, and more time doing plyometrics, which usually allays any fears of bulking up.
Generally, the cheerleading roles of the men and women differ. The men tend to do more stunting, which involves throwing their teammates up in the air and then catching them. This requires a great deal of explosive strength. The women tend to do more acrobatic movements, so we are less concerned with building a lot of explosive strength, although it is still a necessary component of their workout program.
Another challenge of working with cheerleaders is scheduling. First, even though the men and women don’t do the same workouts, the cheerleading coach still wants them to work out as a team. We typically do three sessions a week. The full team works out together on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then each team member must complete another workout session on their own by noon Friday.
Team sessions are typically held just after practice, which allows us to go right into the exercises with little or no warmup. However, we must be careful not to overload athletes who have just finished a strenuous practice. If the coach keeps the team practicing longer than planned, we may have to shorten a workout, usually by cutting the conditioning component, since it was typically covered by the effects of the longer practice.
The cheerleading season is unlike any other—it begins in August and finishes with the end of basketball season. During this time, cheerleaders perform at football, soccer, and men’s and women’s basketball games, as well as numerous community events. On top of that, their cheerleading competitions occur in mid-to-late January, right in the middle of basketball season and shortly after the start of the winter semester.
If we’re not in constant communication with the cheerleading coach, we risk overworking the athletes in the weightroom. The team will practice two or even three times a day in the weeks leading up to national competition, but these athletes still need their time in the weightroom. To avoid overuse, we’ll usually focus on prehab exercises during these weightroom sessions and stay away from the heavier work we do early in the season.
During football season (August to November), we take more of a preseason approach to our workouts, placing an emphasis on strength development. In December, we switch to an inseason maintenance mode, which we stay with through the end of basketball season.
The coach wants to avoid overtaxing the cheerleaders as they head toward tryouts, usually held at the end of April. So we have the squad back off on their weights in March, and they are on their own through April. They can come in for individual workouts during the offseason, but there are no team sessions. We do not have a summer program for our cheerleaders, although many of them stay on campus for camps and come in for individual workouts.
Our program is designed to help the team reach the following goals: improve core strength, explosive strength, balance and stability, conditioning, flexibility, and prevent injuries. To accomplish these, we have developed four phases with the workout. The core strengthening, prehabilitation, and conditioning phases are similar for both the men and women, but there are separate programs for explosive strength.
Core strengthening: While most of our athletes are familiar with the term “core strength,” few truly understand how important it is for both performance and injury prevention. One of the first aspects of our core strength program is teaching athletes that the core includes more than just abdominals. Although many of the exercises in this section focus on the abdominals and low back region, we also include exercises that incorporate the glutes, hip flexors, and back extensors. This forces the athletes to stabilize the abdominals and low back in conjunction with the hips.
We also emphasize the importance of the transverse abdominis in their movements. We incorporated this into our abdominal work by having athletes begin any core strength exercise by initiating the transverse abdominis. We teach this by having them contract and then hold the muscle that allows them to stop the flow of urine.
Our core strength exercises are broken down into four categories: lying down, rotational, stability, and weighted. While some exercises fall solely within one subgroup, we prefer to use those that cross over categories and allow for more advanced work. The following is a list of our standard core exercises, grouped by type:
- Lying Down: V-ups, alt. V-ups, reverse crunches, single and double-leg toe touches, single and double-leg suitcase crunches, sky crunches.
- Rotational: Med-ball throws (forward/45 degrees/lateral), cable (row and rotate, 3-way twists), partner leg throws.
- Stability: Hanging abs (legs straight, alt. knee-to-chest), elbow balance (front/right/left), V-ups and hold.
- Weighted: Med-ball throws, reverse hypers, weighted hypers, manual resistance with stick.
Prehabilitation (injury prevention):Athlete safety is the top priority in the cheerleading team’s strength and conditioning program. Safety is accomplished through strengthening the core, the teaching phase of the lifting program, and the prehab program, which focuses on injury prevention for the ankle, knee, shoulder, and low back.
When designing the prehab program, we concentrate on body movements that help limit the chance of injury. The nature of movements performed during cheerleading predispose these athletes to injury, especially in the shoulders, legs, and back.
The shoulder exercises are designed to improve rotator cuff strength and scapular stabilization. These exercises are completed using light weight and high repetitions. The female cheerleaders begin the program using no external weight and work up to three-pound dumbbells, while the male cheerleaders begin with three-pound dumbbells and progress to five pounds. Some exercises require athletes to keep their shoulder blades squeezed together throughout the entire exercise while others will force the athlete to protract and retract the shoulder blades at various times throughout the movement.
The remaining components of our prehab exercises force athletes to coordinate the ankle, knee and hip to maintain balance and improve strength within each segment of the body. The muscles targeted at the knee include the vastus medialis and lateralis, biceps femoris and semitendinosus. At the ankle, we are forcing the athlete to stress the peroneals and the tibialis posterior. The gluteal muscles are another important aspect of our focus and aid in many of the movements required to complete the exercises.
These are our standard prehab exercises, listed by type:
- Shoulder: 45-degree DB raises; upright DB row/rotate/press; bent-over DB retract/raise/lower/protract to the front, side and rear; push-ups plus, seated dips plus, line walks, tubing exercises (internal/external rotations at 0 and 90 degrees).
- Ankle and Knee: Single-leg clock, single-leg touches (ground/chest/sky), balance disk overhead squat, broomstick pushes, broomstick pulls, single-leg cup stacks.
- Low Back/Glutes: Scorpions, single- and double-leg bridges, lateral elbow hip-ups, single-leg good mornings.
- Balance: Posterior lunge and rotate, overhead wiper lunges, repeat shoulder prehab exercises on single leg.
Conditioning: Overall conditioning is an important part of the program, not only because of the sport’s physical requirements, but also due to the many activities cheerleaders are required to participate in throughout the year. Cheerleading requires athletes to combine short bursts of intense physical activity with longer periods of active recovery.
A key aspect of the conditioning program is varying the length of the running exercises. The team performs a wide variety of sprint intervals and other conditioning exercises so the energy system is stressed in a variety of ways. This variation also keeps the workouts interesting for the athletes. We allow for continual progression by adding resistance to running workouts, including hills and stairs.
The following is a list of our standard conditioning exercises:
- Resisted: Hill sprints, video-tower stairwell sprints, sand sprints, Jacob’s ladders.
- Free: 300-yard shuttles, gassers, half-gassers, snakes, diagonals.
Explosive Strength: Cheerleading requires both men and women to perform extensive jumping and other explosive movements. However, the design and implementation of the explosive strength program differs between the two genders. The main difference is in the frequency and duration of external resistance applied throughout the course of the year.
The men’s program first involves teaching Olympic-style lifts and then progresses to more complex series of lifts, while also incorporating plyometric movements throughout the year. We firmly believe in the use of Olympic-style lifts for two reasons. First, they teach the male cheerleaders to apply force to the ground by lifting the bar. Secondly, they teach them to accept the force of the bar during the catch phase of clean movements. Thus, these exercises help prepare male cheerleaders for the acceleration of a female cheerleader from the ground and the acceptance of the force of the female during the catch.
The strength program for the women includes exercises to increase the vertical and horizontal jumps that aid them during mounts and tumbling. Both single- and multi-response jumps similar to the requirements of cheerleading are included. We typically start with bodyweight plyometric exercises and progress to explosive medicine ball and dumbbell exercises. These exercises, whether utilizing bodyweight or an external load, should be completed at the highest rate of velocity possible. During resistance training, the athlete must exhibit a stable base and coordinate their balance and body control to complete the movement.
The following is a list of our standard explosive strength exercises for both males and females:
- Males: Jerks (DB/push/power/split), snatches (DB/hang/pulls), cleans (DB, hang/knee level/power/pulls), jammers.
- Females: Jump tucks, broad jumps, power skips (for height and distance), squat jumps, scissors jumps, funnel jumps, med-ball cannonballs, DB high pulls, DB snatches, DB jerks.
Although many people who have never worked with cheerleaders don’t always hold in the same regard as other athletes, we have found them to be enthusiastic participants in our strength and conditioning program. With a few adjustments, any sound strength and conditioning approach can be modified to successfully fit the unique needs of a cheerleading squad.