How to Become Flexible for Gymnastics
Although natural flexibility is one of the things coaches look for in children who become elite gymnasts, your flexibility isn't limited by your genetics. According to governing body USA Gymnastics, stretching is essential for increasing flexibility. To develop the flexibility of a gymnast, you must stretch and condition like one.
Stretches for shoulder flexibility include reaching your arm across your chest while holding it with the other arm, reaching one hand down your back while pushing against your elbow with your opposite hand, and rotating your shoulders in circles. Reaching overhead while standing and bending back as far as you can helps increase shoulder and back flexibility. Chest stretches performed with your arms behind your back, such as clasping your hands behind you and straightening your arms, also help develop upper-body flexibility. If you don't have the flexibility to do behind-the-body arm stretches at first, holding a yoga strap or resistance band between your hands bridges the gap.
One fundamental gymnastics skill that requires advanced lower-body flexibility is the splits. In front splits, one leg extends forward while the other extends behind you, with the pelvis flat on the floor. In side splits, the legs are spread in a horizontal line. In vertical splits, the gymnast stands on one leg and extends the other one in the air in a vertical line. Gymnasts stretch past a normal split with each leg on a chair and the pelvis lowered. If you're still working toward front splits, place a yoga block or folded blanket beneath your pelvis, and rest your hands on yoga blocks if needed. Work toward side splits by extending your legs in front of you in a V and stretching your upper body forward as far as possible, with your hands on the floor. Use the wall to practice vertical splits, gradually easing your pelvis closer to the wall as your flexibility increases. Although splits are important, lower-body flexibility is also important for moves such as cartwheels, round offs and other tumbling passes on the floor and beam.
Backbends are the standard way to work toward increased back flexibility. Although gymnasts should have the flexibility to go into a backbend from standing and the core strength to pull themselves back up, start practicing backbends by lying on your back on the floor, placing your hands beside your ears and straightening your arms to push yourself up. If you can't push all the way up, rest the top of your head on the floor. Performing a backbend requires you to increase your upper-body strength in order to increase your back flexibility.
If you want to gain flexibility for gymnastics, add a complementary workout to traditional stretches. Yoga and Pilates both improve flexibility -- and, as an added bonus, they improve core strength, which is essential for performing skills on the uneven bars. Ashtanga-based yoga, also known as flow or power yoga, has the added benefit of a cardio workout, while gentler styles like restorative yoga gently stretch your body. Pilates boosts lower-body flexibility, particularly in your back and hips. If you're struggling with splits or backbends, give either Reformer or mat Pilates a try.
S.R. Becker is a certified yoga teacher based in Queens, N.Y. She has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years. Becker often writes for "Yoga in Astoria," a newsletter about studios throughout New York City.