Struggling With Jumping Jacks? Here’s What Your Body’s Trying to Tell You

If you haven't done jumping jacks since gym class, you might lack strength and mobility in certain places.
Image Credit: airdone/iStock/GettyImages

From your elementary school gym class to your current-day HIIT workout, it seems like no cardio routine would be complete without at least one rigorous round of jumping jacks. But there's a reason why jumping jacks never go out of style.

This classic calisthenics move works every muscle from your fingertips to your toes, gets your heart rate up, increases blood flow throughout your body and helps to loosen joints and ligaments, Carson Smith, master trainer and instructor at Shred415, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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But despite their simplicity — they require no equipment and can be done almost anywhere — jumping jacks, which involve many muscles and joints, are quite an advanced move, Smith says.

That may explain why they can be a struggle for some. Here, Smith shares six common issues that could be interfering with your jumping jack game, plus offers tips on how to master those jacks like a jumping bean.

1. Your Hip Flexors Are Tight

"Tightness in any joint or muscle may make jumping jacks uncomfortable or limit your range of motion," Smith says. And your hips are no exception.

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If you have a desk job, you likely sit all day. The problem is, when your hips are inactive and restricted to a flexed position, your hip flexors shorten, according to the American Council on Exercise. The result is limited hip mobility and tightness that can make movements like jumping jacks a struggle.

Fix It

“Before doing any high-impact exercise, make sure to stretch and prepare your body,” Smith says. In other words, get those hips active and loose prior to performing jumping jacks. Here are some stretches and exercises to try:

Move 1: Pigeon Pose

  1. Start in Downward Facing Dog, balancing on your hands and feet with hips in the air. You'll look like an upside-down V.
  2. Slowly bend your left knee and bring the leg forward, gently placing the knee behind your left wrist.
  3. Slide your right hip back as far as you can and untuck your toes, pressing into the top of your right foot.
  4. Make sure your left knee is positioned outside of your hip. Keep your hips square to the front. Ideally, your left shin should be parallel to the top edge of your mat (if you're using one). Or perpendicular to your torso.
  5. If you have the flexibility, walk your hands forward, fold your arms and rest your head in them.
  6. Hold this pose for 10 breaths, then repeat on the opposite leg.

Move 2: Runner’s Lunge

  1. Start standing, then take a huge step forward.
  2. Bend your front knee to 90 degrees, keeping your knee over your front ankle, and leave your back leg straight (or you can bend the knee slightly).
  3. Support yourself by placing each hand on either side of your front foot. If you need to, drop your back knee to the floor.
  4. Hold here for 15 to 30 seconds (or longer if you'd like) before doing the same on the other side.

Move 3: Sumo Squat

  1. Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, turning your toes out 45 degrees.
  2. Maintain an upright torso as you bend your knees and lower into a deep squat.
  3. Once your thighs are parallel with the floor, push through your heels to stand up.

2. Your Knees Can't Handle the Impact

"Any high-impact exercise may be tough on sore knees or joints," Smith says. But if jumping jacks sends a jolt of pain through your knees, don't force yourself through the movement. This discomfort could be a sign of an underlying issue like an overuse injury, a muscle imbalance or a medical condition such as arthritis.

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Fix It

Smith’s general rule of thumb is: If it hurts, slow down and modify. “People tend to shy away from modifications because they feel that they aren't getting ‘a good workout,’ but a ‘good workout’ should make your body feel good, not produce pain,” Smith says.

Taking the jump out of the jacks will be much gentler on your knees. “You can still get full upper-body mobility and your heart rate will still rise,” Smith says. And your knees will thank you.

Modification: Low-Impact Jumping Jacks

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Tap your right foot out to the side and swing both arms overhead. Keep your weight in your left leg during the movement.
  3. As you step your right foot back in, lower your arms back down to your sides.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side, tapping your left foot out as you raise your arms overhead, to complete one rep.

In addition, you can add stretches to your routine, which help take stress off your knees:

Move 1: Lying Shin Stretch​

  1. Lie on your side with the knee of the lower leg bent and your foot behind your back.
  2. Reach behind with your top arm and grab your foot to pull it as close as you can to your back.
  3. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
  4. Perform 10 reps, then switch legs.

Move 2: Figure-Four Stretch​

  1. Lie face-up with your left ankle crossed over your right quad with your knee bent.
  2. Hold the back of your right leg and gently pull it toward your chest.
  3. When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold the position.
  4. Perform 12 reps, then switch sides.

3. Your Calf Muscles Are Tight

From a living sedentary lifestyle to participating in endurance sports without stretching, so many things can cause tight calves. But stiff calves will cost you when it comes to performing jumping jacks and other exercises.

"Think of calves as the springs in our legs — they are your 'launch' muscles — and if you have tight calves, you will feel an uncomfortable pulling sensation while working out," Smith says.

Fix It

“To avoid this, work on elongating those muscles using targeted stretching or foam rolling before and after your workout,” Smith says.

Move 1: Seated Calf Stretch With Band

  1. Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet on the floor, knees bent 90 degrees. Wrap a resistance band or long belt around the ball of one foot so your leg is straight out in front of you.
  2. Flex your foot so that your toes come toward your torso, keeping tension on the band.
  3. Then, point your toe, pressing against the resistance of the band.
  4. Repeat this sequence of pointing and flexing for 3 sets of 15 to 30 seconds on each leg.

Move 2: Standing Calf Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall with staggered feet, palms on the wall at shoulder height.
  2. Keeping the heel of your back leg planted, bend your front knee and slowly lean toward the wall.
  3. Now bend your back knee a bit. This will change the focus of the stretch to the soleus muscle (one of two muscles that make up your calves).
  4. Then return to having your heel flat and knee straight.
  5. Continue this stretch for 60 seconds, changing the angle of your back foot from straight to slightly turned out to slightly turned in every 10 or so seconds.
  6. Switch legs and repeat.

Move 3: Calf Massage

  1. Sit on the floor and rest one calf on top of a foam roller.
  2. Flex your toes toward your chin, then point them away.
  3. You should feel some pressure in the calf or tendon as you go through the movement.
  4. Repeat for 60 seconds on each side to release tight calf muscles.

4. You Lack Shoulder Mobility

"In a perfect jumping jack, your hands should lightly touch above your head each rep," Smith says. "But tight shoulders will prevent you from being able to get your arms all the way up above your head."

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If you lack shoulder mobility, bad habits — from slumping in your chair to slinging heavy bags over your shoulder and bad bench press form — may be to blame. All these things can be problematic for your posture, leading to stiffness and maybe even muscle imbalances.

Fix It

“When you're experiencing tightness or pain in these areas, it's usually a sign that you are not warming up your body properly,” Smith says. “Roll out your shoulders by doing arm circles, neck rolls or even a light jog before starting your workout.”

These moves can also help relieve shoulder tension:

Move 1: Wall Angel

  1. Stand with your back flat against a wall and sink down into a slight squat.
  2. Place your arms and elbows against the wall in a goalpost position, bending your elbows at 90-degree angles. The back of your hands should touch the wall.
  3. Pushing against the wall, slide your hands up as far as you can overhead, then return to your starting position.

Move 2: Resistance Band T-Pull

  1. Grip a long, heavy resistance band at both ends with arms in front of you at shoulder height.
  2. Keep your arms relatively straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you move your hands out to the sides, pulling the band toward your chest.
  3. Return to the starting position slowly and with control.

While you build flexibility, you can also modify your jumping jacks to make them more comfortable in the meantime. “Try a wide jumping jack variation with your arms in a ‘goal post’ position,” Smith suggests. “This will help to open up your shoulders and chest and put less tension on your shoulder joints.”

5. Your Balance Needs Some Work

Feel wobbly when doing jumping jacks? "Balance is important any time you are doing a high-impact exercise," Smith says. "Without proper balance, you risk falling and injuring yourself."

If you're feeling unstable on your feet, your core could be the culprit. "Balance comes from your core, so without a proper core warm-up, you may feel like you are off balance throughout your workout," Smith says.

Fix It

Try activating your core prior to doing jumping jacks. Start with moves like bird dog, which force you to engage your core and focus on your balance, Smith says.

Move: Bird Dog

  1. In tabletop position, keep your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees no wider than your hips. Your spine should be neutral.
  2. On an exhale, reach your right arm straight out in front of you. At the same time, kick your left leg straight back.
  3. Keep your hips and shoulders steady without arching or rounding your back or tilting or rotating your hips.
  4. Return your arm and leg to starting position.
  5. Switch sides, reaching your left arm out in front and kicking your right leg back.
  6. Return to tabletop to complete one rep.

“If you’re still worried about balance, don't be afraid to slow the movement down and modify — making an adjustment to your workout is always better than ending a workout with an injury,” Smith says.

6. Your Pelvic Floor Muscles Are Weak

If you feel the urge to pee every time you do jumping jacks, your pelvic floor muscles might be weak. Your pelvic floor consists of muscles located in your pelvis that stretch from your pubic bone to your tailbone. These muscles support the weight of your organs and play a role in bladder control and sexual function.

"The pelvic floor should be thought of as an extension of your core," Smith says. "Without a proper engagement of your core, you risk injury in any exercise." But if your pelvic floor muscles are weak, you might struggle to properly activate them during workouts.

Fix It

When you experience pain, leaking, soreness or spasms in your pelvic floor while doing jumping jacks, listen to your body — you might not be ready for this type of high-impact movement, Smith says.

Consider enlisting the help of a pelvic floor physical therapist who can assist you to strengthen those muscles slowly (or teach you how to lengthen and relax them) to avoid long term or permanent side effects, Smith says.

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