Flexibility is key to gymnastics, and you can’t have flexibility if you don’t stretch. Because stretching helps prevent injuries, stretching is one of the most important parts of any gymnastics workout. The level of the gymnast determines how long and how often he stretches, but all gymnasts devote part of practice to stretching. Many gymnasts also stretch at home, as coaches can only devote so much practice time to flexibility training.
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Before mounting any apparatus, a gymnast warms up. After five to 10 minutes of aerobic activity to get the blood flowing, such as jogging or jumping jacks, a gymnast stretches from head to toe for about 10 to 15 minutes in a normal practice session. Higher-level gymnasts stretch for longer periods. In 2006, elite gymnast Shawn Johnson told “Fitness” magazine that she stretched for an additional 30 minutes after her 30-minute warm-up of conditioning, stretching and endurance training. Gymnasts use a combination of static and dynamic stretches.
In static stretching, a gymnast stretches the muscle to mild tension and holds the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Stretching the neck from side to side is an example of a static stretch. A gymnast tilts her head to her ear and holds it in place for the count. She also uses static stretches to stretch the back in a number of ways. In one stretch, she sits in a straddle and leans into her left leg for 30 seconds, then leans down to the floor, and then to the right leg for another 30 seconds. Holding a bridge is another example of a static stretch for the back.
Dynamic stretching increases a gymnast’s range of motion in a different way. Instead of simply holding the stretch for 30 seconds, he stretches to the point of tension, then uses the muscles he’s stretching to pull back to a comfortable position. He rests for a second, then stretches again, pushing further than before. While he does not hold the stretched position for very long, he repeats the same stretch several times in a row with the goal that at each repetition he is able to stretch further and further. Dynamic stretching is becoming more popular for the splits, notes Brian Bakalar on Gymnastics Revolution.
Because muscles stretch the best when they are warm, gymnasts also stretch in the cool-down session after practice on each apparatus. A beginning to intermediate level gymnast might stretch for another 10 minutes in the cool-down, while a higher-level gymnast will stretch again for at least 15 minutes. Gymnasts repeat many of the same stretches from the warm-up, and are often able to stretch further during the cool-down session.