How to Teach Your Kids to be Flexible – Safely

Flexibility at Springfield MO GymnasticsWe’ve all seen those images of contortionists who can tie their feet behind their heads or wrap their bodies twice around a pole, and we tend to react one of two ways. We either say “Wow! I wish I could do that,” or “GAH! Ah! Wh—why? What? Ahhhhhggggg!”

But there’s no denying that, for better or worse, those people have developed a skill. They’re ridiculously flexible, and that degree of flexibility has helped them get where they are today – probably a circus, possibly exploring tiny caves where normal people can’t reach.

Flexibility plays a huge part in gymnastics. While it’s not necessary (and likely dangerous) to go to the extreme lengths contortionists do, it’s important for gymnasts to keep their bodies limber. Supple athletes tend to be more successful and get injured less often than those who ignore flexibility training.

Like everything in the gymnastics world, flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all training program. As your young gymnast’s body grows, she’ll need to perform different stretches to help her reach her maximum potential.

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Up to 10 years old

As Willy Wonka observed, small boys (and girls) are extremely springy and elastic. Unfortunately, not all of us have industrial-sized taffy pulling machines to keep them that way. So, it’s important to start flexibility training young.

It’s doubly important to be careful about it, though. Especially at this age. Children under 10 should be encouraged to do dynamic stretches – ones that involve the full range of motion (ROM), rather than holding one pose for 15 or 30 seconds (and who knows a 5-year-old who can sit still for 30 seconds?).

Young kids’ nervous systems are still developing and aren’t capable of providing the feedback that tells them they’re stretching too far until it’s too late. Holding stretches past the limit for too long could damage joints. And remember, no backbends for kids under 7. You risk damaging their little spines.

Good stretches for this group include things like:

  • Arm circles – Hold both arms out to the sides and windmill slowly through the full ROM.
  • Toe touches – Arms all the way up to sky, knees slightly bent to avoid locking, bend at the waist (not at the knees) and bring your arms down until your hands are touching your toes or the floor.
  • High knees – Bring each knee slowly up to about belly-button-level while walking forward or standing still.
  • Head rolls – Roll down and around like you’re drawing a circle with your chin, starting at your chest.
  • Slow lunges – Lunge forward with one leg, keeping your knee behind your toe as it bends, back straight, hands on your hips unless needed for balance, then switch legs. Don’t hold the lunge position.

10 to 13 years old

When they’re not reading Twilight or working on developing their angst glands for the upcoming teenage years, tweens should be encouraged to maintain or even increase their flexibility training. As they grow, they’ll progress in gymnastics and need the increased flexibility to keep from getting hurt.

This group can now handle some static stretching, but it’s best to leave that until after the workout. Dynamic stretches should still be encouraged, and should be done pre-workout. The important things to remember are not to let them stretch so far that it hurts, and not to bounce in the stretch. Also, keep an eye on posture and form. Tweens tend to be gangly (but don’t tell them we said that!).

Good tween stretches include all of the under-10 stretches, and:

  • Butterfly – Sit with the soles of your feet touching, thighs out to the sides, so that your legs look like butterfly wings. Slowly lower your knees as far as you can without pushing them down, and then bring them back up again.
  • Straddle – Sit with your legs spread as far as they’ll go, knees and toes pointed up to the ceiling. Lean your torso over and reach for one foot, slowly rotating out and around to the other one, making sure to work through the full ROM. Then go back the other way.

13 years old and up

The teen years are where it starts to get complicated. Gymnasts will start to specialize more into different events, which will require flexibility in different areas. Of course, keeping a solid general flexibility regimen is an absolute necessity, but in this age range, a lot of the stretching becomes event-specific.

Athletes who train, for instance, for the uneven bars, need to focus more on stretching shoulders and knees, while a gymnast on the beam should concentrate on legs and back. Again, this is in addition to the general stretching.

Your child’s coach can lay out the best flexibility training for the events your gymnast wants to compete in.

Flexibility training is one of the most important parts of gymnastics. Not only does it help the body flow beautifully through a routine, it helps keep your little gymnast safe from injury.

Live around Springfield, MO? Gymnastics classes are just a phone call away! (417) 725-1304

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