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How to Prevent Cheerleading Injuries

Modern cheerleading is a serious sport. What started as a squad cheering for their team on the sidelines has evolved to include powerful stunts, complicated jumps and acrobatic moves.

In fact, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina reports that 65.2% of all catastrophic injuries in youth sports occur in cheerleading, and the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that over a 27-year period, cheerleading was responsible for 65% of catastrophic injuries to female high school athletes. Cheerleader falls from gymnastic-type stunts have been reported to have a greater impact than being tackled by a professional football player, which is why proper coaching and safety regulations are imperative.

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Cheerleading injuries such as knee stress, sprained ankles, strained back muscles, torn  ligaments or fractures can occur from repetitive jumping or flipping or improper landing from stunts or back handsprings, says HSS physical therapist Candace Young, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS. Also, serious head injury can occur if a person falls from a pyramid or if a flyer isn’t properly caught from a basket toss. 

To reduce the chance of injury, Young recommends that cheerleaders make the below steps part of their regular routine. 

  • Cardiovascular Training. Activities that keep the blood flowing, such as jogging, are great ways to warm the muscles and improve cardiovascular fitness. Endurance is a key component in being able to perform a 2.5-minute routine filled with stunts, jumps, cheers, dancing and tumbling. Running or jogging at the beginning of practice for 20 to 30 minutes will help improve stamina and cardio fitness, says Young. 
  • Cross-training. Cross-training is essential for cheerleaders to prevent overuse injuries. This could include cardio training such as biking, swimming, aerobic dance classes, or cardio kickboxing. 
  • Weightlifting. Weightlifting will build strength, which is particularly important for the bases catching the flyers. Lifting weights should be done with proper form and with a spotter two to three times a week, says Young. The tumbling portion of routines require explosive push-off power by the legs and trunk. Squats, push-ups, lunges, planks and side planks all use body weight for strengthening and can help with total body strength.
  • Full-body stretching. Large muscles such as the quadriceps and hamstrings should be adequately stretched before practices and performances. A flyer in a stunt executing a heel stretch or a toe touch requires great flexibility in the hamstrings and adductors (on the inside of the thigh). Tumbling and jumps also require extensive flexibility throughout the legs, back and arms. Prior to cheerleading activities, Young recommends a dynamic (moving) warm-up including knee hugs, toy soldiers, inchworms, and world’s greatest stretch. Following practice, static (held in one position) and prolonged stretching should be performed, for at least 30 seconds and three to five times per stretch. 
  • Targeted stretching. A runner’s stretch against the wall with the heels down is a great way to stretch the calf, which can be strained with excessive jumping. Sport-specific, static stretching should be done to focus on straddle position, split position and herkie position on the floor to gain flexibility. Rounding the spine while in these static postures will help stretch the back muscles needed for back handsprings and back walkovers. Wrist flexion and extension stretches and overhead arm lunges along with circular arm motions will help stretch out the arms prior to the gymnastics and cheering portions.
  • Balance training. Balance training on even surfaces, progressing to uneven surfaces or with eyes closed while holding static postures will help improve balance while completing stunts as the flyer such as a Liberty pose. Yoga and tai chi poses on one leg can help improve single-leg balance.

If you sustain an injury while cheerleading, contact the appropriate medical personnel and seek advice. Follow the principles of the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation) immediately following the injury.

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