What started as a squad cheering for their team on the sidelines has evolved to include powerful stunts, complicated jumps, and acrobatic moves to boost morale and keep the crowd excited. In fact, The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina reports that 65.2 percent of all catastrophic injuries in youth sports occur in cheerleading. 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 with safety regulations are imperative.
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. Also, in scenarios in which a fall from a pyramid or if the flyer isn’t properly caught from a basket toss, where a flyer is tossed into the air, a serious head injury could occur. So how do you prevent injury?
Activities that keep the blood flowing such as jogging are a great ways to warm the muscles. Endurance is a key component to being able to perform a 2.5 minute long routine filled with stunts, jumps, cheers, dancing, and tumbling. Running or jogging together at the beginning of practice for 20 to 30 minutes will help improve the team’s cardio fitness. Also, practicing the full routine several times in a row will build cardiovascular endurance.
To give your body a rest, cross-training is highly essential for cheerleaders. Cross-training on off days could include cardio training such as biking, aerobic dance classes, cardio kickboxing or step classes. Weightlifting will build strength required by the bases catching the flyers. Lifting with weights should be done with proper form and with a spotter 2-3 times a week. The tumbling portion of routines require explosive push off power by the legs and trunk. Squats, push-ups and sit ups, planks, side planks all use body weight for strengthening can help with lower body strengthening.
Large muscles such as the quadriceps and hamstrings should be adequately stretched.
The flyer of a stunt executing a heel stretch or a toe touch require great flexibility in their hamstrings, and adductors. The team tumbling and jumps also require extensive flexibility throughout the legs, backs and arms. Proper stretching should be static and prolonged for at least 30 seconds 3-5 times per stretch. The calf muscle should also be targeted which can be strained with excessive jumping. A runner’s stretch against the wall with the heels down is a great way to stretch the calf. Sport specific stretching should be done to focus on straddle position, split position, and the herkie position on the floor to hold the static posture to gain flexibility. Adequate back stretches forward round out the spine while in these static postures will help stretch the back muscles needed for back handsprings, and back walkovers. The focus should be on 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 on even surfaces and then progressing to uneven surfaces or with eyes closed during practice 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 could be practiced to help improve single limb balance.
In case an injury is sustained, contact the appropriate medical personnel and seek advice. Follow the principles of the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) immediately following the injury.
Corinne Slevin is a doctor of physical therapy and Clinical Supervisor at the CA Technologies Rehabilitation Center within Hospital for Special Surgery’s Lerner Children’s Pavilion. She is certified with the Neuro-Developmental Treatment Association.