Photo credit: Sean Hansford, ISA National Gymnastics Finals 20th Feb 2011
This article was originally written by Coach Sahil M. from TumblingCoach.com and is Republished (and revised towards gymnasts) under permission, granted to allgymnasts.com on Aug 7th, 2015.
Let’s face it, every gymnast under the sun – no matter how good he or she already is, wants higher jumps along with tumbling that is fast and fierce (or fast and furious?)
The benefits of being able to perform skills at such a level are quite obvious:
- You get to be the point jumper in your routine
- You get to do a specialty tumbling pass (which usually means you’re on your own and don’t have to worry about being in perfect harmony with a partner)
- The crowd goes insane, and others look up to you
But because gymnastics is one very competitive sport, you can bet your poof that every athlete is trying to out-do one another.
So the question you should be asking yourself is “What can I do differently to outperform everyone else?”
Luckily I know just the exercise that will give you the edge. You can implement it directly into your current conditioning program without much fuss.
It’s something you’re probably already familiar with, but I can almost guarantee that you haven’t been doing it properly. I’m about to show you how to do it right, and shed light on some new and interesting research that shows off its effectiveness like never before.
I am of course, talking about the Squat.
Why The Squat Is Awesome
When it comes to conditioning your legs, the squat is, without question, the most productive exercise you can do because…
- It improves leg strength for explosive power
- It will give you big increases in your vertical jump
- It will increase hip flexibility over time
- It forces you to engage your core, giving you stronger abs
- It works large muscle groups simultaneously, making it awesome for fat loss while giving you a firmer butt in the process (and who doesn’t want that?)
So clearly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be doing them.
However, the PROBLEM is 99% of gymnasts (and most athletes) squat incorrectly.
This is either because they were taught bad technique, or are held back by old myths which simply aren’t true.
So let’s do some myth busting first, then I’ll show you my exact routine which has given me one of the highest standing back tucks in the business (see video below):
Myth 1: You should never squat past 90 degrees at the knee, because going any lower is bad for the joint.
Well, science says the complete opposite. You see, regardless of the type of squat you’re doing, the greatest amount of shear force on the knee is actually at the start of the squat – when you first bend at the knee.
In fact, a review from Germany also found that when using weights, partial squats actually degenerate the knee joint faster than those done with full range of motion!
So much for that myth. But it doesn’t end there.
Another study found that squatting with full range of motion increases performance! They took two groups of rugby players and told them to squat for a 3 rep max (the max amount of weight they can lift for 3 reps).
The only difference was, one group was told to do full squats and the other to do partials.
The results? The rugby players that did full squats increased their vertical jump by 4.6 cm compared to only 3.5 cm for the partial group. (1)
That’s quite a big difference! Especially when you consider that Rugby players are already well conditioned athletes, and so seeing such a performance increase is very promising.
So what about the people that do get knee pain from squatting? Surely squats can’t be great for everyone, otherwise no one would be complaining, right?
Actually, when people feel pain due to squatting, it’s usually because of one of three reasons:
1. Muscle Imbalance.
They’ve been squatting incorrectly for so long, that they have an imbalance of strength between their quads and hamstrings. Think about a tug of war where one side is your quad muscles, and the other is your hamstring muscles, while your knee joint is in the middle.
When both muscles are equally strong, everything stays stable and you knees are fine. But if one side is much stronger than the other, it can throw things out of alignment, thus causing knee pain or even leaving you open to injuries!
2. Bad hip flexibility.
When this happens, their knees end up caving in while squatting, instead of pointing out like they should. If you suffer from this, there’s an easy fix: spend some time doing the butterfly stretch and foam rolling the muscles in your lower body (glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors etc.)
Also note that the activity of squatting itself over time will improve your hip flexibility, provided you train proper technique under a coach.
3. Bad ankle flexibility.
Stiff ankles lead to people squatting with their toes coming up. If this happens, they should work on both their toe points and toe flexing (when you pull your toes towards you). Another good drill is to squat while the toes are elevated by stepping on a wedge mat which will slowly give the flexibility you need in the ankles, thus improving any knee pain situation.
Remember, a good squat is flat footed and has about 60% of your weight on the heels, so strive to achieve this and knee pain will be a thing of the past. In fact, there have been times where proper squatting techniques can be a very useful tool in knee rehabilitation!
- Always squat your butt down as low as possible. Think about touching your hamstring to your calves (see image further down)
- Stay tight (as a gymnast, this should come very naturally to you). Becoming loose at the bottom of your squat is when your knee joint opens up more than it should, exposing you to injuries. This is another very common squatting mistake.
- Be explosive when you actually squat up – the reason for this is that explosive movements recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers, and when you want to gain that extra inch of jumping or tumbling height over your competitors, every muscle fiber you can activate counts!
Myth 2: Squats, especially weighted ones, are bad for your back
This statement is actually true, but only when you have crappy technique. In fact, when athletes tell me squatting hurts their back, I usually ask them to show me a few reps of the exercise.
And surprise, surprise, the culprit is usually horrible technique or ego lifting (using too much weight before you’re ready for it).
There’s a great quote by Mark Rippetoe (a very famous strength coach and author of Starting Strength) who once said:
“Yes, if you squat wrong it f**ks things up. But if you squat correctly, those same f**ked-up things will unf**k themselves!”
Don’t mind his vulgarity, but there is so much truth and wisdom in his statement that I couldn’t leave it out.
Another thing you need to remember is that your spine is designed to handle, absorb and distribute load in a curved state. Some (misinformed) coaches think they’re keeping their athletes safe by making them squat with a flat back posture during the squat.
But they aren’t, because forcing a spine to be perfectly straight nearly impossible to do.
Because the spine naturally has a curve to it! It was never designed to be a straight line.
Squats aren’t bad for you back, provided you do them correctly by being tight, going low and keeping the natural curvature in your spine intact. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Where to begin your squatting adventure:
Alright so you now know why squats are awesome and that the two most common myths are nothing you need to worry about.
So where do you start?
Well below is my step-by-step recommendation for newbies and intermediate athletes. After this phase, you can follow my exact plan further below if you wish.
Step 1: Reduce Imbalances
As you learned earlier, one of the major cause of knee pain besides not going squatting low enough is muscle imbalance.
So to make sure we start eliminating any that you may have, we use two exercises:
- Glute ham raises (see video below)
- Rolling pistol squats (see video below)
Start by doing each exercise for 3 sets with as many reps as possible. Your set is over when your form starts to become shoddy. DO NOT push yourself onwards with crappy technique. Do this for about 2-3 weeks.
Step 2: Bodyweight Squats
After becoming good at the GHR and pistol squats, add in 3 sets of regular bodyweight squats on top. Remember, your hamstrings should touch your calves.
Oh, and you may be wondering if you should ever stop doing the GHR or the pistol squats.
And the answer is no. Just like a car that needs a regular oil change, maintenance is important. By making sure your imbalances are in check, you can really reduces the chances of nasty knee injuries like ACL or MCL tears. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer through those.
Step 3: Weighted front and back squats
Once you’ve mastered the body weight squat and have been doing the exercises in step 1, you can now start doing squats with added weight. My suggestion is to start with front squats for a few weeks then switch to back squats followed by alternating between the two.
There are many ways you can add weight to your squats, see all the pictures below for examples.
She’s still got a few inches to go
Remember, a standard bar weighs 45lbs
Basically a squat while holding a dumbbell
A squat while you hold something over your head. It could be a panel mat or even a barbell.
My Personal Jump Conditioning Routine
This is it – the very program that allows me to do back tucks on to blocks or up a few stairs. Because of its intensity, I suggest doing this only about twice a week, assuming you already train and do conditioning during your cheer practice.
Idiot warning: Please only do this routine after you’ve done the basics outlined above, and only under the watchful eye of a certified coach. I will not be responsible if you hurt yourself by doing something you’re not ready for.
Legend: sets x reps
- Bodyweight Squat: 2 x 10
- Back Squat*: 5 x 5
- Jump Squats: 3 x 15
- DB Step-ups: 3 x 8
- Rebounds: 2 x 50
- DB Calf Raises: 3 x 15
*Note: I alternate between weighted back and front squats weekly and the weight I use is enough to do 6 reps, just to be safe. You’ll need to play around with how light or heavy you need to go to challenge yourself at such a low rep range, so spend time experimenting.
So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about squats and how they can improve your jumps while giving you that extra oomph in your tumbling passes.
It may seem weird that one exercise can do so much, but I encourage you to try it out for yourself and see. You’ll be amazed at the increase in your performance on the mat!
If you found this article useful, please pass it on to your fellow friends, teammates and even coaches. I’d really appreciate it.
Time to start 2014 with some strong legs!
1: Esformes, J., et al. Effect of Back Squat Depth on Lower Body Post-Activation Potentiation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013.
Coach Sahil M is the founder of the ever-famous Facebook page, Addicted To Tumbling, author of The Cheer Diet, a Certified Gymnastics Coach, a former National Champ, and an active Powerlifter with a National Deadlift record under his belt.
When he’s not coaching, doing clinics or consulting, Coach Sahil produces articles on his personal Tumbling Blog to help athletes all over the world improve the skills, while giving coaches the tools necessary to help make their teams competition ready. You can reach out to him on twitter (@ATTumbling).