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A beginning gymnast should approach a stretching routine with caution. Always warm up with light cardiovascular exercise, such as aerobics or a jog, to raise your metabolism and body temperature. Warm muscle tissue is pliable and less susceptible to strain or injury. Seek instruction on the correct form as well as deep breathing techniques for stretching. You should know the difference between a muscle's natural resistance to proper stretching and the pain of an overextended or incorrect stretch.
Pre- vs. Post-Workout Stretching
There are two main reasons to stretch in gymnastics. One reason to stretch is to prevent injury. Five to 10 minutes of light static stretches before a workout can help to loosen up your joints and prepare your muscles for training in gymnastics skills. These types of stretches should take your muscles through their current range of motion and no further. The second type of stretching is to improve your flexibility and should be performed after your workout. Flexibility stretches should cover the full range of motion for each major joint and surrounding muscle group. Hold these stretches for about 60 seconds each and repeat two to three times.
Examples of Warmup Stretches
Simple pre-workout stretches to loosen your joints and muscles include shoulder shrugs and rolls, arm and wrist circles, heel raises and ankle rolls, quadriceps and calf stretches using the wall for support, swiveling your hips and then bending your trunk in various directions. For example, to stretch the muscles on the sides of the upper body, do lateral leans. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with your left hand on your hip and the right arm extended overhead. Slightly bend your knees. Lean your upper body to the left without twisting. At the same time, reach to the left with your right arm. Switch sides and repeat the exercise.
Examples of Flexibility Stretches
Post-workout stretches for beginning gymnastics, such as splits and lunges, require your muscles to be in their warmest state. For example, in the straddle or sideways split, sit on the floor and spread your legs to either side as far as you can. Keep your toes up, knees facing up and back straight. Slowly walk your hands forward, lowering your head and trunk to the floor. Another example is a forward lunge with a reach back. Bend your front leg at a 90-degree angle so your thigh is parallel to the floor. Place the bent knee of your rear leg on the floor behind you. Reaching back with your opposite arm, grab your rear foot and pull it toward your buttocks. Lean forward to stretch the quadriceps of your rear leg.
Because many skills in gymnastics already put your body in unnatural positions, aim to minimize additional stress you place on your joints. Avoid stretches that overtax the joints. Use slow and smooth movement to perform stretches. The momentum and gravity associated with ballistic or bouncing motion can push muscles past their normal range of movement and cause damage. Injuries tend to be cumulative, resulting from incorrect stretches performed over a long time. Avoid stretches that involve extreme flexion of your neck or extreme arching of your back. If you're going to arch your back as a stretch, bend the lower and upper back equally.