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As basic as the split leap is, there are still a great number of gymnasts who cannot perform this skill correctly. Many gymnasts are reaching a 180 degree split of the legs, but they are not keeping their hips square, in line with their shoulders. Once a gymnast has become accustomed to turning her hips in order to reach a larger split of the legs, it can be very difficult to correct.
Training a gymnast to keep her hips square during a split leap must be a goal from the day she walks into her first gymnastics class. If trained to remain square from the start there will be a greater chance her split leaps will be performed correctly for her entire gymnastics career. It is helpful to encourage gymnasts to keep their hips square hips while stretching for splits, performing splits, leaps, walkovers, and handsprings.
Another common problem with the split leap is that many gymnasts have enough flexibility in their hamstrings, but not enough flexibility in their hip flexor and quadriceps muscles to correctly split their legs for their split leap among other skills. Hip flexors are the group of muscles that lift the leg forward and upward. When these muscle groups lack flexibility, the opposite motion of lifting the leg backward and upward (for the split) becomes difficult.
Here is a simple way to evaluate your gymnast's hip placement and flexibility regarding a split and ultimately her split leap. Have your gymnast perform a split the way she normally performs this skill. Even if she cannot reach the floor in a split, this evaluation can still be performed. Once your gymnast is in a split ask her to bend her back leg so that her back foot is lifted from the floor and she reaches a 90 degree angle with that leg. Your gymnast’s back foot should be off the floor and her back knee will remain on the floor. If your gymnast’s back foot naturally points towards a wall rather than the ceiling she may benefit from additional work regarding hip placement. Your gymnast may also benefit from an increase in flexibility training for the hip flexor and quadriceps areas. If her back foot immediately points toward the ceiling rather than a wall she may already have the correct hip placement.
Your gymnast may need to lift her body up a bit from the split in order to perform this gymnastics evaluation or make adjustments with hip placement. If you have discovered that your gymnast’s hips have not remained square while she performed this simple gymnastics evaluation, you may be able to easily help her correct her hip placement by instructing her to pull the hip on the same side of the back leg forward. Once she is asked to pull that hip forward your gymnast's back foot may point towards the ceiling. At that point many gymnasts can feel the difference between the correct and incorrect hip placement during splits. Sometimes awareness is all that is necessary to correct the hip placement problem, but many gymnasts will require a change in their flexibility training as well.
You may have determined that your gymnast will benefit from stretching the hip flexor and quadriceps areas more thoroughly. The following stretch is simple, but very effective for gymnasts of all levels.
Hip Flexor Stretch on Block.
This second stretch is fairly common, but many coaches do not ask their gymnasts to bend their back leg, which deprives their gymnast’s of a complete stretch in this position.
Hip Flexor/Hamstring Stretch
Focus on your gymnast's hip position in relation to her shoulders in all stretches of this nature because once you allow a gymnast to turn at the hips rather than remaining square you will be allowing the muscles to move and gain flexibility in a different direction than intended.
It takes time, focus, and a commitment to excellence to insist that a gymnast perform her warm up exercises, leaps, walkovers, and handsprings with square hips, but the safety benefits and time saved when training advanced skills or routines is invaluable.
The book, Gymnastics Drills and Conditioning Exercises has a dance drills section that includes drills for the split leap and straddle jump.
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By Karen M. Goeller, CSCS
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