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Gymnastics Article: Straighten Your Legs
By Karen Goeller, CSCS
Are you the coach that continually yells at gymnasts to straighten their legs? Has it become frustrating yet?
Bent knees (bad form) during gymnastics skills are an issue for a few different reasons.
There are a few things we can do to help our gymnasts with form.
Some gymnasts just do not focus. There is a lot to think about during each skill and some gymnasts do not think about what they must correct during skills. These gymnasts might be thinking of the mechanics of the skill more than the form during the skill.
Only thinking about the mechanics of the skill is often the result of the gymnast just trying to survive (in her mind). This can happen when the skill is new and the gymnast is thinking more about the shapes she must perform in order to complete the skill safely. She may or may not have fears with new skills. I have seen gymnasts gradually fix their form as they become more comfortable with the skill. Of course, it is always best to remind the gymnasts of their form during the drills for the skill, but there are gymnasts who do not automatically transfer good form during drills to the skill immediately. We MUST continually remind our gymnasts that they should keep their straight legs, feet pointed, arms straight, and they must use the correct body shapes.
Some gymnasts are very tight and cannot physically straighten their legs as much as we would like. In this case you may want to ask the gymnast to perform most of her stretching exercises with flexed feet. Flexed foot stretching would help her get a better stretch of the back of her legs. In time, this may help your gymnast straighten her legs more comfortably. The pike stretch, splits, and any other stretch that involves the back of the legs would be performed with flexed feet. You MUST be careful not to over-do it because you want her knees to remain stable. Once the ligaments become over-stretched there is no turning back and your gymnast could end up with joint laxity (an unstable joint).
There are other gymnasts who have not been corrected enough regarding form. Poor form has become a bad habit in this case. I am sure you know how difficult it can be to help your gymnast with this issue.
Here is one exercise to help the gymnast learn to contract her quadriceps muscles...
Have your gymnast sit in a pike. Ask her to sit up straight, place her hands on the floor next to her legs, and point her feet. Next, ask your gymnast to press the back of her knees down to the floor and hold her legs straight for 10-15 seconds. You should not be able to slide your fingers under her knees when she presses down. Also have your gymnast perform this exercise with flexed feet for a little bit of a stretch.
If your gymnast does this one simple exercise she should learn what it feels like to have straight legs and then begin to straighten her legs more often. Some gymnasts do not know how to contract the quad muscles that tight.
Here is an exercise that will help your gymnast feel the difference between straight and bent knees, Leg Extension.
Have your gymnast lie on the floor on their stomach with their feet on a panel between 6-12 inches high. The height should depend on the size of your gymnast. Instruct another gymnast who is close in weight to slowly get in a sitting position on the back of your gymnast's knees with their legs crossed and fingertips on the floor for balance. This gymnast will remain on the bend in the knee with her legs crossed throughout the exercise. Instruct your gymnast to keep their hips and chin on the floor. They may place their hands under their chin. Once both gymnasts are in position, instruct your gymnast to slowly straighten her knees and hold the straight leg position for about 10 seconds. At 10 seconds instruct your gymnast to slowly lower her knees to the floor. The up and down movement should be done nonstop until several repetitions are completed. This exercise is in the dance section of the book, Gymnastics Drills and Conditioning Exercises.
Remember, exercises to help with form will only be effective if the gymnast performs them correctly. And these exercises ONLY work if the gymnast focuses on good form during the skill. For some gymnasts it is incredibly difficult to make the adjustment to better form, but with constant reminders from the coach, appropriate stretching exercises, and appropriate conditioning exercises you should eventually see a difference. It really takes patience and persistence to make the change.
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