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The Split Leap

Karen Goeller
Guest Columist

Split Leap and Common Problems
As basic as the 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 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 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 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

  • Have your gymnast lie on their back on a mat stack or spotting block.

  • Make sure her buttocks area is at the edge of the mat stack or block.

  • Instruct your gymnast to bring one thigh to her chest with a bent knee.

  • Next instruct your gymnast to place her hands on her upper shin in order to hold that leg close to her chest, throughout this stretch.

  • Next instruct your gymnast to lift her other leg above her body so that her toes are pointed toward the ceiling. This leg can be slightly bent\relaxed. The knee and heel on this leg must be in line with the hip bone and shoulder on the same side throughout this entire stretch.

  • Once in the starting position, instruct your gymnast slowly lower the lifted leg so that her thigh becomes level with the block and then lower than the level of the block.

  • Once lowered as much as the gymnast's hip flexor muscles will allow that leg will hang below the top level of the block or mat stack.

  • Again, make sure the leg that is hanging below the level of the block is lined up with your gymnast’s hip and not off to the side.

  • Allow your gymnast to remain in this position so that her hip flexor muscles will be stretched. Gravity will do the job of slowly and steadily stretching your gymnast. If your gymnast has performed this stretch before and you feel that this stretch is no longer effective, allow her to wear a light ankle weight.

  • For safety, your gymnast must hold the opposite leg in place in order to keep her lower back on the 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

  • Instruct your gymnast to kneel on the floor with one leg in front of her body.

  • Next instruct your gymnast to shift her weight to their front leg, pressing her hips down and forward.

  • Once your gymnast’s hips are pressed down and forward, instruct her to lift their back foot off the floor, bending at the knee. Make sure she keeps her knee on the floor.

  • Make sure your gymnast’s front foot is not past her knee for the safest and most efficient stretch.

  • Watch your gymnast’s back foot to see whether it points towards the wall or the ceiling. If her back toe is not pointed towards the ceiling then her hips are likely not square. Instruct your gymnast to pull the hip on the same side as her back leg forward and to press the hip on the same side as her front leg forward.

  • For the hamstrings: Keeping her feet in place, have your gymnast shift her hips back and then flex her front foot in order to stretch the front leg’s hamstring muscles.

  • Make sure your gymnast is not sitting on her back foot. If she is sitting on her back foot, instruct your gymnast to move her front foot forward.

  • To help you gymnast understand how to remain square in this stretch you can ask her make sure the top of her inner thighs are touching each other. Stretching square will help keep your gymnast’s splits and leaps square.

 

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.  

By Karen M. Goeller
Author of “Gymnastics Drills and Conditioning Exercises
To see more books by Karen Goeller - go here.


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