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Question
Thanks so much Jack!
Also what are some tips for stretching out very tight shoulders and hips (like middle splits)?

Also how do I get more lift in my back layout? My arms never set by my ears.
And in my front handspring front pike sometimes I hesitate and jerk my neck or bend my knees.
Thanks again so much!
Take care,
Kaylee

Answer
Hello Kaylee,
         I am very glad to help you.  Okay, not everyone is built the same.  Genetically you may anatomically tight.  I have a close friend who teaches as a professor at a medical college and he has explained this to me and shown me on several cadavers.  Now…..every person can reach their potential for the range of motion given at birth.  Also, because of the nature of gymnastics….there are many skill choices for gymnasts to perform.  This allows every gymnast to show off skills that display their physical gifts.  I will now give you some exercises.  I must say, some of the exercises you may already do and some may be new.  
STRETCHING THE SHOULDERS:
1.   Get a surgical tube about 3-4 feet long and do inlocates and dislocates.  A surgical tube is a rubber hollow tube that is almost impossible to break.  There may be some at your gym.  Male gymnasts use it for cross pull outs etc.  Your coach should know how to do the inlocates and dislocates.

2.   Simply hang on a bar where your feet don’t touch and try to relax.  Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.

3.   Lay on your stomach with your arms straight in front of you with one hand over the other.  Now…have your partner face you side wards and put their forearm under both of your forearms and their other forearms against your upper shoulders.  Now your partner should raise up your arms (while their straight) to stretch your shoulders.

4.   Stand with your back to the low bar of the unevens or any object in a similar way and bend your knees to stretch your shoulders.

5.   Get on your knees with your shoulder hip and knees in a vertical line and raise your arms up behind you and have a partner raise them to stretch them (while they are straight).  This is similar to the bar stretch but with a partner instead.

6.   Face the low bar and grab the bar.  Now….keep your hand shoulder and hip in a straight line and have a partner push your shoulders down.

Please note:  It is very important not to hold your breath with stretching.  You want your muscles to be relaxed to they will stretch!
STRETCHING THE MIDDLE SPLITS:
Probably the most popular exercise for stretching the middle splits is to lay on your back with your legs up in a pike against the wall.  The next thing is to separate your legs to the lowest straddle you can.  If you can with stand the pain or it is not stretching enough…..wear ankle weights.  Use more weight when needed.  Try to stretch several minutes a day.  Try to keep a journal……it will keep you on task better. 

THE BACK LAYOUT:
First you must be strong to maintain the line in your back layout.  Here are some tips below.

Hollow Body Exercises:
1.   Hollow climbers:  The gymnast lays on their stomach with their feet against a wall.  The gymnast now does a push up while walking their feet up the wall.  The gymnast continues this motion till they have climbed all the way to a handstand with stomach to the wall.  The gymnast down reverses the process to the original position.  Performing just 10 of the “hollow climbers” is quite demanding.  My team kids do not like them….but understand and respect the benefit.
2.   Hollow rocker turnovers:  This is a common exercise done at most gyms.  The only problem is most kids do not perform the technique correctly…..so it takes some close observations from the coaches in the beginning.  The gymnast starts laying only on their lower back with arms over head and one hand on top of the other….and the legs together several inches off the floor.  The gymnast now rolls over to their stomach with out touching the floor with their arms or legs.  The gymnast now rolls back to their lower back.  Now repeat the process at least 30 repetitions.  This is very tiring and a great hollow strengthening exercise.
3.   Handstand elbow touches:  The gymnast performs a handstand against a wall and proceeds to push from one shoulder to get their hand off the floor and touch the other elbow with their hand.  The gymnast now repeats the process touching the other elbow.  I have my team kids do 100.  This exercise is difficult and an important one to learn and do at every strength workout.

Teaching the Back Layout:

1.  First, look for a long flip flop with excellent uncoiling from the shoulders.
2.  Watch for a tight body line while exiting from the flip flop.
3.  Look at the side of the deltoid (shoulder) to rise upward.   Also look for hollow line, head neutral and arms rising with palms forward or down.
4.  The gymnast’s arms should then line up with the body after the hollow body lift has been made.  
5.  Look for the head to stay neutral throughout the entire skill.  This positioning is more than just  important,  it is essential for a successful technique.
6.  Understand that after you raise your arms up in your lift that your body comes to your arms.  Your arms do not come down to your body.  Sometimes coaches show the arms coming down to show the connection……when in reality……the body comes to the arms.  Practice the skill on a tramp or tramp trak to get more sensibility and body shaping in the skill.
THE HANDSPRING FRONT:
I may tell you some things that are very obvious to you…..and if I do….that just means you are smart and have the “know how”.  Okay, the front handspring is a blind move….meaning you cannot see your feet land….plus the head comes around last.  Understanding that, the athlete needs to better fine tune the clock in their head (for timing) ….so as to anticipate the landing for a rebound or step out.  I am guessing that you are possibly bending their legs in anticipation of the floor and not extending the ankles for a rebound.  The eyes need to be next to the arms (with the chin slightly up) to allow the line to be stretched.  The connection to the front is blind and is all about the timing from high repetitions.  The way I help my gymnasts to learn the timing is to use the tramp trak performing bounding front flips (2).  The gymnast plans the first front to land at the end of the tramp trak and then immediately connects the next front onto the landing mat.  This action is huge in connecting front skills and can be practiced at high repetitions.  Sometimes a phobic reaction action occurs and that is common and is more mental because of a lack of awareness.  Patience and persistence will yield success in addition to practicing skills of similar interpretations.  I have a stock explanation of the handspring and the front flip below for extra info.  
…….Ah yes, the front handspring and the front flip.  These are difficult skills for a beginner because they are considered blind moves.  A blind move in gymnastics refers to a skill where you cannot see your feet land...therefore, the timing of anticipating your landing is a big factor and as a result will take more practice to attain.   First, I will tell you the proper technique of a kick to a handstand.  You see, the front handspring starts from the same position as a handstand.  Please be patient with my explanation because the skills you wish me to help you with need understanding.
THE HANDSTAND:
A handstand is a straight line from your hands to your toes.  To start a handstand, the gymnast starts from a stand with their arms overhead.  Now, step forward and stand on one foot as the other leg lifts upward behind you keeping in line with the body and arms.  As you lean over your back leg stays in line from your toes to your hands.  This is very important!  This is also a big problem on why some people cannot seem to get a good front handspring or have some trouble in their front walkovers.  To achieve a straight handstand, the gymnast continues lifting the back leg and then at the right moment pushes off of the support leg or front leg to connect it to the back leg overhead.  The handstand should be in a hollow body position.  This refers to (in gymnastics terms)as a tight straight line.  The hips should be turned under ( or ribs forced down towards feet) and your seat muscles tight so the lower back is flat.  This helps to lock the line between the legs and upper body.  To maintain the balance of the handstand, press the fingers to stop from falling over and press on the lower palms and thumb to stop from coming back to the beginning.  Once you are consistent in achieving a good vertical line, the balancing technique of using your hands as I explained becomes must easier to attain.  This understanding of the handstand is quite important and will help tremendously when you are practicing the front handspring to a front flip.
THE FRONT HANDSPRING:
The handspring is a skill that demands good timing and shoulder power, shrug or extension.  Below are some steps to help you understand the technique.
1)   A front handspring is normally done from a run and a hurdle (skip).  The gymnast should take at least 2-3 running steps, a hurdle and then proceed to executing the front handspring.  
2)   The first part of the front handspring is the same as a handstand.  The gymnast should lean over with the back leg or kick leg rising at the same rate of speed to keep a straight line with the body.  
3)   The front leg or lunge leg should help you in un-weighting your body.  This means that as you push off the front leg your body is becoming more weightless or will weight less.  This in turn will allow your shoulders to push-off more because your body is lighter.  This shoulder shrug push-off is quite important to allowing you to finish the skill in an upright position.
4)   The eyes should stay looking at the hands till after the push-off and the head should stay neutral till the feet land.  This will help the gymnast from the traditional bad habit of leaning over after the push-off.  Please note:  (If the gymnast is performing a flip after the front handspring, the gymnast should keep the head up with the eyes next to the arms for proper alignment prior the extension for the flip.)
5)   Next, remember the arms should be over the head during the entire front handspring.  To the observer, this should be an easy indicator of the gymnast’s success or lack of.
6)   A good way for a beginner to achieve the complete turnover of the front handspring is to use a folded mat to place the hands onto.  This will make the surface for the hand placement higher and give the gymnast more time to finish a slow kick-over.  Most gymnasts have a slow kick-over in the beginning because they are cautious of the blind landing.  After success with the folded mat, just take it away and remember to kick harder when on flat mats.  My interpretation for pushing off the front handspring is to push off from your shoulder extension as you simultaneously push off your front leg
THE FRONT FLIP:
The front flip is much more than a 360 degree skill.  The technique of this skill is specific and when learned correctly, you will have quite a volume of skills to look forward to in the future.
1.   First, the type of lift you will be performing is called an overhead lift.  First and importantly...remember the arms and legs are baggage.  In other words, they to along for the ride and should be put in specific positions.  The body (between the hips and shoulders) must be moving 360 degrees forwards.  The body action creates the flip, and the arms and legs can help accelerate the flip motion.  The arms and legs do not create the flip.  I hope I did not confuse you, but this aspect is important to understand.
2.   The take-off is quite important and should be very tight like a pencil bouncing off the eraser.
3.   The hips should now rise upward behind you towards shoulder level.  Imagine in tumbling that you are jumping off the mat to a higher surface to perform a forward roll.  That is the same type of hip lift desired.
4.   Now...as the hips are rising bring your feet to your seat while you are moving the upper body 180 degrees towards your thighs.  Do not bring your knees towards your chest at all.  Instead...remember to bring your body the 180 degrees to your knees as I mentioned.  While you are in that motion you are now flipping.  Make sure when you first attempt this skill that you perform it with legs apart.  This way if you do not anticipate the landing well, you will not give yourself a pair of black eyes.
5.   The opening:  Timing on the opening is practice-practice-practice.  Please perform onto at least a 4" mat out of your front handspring.  Also, have a good spotter.  A good spotter does not give you an amusement ride but corrects any mistakes you may have made so you can feel how the skill should feel.  The spotter will also allow a safe landing and keep you motivated.

6.   Adding the front flip to your front handspring:  In my opinion, since both skills are blind, the best method I have had is to train bounding front flips.  Always start and finish each front flip with your hands over your head.  I would practice this either on a trampoline or better yet on a tumble trac.  A tumble trac is a very long tight trampoline used to improve tumbling.  Most private gyms have them.  They are extremely beneficial.  The strategy behind this is when performing a front handspring to a front flip, your connection angle is not always the same.  And since you cannot see your feet land, the front flip afterward will be inconsistent and you will end up being more cautious.  The timing for connecting the two skills comes from experience.  I feel you can attain this valuable timing quicker by performing two flips in a row then just practicing the front handspring-front flip.  Also,  it is easier physically to do 2 front flips in a row for body awareness than to do high repetitions of the front handspring front flips to improve your timing and awareness.  After practicing the bounding front flips, you will be surprised how much quicker you will attain the front handspring front flip.        

Finally, I wish you the best in your training and good luck this season!  
Take Care – Jack Leonard  

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Jack Leonard

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Former 5 time Natl. Tumbling Champ, 3 time Natl. Vaulting Champ, Natl. Floor Exercise Champ; Ass`t coach of Dominique Dawes for 6 years; Owner/Director/Head coach of Kauai Gymnastics Academy on the island of Kauai in Hawaii; Retired Physical Ed teacher; Childrens Fitness Expert; Expert Consultant for gymnastics litigation; Retired Mens & Womens HS Gymnastics coach for 32 years. National coaching honors for Men in 1981 & Women in 2001.

Experience

I value the following awards because they were given by acknowlegement through my peers: The Nissen/Grissold Award given to the outstanding Tumbling and Tramp Athlete(1972), National High School coach of the year in 1981 for men and 2001 for women, 10 time County Coach of the Year. Medal Award given at the first World Tumbling Championships in London, England for dedication to the sport. Lastly, having the opportunity to coach Wes Suter(1988 Olympian)in his intermediate years and Dominique Dawes(1992 & 1996)

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