Shannon Miller knows a thing or two about gymnastics. She happens to be the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in American history.
A member of the “Magnificent Seven” 1996 women’s Olympics gymnastics team, Shannon helped to lead the team to its first gold medal victory. Her laundry list of accomplishments in the sport would make anyone’s head spin: seven Olympic medals, nine world championships, and hundreds of awards at national and international competitions.
Shannon may have retired from Olympic competition, but she has certainly kept up at an Olympic pace. A mother of two young children, she has started her own wellness company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, filmed multiple fitness DVDs, written a book, “It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life,” and still finds the time to release instructional videos for aspiring gymnasts.
Gymnastics in the Last 20 Years
The coming 2016 Olympics will mark 20 years since that historic 1996 gold medal win. How do Shannon and the rest of the team plan to commemorate the occasion? “I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing, but I know there will be a celebration of sorts!” she says. “So we’ll definitely let people know when and where that will happen.”
As for the sport of gymnastics itself, Shannon says that if there’s one constant, it’s that it’s always changing. “Gymnastics has evolved so drastically in the last 20 years. Not just in terms of athletic skills, but the rules, equipment, the actual events, it’s just incredible to watch. I always think, you just can’t add another twist, you can’t add another flip, it’s not humanly possible!”
While the sport may have changed, Shannon remains one of the most accomplished gymnasts in history, and the only female athlete to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame twice. Here, she shares some of her favorite stretching techniques for all gymnasts.
Shannon’s Essential Stretches for Every Gymnast
Flexibility and strength are paramount for any gymnast. To ensure a strong performance and to prevent injury, gymnasts need to both warm up and stretch before a workout. Shannon stresses that the key to a good stretching regimen is knowing your own body and incorporating personalized stretches as needed.
“You have to take into account the specifics of each individual. For example, I had to work extra hard on my splits and my back flexibility, but a different gymnast might be naturally more flexible in those areas. You have to work on the parts that need improvement.”
However, Shannon says that there are basic stretches every gymnast can and should do before a workout, which should then be supplemented with specific stretches for that particular person. Tweak these following stretches, adding in more or less intensity depending on your own flexibility.
Shannon emphasizes that it’s crucial to move your body before stretching, because you don’t want to start out with cold muscles. You can run laps, do jumping jacks, or even run in place — anything to get your blood pumping and your muscles warmed up. Plan on warming up for about five to 10 minutes.
Since gymnasts do a lot of blocking, punching, and rebounding off the floor, you want to make sure that your calves and your Achilles are strong and flexible.
Good calf stretches include Downward Dog, standing on a balance beam, and letting your heel drop below the beam, or standing on a stair or mat and doing the same.
Quads and Hamstrings
With all muscles, it’s important to maintain an even strength to flexibility ratio, and the leg muscles are no exception. Shannon recommends standing quad stretches, a hamstring stretch where you reach over to touch the toes (also known as a pike stretch), and a runner’s stretch, alternating each leg.
When it comes to the splits, it’s important to work all directions: left side, right side, and center splits. This will stretch the legs, hip flexors, and inner thighs. Shannon emphasizes that a gymnast’s inner thighs have to be strong and flexible for every event. As a gymnast twists in the air, they are using their inner thighs to hold their legs together and keep up the momentum.
“One of the most important tips for the splits: Don’t bounce! A lot of gymnasts and people that just want to learn the splits think that you have to bounce to get a better split. That is actually very unsafe! If you want to prevent injury, take it slow. As you sit in the splits, your muscles will begin to fatigue and that’s when you’ll really be able to increase the amount of split that you have.”
Stretch the stomach with a bridge or backbend. You also need to stretch the sides of the body, either with a side stretch on the floor or from a standing position with arms overhead, leaning over to one side and then the other.
A standing pike feels great on the lower back. Start standing up, and then slowly bend down to touch your toes. Rolling up slowly will help to warm up your entire backside. It’s really important for gymnasts to keep their legs straight while doing this, and move at their own pace. Some will be able to automatically reach down and touch their toes, and some won’t, so go slowly to prevent injury!
Shoulders and Arms
Shannon recommends the doorway stretch for arms and shoulders. Put your hands on the frame of a door and gently lean forward to stretch the front side of your shoulders. You can also put your hands on a surface such as a balance beam or large mat, and pull your shoulders down to the floor.
Another satisfying shoulder stretch is reaching your arms behind your back, clasping your hands together and then bending over and letting your arms fall forward toward your head.
Last but not least, the neck is crucial to stretch! Shannon recommends neck rolls, gently moving from side to side and making circles in order to make sure the neck muscles are properly stretched before beginning the workout or competition.
Don’t Forget to Cool Down!
“A lot of people don’t realize how important it is to stretch before and after movement, no matter what activity you are doing. I think remembering to cool down is the toughest part, because we all get caught up in working out and ‘feeling the burn’ and getting our heart rate up. Then we forget how important the stretching aspect afterward is. You can do similar stretches to the ones that you did to warm up, just be sure to hit the major body parts.
“One of the things that my coach stressed is that competition should reflect workouts. But during competition it can get cold, so it might be less about stretching and more about simply staying warm before you go up to do your routine. Regardless, do these basic stretches before all practices and competitions.”
Shannon’s Tips for Everyday Exercise
Shannon Miller wants to help women make their health a priority. “We as women tend to put ourselves at the bottom of the list,” she says. “But taking time for yourself, whether it’s 30 minutes to work out, or even to sit and have a cup of tea, does so much for your productivity, your energy level, and your overall well-being.”
Her biggest tip is to not look at exercise as something you have to do once a day, but rather make it a part of your lifestyle. Shannon tries to incorporate exercise into her everyday activities, and she loves going for walks outside in nature.
When it comes to everyday stretching, Shannon herself loves yoga: “My favorite stretch is Downward Facing Dog. I do it in the morning, and I do it in the evening. It just feels good! Especially on your lower back, and on those days when you’ve been sitting behind a computer or sitting on an airplane. There’s something about yoga that leaves you feeling 2 inches taller.”