When you think of cheerleading, your mind probably wanders to a mental image back from the 1950s, complete with extremely long skirts and oversized pom-poms with girls yelling some form of “rah, rah, rah!” into a megaphone. Cheerleaders are always being depicted in movies as the character with the least amount of intelligence. In high school I was a cheerleader myself and constantly was trying to overcome the stereotypes people pegged on me, even while I was taking AP courses and had one of the highest GPAs in my high school. The truth is, cheerleading lately has been evolving into what a lot of people would consider an extreme sport that requires quite a bit of brainpower.
In modern times, your dancing skills and peppiness alone will not earn you a spot on your high school cheerleading squad. Try outs for a team now last over a week, putting girls through intense pre-conditioning, dance routines, and tumbling passes. You must be able to flip upside down in synch with twenty other girls, jump up and hit your toes at the perfect timing in the middle of a routine, and soar higher than ever in a stunt group as your teammates thrust you into the air. Most cheerleaders don’t realize that in almost everything that they are doing, they are subconsciously applying basic principles of physics to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. Here we will be looking at the physics in three main components of cheerleading: jumps, tumbling, and stunting.
Jumps aren’t something most people would consider when thinking of the physics involved in cheerleading simply because it’s something that we do as children. It’s not complicated, but it does involve quite a bit of physics. Kendra Harvey, an author for a Livestrong article on this very subject, explains jumps by saying, “You are simply working with your own force against gravity to accelerate your body off the ground,” (2). Notice two words that Mrs. Harvey says: force and acceleration. Using our knowledge in physics, we can remember that Newton’s 2nd law actually relates force and acceleration with another variable, mass (10). A girl’s jump height is directly related to the amount of force that she puts into the jump. According to Newton’s second law, if a cheerleader wants to improve her jumps, she must improve her acceleration, her muscle mass, or both (2).
Another way that we see cheerleaders improve on their jump height is the way that they swing their arms before they jump. Take a toe-touch for example. A girl starts with her arms raised in a V shape and her hands in fists. She then swings both of her arms in large circles down while simultaneously bending her knees as she prepares to jump. As she jumps, her arms come to rest in almost a T-shape as her fists reach to meet her toes, and that all happens in about 4 seconds. The reasoning behind swinging your arms before a big jump is to build up momentum so that you can increase the height of your jump and help your form (11). In all honesty, a cheerleader probably isn’t thinking of the reasoning behind why she swings her arms before a jump because it just feels natural to her. As a cheerleader myself, I never considered really why this was done until I began to do research for this paper. Despite whether she realizes why it is done, she is implementing several different principles of physics into every jump.
The second thing we are looking into is tumbling. Tumbling refers to all the “tricks” a cheerleader does on her own, starting from something as simple as a cartwheel and increasing in difficultly all the way to several back handsprings in a row complete with a back flip, also known in cheerleading as a back tuck series. The physics involved in tumbling is much more complicated than that of which is involved in a simple jump and a cheerleader must be completely aware of how those physics go into each move or she runs the risk of hurting herself in a serious way. The surface that a girl is tumbling on is very important for several reasons, two of which are friction and what could be described as push-back. A Princeton cheerleader explains that “…a tumbler needs a floor that generates enough friction on her feet to keep her bouncing/moving through the pass,” (9). A surface with too much friction plants your feet hard at the end of a pass and sends a painful and possibly damaging shock through your joints. A surface with too little friction doesn’t allow you to stop your tumble pass as easily and you could slip and fall at the end. Similarly, a surface that gives very little push-back on the tumbler, such as the earth, requires more force to successfully complete a tumble pass. A surface that gives more push-back, like a spring floor or a gym floor, requires less force to complete the pass (9). Cheerleaders must take all of this into account before they even think about actually tumbling.
Now, let’s consider when a girl is actually doing her tumbling. One of the simplest but more intriguing moves is called a back handspring. A cheerleader can either do what is a called a standing back handspring where she tumbles from standing in one spot, or a running back handspring where she uses momentum built up in a run to help her carry through with the pass. The former is mostly used when a girl has multiple tricks she is doing, such as several back handsprings followed by a back tuck, and she needs a lot more momentum to keep her tumble pass powerful so that she can overcome the force of gravity through several moves (2). With a back handspring, the two main components of physics that a cheerleader is working with are gravity and Newton’s 3rd law, which states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” (10). Earlier we talked about the momentum needed so that a girl can have lots of force in her tumbling. Three girls involved in a project similar to mine explain why that force is needed in saying that “the force carries the tumbler backwards and gravity pushes her back towards the Earth.” (5). With every flip she does, a cheerleader is constantly trying to overcome the force of gravity or at least use it to her advantage. Newton’s 3rd Law implies that with every force she is enacting on the ground (i.e. her hands pushing off the ground with force), the ground is enacting an equal but opposite force right back on her (5). This allows for those nice high back handsprings that woo crowds at half time.
The last aspect of cheer that we will be looking at is quite possibly the most complicated- stunting. Stunting can be described as the cool tricks a cheerleader does in the air with the help of other cheerleaders, and it can appear in many forms. A group of cheerleaders (called bases) hold the girl at the top of the build (called a flyer) while she is constantly balancing her weight and cheering at the same time. The bases then usually throw the flyer in the air while she does a trick as she dismounts and the bases catch her. This can be done with as few as one base or as many as four or five bases. The flyer constantly has to balance her center of gravity and that varies “based on how many people are holding her and what kind of stunt she is performing.” (1). If a stunt group is performing a simple “prep”, the flyer stands with her feet shoulder width apart and the bases hold her feet at chest level. Here, her center of gravity is almost the same as it would be on level ground. If a stunt group is attempting a more complicated one-legged stunt, say a liberty, a flyer must stand on one leg with the other legged bent while the bases work together to hold her one foot up over their heads in what is called an extension. Here, her center of gravity is much different and she must work to counterbalance the change by popping the hip that is attached to her bent leg up, which a result of Newton’s 3rd Law (10).
The dismount requires many principles of physics as well. To dismount from a prep, the bases bend their legs slightly and rapidly extend their arms up with as much force as they can muster. This bend acts much like the arm swing in jumps acted and helps the stunt gain momentum and the bases increase their force so that it can reach maximum height. In cheerleading, we tell the flyer that she must “ride it out”, meaning she should stay in the same position as she was when the bases held her until she reaches a maximum height where her velocity is equal to zero. If she doesn’t do this, her stunt doesn’t go as high because she interrupted her velocity before it was able to reach zero (1). For a more complicated stunt that could involve a flip or a spin, the flyer must reach that maximum height so that she has enough time coming down to perform the stunt. If she fails to do this, she could land face down in the bases arms or move slightly to one direction where the bases cant catch her at all. In a simpler dismount, called a cradle, a flyer rides it out until her velocity is equal to zero and then hits a slight pike, or slightly pushes her tailbone back. This pushes her center of gravity back so that she can transition safely from being vertical to horizontal and her bases can catch her. From here, the bases must “catch high” meaning that they start to catch the flyer at about chest level as opposed to near their stomachs. The Princeton cheerleader explains why this is done by saying “By catching high, the bases and back spot can start their opposed force of catching sooner,” which is another way cheerleaders are utilizing Newton’s 3rd Law (9). I just chose a few aspects of physics of basic stunting to include in this paper, however there are much more that go beyond the realms of this assignment.
As you can now see, cheerleading requires much more mathematics and science than most people realize, even arguably more than any other sport. Those who argue cheerleading is not a sport have probably not considered all the thought that goes into every jump, tumble pass, or stunt and therefore do not understand the complexity that the sport has evolved into. Beyond that, cheerleading has helped many actually grasp certain concepts of physics. As I was researching articles, I saw many comments from students saying that explaining cheerleading as I have helped them to understand Newton’s Laws better. There is no doubt that cheerleading involves a complex balance of physics and pep to pull off a routine flawlessly.