Flexibility is, obviously, a very important part of any gymnast’s training, and probably the most useful thing for a gymnast to train at home. It can be done safely with little or no equipment, and many stretches can even be done while reading, doing homework, watching TV, etc.
First and most obvious are splits. In a left-leg split, the gymnast slides her left leg out in front and her right leg back behind her to stretch her legs and hips. It is important to practice these with correct form and alignment. The gymnast’s hips should remain squared up so that she is facing directly towards the left foot – it is common for gymnasts to allow the hips to turn as they slide down, the result being a diagonally-skewed split. This should be avoided. The front foot should be rolled slightly to the outside (so the pinky toe is closer to the floor than the big toe), and the back leg should be rolled under (so the knee cap faces directly down into the floor, not out to the side. The chest and shoulders should be kept up to whatever extent possible – the gymnast should not lean forward over the front leg, but try to pull the shoulders and chest back to put more pressure on the back leg.
In a center split, the gymnast should slide her feet out to the sides. This, in my opinion, is best practiced with flexed feet until the gymnast is flat; the gymnast should flex her feet and roll them back, so the heels are the only thing on the floor. If the gymnast can go low enough to rest her elbows on the floor, she should do so.
If a gymnast is flexible enough to do a split completely flat without feeling the stretch, she can do oversplits – that is, a split with one foot raised so that she can stretch past a 180 degree split. However, this is only reccomended for gymnasts who can hit a full 180 on floor and still do not feel a sufficient stretch; oversplits do not benefit kids who can’t go flat in the first place.
Two other excellent stretches are the closed pike and the straddle pancake. These will help gymnasts to achieve a tighter tuck or pike during saltos, and will also aid them in any press handstand-related skills.
In a closed pike, the gymnast should sit on the floor with the legs straight and together, and try to bring her chest down to her legs. The legs must remain straight. This can be done either with a flat back or with a rounded back. Both are beneficial, and gymnasts should approximately equal time on both. In a round-back pike stretch (which primarily stretches the lower-back) the gymnast should point her toes and reach out as far as she can to the front; if she can reach her feet, she can increase the intensity of the stretch by grabbing her feet and using them to pull herself down. In a flat-back pike stretch (which primarily stretches the hamstrings), the gymnast should flex her feet and keep her back straight while reaching forward. While she should try to go as far as she can, she should not allow her back to curve forward to get down lower.
A straddle pancake (also known as a stalder stretch) is essentially the same thing, but with the legs straddled (this should be a fairly narrow straddle – around a 90 degree angle). The gymnast should attempt to bring the chest all the way down to the floor while keeping the back as flat as possible. There is a natural tendency to roll the feet forward in this stretch, such that the big toe comes closer to the floor. This should be avoided.
I want to emphasize again: do not push gymnasts down in their stretches at home. This should only be done by experienced coaches.
As always keep the comments and requests coming. And I wish everybody the best for Christmas, Hannukah (retroactively), Kwanzaa, Festivus, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice (again, retroactively), HumanLight, New Year, and whatever other holidays you may celebrate.