Article last updated: June 2018 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
As some of you know I’ve been a male cheerleader for a great part of my training, and I have to say that training in a group setting has been very beneficial to me even though I prefer to train alone.
During my time in cheerleading I was coached by some very experienced people, including the world champion in partner stunts. Their way of training differed greatly from what you read on a typical bodybuilding website.
They approached training as a skill rather than a set routine of sets and repetitions. For example, if I had difficulty performing a stunt I would do it over and over again to get in as much practice as possible in the allotted time we had, which was typically 2 hours, but sometimes more. This is very different from the bodybuilding mentality of training no more than 1 hour a day and splitting muscle groups into different days of the week.
10 Lessons I Learned as a Male Cheerleader
- Once you have a solid foundation of strength you can try new ways of training and use them until they stop working. Don’t be afraid to try something new if your current approach isn’t working. I always thought that you have to lift weights in the 5-12 rep range to get big, but after trying diamond push ups and building up to sets of 20-45 I quickly noticed that my body responds GREAT to higher reps and lower rest times. A mix of low reps to build strength and very high reps for hypertrophy is perfect for me.
- You can train more than 1 hour a day. It’s all about building up gradually instead of jumping directly into 2 hour workouts everyday. If you have the time, energy and motivation, then by all means give this a try. Consider doing a sport in addition to your regular training.
- It’s very good to train extremely hard for short periods of time, as I did during my weekend camps. This is one of the reasons why I recommend you to do Time Under Tension training for maximum 3 weeks.
- Do you want to be able to max out on your exercises once a week or EVERYDAY? It can be beneficial to train with your max everyday. You most likely won’t be able to lift more, but you will be able to do it frequently.
- Progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it typically comes in short bursts when you expect it the least.
- You can learn a lot when you get trained by a competent coach or reach out to experienced people in your field.
- VIDEOS: If you’re in doubt about your technique on an exercise then record your lift and compare it to someone that’s experienced and with a similar body to you.
- Training with a team or a partner can take your training to the next level because you have a set time where you MUST show up, and you can motivate each other.
- Train pulling movements at least as much as you train pushing movements. 4 out of 6 guys on my cheerleading team got severe shoulder injuries as a result of doing cheerleading WITHOUT training their back outside practice.
- Having competitions to train for increases your training motivation tenfold. You don’t really think about overtraining, when you have 2 weeks to learn a skill or else it will be taken out of the routine. All you think about is, how you can get more practice in to be at your best. Similarly, you can set short term goals to keep yourself motivated.
So, those were the lessons I learned, I hope you find some of them useful and applicable to your lifestyle and training. To read more about my experience as a male cheerleader, just continue.
How I Became a Male Cheerleader
In November 2011 I went to a small bar with fellow students from my programme. While drinking my whiskey I approached 2 girls in cheerleading clothes and shortly after a handful of guys from my programme joined the conversation. I thought the girls were some kind of dancers, but I was wrong. They were out to find men for their cheerleading team so they could perform stunts that were more demanding. The conversation went something like this:
- Cheerleaders: “You guys should definitely try cheerleading!”
- Me and the guys from the study programme: “Hahaha are you kidding?”
- Cheerleaders: “No, male cheerleaders actually get laid a lot, and the stunting is very demanding. You are basically lifting girls instead of weights and the girls have very little clothing on, just come to one practice and give it a try. Bring as many friends as you want, we need strong men for the team.”
It seemed like they had convinced us to give it a try, but in the end all of the guys from my programme changed their mind, so I asked my buddy Andreas if he wants to join me. His answer: “Yeah, let’s go at least once and look at the chicks, it’s free anyways.” So, we went to the first practice and the practice was so hard that looking at chicks was the last thing we thought about.
Initially, we were only performing “group stunts” which consists of 3 guys tossing and lifting one girl. However, the ultimate goal was to learn partner stunting where one guy tosses and lifts his partner. My buddy and I were really impressed by partner stunts, and we thought we could easily do it, but that proved to be far from reality.
We had some respectable lifts, since we had already built a solid strength foundation at the gym, but we lacked the power, coordination, balance and endurance to perform partner stunts.
At this point I realized that strength training is far from enough if you want to be a good athlete. A solid strength base is great for the long term health of your joints and to have a respectable physique, but if you want to use it for anything remotely athletic you also need power, coordination, balance and endurance. I remember that Andreas and I joked about that once we learn partner stunting we will quit and go back to lifting at the gym. This showed to be far from true.
Once we learned partner stunts we were more motivated than ever to train – we were hooked on cheerleading. I sent my partner stunt videos to Didrik, who is the Norwegian champion in partner stunts. Didrik is known to rely on his technique rather than his muscles since he’s not nearly as big as some of the top partner stunters that weigh 40-50 lbs more than him, so I knew that he was the right guy to ask about technique advice.
To my surprise, he sent me the equivalent of several word pages with an in depth analysis of both my mistakes and my partner’s mistakes. This analysis was very useful to progress in our training.
1 year into cheerleading I learned to partner stunt and shortly after I performed the one armed lib which is my best stunt so far. You can see this stunt in the video below:
In this article I will go in depth with the lessons I learned in order to reach my goal of doing partner stunts and how you can apply those things to your own training today.
The No Excuse Attitude
My team was actively participating in the major national competitions, so we paid to attend cheerleading-camps that would help us prepare our routine and improve our skills. The camps would typically be 2 days with 8 hours of training each day which was much more than I was used to. At my first camp, we were trained by the best female and male cheerleaders in Denmark and the world champion in partner stunts Mika Pennanen.
Mika is about average height and weighs over 230 lbs. Even though he’s huge, he can do full splits and back tucks with no problem. He’s the most athletic guy I’ve seen – strong, powerful, flexible and coordinated. During the camp he showed no mercy to the guys, there was absolutely no excuses to skip your work.
We were 6 guys on the team and he said something along the lines of: “guys, I won’t take it easy with you, you can take it”. He made us do partner stunts, which most of us sucked at. I believe one or two guys could toss their partner up and catch the girl’s feet with their hands, but the rest of us struggled to perform the tosses. My toss was barely half way to my hands and I got exhausted after doing a measly 2-3 tosses!
He quickly realized that our upper body strength was lacking, but he didn’t give a fuck: “just keep going, you need to be able to perform those stunts while being fully fatigued“. I was used to taking breaks between sets when I was fatigued so his idea went against what I was used to. However, he must be doing something right… He’s the world champion in partner stunts, so I better listen, observe and learn.
When we didn’t partner stunt, him and the danish champion in partner stunts would make us perform diamond push ups and shoulder push ups to build a strong upper body for partner stunting. All of us were novices to those exercises and very weak at them. After the camp I would do diamond push ups as often as possible to get strong enough for partner stunting. When I went to practice I would superset diamond push ups with close grip chin ups when my teammates had a water break, and I would do sets throughout the day and before I went to bed. It was different from what I was used to, but I gave it a try.
A few weeks after this camp I noticed that my triceps were visible all the way down to the elbow, my shoulders showed striatons when I flexed them and I was finally gaining muscle in my upper chest. Those 3 muscle groups have always been problem areas for me, so I got VERY excited when I saw this progress.
My newfound muscle motivated me to focus more on bodyweight training. Gradually I stopped going to the gym and I started viewing training as a skill rather than strict sets and repetitions. I believe that sets and repetitions have their place and training, but the lesson here was that you can train in many different ways, and everyone responds differently. For me it worked to train frequently, and frequent training is easier to do when you can do it anywhere at anytime.
Also, the female cheerleaders were very inspiring. I remember one of them doing partner stunts in the middle of the room with a girl weighing close to the same as her. I really felt like a weakling when I saw this, because at this time partner stunting was still just a far-fetched dream for me soon to come true.
Winning our First Competition!
Prior to my second training camp my teammate Thomas slept in my appartment, but we didn’t get any sleep since I was sick with a fever and he also felt bad. However, we couldn’t skip this camp since we had paid Mika to come and coach us again and we had a national competition coming up the next week. So, we ate tons of eggs and meat for breakfast, bought energy drinks and headed for the camp despite a lack of sleep and fever. The no excuse attitude was a valuable lesson that stuck with us.
During this camp, we mostly practiced our routine, and he made us do awkward things. For example, I had to pretend I was a chicken and go around the gym making chicken sounds. It was very embarassing to act like that in front of dozens of people you don’t know AND your whole team, but the point of this camp was to get the team to bond together, reduce our anxiety prior to the competition and tweak the routine to make it look smooth. We were very anxious prior to the competition, since our team was newly established and we would compete against the best teams in Denmark.
In the end, it all worked out and we won the competition!
Would we have won without Mika? I doubt it, the girls on the team were very anxious before the competition and our routine was a huge failure. This changed after his coaching – we hit everthing besides one pyramid at the end.
The month after the competition we trained partner stunts a lot and finally I got my own partner to train with. During this month I became strong and powerful enough to perform the toss to hands.
I recall that holding my partner’s feet in my hands was very demanding on my hands, fingers and forearms. I wasn’t used to hold a 110 lbs girl on my hands, it was much harder than holding a 200 lbs barbell. Often I would lose my brush when brushing my teeth because my fingers went numb after a partner stunt practice. I was afraid that I was going to get an injury, but luckily my hands and fingers adapted to the stress.
The next step was to perform the stunt called extension – this is basically a push press, but with a person instead of a barbell, you can see it in the picture below.
I had seen extensions a lot of times, but actually doing them was much different – imagine extending your arms and having a person standing on your hands. It takes a lot of trust between you and your partner to do this, since one mistake can be costly.
After some time together we started trusting each other and performed the stunts with full power and focus. This worked; by pushing ourselves that tiny bit extra and being laser focused we turned the extension into a skill.
If you aren’t applying laser focus and extra effort to your most important sets during training, you better start doing it. Your muscles grow when you put additional stress on them. If you did 5 chin ups during your last training session, try to do at least 6 during your next. You won’t be able to progress everytime, but it’s all about doing EVERY single repetition with laser focus and 100 % trust in yourself. In the end it will all add up and transform your physique!
“It’s Not a Skill Unless You Can Do It 5 Times in a Row!”
After winning the competition we had a christmas break to recover from all the hard training. Once the break was over our focus was on the national championship in Denmark. For this purpose we got a new coach from America called Alison. She was very strict in her approach to training since she encouraged us to train outside practice (especially partner stunts), and the whole team would get punished if someone showed up late.
According to Alison you need to be able to perform a stunt or tumbling sequence 5 times in a row before it’s a skill. Therefore, her training was based on doing “sets” of 5 “reps” on each stunt – a very demanding task if you’re struggling with a stunt!
Her training always started with partner stunts which was by far the hardest part. All of the guys would stand behind their partner and she would make all of us do toss-hands-extensions 5 times. When one partner group did the toss-hands-extension the rest of the team watched and cheered, and this was done until everyone had done it 5 times. Then we would have a 2 minute water break and repeat about 2-3 times. After the first circuit all of us were fatigued, but we had to keep going. It was by far the hardest training I have done in my life along with Time Under Tension training, but it worked.
I felt like I was doing a max effort lift 5 times during each curcuit, which added up to 15-20 max effort lifts throughout the practice. After a few months most of us could probably do toss-hands-extensions with our eyes closed if we wanted to.
In addition, my partner and I trained outside practice as often as our schedule permitted it, and I continued doing diamond push ups and close grip chin ups frequently. We progressed very fast and this was noticed by Alison and the rest of my team.
Alison’s job was to prepare us for the national championships in Denmark, and I have to say that she did it very well. Even though we placed 3rd (behind the teams that we previously beat) we got compliments from the danish cheerleading community for improving at a very rapid pace. Here is a picture of the most advanced pyramid we made at the competititon:
During her time coaching us we trained 4-6 times a week with 2 or 3 weekend camps prior to the competition. In less than 4 months I progressed from about 5 diamond push ups to over 30. I also kept progressing in my partner stunts, and my body composition was changing for the better – all without:
Lifting at a gym Following a diet Taking bodybuilding supplements
I just ate most of my food around my workouts, showed up motivated, did my thing with a laser focus and slept like a baby. I kept my training and lifestyle simple but effective.
Training on this team was very rewarding since hard work finally paid off and I was motivated to show up for every practice. However, not everyone was pleased. 2 guys on the team had major shoulder injuries from cheerleading and this was furthermore a problem when my buddy Andreas and another guy got a shoulder injury from this intense training. Those injuries were most likely caused by training pushing movements at cheerleading practice without doing any pulling exercises outside practice for the back.
Both guys quit the team because of the injuries and Andreas is back at the gym now doing a balanced training routine with a major emphasis on rebuilding his back with chin ups and deadlifts.
After Coach Alison left, we exchanged a message:
Oskar, thank you for the kind words! They mean so much! It’s been incredible to watch your progress! Your dedication, hard work and drive really set you apart! Keep up the hard work Oskar! You will go so far thank you for being so dedicated!!! It’s been a pleasure coaching you!!!!
Those kind of messages really motivate you to push further, and hopefully you noticed that my progress didn’t happen overnight but it came in short bursts because I stayed consistent with my training and healthy lifestyle.
Stay consistent, work hard and consider to join a team sport once you have a solid strength foundation to increase your motivation for training.
Next up, I will publish an article about why I actually train alone now, and why I’ve trained alone throughout most of my time training.
Video of Mika Pennanen and his partner doing some crazy stunts: click here