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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cartwheels, splits, handsprings and tumbles are all in a day's practice for today's cheerleaders, whose fierce athleticism belies the old stereotype of popular girls waving pom-poms.
Experts say cheerleaders these days are likely to be every bit as fit as the teams they're cheering.
"Cheerleaders are one of the most conditioned athletes that I know. You need to be at a high level in order to do all those stunts and tumbling," said Stacey DelPreore, a New Jersey-based fitness instructor.
DelPreore, who has been a cheerleading coach on the staff of the United Cheerleading Association for 10 years, said gymnastics rule modern cheer routines.
"A long time ago it was more dance-based, and rah-rah, lets cheer on the football team," she said. "But as a lot of tumbling and gymnastics got into cheerleading and stunts became involved, it became more athletic, based more on gymnast-type movements than (on) dance."
More complicated stunts demand greater conditioning, according to DelPreore, whose fitness DVD Train2Cheer, is a high impact cardio, strength and conditioning workout developed specifically for cheerleaders and dancers.
"There's no actual tumbling in it, but the exercises simulate the motions of stunting, tumbling and dancing that pertains to competitive cheerleading," she said, "along with a lot of plyometric (jumping) moves, which help with back jumps and handsprings."
DelPreore said too many youngsters are hurt because they start doing back flips without knowing their bodies.
"A lot of these kids are starting at eight and nine years old. If they're not conditioned properly, there are injuries," she said.
Cross training is also crucial to staying healthy, she said.
Jessica Matthews of the American Council on Exercise said as cheerleading has evolved into its own sport, it's become more important to build conditioning programs, such as strength, cardio, and flexibility exercises, into the training.
"I feel like you get some of that with cheerleading. But I don't know how structured it's been," said Matthews, an exercise physiologist and former high school cheerleader.
"You might have a cheerleading coach with a background in choreography, but do you have someone with a conditioning background to work with them to avoid injuries?"
Matthews praises cheerleading for providing a great social environment and for getting youngsters active at a time when obesity affects 17 percent of all children adolescents in the United States, according to government figures.
While athletic prowess is paramount, personality remains part of the skill set.
"You really have to have that spirited energy and to want to be front and center," Matthews said. "If you're a little more reserved, it might not be for you."
Cheerleading is bigger than it's ever been, according to Matthews and DelPreore, who both began cheering with Pop Warner, a non-profit organization in the United States that promotes youth football, cheer and dance.
DelPreore said those who have cheered, even quite a long time ago, still thrill to the energy, the music and the choreography.
"I feel like when you're a cheerleader you always have that in you," she said.