Whether you’re watching a world-class gymnast fly through the air, or you’re trying to master a back tuck for the first time, there is something exhilarating about gymnastics. These skilled men and women are capable of feats that seem like they defy the laws of physics and gravity. However, as with most sports, there is plenty of science behind various types of gymnastics.
What is the science of gymnastics, and what do aspiring gymnasts need to understand before they perform for the first time?
Types of Gymnastics in the Olympics
Gymnastics is a broad term that covers seven different types of displays of athletic prowess. When it comes to the Olympics, often considered an athlete’s greatest test of skill, there are multiple events to watch or participate in. There are seven types of gymnastics, but only four of them are included in the Olympic Games.
First, there are artistic gymnastics. There is a separate category for male and female gymnasts. Women perform routines on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. Men, meanwhile, perform on a pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar and floor.
Next, there are rhythmic gymnastics, which are done with various props, from ribbons and balls to ropes, hoops and clubs. These are broken down into individual and group competitions. Finally, there is a category for trampoline gymnastics, which didn’t become an Olympic sport until the 2000 games.
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You may also see events that specialize in tumbling, acrobatic gymnastics or group programs, but these are not considered Olympic sports. Still, as they rely on the same types of science, they bear mentioning.
Some of the world’s best-known gymnasts, like Simone Biles, took the world by storm at the 2016 Olympics. In addition to becoming the most decorated female gymnast in history, she landed two iconic moves — a triple-double during her floor routine and a double-double as she dismounted from the balance beam. The triple-double, named the Biles II, is a triple-twist combined with a double backflip. The double-double, named the Biles, included two twists and two flips.
How can gymnasts fight against gravity to pull off these mind-bending tricks? They use physics to their advantage.
The Physics of Gymnastics
The physics behind gymnastics is both incredibly simple and fantastically complicated. Every time a gymnast like Biles launches herself into the air, she’s relying on angular velocity vector to spin, twist and rotate her way to a perfect landing. Using her body and her momentum, she can create enough torque to allow her to land a triple-backflip-triple-twist even though she didn’t have any height to work with.
That signature move of hers was completed during her floor routine. She generated that torque and angular velocity with nothing more than the momentum she’d gathered running across the floor. That is the marvel of gymnastics. Throwing yourself around a set of bars might seem easy if you have halfway-decent grip strength, but unless you understand the physics behind those movements, you’ll end up on the floor.
Hardest Type of Gymnastics
To the untrained eye, all the different types of gymnastics might seem equally difficult, but there is one that stands out above the rest. The men’s rings event is the most difficult one to complete, according to science. That’s because much of it is spent with the gymnast’s arms perpendicular to his body. Gamers like to call this a T-pose.
The further you move your arms from your torso, the less leverage you have. Just managing that standard perpendicular pose is an extreme test of strength — but then you have to move. That’s where a gymnast’s insane core strength comes in. They use it to overcome the lack of leverage, allowing them to create powerful and fast-paced routines.
Where to Start Your Practice
Whether you’re on a balance beam, spinning between uneven bars or throwing your weight around on the rings, every movement in gymnastics is firmly rooted in physics. The key principles of this sport are balance, rotation and spatial awareness. You need to understand where your body’s center of balance is and how you can manipulate it. The taller you are, the higher your center of balance is — and the more difficult some obstacles like the beam can be.
Gymnasts also have phenomenal core strength, allowing them to control their body as it moves through the air. While it might not rival the control a cat has that lets it land feet-first whenever it falls, the concept is remarkably similar.
You also have to find the balance between your center of mass and your base of support. This is constantly changing, switching between your hands and your feet, depending on the needs of your routine.
Spatial awareness is also essential, especially if you’re in the air. You need to know where everything is around you, and where you are in relation to things. Developing that spatial awareness allows gymnasts to anticipate where the beam will be for them to land on even if they’re doing a backflip and can’t see where they’re going. Spatial awareness also contributes to safety and helps prevent injuries.
Don’t Give Up
If you’re just starting out on your gymnastics journey, be prepared to fall a lot. Don’t give up, though. Once you understand the physics behind the motion, moving through the air like you’ve decided to disobey gravity becomes as easy as walking.