From New World Encyclopedia
A boy on the pommel horse

Gymnastics is a sport involving the performance of sequences of movements requiring physical strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, gracefulness, and kinesthetic awareness, such as handsprings, handstands, split leaps, aerials and cartwheels. Gymnastics evolved from beauty practices and fitness regimes used by the ancient Greeks, including skills for mounting and dismounting a horse, and circus performance skills. Since its entrance into the United States in 1830, it rapidly evolved into a perennial Olympic sport.

Gymnastics events test the strength, rhythm, balance, flexibility and agility of the gymnast, demanding an intense level of self-discipline.


The history of gymnastics dates back several thousand years ago, to the Greek civilization. The word gymnastics comes from the ancient Greek word "gymnos" meaning naked. To the Ancient Greeks, physical fitness was paramount, and all Greek cities had a gymnasia, a courtyard for jumping, running, and wrestling. As the Roman Empire ascended, Greek gymnastics gave way to military training. The ancient Romans, for example, introduced the wooden horse. In 393 C.E. the Emperor Theodosius abolished the Olympic Games, which by then had become corrupt, and gymnastics, along with other sports declined. Later, Christianity, with its medieval belief in the base nature of the human body, had a deleterious effect on gymnastics. For centuries, gymnastics was all but forgotten.[1]

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the "father of gymnastics"

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, two pioneer physical educators – Johann Friedrich GutsMuth (1759 – 1839) and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 – 1852), considered the father of modern gymnastics - created exercises for boys and young men on apparatus they designed that ultimately led to what is considered modern gymnastics. In particular, Jahn crafted early models of the horizontal bar, the parallel bars (from a horizontal ladder with the rungs removed), and the vaulting horse.[1]

By the end of the nineteenth century, men's gymnastics competition was popular enough to be included in the first "modern" Olympic Games in 1896. However, from then, and up until the early 1950s, both national and international competitions involved a changing variety of exercises gathered under the rubric gymnastics that would seem strange to today's audiences: synchronized team floor calisthenics, rope climbing, high jumping, running, horizontal ladder, etc. During the 1920s, women organized and participated in gymnastics events, and the first women's Olympic competition – primitive, for it involved only synchronized calisthenics - was held at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.

By the 1954 Olympic Games, apparatus and events for both men and women had been standardized in modern format, and uniform grading structures (including a point system from 1 to 10) had been agreed upon. At this time, Soviet gymnasts astounded the world with highly disciplined and difficult performances, setting a precedent that continues to inspire. The new medium of television helped publicize and initiate a modern age of gymnastics. Both men's and women's gymnastics now attract considerable international interest, and excellent gymnasts can be found on every continent.

Nadia Comaneci received the first perfect score, at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal, Canada. She was coached by the famous Romanian, Bela Karolyi. According to Sports Illustrated, Comaneci scored four of her perfect tens on the uneven bars, two on the balance beam and one in the floor exercise. Unfortunately, even with Nadia's perfect scores, the Romanians lost the gold medal to the Soviets. Nadia will always be remembered as "a fourteen year old, ponytailed little girl" who showed the world that perfection could be achieved.

In 2006, a new points system was put into play. Instead of being marked 1 to 10, the gymnast's start value depends on the difficulty rating of the exercise routine. Also, the deductions became higher: before the new point system developed, the deduction for a fall was 0.5, and now it is 0.8. The motivation for a new point system was to decrease the chance of gymnasts getting a perfect score.


Artistic gymnastics

Artistic Gymnastics is usually divided into Men's and Women's Gymnastics, with each doing a different rotation of events; Men compete on Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse, Still Rings, Vault, Parallel Bars, and High Bar, while women compete on Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam, and Floor Exercise. In some countries, women at one time competed on the rings, high bar, and parallel bars (for example, in the 1950s in the USSR). Though routines performed on each event may be short, they are physically exhausting and push the gymnast's strength, flexibility, endurance and awareness to the limit.

Traditionally, at the international level, competitions on the various apparatus consisted of two different performance categories: compulsory and optional. For the compulsory event, each gymnast performing on a specific apparatus executes the same required routine. At the optional level, the gymnast performed routines that he or she choreographed. Currently, each country may use compulsory and optional routines at their discretion in the training of young gymnasts.

Women's events

In the vaulting events, gymnasts sprint down a 25 meter (about 82 feet) runway, jump onto a springboard and onto the vault in a straight body position, touching the vault with their hands and blocking off it. Beginners will often be upright; more advanced gymnasts will block off from a handstand position and spring to their feet. The dismount may include one or multiple saltos and twists.
In 2001 the traditional vault was replaced with a new one, sometimes known as a tongue or table. The new apparatus is more stable and safer than the old one, giving gymnasts a larger blocking surface. It is also longer–approx. 1m in length and 1m in width. With the addition of this new, safer vault, gymnasts are now completing far more difficult and dangerous vaults.
Uneven Bars
On the uneven bars (also known as asymmetric bars, UK), the gymnast navigates two horizontal bars set at different heights. The height is generally fixed, but the width may be adjusted. Gymnasts perform swinging, circling, transitional, and release moves, as well as handstands. Usually in higher levels of gymnastics, leather grips are worn to ensure that the gymnast maintains a grip on the bar, and to protect the hands from blisters and tears (known as rips). Gymnasts sometimes wet their grips with water from a spray bottle and then may apply chalk to their grips to prevent the hands from slipping. Chalk may also be applied to the bar or to the hands if grips are not worn. The most common way to mount the uneven bars is by using a springboard and jumping towards the lower bar.
Daniele Hypólito performing on the balance beam at the 2016 Summer Olympics
Balance Beam
The gymnast performs a choreographed routine from 60 to 80 seconds in length consisting of leaps, acrobatic skills, turns and dance elements on a padded sprung beam. Apparatus norms set by the International Gymnastics Federation (used for Olympic and most elite competitions) specify the beam must be 125 cm (4' 1") high, 500 cm (16' 5") long, and 10 cm (4") wide.[2] The event requires in particular, balance, flexibility and strength.
Gymnasts perform a choreographed exercise 70 to 90 seconds long. The music is instrumental and cannot have vocals. The routines consist of tumbling passes, series of jumps, dance elements, acrobatic skills, and turns. The exercise is performed on a carpeted, spring floor, 12 m x 12 m. A gymnast has three or four tumbling passes that include three or more tricks.

Men's events

Floor Exercise
The floor event occurs on a carpeted 12m × 12m square, usually consisting of hard foam over a layer of plywood, which is supported by springs or foam blocks. This provides a firm surface that will respond with force when compressed, allowing gymnasts to achieve extra height and a softer landing than would be possible on a regular floor. A series of tumbling passes are performed to demonstrate flexibility, strength, and balance tests. The gymnast must also show non-acrobatic skills, including circles, scales, and presses. Men's floor routines usually have four passes that will total between 60–70 seconds and are performed without music, unlike the women's event. Rules require that gymnasts touch each corner of the floor at least once during their routine.
Pommel Horse
The ultimate balancing act, gymnasts must perform continuous circular movements around the horse while allowing only their hands to actually touch it. This is considered one of the most difficult of the men's events and requires flawless control of balance and body position.
Still Rings
Still Rings is arguably the most physically demanding event. The rings are suspended on wire cable from a point 5.75 meters off the floor, and adjusted in height so the gymnast has room to hang freely and swing. He must perform a routine demonstrating balance, strength, power, and dynamic motion while preventing the rings themselves from swinging. At least one static strength move is required, but some gymnasts may include two or three. A routine must begin with an impressive mount, and must conclude with an equally impressive dismount.
Gymnasts sprint down a runway, which is a maximum of 25 meters in length, before hurdling onto a spring board. The body position is maintained while "punching" (blocking using only a shoulder movement) the vaulting platform. The gymnast then rotates to a standing position. In advanced gymnastics, multiple twists and somersaults may be added before landing. Successful vaults depend on the speed of the run, the length of the hurdle, the power and strength the gymnast has in the legs and arms and shoulder girdle, the kinesthetic awareness in the air, and the speed of rotation in the case of more difficult and complex vaults.
Parallel Bars
Men hold themselves on two bars slightly further than a shoulder's width apart and usually 1.75m high while performing a series of swings, balances, and releases that require great strength and coordination.
High Bar
A 2.4cm thick steel bar raised 2.5m above the landing area is all the gymnast has to hold onto as he performs giants (body revolutions around the bar), release skills, twists, and changes of direction. By using all of the momentum from giants and then releasing at the proper point, enough height can be achieved for spectacular dismounts, such as a triple-back salto. Leather grips are usually used to help maintain a grip on the bar.

As with the women, male gymnasts are also judged on all of their events, through performance and presentation.

Display gymnastics

General gymnastics enables people of all ages and abilities to participate in performance groups of 6 to more than 150 athletes. They perform synchronized, choreographed routines. Troupes may be all one gender or mixed. There are no age divisions in general gymnastics. The largest general gymnastics exhibition is the quadrennial World Gymnaestrada which was first held in 1939.

Rhythmic gymnastics

The discipline of rhythmic gymnastics is currently only competed by women (although there is a new version of this discipline for men being pioneered in Japan, see Men's rhythmic gymnastics), and involves the performance of five separate routines with the use of five apparatus—ball, ribbon, hoop, clubs, rope—on a floor area, with a much greater emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the acrobatic. Rhythmic routines are scored out of a possible 20 points, and the music used by the gymnast can contain vocals, but may not contain words.

Aerobic gymnastics

Aerobic gymnastics (formally Sport Aerobics} involves the performance of routines by individuals, pairs, trios or groups up to 6 people, emphasizing strength, flexibility, and aerobic fitness rather than acrobatic or balance skills. Routines are performed on a small floor area and generally last 60-90 seconds.


Trampolining consists of four events: individual, synchronized, double mini and trampoline. Only individual trampoline is included in the Olympics. Individual routines involve a build-up phase during which the gymnast jumps repeatedly to achieve height, followed by a sequence of ten leaps without pauses during which the gymnast performs a sequence of aerial tumbling skills. Routines are marked out of a maximum score of 10 points. Additional points (with no maximum) can be earned depending on the difficulty of the moves. Synchronized trampoline is similar except that both competitors must perform the routine together and marks are awarded for synchronicity as well as the form of the moves. Double mini trampoline involves a smaller trampoline with a run-up, two moves are performed and the scores marked in a similar manner to individual trampoline.

Acrobatic Gymnastics

Acrobatic Gymnastics (formerly Sports Acrobatics), often referred to as acrobatics, "acro" sports or simply sports acro, is a group gymnastic discipline for both men and women. Acrobats in groups of two, three and four perform routines with the heads, hands and feet of their partners. They may pick their own music, but lyrics or Disney music are not allowed.

Performers must compete in preparatory grades A and B, then move on to grades 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5; by 3, 4 and 5 two routines are required, one for balances and another for tempos.


At the compulsory levels gymnasts are judged on a scale of 10, but as they reach the higher levels, particularly levels 9 and 10, the gymnasts' start-values may vary depending upon a number of different factors such as skill level and skill combinations. Also, every skill has a letter grade describing its difficulty. At level nine, to reach a start value of ten, the gymnast has to acquire bonus points, which she can achieve by connecting two or more skills of a certain level of difficulty.

Compulsory levels of gymnastics have choreographed routines, and all women competing at that level do the same routines. Compulsory levels go from 1-6; most gymnasts start at levels 2-4. Optional levels, however, are all different and have different floor music. Optional levels are 7-10 (elite). The Olympics and college level gymnastics are also optional. In the Olympics, gymnasts compete at elite, which is higher than Level 10.

Former apparatus & events

Rope climb

Generally, competitors climbed either a 6m (6.1m = 20 ft in USA) or an 8m (7.6m = 25 ft in USA), 38mm (1.5") diameter natural fiber rope for speed, starting from a seated position on the floor and using only the hands and arms. Kicking the legs in a kind of "stride" was normally permitted.

Flying rings

Flying Rings was an event similar to Still Rings, but with the performer swinging back and forth while executing a series of stunts. It was a gymnastic event sanctioned by both the NCAA and the AAU until the early 1960s.


Gymnastics is considered to be a dangerous sport, due in part to the height of the apparatus, the speed of the exercises, and the impact on competitors' joints, bones and muscles. In several cases, competitors have suffered serious, lasting injuries and paralysis after severe gymnastics-related accidents. For instance, in 1998, world-class Chinese artistic gymnast Sang Lan was paralyzed after falling on vault at the Goodwill Games.

Artistic gymnastics injuries have been the subject of several international medical studies, and results have indicated that more than half of all elite-level participants may eventually develop chronic injuries. In the United States, injury rates range from a high 56 percent for high school gymnasts to 23 percent for club gymnasts. However, the rates for participants in recreational or lower-level gymnastics are lower than that of high-level competitors. Conditioning, secure training environments with mats and knowledgeable coaching can also lessen the frequency or occurrence of injuries.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 John Goodbody, The Illustrated History of Gymnastics (Beaufort Books, 1982, ISBN 0091433509).
  2. FIG Apparatus Norms International Gymnastics Federation, 2022, 64. Retrieved December 19, 2022.
  3. C.B. Lowry, and B.F. Leveau A retrospective study of gymnastics injuries to competitors and noncompetitors in private clubs American Journal of Sports Medicine 10 (i 4)(July 1982): 237-239. Retrieved December 19, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goodbody, John. The Illustrated History of Gymnastics. Beaufort Books, 1982. ISBN 0091433509
  • Gutman, Dan. Gymnastics. New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1996. ISBN 978-0670869497
  • Jackman, Joan. Gymnastics. New York: Dorling Kindersley Pub., 2000. ISBN 978-0751327991

External Links

All links retrieved December 19, 2022.


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