Women’s gymnastics is a marquee sport at the Summer Olympics, but is otherwise hardly noticed outside of a dedicated fan group.
I’m one of those fans, as well as a former gymnast (who’s definitely not Olympic) and I’m here to help you watch with a closer eye. Would you like to know what is required on each device? Which skills are the hardest? How can you tell good routines from great ones? You are in the right place.
Here we look at the floor training – starting with the basics up to the technical details. Choose a quick primer or go as deep as you like. We also have guided tours to the jump, the uneven bars, and the balance beam.
A standard doormat is about 12 x 40 feet, which makes the diagonal paths that gymnasts stumble about 56 feet long. It is made of foam and carpeting, with springs that allow gymnasts to more confidently perform difficult skills.
Every routine must include:
A flip with a rotation of at least 360 degrees
A double backflip, with or without twists
Staggering backwards and forwards
Two jumps or jumps in a row, either directly connected or with running steps in between. One of the two must include a 180 degree split.
Floor exercises, which are set to music at the gymnast’s choice (no text allowed), last about 90 seconds and usually include four tumbling passes. Gymnasts usually make their toughest passes first.
In contrast to the safe, which is all about pure strength, floor exercise combines strength with artistry. In practice, some gymnasts put less effort into their choreography, which may be little more than a series of poses nominally timed to the music, and the judges can pull that off.
But you can tell when a gymnast really delivers. Look no further than this routine from the Brooklyn Moors of Canada.
What the gymnasts do
Each skill has a level of difficulty from A to J. Turner are credited towards their eight toughest skills, of which at least three must be acrobatic and three dance.
Staggering backwards passes begin with a roundoff (basically a powerful bike with both feet landing at the same time), almost always followed by a backhand jump to build momentum for the main skill.
The most common passes fall into a few categories:
Double backs, short for double back flips. Flips can be performed in three positions: tuck, with knees bent; Pike, with straight legs and hips bent; or layout, with a straight body – but in gymnastics parlance “double back” refers to the retracted version. The others are listed as “double pike” and “double layout”.
You can expect to see clearly Double back (D); full rotating double back (E); double twisted double back, also known as double double (H, named after Daniela Silivas); and a triple twisted double back, also known as triple-double (J, named after Simone Biles). Full-twisting double backs can be full-ins (if the twist occurs on the first flip), full-outs (twist on the second flip), or half-in-half-outs, but they are all the same for goal purposes.
Double pikes, to which the plain belongs Double pike (D) and the full turning double pike (E).
Double layouts that support the Double layout (F); the semi-twisted double layout, or Biles (G, named after Simone Biles); the fully twisted double layout (H); and the double twisting double layout, or Moors (I, named after Victoria Moors). Jade Carey from the USA has trained an amazingly difficult triple-twisting-double layout that will be named after her if she does it successfully in Tokyo.
Twists, which refer to a single back layout with one to 3.5 turns. The ones that you generally see as stand-alone Tumbling Passes – as opposed to part of the Combo Passes we’ll get to later – are Double turns (C), two and a half turns (D, often followed by a front flip), triple turns (E, sometimes called Triple Fulls) and occasionally three and a half turns (F).
Gymnasts tend to stagger backwards because it is easier to create momentum from a round and rear hand jump than from a front hand jump. However, some are characterized by lurching forward.
That Double front (E, hidden unless otherwise noted), half-twisted double front (F, named after Lilia Podkopayeva) and pricked double front (F, named after Brenna Dowell).
That Double arabs (E), a double front where the gymnast starts as if doing a back flip but immediately makes a half turn. It is more popular than the regular double front because it has the same value but allows the gymnast to build momentum with a roundoff and back handspring. A small handful of gymnasts does one piked double arab, or Dos Santos (F, named after Daiane Dos Santos).
Front twists, such as double full at the front (D).
Gymnasts can increase their level of difficulty by performing two skills in a tumbling pass that are either directly or indirectly related.
Direct connections are made one immediately after the other. Indirect connections are made with a roundoff, handspring, or both in between and are described as skill 1 “through” skill 2.
Each combination receives a bonus of 0.1 or 0.2, depending on how difficult the skill in question is and whether the connection is direct or indirect. For example, a direct connection between two C-rated skills (such as a one and a half turn + front full) is worth 0.1 and an indirect connection of a C-skill and an E-skill (such as a a turn and a half to double Arabic) is worth 0.2.
Floor exercises are not required to include pirouettes, but you will still see plenty of them that differ depending on the position of your legs and the number of rotations. Gymnasts can get a difficulty bonus of 0.1 when connecting two rounds.
The simplest pirouettes are performed with the leg flexed, not supported, and if someone mentions a “twist” without further explanation, it is probably that type. Full turns and double turns are too easy to be of any value at Olympic level, but some gymnasts do it triple turns (C) or, rarely, quadruple turns (E, named after Elena Gómez).
L-twists are performed with the non-supportive leg horizontal and form a 90-degree angle with the supportive leg. The most common is a double L-turn (D).
Y twists are performed with the non-supporting leg vertical, creating a 180 degree gap with the supporting leg. Double Y rotations (D, named after Chellsie Memmel) are common; triple Y rotations (E, named after Aliya Mustafina) less.
Have you heard of those ugly, wobbly twists on the beam where the gymnast spins in a crouching position with one leg stretched out to one side? You’re on the ground too. That Double wolf turn is a D and that triple wolf turn, named after Lauren Mitchell, is an E. Nobody likes her. Everyone does them anyway.
Jumps and leaps
Jumps lift off one foot and move forward, while jumps lift off both feet and only move up and down. Jumps are more common because they are generally of higher difficulty and routines must include a series of at least two.
Common jumps include the full turning split jump (C, sometimes called the Tour-Jeté-half), Shift jump (B, like a split jump, except the gymnast changes the direction of her legs in the air) and Switching ring jump (C, a switch jump with the hind leg bent up, the back arched and the head thrown back).
Jumps often come into play at the end of tumbling passes, as gymnasts can get a 0.1 difficulty bonus for jumping immediately after landing a pass.
Some gymnasts incorporate acrobatics or breakdance moves into their choreography – such as Claudia Fragapane from Great Britain from around 0:53 to 1:10 in this routine. This does not count towards the level of difficulty; it is there for artistic and performance value.
How they are rated
The gymnasts’ final grades are the sum of a “D grade” (difficulty) and an “E grade” (execution).
The D-Score consists of three components.
Composition requirements: Each of the four requirements – a flip with at least one full turn, a double backflip with or without turns, both backwards and forwards, and at least two jumps in a row – is worth 0.5.
Skill values: Gymnasts are credited for the difficulty of their eight toughest skills, with an A-rated skill a 0.1, a B-rated skill a 0.2, and so on.
Connection bonus: Gymnasts earn 0.1 or 0.2 for combining skills. The formulas listed in the point code indicate the amount of the bonus based on the type and difficulty value of the skills. For example, a C-rated acrobatics skill (tumbling) that is directly linked to a D-rated acrobatics skill is worth 0.2 over the value of the skill itself, and an E-rated acrobatics skill associated with a jump with A rating is worth 0.1.
Skills can be downgraded if gymnasts fail to complete them properly. For example, if a gymnast attempts a three-fold turn but only makes 2.75 turns, the judges may only recognize the difficulty of a two and a half turn.
The execution score starts at 10 and the judges deduct 0.1 for flexed feet for a jump up to 1.0 for a fall.
Since there are so many possible deductions – landings, posture in the air, control during pirouettes, the admittedly subjective measure of insufficient artistry – and because small deductions quickly add up, it is normal for even an excellent floor exercise to receive an execution grade in the eighth .
Gymnasts also get “neutral” penalties – subtracted from the sum of the D and E values - if they exceed the 12 by 40 foot floor line, as indicated by lines or a change in color. (The lines themselves are within limits.) One foot out of bounds is a deduction of 0.1, and both feet out of bounds is a deduction of 0.3.
If you want to see what to expect from the best in the world, the 2016 Olympic medalists were Simone Biles from the United States, Aly Raisman from the United States, and Amy Tinkler from the United Kingdom.