The word gymnastics, the practice of which extends back thousands of years, has been used to refer to activities ranging from simple movements to extraordinary acrobatic feats. Gymnastik für die Jugend (1793), written by JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICH GUTSMUTHS, is often cited as laying the foundations for a comprehensive system of exercises and as well as today's competitive sport. Drawing upon JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, contemporary physicians, and classical sources, GutMuths (a teacher at the Schnepenthal Philanthropinum) identified three components of PHYSICAL EDUCATION: manual arts; social games; gymnastic exercises, which included wrestling, running, swimming, leaping, balancing, and climbing. His ideas had a considerable influence on Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who in 1810 began meeting pupils in a wooded area near their school. There they engaged in a variety of activities that included exercising on rudimentary apparatus. Jahn's Die Deutsche Turnkunst (1816) included sections devoted to the parallel bars, vaulting, and other movements that became the core of the German system, which made extensive use of equipment. The Swedish system (designed by Per Henrik Ling in the early 1800s) used comparatively little equipment and emphasized posture, sequential progression, proper breathing, and specific exercises for each portion of the body. Its educational and medical branches were adopted, and adapted, in many countries. Debates about which system was better were often intense and continued until sports became dominant in the curriculum.

Nineteenth-century teachers could draw upon small books like James H. Smart's Manual of School Gymnastics to provide classroom calisthenic drills. Turners (members of German gymnastic societies) who arrived in the United States following the 1848 German Revolution campaigned vigorously to make German gymnastics the basis of the curriculum. Outside the schools, Turnvereins (German gymnastic societies) and Sokols (Czech gymnastic associations) organized their own events. Others held that the Swedish system, introduced into the Boston public schools in the 1890s, was more appropriate, especially for children and females. Books like Wilbur Bowen's The Teaching of Elementary School Gymnastics (1909) set forth the strengths of each. In the 1920s Danish gymnastics (which offered more variety) were introduced into the American curriculum. Some attention also was given to stunts and tumbling (such as the forward roll and the handspring).

Competitive gymnastics consists of two forms: Modern Rhythmic Gymnastics, which uses balls, hoops, and similar light equipment; and Artistic (Olympic) Gymnastics. Team competition for women took place at the 1928 Olympics, but it was not until the 1952 Games in Helsinki that individual competition began. Television coverage of the 1960 Rome Olympics resulted in an upsurge of interest in a number of countries. Following the performances of diminutive Olga Korbut in 1972 thousands of young girls in the United States joined the rapidly growing number of private gymnastic clubs and became involved in the Junior Olympic program. Gymnastics requires strength, flexibility, coordination, discipline, and willingness to practice long hours. The nature of the apparatus is such that short stature and a light body is an advantage. Both the age and size of competitive gymnasts has been decreased as the sport became more competitive. Although many youngsters enjoy the challenges, and certainly the thrill of victory, considerable concern has been expressed about the effects of intense training on their bodies and their psyches.

See also: ; Title IX and Girls' Sports.


Cochrane, Tuovi Sappinen. 1968. International Gymnastics for Girls and Women. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Gerber, Ellen. W. 1971. Innovators and Institutions in Physical Education. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger.

Goodbody, John. 1982. The Illustrated History of Gymnastics. London: Stanley Paul.

Ryan, Joan. 1995. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. New York: Doubleday.


USA Gymnastics Online. Available from