Gymnastics is a sport with a long history as a training and fitness aid, first as preparation for military service and later as a physical education activity. The Greek word gymnos, meaning "naked," is the root word for gymnastics, as it was in this physical state that the original gymnasts performed their routines. Used in its comprehensive sense as a means of developing physical fitness, gymnastics is defined as a series or defined set of physical exercises, each intended to build and to illustrate stamina, strength, balance, and coordination. Gymnastics exercises are performed on a flat surface such as a floor, with some types of gymnastics maneuvers intended for execution upon specially designed equipment.
Gymnastics was accepted as one of the fundamentals to the attainment of complete physical fitness as that concept evolved into the broader notion of physical education. It is for this reason that the terms "gymnasium" and "gym class" came to represent all manner of physical training and activity. Germany's John Basedow (1723–1790) is generally recognized as the original proponent of gymnastics as a part of the education of young people. Basedow's influence extended throughout Europe into the 1800s, as gymnastics clubs dedicated to physical fitness principles were established. Vaulting over a stationary object and complicated floor based exercises were popular. Frederick Jahn (1778–1852), the inventor of now standard pieces of gymnastics equipment such as the pommel horse and the parallel bars helped to spur the development of gymnastics in the Untied States. The Turnverein, a form of German gynmnastics club, was well established throughout the eastern United States by 1900.
Competitive gymnastics was formalized into a broadly based administrative structure through the formation of the Federation Internationale de Gymnastiques (FIG) in 1881. Today there are affiliated national gymnastics associations in virtually every country in the world. FIG sets all standards for the competitions staged in both the Olympic Games as well as the annual World gymnastics championships and regional competitions, such as the European championships and those organized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Gymnastics has a worldwide following—the television ratings for Olympic gymnastics are among the highest of any sport. Like figure skating, gymnastics has an aesthetic as well as an athletic appeal. Olga Korbut, the Russian gymnastics star of the 1972 Olympics; Nadia Comenich, the Bulgarian athlete who superseded Korbut in terms of international renown at the 1976 Games; and American Mary Lou Retton in the 1980s, are three such examples.
FIG also has international authority over a broad range of sports disciplines that are defined as gymnastics. Artistic gymnastics is the competition conducted in men's, women's, and team categories, encompassing most of the movements popularly associated with the sport of gymnastics generally. Rhythmic gymnastics is a women's only event, where the competitors move in a series of floor exercises set to music, employing demonstrative aids such as balls and ribbons in the flow of the routines. Trampoline is a sport that has been developed for international competition since the 1980s, where the athletes perform pre-determined aerial maneuvers, in a scoring concept similar to freestyle skiing or diving. Artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and trampoline are all Olympic sports.
FIG also supervises sports derived from traditional gymnastics, including sport aerobics, sport acrobatics, and general gymnastics—a form of group gymnastics activity. These sports are organized into various forms of competition, and each enjoys a regional as opposed to an international appeal.
Artistic gymnastics is the best known and the most popular of the gymnastics variants. Men's gymnastics includes six distinct specialties: floor exercises, movements that involve tumbling and other forms of dynamic movement in a finite area; vault, a fixed apparatus over which the athlete leaps with the aid of a springboard, executing one of a variety of movements from the top of the apparatus before landing; pommel horse, a stationary object with specialized hand grips on which the gymnast performs a set routine of movements; the horizontal bar (sometimes referred to as the high bar), a fixed apparatus on which the gymnast performs a routine of various spins and strength exercises; the parallel bars, a structure on which the athlete uses strength, balance and coordination to move along the bars in a choreographed routine; the rings, suspended above the floor, on which the gymnast suspends himself through out the routine, using the rings to execute flips and other coordinated movements for a set period.
The women's gymnastics competition is constituted with different events. Women perform the floor exercises and the vault event in a fashion similar to that of the men. The additional women's competitive events are the balance beam, where the gymnast performs a series of movements on a sprung wooden beam 4 in (10 cm) wide and 16ft long (5m), set approximately 4 ft (125 cm) from the floor surface, and the uneven bars, where the athlete moves from bar to bar in a series of twists and movements dependent upon the athlete's ability to control the direction of the centripetal forces that are generated by the circular rotations of the gymnasts body as she moves from bar to bar through the routine.
In gymnastics competition, individual athletes are scored on each apparatus, as well as on a cumulative basis for the individual as well as the team. Like sports such as diving or figure skating, the judging of gymnastics is subjective, with a complex series of guidelines developed by FIG with the relative degree of difficulty of each maneuver attempted by the competitor factored into the score. Nadia Comenich, at age 14, was the first competitor in Olympics competition to receive a perfect score from all judges in an event.
No other sport places a greater premium upon the development and maintenance of a strength to weight ratio in the athlete. Every gymnastics event will require intense training directed to explosive and yet graceful, coordinated movement. As a general biomechanical proposition, the lighter the body mass coupled with the maximum amount of lean muscle mass and muscle strength, the more dynamic and more powerful the athlete. Examples with in gymnastics that emphasize this proposition most profoundly are the men's rings event and the women's balance beam. In each discipline, for significant periods of time, the athlete must balance their entire body weight with both precision (as is mandated by the scoring system) and muscular strength.
For these reasons, gymnasts tend to be relatively short, slim, muscular individuals, with significant fast twitch fiber present in their musculoskeletal structure. Fast twitch fibers, those that respond most quickly to the nerve impulses that emanate from the brain, are essential to promote the speedy reaction times and powerful movements required in every gymnastics routine. Examples of fast twitch muscle activity are prominent in the run up to the commencement of a series of floor exercises, and the approach to the vault, both of which are executed at a sprint. The greater the amount of speed that the gymnast can generate at the opening of each of these exercises, the greater speed with which each will be executed.
Gymnastics is a sport where balance on a stable surface such as the floor and balance in the air are equally valued. Core body strength is a very important muscular strength component for the gymnast. Core strength, the seamless and interrelated power of the abdominal, lumbar (low back), groin, and gluteal muscles is the body's chief mechanism in the establishment of a strong and stable position as the gymnast moves across the floor or in the air in relation to all of the gymnastics apparatus.
Strength coupled with flexibility is the most important overall physical requirement in gymnastics. Flexibility, which promotes optimal range of motion in the joints of the athlete, is essential to both produce the most efficient movement, as well as protecting the athlete to a degree from the rigors of the sport, particularly the repetitive nature of both training and competition. Gymnasts, who are extremely vulnerable to over-use injuries, use a variety of sophisticated stretching exercises to enhance flexibility and to limit injury risk.
Gymnasts are exposed to a wide variety of injuries, from those that result from falls from the various pieces of gymnastic equipment, to a wide variety of sprains and muscular strains occurring during the execution of a routine. Ankle and foot injuries, resulting from the absorption of landing forces, are the most common gymnastics injury. The essence of gymnastics training is repetition, and as with any sport, the repeated execution of a physical movement will create repeated stress upon the musculoskeletal structure. Chronic strains, sprains, and recurrent injuries such as shin splints (the micro tearing of the fascia muscle of the lower portion of the shin) and stress fractures, particularly in the lower legs, are relatively common.
The energy requirements in gymnastics are significant. Gymnasts frequently train for over two hours per day, and the proper gymnastics diet must include both the components of the traditional "balanced diet," as well as any dietary supplements to ensure that the body can restore itself.
The training of young gymnasts has attracted controversy throughout the world. Young athletes, beginning at ages 6 or earlier, are often encouraged to join formal gymnastics clubs. Gymnastics is a sport where, particularly among its female participants, the ideal gymnastic frame is very slender (often under 110 lb [50 kg] for women). Female gymnasts are often regarded as not having a competitive career after they have entered their early 20s. The pursuit of athletes with a so-called ideal gymnastics body has placed a significant number of female gymnasts at risk of engaging in the poor nutritional habits and physical stresses that create the female triad—ammorhea (loss or interruption of the normal menstrual cycle), eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia are the most common), and subsequent