With the summer Olympics underway in Rio, thousands of eyes are turning to the TV to see athletes run, swim, jump, flip and more. Gymnastics is always a highlight of the games, putting a lot of pressure and attention on the U.S.A.’s team.
As a former gymnast myself, I take a special interest in gymnastics. And as a pediatric sports medicine physical therapist, I find myself treating a lot of gymnasts for back pain. So this begs the question: How do Olympic gymnasts perform such amazing routines and tricks without hurting their backs?
Gymnast Posture and Back Pain
As you may have noticed while watching the gymnasts during the Olympics, they have a very “typical” posture. This posture consists of an arched lower back and hyperextended knees (appearing to bend backwards, past straight).
The hypermobility (movement of joints and muscles beyond normal range of motion) of gymnastics makes its athletes susceptible to injury. While back pain is just one of many possible injuries that can result from this posture, I see a lot patients coming in for physical therapy due to back pain.
For most patients with this type of injury, we would typically avoid or limit back extension, but gymnastics requires a lot of spine hyperextension (excessive arching of the back). Activities like jumping, tumbling and back-bending are integral to the sport, yet they are also a big cause of my patients’ pain.
Because avoidance or limitation of back extension isn’t always an option, the real solution for this type of back pain is to stabilize the spine and limit movement by building up abdominal strength.
Preventing Injuries Through Conditioning
The only real way to prevent injury and pain from the “typical” gymnastics posture and the various gymnastics skills is to condition and train your body.
Why is conditioning so important?
Landings from jumps, dismounts and tumbling require good form to help absorb the massive forces that go through a gymnast’s entire body during these activities. And to have good form, a gymnast needs to have enough muscular strength and support.
Which muscles are most important?
The muscles that make up your core are critical for injury prevention. Some gymnasts may think that if they have six-pack abs, they have a strong core. However, there are deeper abdominal muscles, like the transverse abdominals, that are more important in stabilizing your spine.
Hip muscles like the glutes (muscles of the buttocks) are also an important part of your core and are crucial for absorbing the force of the various different skills that gymnasts perform. For some people, activating these muscles is natural, while others need to really focus and work to build up these types of muscles.
Take a look at our summer Olympic gymnastics team. Simone Biles, for example, has the “typical” gymnast posture. Unlike the patients I see experiencing back pain, Biles has the necessary core strength to stabilize her spine. This enables her to perform her incredible tricks with good form and control.
Each gymnast you’ll see in the Olympics has worked incredibly hard to master their gymnastic skills and to train their body. As you watch the Olympics, think about the hard work and dedication these athletes have put into their individual sport.
One thing I’m sure we can all agree on: It’s no small feat to be an Olympian.