This paper explores the biomechanics of the double leg circle movement performed on the pommel horse by male gymnasts. The paper aims to explain to coaches the factors associated with successful progression and execution of the double leg circle movement. Additionally, this paper provides useful information on the muscular recruitment involved in the phases of the skill, the judging criteria used to assess scoring, injury prevention, and proper form during performance. Finally, the paper concludes with a section discussing the direction of future research with focus on areas of future development to advance training and preparation toward the execution of the double leg circle.

The Olympic games is a showcase of the planet’s elite athletes. To make the Olympic team is a dream of many athletes. To win a gold medal at the Olympics is validation of years of hard work and exceptional inborn talent. We are going to focus on one of the most technically demanding spectacles at the Olympics. This is a sport where gold and silver is decided by decimal points. It is a sport that gave us the motivational clips of Kerri Strug. Kerri Strug was on her last available opportunity to stick the landing on the vault after faulting twice before. Her second to last attempt had badly injured her ankle. Her chances of success were as unlikely as ever, and it seemed that America’s first ever Olympic team gold was going to slip away. Hollywood couldn’t have painted a better picture as Kerri stuck the landing, winning the gold, as she crashed down moments later in pain with her teammates rushing the floor. This is gymnastics.
Gymnastics requires mastery of acrobatics, excellent muscular control, an exceptional strength to weight ratio, and the use of physics to create movements that leave us scratching our heads. The movement that this paper will discuss is no exception, and requires all of these factors. It is the double leg circle on the pommel horse, which is an event that is exclusive to male gymnasts. Broken into four phases, the double leg circle consists of two single arm supports and two double arm supports. Encircling the handles and base of the pommel horse, the gymnast moves from an anterior double arm support to a single left arm support. From the single left arm support the body continues to use centripetal force to reach a posterior double arm position. Continuing from the posterior double arm support to a single right arm support, and finally returning to the anterior double arm support. The more consistent the muscle recruitment patterns, trajectory, and body alignment, the more repeatable the movement that brought proper execution. The three variables associated with elite level performance of double leg circles are body alignment, specific muscular activation, and spatial consistency. As a coach, maintaining and enhancing the skills in these areas are of considerable concern. The principal mechanics of the circles are peaked velocity of the center of mass during the single-hand support phases and minimums in the double hand supports. The velocity of the ankles and that of the center of mass of the head and trunk are minimal in the single arm phases and maximal in the double arm supports. The circles are broken down into two types of rotations: rotation of the body around the center of mass and rotation of the center of mass (Fujihara, Fuchimoto & Gervais, 2009). The types of rotation is dependent on the phase of the circle movement sequence.
The first variable to be analyzed will be body alignment. The majority of the objective nature of a judges scoring comes from errors related to body positions in space and technique (Grassi, Turci, Shirai, Lovecchio, Sforza, & Ferrario, 2005). The aesthetic nature of gymnastics comes largely from the body position and the arrangement of various parts of the body during execution of a movement. Since this is the criteria that judges use to score, it’s natural to emphasize a coach would train daily in these areas. The harmony of body parts is likely dependent on the spatial characteristics and trajectories of the limb, trunk, and head. The judges will pay attention to the diameter of the projected circle, deviation of the trajectory from circularity, and the deviation from the horizontal plane. As a gymnast moves through the circle motion, there are several key landmarks on the body that can be analyzed by angle and body position to score a gymnast. Throughout the phases of the circle, the upper limbs are analyzed for the positions and angles of the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. On the lower limbs: the ankles, knees, and hips. The head of the gymnast is also monitored for positioning, mostly for aesthetic purposes. This is where a coach should focus their attention when looking for parts of the body that aren’t accurately performing the movement. The hips of the gymnast should be angled at 180 degrees, the shoulders should remain fixed in position, and the ankles of a gymnast performing double leg circles should maintain a nearly horizontal circular pathway. This horizontal path will result in larger circles. In correcting body alignment and spatial consistency, there are several methods that are proven to be effective. Both modeling of elite gymnasts and self-modeling through recording oneself appears to improve body alignment during circles (Baudry, Leroy, & Chollet, 2006). Self-modeling through video training was correlated to improvement of the circle movement, more so in the simpler phases of the movement than the complex phases (Baudry, Leroy, Seifert, & Chollet, 2005). Another effective method that coaches can use is auditory concurrent feedback. This method uses auditory feedback in real time to correct body misalignments. The auditory feedback also shows a retention of improved body alignment. In contrast, there was no improvement in body alignment in the absence of auditory feedback (Baudry, Leroy, Thouvarecq, & Choller, 2006).
The second variable to be analyzed will be spatial consistency. This is the portion of gymnastics that is highly reliant on physics. The most important factors when considering spatial consistency are going to be the ankles, shoulders, hips, and trunk. If an object is moving in a circle at any given instant then the distance of the object to the origin must be constant. Therefore, the diameter of the circle in consideration of the ankle, hips, shoulders, and trunk must stay as relatively constant as possible. In gymnastics, the circular path is not uniform. The gymnasts will move faster in a circle during the single handed position than the double arm position (Fujihara, Yamamoto, & Gervais, 2010). This means that the gymnast creates acceleration during the double arm support positions, and according to Newton’s first law, an acceleration must mean a force is acting on the object. As discussed in the latter section, there is greater muscle recruitment during the double arm support position which is creating this force. A gymnasts aims to create acceleration during these double arm support positions, creating enough inertia to return to the double arm support positions after passing through each single arm support. When trying to understand this motion, it is useful to know about centripetal and centrifugal forces. A centripetal force is center seeking. In relation to this movement, centripetal force draws the gymnasts to the center of the pommel horse. A centrifugal force is a force directed outwards, drawing the gymnast away from the center of the pommel horse. When these forces are equal then the gymnast will maintain a constant distance from the center.
The third variable is muscular activation and force output. The majority of the circle movement is performed while maintaining an isometric contraction for stability and posture. Phase one of the circle movement, the anterior double support position, recruits high muscular forces from the triceps, latissimus dorsi, and deltoid (Qian, Su, Song, Qiang, & Zhang, 2012). The left arm fully extends into the handle of the pommel horse, engaging the left tricep and deltoid. The left shoulder internally rotates, and abducts. The right shoulder joint then adducts, rotates externally, and engages to push off the handle of the pommel horse. The triceps and latissimus dorsi supports the shoulder throughout phase one. The biceps brachii and triceps brachii contract to stabilize the shoulder joint, allowing the latissimus dorsi to contract actively and supply the main source of power during this phase. Maximal force output occurs in the left triceps brachii, latissimus dorsi, and both deltoids while near maximal force output occurs in the right tricep. Continuing into phase two, the single left arm support, the left shoulder joint continues to abduct and rotate internally while the right shoulder adducts. In order to minimize inertia, the left arm supports the body to prevent displacement of the body position. The left pectoralis major reaches maximum force output and the right latissimus dorsi recruits near maximal force during this phase. Reaching the posterior double arm support, the right shoulder rotates internally and maintains fixed abduction while the left arm pushes off promptly from the pommel horse handle. This time the right tricep and bicep reach near maximal forces to stabilize while both pectoralis majors create high force outputs during this phase. In the final stage, the right arm abducts, rotating internally while the left arm adducts. Then the gymnast returns to the original position, the anterior double arm support. The triceps brachii, latissimus dorsi, and deltoid muscles reach near maximal force output. Specifically the right tricep and latissimus dorsi will show the highest force output.
Injury prevention is a top priority for coaches. Interestingly, is it observed that the skill level of a gymnast is inversely related to the likelihood of injury. The more hours spent practicing, the more difficult and technical the skill, the more exposure time to possible injury. Repetition is the key to improvement while conversely the higher number of repetitions also increases fatigue and likelihood of mistakes. Gymnastics is a sport with tremendous loads translated into the body. The circle movement involves a continuous period of upper extremity support with recurring wrist impact. Not surprisingly, the main site of injury during circles on the pommel horse is the wrist. This should be of concern to a coach, considering at certain points during the circle movement the wrist is loaded with nearly five times the body weight of the gymnast (Markolf, Shapiro, Mandelbaum, & Teurlings, 1990). According to Wolff’s law, the adaptation to this type of force trauma should be greater bone density of the upper limbs, specifically the distal end of the radius & ulna. Since many gymnasts begin at a young age, the force placed on the growth plates of the wrist can stunt growth however. A suspended aid can decrease reaction forces on the wrist (Fujihara, & Gervais, 2012). This is primarily important in repetitive practice of the skill for beginning gymnasts that have not yet adapted to the reactive forces of the pommel horse, and for increasing progression of reactive forces from minimum to maximum.
The factors associated with elite level performance of ‘circles’ can be improved upon using methods not common to practices currently being utilized by coaches during practice or warm-up before competition. Most of the conditioning and strength training of gymnastics is sport specific, and often skill specific. The gymnast aims to improve through repetition of the skill, isolating specific components of the movement that can improve the overall performance. In the gymnastics gym, there aren’t usually traditional resistance training techniques or equipment. The gymnast improves their strength through sit-ups, push-ups, and skill specific adaptations. Before a competition, a gymnast warms up beginning with a slow run. Static and dynamic stretches follow, including analytic muscle strengthening and skill specific movements that warm up the muscle temperature (Guidetti, Di Cagno, Gallotta, Battaglia, Piazza & Baldari, 2009). An exercise physiologist can work together with a coach to prepare gymnasts for their skills. For many sports, the training regimen is out of date; gymnastics is no exception. Circles require exceptional absolute and relative muscular strength, coordination, balance, stability, and technique. An exercise physiologist can prescribe programming that aids in all of these targeted areas. In the future, exercise physiologists should conduct more research on variables associated with hip flexion during isometric contractions when performing circles. Further, more tests should be conducted on which senses (kinesthetic, auditory, visual) prove most important to the hand placement, body alignment, and circle diameter. As a last call to action, although difficult with a skill that requires so much movement, researchers should test brain activity mapping on elite versus beginner male gymnasts performing circles to see if more activity is happening in the premotor cortex, signifying pre-planning before execution, or if muscle memory centers of the brain are more active. Further, would association areas relating to previous attempts become more active than areas relating to learning new information. Perhaps an elite male gymnast has the movement down almost automatically, while a beginning gymnast struggles to remember the sequences and adapt their body to the specific demands of circles. For now, gymnastics remains a sport of thrilling anticipation. In the future, who knows what the athletes of tomorrow may wind up sticking.
References

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