The Physics Of Gymnastics: The Vault

Many an Olympic spectator can easily view the artistic beauty of a vaulter as he or she bounds toward the table, flies off of the springboard, hits the table, and lands gracefully on the mat. However, very few are knowledgeable about the physics that make said actions possible.

It all begins in the run. As a gymnast sprints toward the vaulting table they determine whether or not the vault will happen. Not building enough momentum will most likely result in the gymnast plowing themselves directly into the table, rather than over it, while too much may cause the vaulter to miss the table completely and face-plant the dismount mat. As with everything, there is a certain balance that must be achieved so that the force that the gymnast carries to the springboard will be enough to compress the springs greatly enough that their expansion will be capable of giving the gymnast the necessary lift to clear, without missing, the vault table.

The springboard aids the vaulter by providing lift after the gymnast making contact. The board works by compressing a number of springs inside of it when the vaulter lands on it and then expanding. The expansion is fast and uses just as much force to launch the gymnast as the gymnast put into it in the initial jump, providing the gymnast with altitude necessary for clearing the table.

If a gymnast does not make contact with the vault table, then the vault is either thrown out by the judge or its score is greatly diminished. The vaulter's hands hitting the table is quite literally the most pivotal point of the vault. In the pre-flight (the portion of the vault between the take off from the springboard and the hands hitting the table) the vaulter's lower body is following their upper body; in the post-flight (the portion of the vault between the hands leaving the table and the vaulter landing) the upper body is following the lower body.

Vault History

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Alexander the Great was said to have his men practice mounting and dismounting for battle on wooden horses.

In the 19th century, F.L. Jahn (the father of gymnastics) named a leather covered horse a Shwingel, because he disliked the french name Voltegieren. This apparatus later became known as the pommel horse and was simply turned long ways to be used for vaulting.

Carl Schuhmann, successful German Olympian, 1896, started the use of the pommel horse as a vaulting apparatus at the end of a twenty meter runway, despite the fact that it had never been intended to be vaulted over.


In 1991 when Trent Dimas seriously injured himself vaulting on the pommel horse at the Indianapolis World Championships, FIG Vice President Seigfried Fischer demanded the creation of a new vaulting table that could be used by both men and women.

Dieter Hofmann worked to help create the Pegasus vault table that was introduced in the 1997 Lausanne World Championships and is still used today.

Physics of the Vault

The run covers 62 feet in approximately 3 seconds putting the average velocity at 20.667 feet per second since average velocity is equivalent to the change in position divided by the change in time.

Its initial velocity is 0 feet per second and the final velocity is 41.333 feet per second, putting the acceleration at 13.778 feet per second per second since acceleration is equivalent to the change in velocity divided by the change in time.

The force that the gymnast exerts on the springboard is then 843,681.808 Newtons since force is equivalent to mass times acceleration and the mass of the gymnast is

61,234.969 grams (approximately 135 pounds). This force is then exerted onto the springs, forcing them to compress and then expand, returning to the gymnast any force that had been given to the springboard while changing its trajectory from downwards into the springboard to upwards over the table.

The gymnast carries that force until the vault is concluded when the gymnast lands on the dismount mat, wherein all force is dropped.

The Art of Gymnastics

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Gymnastics is a physical form of art. The particular works are a gymnasts routines. Most events are purely visual, though routines for women's floor are required to be set to music, making them both visually and audibly interesting to the present audience.

The art of vault is created by the gymnast launching him or herself over the vaulting table. The midair rotations and flips that can be added to a vault add both to the visual intrigue of its artistic qualities and the difficultly level by which the vault is judged.

This particular vault is called a half on- half off because the gymnast rotates 180 degrees to one side as they approach the table (half on) and 180 degrees in the opposite direction on their dismount after hitting the table (half off).

The difficulty of a vault determines the maximum score a gymnast may receive by performing it perfectly. A half on-half off maxes out at 8.6 out of a possible 10.00. A gymnast cannot be penalized for their run in the score directly, though it does affect the rest of the vault, which is judged.

The pre-flight is judged by the height reached after leaving the springboard as well as general form (pointed toes, straight arms, legs and body, ears covered), keeping the entire body directly over the table (driving the feet over the top of the table, as opposed to around the side), and rotating the full 180 both vertically and horizontally.

The time on the table is judged by the amount of time the gymnast spends on the table (a few seconds versus being instantaneous contact, as it should be), being at the proper degree of rotation that should have been reached in the pre-flight, general form, and being completing perpendicular to the surface of the vault table at the instant of contact.

The post-flight is judged by distance from the table traveled (not too close or too far from the table, in direct alignment with the center of the table), completing the necessary rotations (180 degrees both horizontally and vertically), general form, and landing gracefully (not plowing into the mat, being able to maintain composure, not stumbling, stepping out, or falling).

A fall at any point in the routine, seriously subtracting from its artistic beauty, is an automatic half point deduction in addition to any deductions given for failure to perform properly in any other area.

There are two main reasons why form is so greatly stressed in the world of gymnastics. Firstly, proper form is simply more attractive to look at and adds greatly to the artistic properties of the routine. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it makes performing

the vault or other skill more safe for the gymnast to do and easier for the gymnast to obtain the proper amounts of force to perform with.

Gymnastics Social Impact

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Gymnastics originated in Greece as a part

of military training. The Greeks believed that these exercises helped keep a soldier's body and mind in tune with each other.

"Gymnastics" comes from the word "gymnazein," which means ‘exercising without clothes" as, originally, it was only performed by men who wore no clothing when they competed and trained in gymnastics. (Thankfully, this is no longer the case.)

The beginnings of modern apparatuses were created mostly in Germany and Czechoslovakia in the 1800's.

The sport quickly swept up Europe and competitive level gymnastics can be traced to the 1896 Olympics in Athens.

It has become a great source of pride for many countries, regions, states, cities, and individual gyms to showcase their most promising and talented gymnasts. As more and more gymnasts have graced the sport, so too has their creativity, giving greater goals for each gymnast to strive for in the the sport and greater artistic qualities to add to their own personal performance. Gymnastics pushes the very limits of and proves what the human body is physically capable of while utilizing great strength, beauty, and grace.


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Works Cited

"History of Gymnastics: Man Gymnastics - Woman Gymnastics." History of Gymnastics: Man Gymnastics - Woman Gymnastics. Web. 21 May 2012. <http://www.clearleadinc.com/site/gymnastics.html>.
"History of Vault." History of Vault. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.gymmedia.com/ghent2001/appa/vault/history_va.htm>.

My own head, full of years worth of gymnastics experience.

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