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AN INTERESTING REVIEW ON BACK FLEXIBILITY

AN INTERESTING REVIEW ON BACK FLEXIBILITY

General strength is the number one thing that AGG teams lack.

But a gymnast won’t make it far without being flexible. I try to stay up to date with gymnastic research, and lately, this study got my attention.

It mainly discusses high-speed back-bends like the ones we see in AGG.

The document talks about the effects of stretching the spine of young gymnasts and its consequences.

I quote and comment them with the help of some photos:

“Moving to and from the back-bend position requires a
dynamic spine hyperextension. In all such movements, the
hyperextension should begin with shoulder hyperflexion
(the arms moving behind the head) and superior spine
hyperextension. When the gymnast begins to lower
backward from a stand to a back-bend, the superior spine
hyperextension begins at the superior torso and proceeds
incrementally from the most superior to the most inferior
vertebrae”

In simpler words: bend from your upper back, not from your lower back.

Figure 1 is encouraged, and you should avoid backbends like the one in figure 2.

Sadly, Figure 3 is the most common posture we see in AGG gymnasts:

Fig. 1 Back-bend position emphasizing hyperextension in the thoracic spine and shoulder hyperflexion.

 

Fig. 2 Back-bend position emphasizing hyperextension in the lumbar spine.

 

Fig. 3
Young gymnasts performing warmup stretching of their spines. Note the poor positions and the lack of emphasis on placing the majority of the spinal extension in the shoulders and upper back.

“Bouchard et al. indicated heritability values of 0.69
for low back flexibility in 11- to 15-year-old males and
0.84 for trunk flexibility in male and female twins aged
12–17 years. Other heritability values for flexibility were
0.84 for the trunk, 0.70 for the hip and 0.91 for the
shoulder. Bouchard et al. concluded that genetics may
have a bi influence on flexibility than on
strength. Long-term athlete development programmes have suggested critical
periods for flexibility development, particularly between
the ages of 6 and 11 years”

I see coaches and parents wanting girls to compete at a high level.

While we all want to achieve great things, high-level gymnastics is not for everyone.

Extreme back-bends require a set of genetics that most of us don’t have.

On top of this, you should do almost all flexibility development at a very young age and maintain it throughout your teenage years.

Trying to stretch a gymnast that doesn’t have the proper body structure for extreme bendings won’t go well.

It will irritate joints and tissues.

However, and this is only my observation, some gymnasts can compensate for poor flexibility with hard work in other areas that are more trainable, like strength and power.

Others can learn new movements and choreographies quick, which is the most significant factor of success in AGG.

 

How to be flexible

In general, if you want to be flexible for AGG you need 2 things:

  • Choose the right parents (flexible ones).
  • Stretch a lot between 6 and 11 years old.

It may sound depressing, but that’s what it comes down to.

Stretching in later stages can have a positive effect, but it will be painful and it won’t overcome anatomical limitations.

 

Hypermobile gymnasts and injury

Notice below another example of back-bending from the low back instead of the upper-back:

Fig. 6
Signature position when ending a routine. The gymnast shows a hyperextended cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. The hyperextension is particularly dramatic in the lumbar spine.

“In a study of the
Royal Ballet School in London and 53 student nurse controls,
the results indicated that ballet students showed a
higher incidence of hypermobility of joints—including the
spine, hips, and ankles—which would clearly be desirable
and influenced by training. However, the dancers also
showed greater joint hypermobility in the knees, elbows and
wrists, which is not desirable and should not be enhanced by
training.”

The same reason that makes coaches select you for gymnastics also predisposes you to injury.

Many gymnasts that appear flexible suffer from excessively mobile joints and a lack of control of them.

“Dancers had to learn to consciously limit their excessive
range of movement by voluntary muscle control. Dancers also
appeared to suffer more ligamentous injury and stress
fractures, thus showing that JHS may be a mixed blessing.”

Gaining stability is easier said than done.

Telling a hypermobile person not to be hypermobile is like telling a cat not to cat.

It’s possible to improve motor control and strength, but the risk of injury is always there.

Fig. 7
Hyperextended knee

Fig. 8
Hyperextended elbow

Training volume increases risk of injury:

“A study of highly trained female gymnasts and swimmers
showed that gymnasts had a greater incidence of
spinal abnormalities that were correlated with training
hours. One can likely assume that symptomatic spine problems arising in
late childhood, early adolescence and young adulthood had
their origins at younger ages. More gymnasts than
controls had injury symptoms in the wrist, low back, hip,
shin and foot. Gymnasts had an average of 6.17 symptomatic
regions, versus 2.25 in controls”

Also, there is evidence that the price to pay is higher than other sports:

” A 1991 study comparing gymnasts
and swimmers showed that 9 % of pre-elite, 43 % of
elite and 63 % of Olympic gymnasts had spinal abnormalities,
versus only 15.8 % of swimmers”.

 

Take home points

What can we take home about all this?

While there is no perfect method, we can at least minimize the risks that go along with gymnastics by doing two things:

1. Stretch with proper form and only demand what’s possible.

Ask only for extreme backbends if the gymnast can do it with good form.

Remember not everyone will be able to do it due to structural limitations.

Some girls will never be ready: they don’t have the anatomical structure that allows their spine to bend without compensating at the low back.

While we want to encourage all children to do the sport that they love, gymnastics has high risks.

Demand just what seems plausible, nothing less and nothing more.

2. Get stronger. I may be biased here, so instead I will quote the study:

“A study of rhythmic gymnasts aged 13–19 years showed
that youth, greater leanness, non-smoking, less anxious or
depressive behavior, and increased muscle strength and
flexibility all represented preventive factors for low back
pain.”

In other words, strength train is the primary factor that coaches can affect, with the other elements being genetical and environmental.

Gymnasts don’t need to do more jumps, they need more strength.

With more strength, they will jump higher and have fewer injuries.

More jumping will only cause more repetitive stress, and you won’t jump any higher.

Lifting weights won’t make you automatically gain a ton of muscle, which seems a concern from coaches.

Even if it did, that is still better than being hurt and having weak jumps.

All studies are subject to interpretation.

The review goes much more in depth, so I encourage you to read it for yourself and form your own opinion.