Olympic physics- gymnastics

A Moment of Science

They make it look easy here at the Gymnastics Academy of Charleston, but as those watching the Olympics know…some moves are harder than others. 


“Elements go from an A to K,” says Valerie Snow, GAC co-owner and head girls coach, “A is the easiest and K is the most difficult…each of those letters have a numerical value, and you add those together to get the difficulty score.”

“There’s a tuck- that’s where you’re balled up and your knees are pulled in as tight as possible.

There’s a pike- when your legs are up in the air but straight and then there’s a layout when your body is completely straight.”

Valerie Snow, Gymnastics academy of charleston co-owner and head girls coach


More flips, more twists, and even body position leads to a higher possible score. 

“A tuck is going to be the easiest when you’re flipping and twisting, a layout is going to be more difficult.”


Physics explains why this is the case through a concept called angular, or rotational, momentum, which is simply the product of mass, velocity, and the distance from the center of rotation. The important thing about it is that it’s conserved, neither created or destroyed.

However, it can be manipulated as Snow explains “anytime you shorten your body height and you get closer to your center of gravity, you’re going to flip faster and you’re going to twist faster.”

By not tucking in, that rotation will take longer- look at the difficulty increasing between a standing tuck backflip, pike backflip, and layout backflip! For athletes with years of experience, each and more is possible but some are certainly harder with less margin for error- relying on a powerful launch from their back handspring and perfect technique, shaped by laws of physics! The application of this particular physics principle isn’t limited to events in the summer games, as many different sports make the most of the conservation of angular momentum. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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