”I'm not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I'm the first Simone Biles.” -Simone Biles
The summer Olympics this year are on everyone’s mind, and one woman in particular has captured the attention - and kudos - of the US and the world. Simone Biles, two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time all around world championship winner (all by the age of 19), has become known as the best gymnast in the world, excelling at balance beam, vault, and notably, her floor routine. Watching her flip and tumble, we wondered (as we’re sure many of you have too) - how exactly do gymnasts do what they do? Even with the springy floor and years of training, the routines look nearly impossible yet are obviously within the realm of human capability. Intrigued, we pulled out a physics textbook or two and did some research into the physics of gymnastics floor routines. Turns out, the moves are fairly simple to understand...in theory. Take a look at what it all comes down to, and why Simone Biles truly is exceptional.
As it turns out, floor routines in gymnastics are really about one thing you probably learned about in a physics class: energy in rotation. Sounds simple, maybe even obvious, right? But’s about the ways in which gymnasts build up that energy, and the ways in which they rotate, that creates the beautiful, stunning flips, twists, and layouts we’re used to seeing in floor routines. Basically, the gymnast creates energy by running very quickly across the floor; she creates more energy by doing a cartwheel (explained below) and landing with bent knees. At this point, the gymnast has created so much potential energy, through her speed and with the help of the spring-floor, that she literally springs up into the air and rotates her body while in the air (also explained below). The speed and energy created during the run and during the rotation (through the fancier physics of angular velocity/momentum, and through her muscles contracting/expanding) defines how high she jumps, how long she stays in the air, and thus how many and what kinds of rotations she is able to complete.
There are three types of rotation that are generally used in gymnastics floor routines:
- - Cartwheels (where a front-facing person’s body rotates sideways and clockwise, so that their feet go over their head)
- - Flips (where a front-facing person’s body rotates forward or backward, so that their feet again go over their head)
- - Twists (where a front-facing person’s body rotates around without changing the vertical orientation; in other words, their head stays up but their body will not stay front-facing)
- - Some combination of a flip and twist
Of course, mosts gymnasts are known for (and get scored on) how well they pull off the combination pieces. While you might see a front flip or two as a part of a larger routine, professional gymnasts doing floor routines are usually seen running across the floor at a high speed, doing a round-off (a cartwheel where you land with both feet at once), and then engaging in a layout - a combination of flips and twists with their body in a stretched out position. The speed gained in the run and round-off, the springfloor, and the strength of their muscles all create the energy needed to power the height and rotation.
Simone Biles and “The Biles”
Not only has Simone Biles won a number of awards (and she’s only 19!), including winning another Olympic Gold on Thursday, but she’s become well-known because of her signature move that no other gymnast seems to be able to complete. Known as “The Biles,” this move in her floor routine consists of a ‘double layout with a half twist and a blind landing’...and here’s exactly what that means:
- - Biles first runs and does a round-off, landing backwards…
- - ...does a back handspring (a backwards flip where she puts her hands down as her feet go overhead, before landing on the mat)...
- - ...then flips once in a ‘layout’ position (with her body completely straight), still in the air…
- - ...then flips in a layout position again, but twists halfway around as she finishes the flip so she is now facing forward…
- - ......and lands blindly (without being able to see where her feet will touch down), immediately jumping again into a midair split (stag sissone), before landing the layout.
In the course of this one jump, Biles clears twice her body height. In addition, she begins the jump much sooner on the floor than most other gymnasts (meaning she runs less before she starts)...which also means it takes much more speed and muscle to create the energy necessary for this amazing, graceful layout. She’s the only gymnast in the world that can do this jump; her gold medal at this year’s summer olympics made history, and for good reason.
Especially knowing the physics of it, Simone Biles and ‘The Biles’ both really are as impressive as they seem.