When people envision an athlete, they often picture someone with a large, muscular body. But elite gymnasts defy this stereotype, presenting muscled but very small bodies. A relatively small stature can benefit gymnasts in several ways, and yet the sport of gymnastics itself can stunt growth, causing gymnasts to be shorter than average.
Gymnasts perform athletic feats that seem to defy basic laws of physics. Flips and other rotations require significant strength, and it's easier to propel a small body through the air than a larger one. A 2003 study published in the journal "Sports Biomechanics," for example, found that gymnastics performance tended to decrease as stature increased. Specifically, taller gymnasts struggled more with rotational movements such as front and back rotations. A gymnast's strength-to-weight ratio also plays a critical role in his or her ability to perform feats of strength. When all other factors, such as muscle and fat composition, are equal, shorter gymnasts have more power in a smaller body, enabling them to complete challenging gymnastics maneuvers.
Virtually every gymnastics maneuver requires excellent balance. From vaults to floor work, gymnasts have to be able to maneuver their bodies in small spaces and land without tripping or falling. Shorter people tend to have a lower center of gravity, and this can help short gymnasts maintain their balance when performing challenging gymnastics routines.
Gymnasts tend to be in their teens or early twenties, so age can play a role in stature. Demanding workouts can delay puberty, so some gymnasts may not have yet had a puberty-induced growth spurt. Flexibility tends to decrease with age, and flexibility is a key component of many gymnastics routines. Similarly, because gymnasts have historically been young, gymnastics coaches and gyms seek out young athletes, who are more likely to be short in stature.
Gymnastics and Growth
Part of the reason gymnastics are so short has nothing to do with the advantages shortness confers. Instead, the rigorous workout routines and dieting practices of gymnasts can stunt growth. Gymnastics can delay puberty, resulting in a smaller stature, but excessive dieting -- a common practice in the sport, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons -- can interfere with bone development, resulting in a smaller frame.