Anatomy of a Gymnast: Are They The Most Flexible Athletes on Earth?

November 4, 2019

We’ve taken six of
the world’s top athletes to find out what it takes
to make a true Olympian. Now we’re working, come on! – Testing, analysing.
– Dig deep, come on! Getting under the skin
of an elite athlete… we push
their bodies to the max. (ANATOMY OF A GYMNAST) Artistic gymnastics really does require a range
of skills physiologically, psychologically,
technically across a broad range of different disciplines. When we look at gymnasts,
what we’re really looking for is an all-round package. Vanessa Ferrari is 25 years old
and Italy’s most decorated female gymnast — a former world and European
all-round title holder. The Olympic Games Rio 2016 was Vanessa’s
third appearance at a Games. She placed 4th
in the Floor Exercise and proved once again
why she is one of the world’s
elite performers. And few sports
put a human body through the levels of punishment
that gymnasts experience. (VANESSA FERRARI,
ARTISTIC GYMNAST) It’s been a very
difficult year for me. First, I contracted
glandular fever and then I’ve had a problem with
my tendon, which I haven’t fully recovered from yet,
but thankfully I’m still able to train and I’m sure
I’ll give my best. Vanessa Ferrari! We’ve brought Vanessa to one of the world’s leading
human performance labs to see what makes a gymnast’s
physiology so totally unique. Vanessa’s anatomy packs
massive amounts of strength and explosive power
into a very compact body type. The average female Olympic
gymnast is smaller than 80% of the adult population and
Vanessa is even 10cm shorter than most of her
fellow competitors. In general, female gymnasts
tend to be petite – they are short, they are light,
and why is that? Because the biomechanics
of tumbling require shorter individuals in order to get the rotational
speeds required. But, at the same time, they
have to be incredibly strong and incredibly powerful
in order to give them the time to jump high
to execute some of these really complex moves. We’re going to do
the DEXA scan first. So, it’s a test that measures
your body composition and bone mineral
density, it’s very quick. A gymnast is not an endurance
athlete, so we don’t expect Vanessa to show
the same breakdown between lean tissue and fat. But the high impacts and
rapid transitions of movement that gymnastics require
need a muscular physique, so how will
Vanessa measure up? Your fat percentage
is around 14, quite below the average,
as you suspected. An Olympic rower has an average
body fat percentage of 15.5, Vanessa’s 14.6 compares
really well for an essentially anaerobic athlete
and, surprisingly, not much more than
the 13.7% of a track cyclist. She is petite,
perfect for gymnastics, perfect for tumbling. She’s also incredibly
lean, 14.6% body fat, which tells you that
the vast majority of her weight is muscle mass and that is
absolutely fundamental to power production. (DYNO) The dynamometer test really
is a measure of strength, but we’re also
looking at the balance between quadriceps
and hamstrings. Why does that matter?
It matters for performance, but it also matters
for injury prevention, particularly for gymnasts
who are repeating moves, over and over again. The dyno test will
quantify just how powerful the muscles are
that Vanessa needs to complete the complex
manoeuvres that form the artistic
gymnastics routine. This is where we’ll really see
the strength behind the stats. When we start the
assessment in just a second, I want you to push, push, push,
push and then pull back your leg
as hard as you can as well. OK? So, when you’re ready, Three, two, one, go! Push, push, push. Good! Vanessa may not be
at full power output due to her tendon injury, but she is still pushing
loads which are remarkable for an athlete of her size. Artistic gymnasts need
this phenomenal power to rotate their bodies through as much as 900 degrees
of movement in less than a second, and to gain heights
approaching five metres during the vault exercise. Good, push, push, push! Excellent! One more to go,
push, push, push! Pull it right back,
well done. Excellent, well done.
As hard as you can. Well done. Push, push push.
Excellent, well done. Vanessa’s dyno test
results show just how powerful she really is, her quadricep strength
coming in at a higher rating than elite football players. And even with a debilitating
tendon injury, the force generated
by her hamstrings gives her an excellent
power-to-weight ratio. What we do know about
Vanessa is that she is a former all-round world champion. She’s had an incredible
career from 2006 all the way through to 2016. And one of the reasons
for that is her physicality. And her physicality is
exceptional and what we see from this test in particular, the thing that surprised me
the most, was the balance between
hamstring and quadricep, and really underpins
why she is able to perform the incredible
complex manoeuvres that she can in gymnastics. Vanessa’s results
are impressive, but how does she measure up against the other elite
female athletes we’ve tested? Jolanda Neff, the Swiss cycling
sensation, showed us her ability
to deliver maximal power output consistently
over long periods of time. Her superb dyno results
demonstrating a peak performance
that more than compensates for Jolanda’s size advantage
over the average gymnast. Monika Hojnisz, the Polish
Biathlon national champion, excels in a sport
based around the need for exceptional endurance,
but her leg strength produced some truly surprising results. Her raw output figures were
good, but when normalised for her body mass
they were breathtaking. This all gives her
an unbeatable power-to-weight ratio, a physiological advantage
that she could transfer to the elite level
of many other sports. Recent studies have
shown female athletes are six times more likely
to suffer leg injury than their male counterparts
and a key indicator of resilience to leg injury
is the ratio of hamstring to quadricep
strength. A ratio between
50% and 80% is average for a professional
female athlete. Gymnast Vanessa rates
outstandingly at 89%, cyclist Jolanda
better still at 98%, and biathlete Monika’s
stunning 132% tops the chart. (UP CLOSE) I started doing gymnastics
when I was seven years old. When I was little,
I saw a beam gymnastics competition on TV. I can’t remember which
competition it was or even who the gymnast was, but I remember
being so impressed with what I saw
that I begged my mother to let me do this
incredible sport. I felt the pressure to do
well when I was younger and especially after becoming
world all-around champion. But now I’m older
and have had to overcome many difficulties
throughout my career, with the help of
the people closest to me, my coach and my family, I know that I can
only do my best. That’s why I don’t
feel any pressure, except for that special tension
before a competition. Doing gymnastics
involves a lot of sacrifice, especially because
we start at such a young age. At first, you think
it’s all just a game but then the expectation
of success increases. A lot of young athletes
find these demands difficult to handle. To compete
at the highest level requires a lot
of concentration. As gymnastics is essentially
an individual sport, there’s no-one
to keep you calm, especially at the Olympics which is the most
nerve-racking of all competitions. It’s all about finding the
right level of concentration and isolating yourself
from what’s going on around you to be able
to perform to your best. (FLEX) The functional movement screen
is going to tell us a number of things
about Vanessa. Firstly, it’s going to
tell us about the range of motion which is critical
for gymnastic performance. But what’s key to that
is actually stability under that range of motion, the ability to control
those movements. So, really, what we are
looking at here is fundamentally what
gymnastics is all about – it’s about range of
motion under control. My best disciplines are the
beam and the floor exercise. They showcase my speed
and explosive power and, combined,
with my flexibility are my greatest strengths. Artistic gymnastics works more
muscle groups in the body than almost any other
Olympic discipline. The flex test uses
functional movement screening to assess how close
to optimum level Vanessa can operate and how
much her current injury might be holding her back. What we are looking at
here is your mobility and your stability,
and this test has been shown to have an
ability to predict a person’s risk of injury
and also their ability to maintain
or improve performance. Over, touch your
heel on the floor and back to where you are
with your left foot, please. Artistic gymnastics
requires Vanessa’s body to absorb massive
impacts on landing. She also has to
sustain rapid shifts in momentum during
the extreme acceleration and deceleration
phases of her routines. And, after 18 years in
training, it takes a huge toll on the body and
its range of movement. Push up so your hips
stay on the floor, extending your back. The beam exercise demands
the ultimate in flexibility and precision of
movement from a gymnast, as they rotate their body at
speeds of up to 20kmph to land on an apparatus
no wider than the average smartphone. Very slowly, keeping
this leg very still and making sure
not to bend this one. Pain in Vanessa’s tendon
and her reduced thoracic spine mobility are the results of recent
training injuries but her test results prove she’s still
a world-class Olympian. The results are excellent
particularly in the areas of core stability and hip
stability, which is effectively what we expect from
a former world champion in artistic gymnastics. What that means is that
not only is she able to move through incredible ranges
of motion but she’s able to do that under control. So what she’s able to do
is not only perform these complex skills but
also present the aesthetic which is required in
that crucial marking system in artistic gymnastics. In a 12-year career,
Vanessa Ferrari has reached
the heights of her sport, with a collection
of titles few can match. For an artistic gymnast,
injury is a part of everyday life and Vanessa’s
performance in our tests show her remarkable
ability to overcome this. It is the commitment, poise
and power that this sport demands that
makes the anatomy of a gymnast truly unique. Overall, Vanessa is
outstanding, she is Italy’s greatest ever artistic gymnast
and I think the results really demonstrate that. She has, as we would expect,
incredible mobility. In other words, she can
move through incredible ranges of motion,
but she has stability, she is able to control
that, which is critical. She is incredibly strong,
she’s very well balanced, so she has exactly
what is required to be one of
the world’s best gymnasts. Vanessa Ferrari! It’s very important to me
to always give my best. Of course, it all depends
on my physical condition and what shape I’m in. But the most important thing
for any athlete is to have always
tried your best and to have given everything.

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