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A Guide to Competitive Artistic Gymnastics

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 7 min read

Competitive gymnastics is divided into three categories: women’s artistic gymnastics, men’s artistic gymnastics, and women’s rhythmic gymnastics. The events are featured at numerous competitions including the Summer Olympic Games, the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, and the Gymnastics World Championships.



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What Is Artistic Gymnastics?

Artistic gymnastics comprises the events that most people associate with the overall sport of gymnastics. Through various events—including floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars, parallel bars, vault, rings, and pommel horse—artistic gymnastics propels athletes through feats of strength, agility, and grace. Individual performances are scored by a panel of judges. In team competition, individual gymnasts compete in individual events and their scores are aggregated into an overall team score.

The History and Origins of Artistic Gymnastics

Gymnastics has existed as a competitive sport for approximately 140 years. Prior to that, gymnastics were widely practiced by amateur athletes, but often as a hobby or as part of a training regimen for another sport.

In 1881, the Bureau of the European Gymnastics Federation was founded. This body morphed into the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), and it became the governing body of international gymnastics competition. Since 1970, American gymnastics has been governed by USA Gymnastics (previously known as the United States Gymnastics Federation).

Artistic gymnastics made its Olympic debut at the 1896 Olympic Games, and featured men's horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, and vault. Most of the medals were swept by a highly skilled German team. It was not until the 1924 Games in Paris where Olympic gymnastics as we know it came to be. Male gymnasts competed for individual Olympic medals on each gymnastics apparatus in addition to combined individual and team exercises. In 1928, a women’s competition was added. The United States fielded its first women’s gymnastics team for the 1936 Games in Berlin.

The events in artistic gymnastics vary slightly between the men’s and women’s competition.

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The 4 Main Events in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics

Women’s artistic gymnastics features the following competitive events (listed with their respective apparatus, or equipment):

  1. Vault: The vault event involves feats of skill that begin with a running start, a jump off a springboard, and the use of a stationary device called a vault or a vaulting horse. The event involves different body positions, including tucked, piked and stretched. Vaulters are judged on proper body alignment, form, repulsion, height and distance traveled, saltos, and twists. Lastly gymnasts should "stick" their landings, which means landing in place without needing steps to steady themselves. Required apparatus includes a springboard and vaulting horse. Learn more about vault exercises in our guide here.
  2. Uneven Bars: This event involves a series of maneuvers performed on two horizontal bars set at different heights. Gymnasts are required to transition from one movement to the next without pauses or meaningless swings on the bars. Judges pay special consideration to high-flying release moves (including pirouetting) and dismounts. Judges also look for exact handstand positions, with large deductions for any deviations. Required apparatus include the horizontal bars (and plenty of chalk to counteract sweaty hands). Learn more about the uneven bars in our comprehensive overview here.
  3. Balance Beam: In this event, gymnasts perform routines on a four-inch wide solid beam. They must present the same grace and execution one might expect if they were performing on the floor. Judges look for routines that showcase excellent height, flexibility, and power. A balance beam routine may not exceed 90 seconds and must cover the entire length of the beam. Handsprings, back handsprings, saltos, back saltos, turns, and split jumps are all common in beam routines. The key balance beam apparatus is the beam itself. Find out more about the balance beam here.
  4. Floor: The floor exercise is set to music and involves gymnasts performing a series of tumbling and athletic feats interspersed with dance choreography. Judges look for versatile use of floor space, changes in the direction and level of movement, theatrics, command of music, and height and distance of jumping and tumbling maneuvers. The floor routine lasts no more than 90 seconds and must cover the entire floor area. The apparatus is a performance area measuring 1,200 centimeters x 1,200 centimeters (± 3 centimetres). Learn more about the floor event in our guide here.


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The 4 Main Events in Men’s Artistic Gymnastics

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Like women’s artistic gymnastics, men’s artistic gymnastics features floor and vault exercises. Men’s artistic gymnastics does not include the balance beam or uneven bars, but it adds the following:

  1. Pommel Horse: Pommel horse routines consist of continuous circular movements plus required scissored leg elements. The hands are the only part of the body that may touch the pommel horse. Judges look for flow with steady, controlled rhythm. Hand placements should be quick, quiet, and rhythmic. The apparatus is the pommel horse itself, which looks like a vaulting horse with two handles jutting upward.
  2. Still Rings: In this event, gymnasts perform maneuvers on two rings suspended in the air. Throughout the rings event, the rings must remain still and under control at all times. Arms must never shake, and the gymnast’s body must remain straight with no arching. Judges look for maneuvers like a swing to handstand, a cross, an inverted cross, and a swallow or Maltese cross. Unnecessary swings and instability result in lower scores. The apparatus includes two rings suspended from high above the floor.
  3. Parallel Bars: Instead of uneven bars, male gymnasts use parallel bars. Male gymnasts use parallel bars to demonstrate swing and flight elements. Judges look for the gymnast to execute swinging elements from a support, hang and upper arm position. An under swing (aka a basket swing) is also part of the routine. The parallel bars themselves represent the apparatus.
  4. Horizontal Bar (High Bar): A particularly high flying event, the horizontal bar competition runs gymnasts through a series of swings, release moves, and dismounts. Judges expect high bar entrants to execute a series of continuous swings and turns. Each gymnast must perform an in-bar skill (for instance, a stalder circle) and demonstrate at least one element in el-grip, dorsal hang, or rearways to the bar. Extra consideration is given for somersaults, twists, and dramatic dismounts. The high bar itself represents the apparatus for this event.

How to Score Artistic Gymnastics in the Olympics

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In artistic gymnastics, gymnasts are judged by the Code of Points, a rule book issued by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) that outlines the point values of various skills in international competition.

A gymnast’s final score is calculated from a start value, where the gymnast begins with the highest possible score and then has points deducted for elements that may have been lacking in their routine. A technical committee of judges determines these deductions.

In the past, FIG’s scores used to have a maximum value of 10—you’ve probably heard the expression “a perfect 10.” But in 2006, FIG altered its system to factor the difficulty of skills and routines into its scores. These days, the total score for a gymnast’s routine is actually the sum of two scores: the Difficulty Score (D) and the Execution Score (E).

  • The Difficulty Score reflects the total difficulty value (DV) of skills plus the connection value (CV) and compositional requirements (CR). Two judges make up the D Panel. Each judge independently determines his or her Difficulty Score, and then the two judges must come to a consensus.
  • The Execution Score rates the performance in terms of execution and artistry. The Execution Score is determined by six judges on the E Panel. The score begins at 10, and deductions for errors in execution, technique, or artistry are subtracted from this baseline. Judges separately determine their scores for a routine, the highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the average of the remaining four scores becomes the final Execution Score.

When you’re creating and executing a routine, familiarize yourself with the Code of Points that relates to your level of competition and the organization within which you’re competing. That way, you can make sure your routine is designed to achieve maximum points for your skill range and that you hit all the requirements.

What Is the Difference Between Compulsory Score and Optional Score?

The compulsory score in gymnastics is based on the performance of a specific routine that all amateur gymnasts must learn to be judged against one another. Compulsory routines vary depending on what official level a gymnast is competing at. These levels range in difficulty from Level 1 (the simplest) through Level 5 (the most challenging).

The optional score in competitive gymnastics is based upon routines that the gymnast designs to showcase his or her own strengths. In a gymnast’s optional floor exercise routine, the choice of music and choreography lets a competitor’s personality shine through.

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