Why Are Gymnasts So Short? (Answered)

Have you ever wondered why gymnasts are so short? Does the long and intense training schedule stunt gymnasts’ growth or does gymnastics just lend itself to people that are naturally short?

There is no single, definitive answer and the truth is that there are many factors that contribute to gymnasts being so short.

In this article, I will look at the scientific research and use my experience as a coach to analyze the probable reasons why gymnasts are so short.

Let’s get started!

team usa
Team USA. Credit Agência Brasil Fotografias / Wiki Commons

Table of Contents

Does gymnastics make you short?

Many people ask ‘Does gymnastics make you short?’ The shock from landings on vault, tumbling and beam for example has to be absorbed by the body. It is widely accepted that injuries are commonplace in gymnasts because of it. Especially injuries to ankles, knees and wrists which take the full force of landings.

But can this type of training make you short or stunt your growth?

Several major studies have failed to prove conclusively that gymnastics can make you short.

Significant research carried out by R Malina et al in 2013 cited the fact that not enough data has been collected to establish a link between intensive training and the growth of young artistic gymnasts.

And no other study has found that gymnastics has a major effect on the height of gymnasts.

Does gymnastics stunt your growth?

There is some evidence to suggest that intensive training can delay bone growth or the skeletal age of elite gymnasts. A study of all the gymnasts at the 2002 European Championships in Greece found that on average the gymnasts had a delayed bone age of between one and two years compared to the expected norms.

So it is fair to say that gymnastics can stunt your growth.

However, the authors behind the study also noted that gymnasts generally caught up to their expected bone age after they retired. It’s worth pointing out that the gymnasts in the study were training full-time and would be on very intense training programs.

Does gymnastics delay puberty?

Research including a 2003 study of Rhythmic gymnasts showed that intensive exercise can delay the start of menstruation. Whilst this sounds worrying, further studies have not shown any significant health issues because of it.

The intense levels of training required of elite female gymnasts can result in lower hormone levels and lower body weight. During the study, it meant that some girls stopped menstruating (Exercise-induced amenorrhea) as their bodies tried to cope with the training load.

It tended to be a temporary state and there is no evidence of long-term impact in adult life.

If your daughter only trains once a week for Gymnastics you will have nothing to worry about as these studies only refer to girls at the highest level of the sport and training 25 to 40 hours per week.

Why is it better for gymnasts to be short?

It is an established fact that gymnasts are short in the same way that basketball players are accepted to be tall (for obvious reasons). But why is it better for gymnasts to be short?

The mechanics of gymnastics mean it is an advantage to be short in order to rotate (flip), spin and have a low center of gravity.

The laws of physics apply a lot in gymnastics. For example, Inertia (or the moment of Inertia) is often talked about in gymnasts. This is the resistance of an object to start rotating and it all depends on the mass of an object, or in our case a gymnast.

Example: A gymnast is performing a tucked front somersault in the air. After the take-off, there is a moment of inertia as the gymnast changes from the take-off position into the tuck shape. The closer the mass of the gymnast is to the axis of rotation, the easier it is to rotate and flip over. (The axis is the imaginary point around which the gymnast rotates).

For a taller gymnast, it will take longer for the mass to tuck in around the axis of rotation as the center of mass is further away. Shorter people tend to have less mass than taller people so it will be quicker for them to tuck and rotate which is a huge advantage in gymnastics.

When you apply the same principle to Piked and Layout somersaults it will make it even harder still for taller people to rotate quickly as the body is even more stretched than the tuck position. It’s not impossible (I’m definitely not trying to put anyone off learning) but when you think about the fine margins in competitive gymnastics, being short will be an advantage.

Example: A gymnast performs a Handspring vault and lands on the landing mat. Gymnasts need to control their landing with as little wobble as possible. The lower the gymnast’s center of gravity is to their feet (base of support), the more stable the landing will be.

A shorter gymnast will have a lower center of gravity making it easier for them to have a stable landing than a tall gymnast.

Do coaches only pick short gymnasts?

If there is no evidence that gymnastics makes people shorter, many people will wonder do coaches only pick short gymnasts? This is a very valid question but it’s also difficult to prove.

Whether they admit it or not coaches will have certain characteristics that they look out for when picking gymnasts for a team. Some of these characteristics could include attitude, commitment or effort. They will also look at physical attributes such as strength, power and speed.

However, in my twenty years as a coach, I have never come across a situation where a gymnast gets picked just because they are short.

But many of the favourable attributes for a gymnast are more common in shorter athletes. It’s also true that coaches find it easier to spot and support smaller gymnasts because they are lighter and easier to catch!

If you look at the other types of gymnastics such as Acrobatics, height is much more relevant. Acrobatic Gymnastics involves two or more gymnasts creating balances on top of each other. ‘Bases’ are the gymnasts at the bottom and support the ‘tops’ who are balanced precariously up high. Tops will be smaller and lighter to make it easier for their teammate underneath them.

Acrobatic Gymnasts. Credit: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wiki Commons

How short are gymnasts?

Just how short are elite gymnasts? The average height of a medal-winning gymnast in the Women’s Artistic competition at Tokyo 2020 was just 5ft 1in. To put this into context, the average height for women in the USA is 5ft 4in according to a 2018 report from the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention).

Gold (ROC)Silver (USA)Bronze (GBR)Average Height
Lilia Akhaimova 5ft 1in
Viktoria Listunova 5ft 4in
Angelina Melnikova 5ft 0in
Vladislava Urazova 5ft 4in
Simone Biles 4ft 8in
Jordan Chiles 4ft 9in
Sunisa Lee 5ft 0in
Grace McCallum 5ft 2in
Jennifer Gadirova 5ft 0in
Jessica Gadirova 5ft 0in
Alice Kinsella 5ft 1in
Amelie Morgan 5ft 5in
5ft 1in

How tall is too tall for gymnastics?

There are no rules or restrictions on height in gymnastics so technically at least you are never too tall. But the question of ‘how tall is too tall for gymnastics’ is often asked by older children and teenagers who are interested in starting the sport for the first time.

If you are a teenager just starting out, the likelihood of becoming an elite gymnast is very remote. Because of this, you will only really do gymnastics on a recreational level probably for the enjoyment and fitness that gymnastics brings. The good news is that recreational gymnastics is way less intense than competitive gymnastics and there will be no selective process that looks at your height.

At least I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing in recreational gymnastics.

So if you are taller than average and considering gymnastics, go for it! Your height should not be an issue.

Conclusion

If a child is training on a recreational level for a few hours a week, there is no evidence at all that gymnastics will make them short. For competitive gymnasts that are training more intensely, there are some indications that gymnastics can delay some aspects of their growth and maturation however none of the scientific research to date has shown this to be dangerous. Whilst it is an advantage to be shorter in competitive gymnastics, nobody should be discouraged to try it even if they are taller than average.

Sources

Role of Intensive Training in the Growth and Maturation of Artistic Gymnasts. R Malina et al 2013

Onset of puberty, menstrual frequency, and body fat in elite rhythmic gymnasts compared with normal controls. P Klentrou, M Plyley 2003

Gymnasts, distance runners, anorexics body composition and menstrual status. Bale et al 1996

Growth and skeletal maturation in male and female artistic gymnasts. N Georgopoulus et al 2004

An Introduction to Sports Mechanics. K Sprunt 1992