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Development and understanding of gymnastics skills using

multi-body dynamics and computer simulation

Alison L. Sheets, Mont Hubbard


Sports Biomechanics Laboratory
Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering
University of California, Davis

Abstract
Computer simulation can be used to foster the development of gymnastics skills while
reducing the training stress endured by the athlete. The creation of the model of the
gymnast’s body and equipment requires a number of simplifying assumptions about the
inertia and muscle properties of the athlete, and about the forces that the equipment
exerts on the gymnast during execution. It also requires assumptions for initial conditions
and muscular activation patterns during execution. Using the model to identify
characteristics necessary for the positive outcome of a skill, and to identify maneuvers
that are appropriate for the gymnast’s body type could reduce necessary training time
and repetition while increasing the likelihood of consistent performance. Computer
simulation could even facilitate the development of new skills.

Initial Development of the Model


A mathematical model is essentially a set of differential equations that describes the motion of the human
body during the proposed gymnastic activity. It answers the question: How does a gymnast with a given
body size, shape and mass, move from a given initial position with a given velocity, and with specified
muscular activity during the period of interest? A number of considerations are necessary for the accurate
calculation of a gymnastics movement.
The first step in making such a model is an idealization of the possible motion. Which body segments can
move and how can they move, in general? A set of variables (called generalized coordinates) is chosen
that completely and uniquely characterizes the position and orientation of the body in a general
movement configuration. The more complicated the motion (i.e. the larger the number of body segments
that move independently and the number of spatial dimensions in which the motions occur), the more
generalized coordinates are required to capture and portray the motion accurately, and the more complex
are both the set of equations and the associated computer code that solves the equations. For example,
a model for a high-bar layout dismount would not require variables to describe hip or knee flexion since
these do not occur, but a model for a tuck dismount would require these variables.
In the past the equations of motion were derived by hand, as were the computer programs used to solve
the equations. Each of these steps was tedious and prone to error, making the process of achieving a
complete and error-free simulation program an arduous task. In the past two decades, however,
computerized symbolic-manipulation programs have been developed that relieve the analyst of much of
the tedium while retaining creative freedom and flexibility to specify the model details. Although errors can
still be made by the analyst, these errors tend to be “up front” and easier to spot, as opposed to being
small and hard to find because they are deeply imbedded in either the equations themselves or in the
associated computer code. The computer and the analyst perform only the tasks to which they are well
suited while reserving routine, human-error-prone tasks for the computer.
One of the most successful of the present-day programs for automated dynamic analysis is AutoLEV
(Kane & Levinson 2000), based on Kane’s method (Kane & Levinson 1985) for derivation of the
equations of motion. Kane’s method is a dynamical theory that provides a minimal and computationally
efficient set of dynamic equations. Forces and moments that do not enter the equations are avoided
entirely, making for a simpler and more concise analysis procedure. This eliminates the need for the
consideration of forces transmitted between segments, and thus simplifies the calculations necessary to
determine whole body motion. Because this method relies on an accurate representation of the body and
the forces applied to this body by the equipment, the importance of the determination of these factors
cannot be understated. The program AutoLEV accepts a specification of the generalized coordinates and
body and equipment parameters discussed in more detail below. It automatically derives the equations of
motion and creates computer code in FORTRAN or C, which can be used to simulate the dynamics and
to predict the motion of the system. As the actual motion evolves due to the muscular activity of the
gymnast, all of the generalized coordinates change. The purpose of the mathematical model is to be able
to calculate how these coordinates change in time, and how the body moves as a function of time, as a
result of the muscular activity of the gymnast.
The inputs to the model are of two types. First, one must specify, using a set of constants, the geometric
and inertial characteristics of the gymnast and her musculoskeletal capacities; what does the gymnast’s
body look like, how much does it weigh, and how strong and agile is it? Each body segment important in
the motion must be assigned a size and mass distribution. Once the entire set of gymnast body-segment
size and mass properties are chosen, the musculoskeletal capabilities of the gymnast must be detailed:
what muscular forces are possible at each joint that moves and how do the maximum values of the
resultant joint torques depend on joint angles and angular velocities? At this stage, the model contains
only the description of the gymnast’s body (size, mass and inertia), and its muscular capacity.
What remains is the calculation of the motion (i.e. the values of the generalized coordinates as functions
of time) produced by the gymnast’s hypothesized muscular activity from some set of initial conditions.
Therefore, the second class of model inputs are those associated with the motion itself. At the initial time
of interest, what is the value and rate of change of gymnast position and velocity (or of each of the
generalized coordinates and speeds in the model), called initial conditions. Next, and probably most
important, what are the muscular activities of the gymnast, i.e. what muscular forces (or joint torques) are
exerted during the activity that create and propel the motion? In succeeding sections we focus more
closely on each of the above topics, illustrating the procedure with a simple example of a model and
sample calculations.

Gymnast Body Inertia Representation


Having decided the appropriate number of segments into which to divide the body for the particular skill of
interest, developing a representative inertia model for the gymnast involves determining the shape, mass
and composition of each segment. The inertia parameters are dependent on the shape of the segment. A
model that allows for the input of easily measurable quantities such as length, width and/or circumference
of different points on the body should be used. These measurements would reflect the small differences
between each gymnast's body shape. After the shape of the segment has been determined, the mass
and composition must be calculated. A number of cadaver studies have been performed resulting in
regression equations which give mass, center of mass (c.m.) and inertias for a segment from a series of
non-invasive measurements (Dempster 1955).
The problem with relying on these equations to give an accurate portrayal of the body mass and
composition for the gymnast, is that the equations were developed using mainly adult male cadavers. The
typical elite gymnast body more closely resembles that of a child than that of an adult male. Once the
simulation has been produced, the influence of inappropriate assumptions about the inertia data can be
determined, through sensitivity analysis. A more accurate inertia model could then be developed for an
individual athlete using more labor-intensive techniques such as CT Scan or NMR.
Once an accurate inertia model has been developed, the joint motion between segments must be
quantified. For some joints, simple assumptions can be made about the motion with little consequence on
the resulting movement. For example the knee can be thought of as a simple hinge. Unfortunately, other
joint motion is more difficult to quantify and more influential for successful skill execution. Shoulder motion
and motions in the torso are among the more challenging and important of these. The assumptions about
joint motion become quite important when comparing techniques for executing a skill. For example, it is
quite difficult to draw conclusions about arm motion and placement during takeoff into a salto after a back
handspring, when an oversimplified shoulder model is used.

Gymnast Musculoskeletal Capacity


One of the final determinants of successful skill completion is the range of motion of each of the joints,
along with the speed and strength of the athlete. These factors are difficult to quantify, but are large
determinants in the type of skills that the athlete would naturally favor. The speed of the joint motion of
the athlete would also be significant because a forward model of the gymnastics skill would be the most
informative. The model could consider the muscles that cross each joint as a group rather than
individually, and assume an insertion point on the bone so that a muscle moment arm around the joint
could be calculated. This muscle force and moment arm would allow the maximal torque around the joint
to be determined for a given joint configuration. Using these values as constraints, the computer program
would then solve for the necessary joint torque applied throughout the skill to result in an optimal skill
performance. From the optimal torque output, the joint time history during the skill could be derived, and
thus a complete picture of how the gymnast must perform the skill would be determined.
While all of these complexities must be considered when designing the computer program, the goal of the
gymnastic simulation is to keep the body model as simple as possible. Only enough detail is desired to
illustrate definitive skill characteristics, and differences in skill performance due to different body shapes
and compositions.

Equipment Parameter Representation


Once the inertia properties of the body have been chosen, the forces applied to this system must be
determined. External forces are produced by the interaction of the gymnast with the equipment, and by
gravity. Both of these forces are relatively straightforward to calculate, although the equipment standards
set by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) allow for some variation between the manufacturers.
For example the regulations for the stiffness of the women's high bar state that under a specified cable
tension, when a load of 1350 N is applied to the center of the bar, a vertical displacement between 0.07 m
and 0.10 m should be observed. Using Hooke’s Law F= k*∆x, values of stiffness between 13500 N/m and
19286 N/m are calculated. These test conditions are difficult to repeat without the proper equipment, so a
larger variation in bar stiffness can be expected in a practice or competition setting. To overcome this
obstacle the researcher can either perform experiments to determine the specific properties of the
equipment being used, or approximate values can be chosen using the FIG specifications as a guideline.

Uses for Gymnastic Models


Gymnastic models can be of significant benefit to the gymnast and coach. The models can determine
positive characteristics of successful skill completion for the average gymnast or the model can be
applied to a specific gymnast by programming her specific inertia parameters. The application to a single
gymnast can be helpful because it can aid in determining the types of skills for which she is best suited
biomechanically. If the skill is well suited to her, the time needed to learn the skill and maintain it could
possibly be decreased and the occurrence of overuse injuries reduced while still resulting in a high level
of performance.
Another possible use of gymnastic simulations is in the derivation and perfection of new skills. Because
gymnastics is constantly evolving, a way of determining if a new skill is possible and how it should be
performed would be extremely valuable for both efficiency and safety, and could obviate having to spend
training time using trial and error methods.
Finally, another area that might benefit from gymnastic simulations is equipment design. By concentrating
on the gymnast's interaction with the equipment, the characteristics of the equipment can be matched to
the skills the gymnast is executing. This might produce a more consistent resultant force from the
apparatus, giving the gymnast more time in the air to be able to complete more difficult skills. The designs
could also be examined for a change in materials that could possibly dissipate impact forces more
effectively to further reduce the chance of injury for the gymnast.

Example of Multi-Body Dynamic Simulation


As an illustration of the modeling and simulation procedure, we present an example of a simplified model
and simulation of the dynamics of a giant swing followed by a straight body dismount. The model
compares the maximal number of revolutions that the gymnast can perform when leaving her arms
extended through the entire duration of the dismount, to the number she can complete if she drops her
arms to her sides immediately upon release.
The model contains only enough complexity to show definitive skill characteristics. A three-segment
model containing two arms and a rigid head/torso/leg portion is chosen to characterize the gymnast’s
body. Each segment is represented as a uniform cylinder, and the shoulder joints are assumed to be pin
joints that allow motion only in the saggital plane as shown in Fig. 1.
γ = shoulder
angle

Side view of 3-segment gymnast Front view of 3-segment gymnast

Fig. 1 Schematic model for giant swing

The bar is assumed to be linearly elastic both horizontally and vertically with a spring constant of 15000
N/m, and the coefficient of friction between the hands and the bar is assumed to be 0.48 (typical of
leather on wood). At the beginning of the simulation, the gymnast is in a straight body handstand on top
of the bar. The bar is deflected due to her body weight, and she is assumed to have an initial angular
velocity of 10°/sec. The low bar is neglected, and in both cases the giant swing is performed with no
change in shoulder angle during the period of bar contact. Although this swing model is extremely
simplistic, it is adequate to illustrate the effect of arm drop during the dismount. The arms are assumed
move downward to the sides in one time step (0.01 s), so this simulation gives an upper bound on the
most rapid motion possible.
Bar release angle is varied. The corresponding release angular velocity and deflected bar position are
calculated for each release angle and used as inputs to a flight simulation to determine the total number
of revolutions performed before landing. The optimal release angle that maximizes the number of
revolutions in flight is chosen for each of the two cases. Table 1 shows the effects of arm motion on
optimal release angle and the number of revolutions possible during dismount.

Arms up Arms dropped


Arm angle during dismount 0° 180°
Optimal release angle 71.0° 68.6°
Release angular velocity 238°/sec 241°/sec
Dismount angular velocity 238°/sec 347°/sec
Time in air, sec 1.181 1.176
Total revolutions 0.98 1.33

Table 1 - Effects of arm motion on optimal release angle and revolutions possible during dismount

Shown in Fig. 2 are the common path of the center of mass (c.m.) during the giant swing and separate
c.m. paths during dismount for the two body configurations after release. Also shown are the paths of the
head and feet during dismount for each case. Figure 3 portrays the body position at several points in flight
for the two cases. Note that motion of the arms results in an earlier optimal release, a subsequent
divergence in c.m. paths, and a larger number of revolutions before ground contact. When the arms are
dropped to the sides immediately upon bar release, the gymnast can complete 0.35 more revolutions
given the same giant swing initial conditions.
While specific recommendations regarding arm movement during the dismount cannot be drawn from this
simplistic model, general conclusions can still be formed. For example after bar release, dropping the
arms to the sides results in an increased number of rotations possible in the air. The release time is a
point of interest because an earlier release time will generally result in a larger angular velocity upon bar
release, while a later release time will allow more height and time in the air during which to complete the
dismount. It is a trade-off between these variables that allows for the most number of revolutions to be
done prior to landing. Dropping the arms allows for a slightly earlier release time.

Fig. 2 Gymnast c.m. path during giant swing and dismount for two cases; a) arms maintained
extended above head (dashed lines), and b) arms brought rapidly to sides after bar release (solid
lines). Also shown are the paths of the head and feet.
Fig. 3 Sequential gymnast positions during dismount for two cases; a) arms maintained
extended above head (dashed lines), and b) arms brought rapidly to sides after bar
release (solid lines). The star denotes the gymnast’s head.

Conclusion
While a number of assumptions about the gymnast's body and the gymnastics equipment are necessary
in the development of a simulation, multi-body dynamics models can facilitate improvement in gymnastics
performance not only by optimizing movement, but also through the improvement of equipment and in
aiding the search for new skills.

References
Dempster, W.T. (1955). Space requirements for the seated operator. WADC Technical Report 55–159, Wright-
Patterson Air Force Base, OH.
Standard Specification: Uneven Bars for Women Artistic Gymnastics. IV, (1993) WAG 2. January 5, 1993.
Kane, T.R. and Levinson, D.A. (1985). Dynamics: theory and applications. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kane, T.R., & Levinson, D.A. (2000). Dynamics Online: Theory and Implementation with AUTOLEV. OnLine
Dynamics, Inc., www.autolev.com.