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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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