If you caught any of the insanely impressive moves at the women’s gymnastics round during last night’s Olympics, you probably wondered to yourself at least once:
How did they get those tiny, sculpted bodies?
There’s a pretty big misconception about how gymnasts do it. It’s not simply a matter of shorter women gravitating towards the sport, but it’s also not exclusively about the rigorous training of gymnastics “stunting your growth.” Instead, it’s a delicate balance of both.
‘If only I’d been shorter’
I’ll admit it: Last night’s gymnastics round wasn’t the first Olympic Games during which I’ve tried to convince myself: Oh sure, I could have done what these women are doing, if only I’d just been shorter. And yes, at my 5’6″ height, I’d tower over every single one of the current members of the USA team. Simone Biles, our star athlete, is just 4’8″.
Lucky for me, there’s no research that directly challenges my prideful excuse. It could be that small people do tend to seek out careers in gymnastics. From a physics standpoint, people with shorter arms and legs are better suited for the tricky rotations (like Biles’ now-infamous “helicopter legs,” which involves balancing on one foot, knee bent, with her other leg fully extended, and spinning around it) that gymnasts often use to wow the judges. A small study published in the journal Sports Biomechanics suggested that smaller gymnasts were better equipped for moves involving forward and backward whole-body rotations and twisting.
But self-selection isn’t entirely to blame for the gymnasts’ short stature. Research suggests gymnasts’ intense training plays a role, too.
Does gymnastics ‘stunt your growth’?
If you’ve ever played a competitive sport, you’re probably familiar with the impact that daily, intense training can have on your body. All those hours at the gym (or around the track, or in the pool) add up. The muscles in your arms and legs start to pop; you have an easier time with stairs; your reflexes seem quicker. So it’s not crazy to assume that the rigorous training regimens that gymnasts undergo have some dramatic effects on their bodies — especially since they’re so young.
But fortunately for the Final Five and the rest of the athletes competing in Rio, there’s little evidence to suggest that any of the changes this training may cause are permanent.
A 2013 study from kinesiologists at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, concluded that gymnastics training, however intensive, did not appear to have any effect on gymnasts’ heights as adults or on the growth spurts that accompany puberty. Other studies suggest that while gymnasts’ growth might be affected by training during their active years, they seem to “make it up” by the time they reach adulthood. A 2000 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that while active gymnasts did tend to have shorter legs and sitting heights, they made up for these deficits once they retired from the sport.
So next time you stare, mouth-agape, as Simone Biles performs a classic helicopter, know this: Her amazing talent can’t simply be chalked up to either natural ability or intense hard work. Instead, it’s a delicate mix of both.
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