When you look and see how short most gymnasts tend to be it can really make you think that gymnastics must have stunted their growth. And then when you here people mention that it does or someone asks this question, then you can feel like your suspicions are confirmed – especially if you feel that they must be compressing their spines by doing those vaults and things.
The simple answer is, no, artistic gymnastics does not stunt your growth. However, gymnastics can be connected in an almost direct way to stunted growth depending on the individual in question and a lot of other factors.
There are two different sides to this coin though, so I will tell you what both of them are so that you can decide for yourself how much gymnastics really affect growth or if it even affects the growth of gymnasts at all. On the one hand is the fact that there is some natural selection in this sport, on the other hand is the fact that there can be deliberate some manipulation.
The Tough But Natural Selection Of Smaller Gymnasts
On this side of coin is the fact that having a smaller gymnast just makes sense. Therefore, gymnasts are usually smaller than average for the same reason that makes basketball players tend to be taller than average. Does playing basketball make you taller? No, that would be ridiculous. Taller players are simply favored because it is a great asset to have in that particular sport.
The opposite is true for gymnastics in that having a smaller size is an asset when competing. Simply put, smaller gymnasts have better rotation than taller ones do. Physics is working for them more than it is for someone who happens to be taller. There are two aspects of this which I will try to explain, so perhaps the best way to do this will be to draw a picture of sorts for you.
For the first aspect you have two balls that have an X drawn on one spot on both of them. One of these balls has a 4’ diameter, while the other one has a 6’ diameter. Now, starting with the X on the floor, you roll both of these balls so that they go all the way around and are back on the X where they started. Which one of these balls will be quicker and have less distance that it will have to travel? The smaller one, of course.
Gymnastics involves a lot of different circular movements like flips, aerials, saltos, and other things, not to mention all of the circular movements that are done when you get to the bars. Therefore, the quicker you can rotate and the more efficient your energy is here, the better you will do.
This is not to say that a taller person will take longer to learn these things, they may in fact learn them before a smaller person due to better reach, it is simply that the smaller person will have better physics for doing these. However, over time and through the levels this physics will help smaller gymnasts find it easier than their taller counterparts.
The second aspect of this is that gymnasts need relative strength more than they need absolute strength. To show you what the difference is between these two, picture two people standing side by side. One person is a boy who weighs 100 pounds and can only lift 50 pounds of weight, and the other is a 200 pound man who can only lift 75 pounds of weight.
The man can lift more than the boy, and therefore has the most absolute strength; however, it is the boy who has more relative strength for his size. In gymnastics it is relative strength that is required much more than absolute strength. Two girls can be just as strong, but if one of them is smaller, then that is the girl who is actually the stronger of the two.
This relative strength also comes into play when doing various maneuvers in gymnastics as well. For example, the smaller girl has to lift less weight than a taller girl does when she is doing something like a chin-up to the bar, therefore making it easier for her to do. In fact, anything that requires her to push or pull her whole body around will take less strength for her to do because she weighs less than a bigger girl.
This in turn means that a small gymnast will burn less calories when she is doing the exact same things, which means that she will have more calories, and therefore more energy, which she can then burn elsewhere if she is eating the same amount of food that a taller gymnast is.
While hopefully you can see how being smaller is definitely a benefit when it comes to physics, there are also other advantages to being small. Just think about the balance beam for a minute. No matter how big or how small you are, the balance beam is always going to be the same 4” wide for every gymnast who competes on it.
A gymnast who is small will also have smaller feet, and smaller feet will have much more room to work with on the beam. A taller gymnast will have bigger feet that will have comparatively less space on the beam, making it harder for them to do the more complicated maneuvers on the beam due to having much less room for error.
That being said, as the higher levels of gymnastics are reached where longer combinations that are much more challenging are put on the balance beam, it becomes harder and harder for taller, bigger gymnasts to keep their footing on it. It is impossible? No, of course not. But it is certainly harder for them than it is for smaller gymnasts.
By the time the higher levels are reached, perhaps most of the taller girls may have already given up due to the difficulty of the beam or of doing flips, or for any number of other reasons that could include simply deciding that they might be better physically suited to another sport. The taller gymnasts that choose to remain and do competitions will face another problem with their height.
When you are around the same height as most of the other girls in gymnastics, you can go right after the previous girl in the gymnastics events during competitions. However, if you happen to be taller than the previous girl was, then you have to wait while the bars or the vault is adjusted for you. While this might seem like no big deal to the uninitiated, having to wait while this happens during a competition has the effect of allowing your adrenaline to lower and nervousness more time to sink in.
This is both something that the smaller gymnasts who went first did not have to go through, and it is also one reason why taller gymnasts have been known to quit. Having to wait longer and feel the stress makes them more likely to make mistakes in their routines and therefore have lower scores. Again, a tall gymnast can still make it, but they may have to have a particularly good way of dealing with nerves.
All in all, perhaps you can see why being a smaller gymnast just plain makes sense. They have so many advantages over the taller gymnasts that it is no wonder that most of the top ranked professional gymnasts happen to be smaller. Does this mean that the growth of all professional gymnasts has been stunted in order for them to make it? No more than it means that basketball players all take extra growth stimulants to make them grow taller.
The Deliberate Or Accidental Stunting Of Growth In Gymnasts
Before I get into this point of view, let me clarify something: Yes, it is entirely possible to stunt your growth. Sometimes this is actually done deliberately in order to conform to the smaller size that is preferred – which is hardly surprising considering all of the lengths that models sometimes go to in order to stay thin.
On the other hand, stunted growth can happen on its own sometimes, but this is not as often as other people seem to think that it is and you never actually shrink in height. There are a number of different factors that all combine to make stunted growth a possibility when you are doing gymnastics – but this does not guarantee that it will happen. One of the ways that some gymnasts will push to stay small is by intentionally combining the different factors with that goal in mind.
The first factor that comes into play is the young age at which young gymnasts start their training. Gymnastics start training and can often get to the point where they reach long hours of intense training before they even hit puberty, which can start its first stages at around 10 to 12 years old.
To compare this to other sports for a moment, this is often the age when you are first starting the sport and there is not a whole lot of intensity in the training just yet. In gymnastics, however, it is possible to have already reached level 10 if the gymnast started out at a young enough age, and at level 10 they are spending a ton of hours training as their body is trying to go through puberty which is an important period of growth.
All of this training, added to the fact that these young gymnasts are very likely watching what they eat, means that they will have very little, if any, body fat. While I will not bore you with the whole process and the different terms that you will likely not understand, simply put: a lack of enough body fat – if it is extreme enough – will send your body signals that maybe it should not start its growth spurt just yet.
The body does this because it feels it does not have enough fats stored up which it can use for this. So, does gymnastics cause this? Yes and no. If you carry your training too far and restrict your diet too much then, yes, it can. On the other hand, if a kid about to enter puberty were to restrict their diet to get rid of all of their body fat and go on long bike rides that wore them out in order to burn calories, they would have the exact same effect on their puberty even if they never did a cartwheel in their life.
This means that it is not the gymnastics training itself that is causing this stunted growth to happen and it is simply taking training too far than it is good for you to do – but, really, taking anything too far is bad for people of any range no matter what it is that they are doing. However, in most cases puberty is simply slowed down and is not altogether put off. Sometimes growth is simply slowed down a bit and is not even postponed at all, especially if the gymnast in question is simply doing gymnastics recreationally and not intense with their training.
Still, this is where gymnasts can choose to deliberately take things too far. Sometimes either parents or coaches, or both, will push however they can for their kid to stay small like you have already read that it is more efficient for gymnasts to be. They will for this reason intentionally train harder and restrict a young gymnast’s diet once they hit puberty with the hope that it will cause them to not grow during this time.
Not only will this help them stay the small size that is better, but for girls it will also delay their figure coming in. If you will look you may notice that most of the top gymnast women do not have a whole lot in the way of a figure. Like height, this is for a double-edged reason. A figure can get in the way and it can certainly affect your balance by changing around your wieght, therefore most of the really good gymnasts do not tend to have a very full figure. Or, as with their height, sometimes this is because their growth was simply stunted during puberty.
Often when this is taken too far, one of the other symptoms besides a lack of growth when the gymnast should be growing is also a lack of a menstrual cycle for girls or, when the gymnast does get or cycle, they will be far apart and irregular. However, there are actually some advantages to this in terms of health.
When you as a girl start your cycles later, then that blood which would have been spent instead goes into strengthening you bones because you are training. This gives you better bone density which is much better for bone health you whole life and it also means that while you are training hard you will not have to worry as much about your cycles draining your energy or potentially making you anemic. Starting your cycles at a later age also means that you will have fewer of them, which means that you will have less of a likelihood of getting things like ovarian cancer.
This deliberate postponing of puberty, when it is done, is far more often done in the case of girl gymnasts and not so much in the case of boy gymnasts. This is because when a boy is in puberty he gains in strength and puts on more muscles while he is getting taller, whereas when a girl is in puberty she may do a little of those things but her body is instead focusing more on giving her a figure as she gets taller, which is the opposite of helpful in a sport like gymnastics.
All in all, if you are making sure that you eat the right foods, eat enough of them, and that you do not spend too much time at your training, then you can continue learning gymnastics right through puberty with no fear that your growth will be stunted in any way. This is because it is not artistic gymnastics that stunts growth, it is your diet and over-taxing yourself that can do it.
While it is possible to be highly competitive and still grow like you are supposed to, it can be hard to do if you want to train for hours every day. If you were to train for around 5 hours a day you would need to consume a lot of the right kind of calories in order to be able to keep up with the ones that your body is burning up, plus you would need to consume at least some extra in order to allow your body to have enough so spend on helping you grow through these years.