In watching NCAA gymnastics this weekend I was inspired to make my first blog post about landings. Seeing these top-level gymnasts land in a variety of ways- whether it be the legs almost completely straight, an arched back, knees turned in, etc.- made my biomechanics-oriented brain hurt. In fact, a 2007 study that looked at injuries in NCAA from 1988-2004 found that 70% of injuries that were sustained in competition occurred on landings during the floor exercise or dismounts. Coaching at the club level I have realized over the years that not everyone knows what a technically safe landing- which to an extent makes sense, since lots of club coaches are young up and comers with limited biomechanics knowledge. However, this past meet weekend reinforced to me that even at the top levels, athletes still do not know how (or do not care) to land correctly. Teaching our athletes to land correctly is one thing coaches can control in terms of injury prevention, whether it be to lessen the load on tendons and ligaments to prevent overuse injuries, or to minimize the risk of fluke injuries occurring. Please note that today will be a focus on two foot landings primarily for dismounts, vaults and/or tumbling passes.
A Perfectly *Safe* Landing
An ideal landing position requires that the force upon landing be dissipated throughout as much of the body as much as possible. This is where joint alignment comes in. In the sport of gymnastics, we develop asymmetries from an early age due to the extreme use of our dominant “side.” Due to this, gymnasts tend to favour one side over the other. According to The Asymmetry Of Lower Limb Load in Balance Beam Routines, strength asymmetry may increase risk for injury, as typically injuries occur only to one side, and rarely bi-laterally. It is important to note that more research is required in this field. There are also times when there is asymmetrical joint loading- whether that be when the feet are staggered, when someone is twisting into the ground and one-foot lands first, etc. Landing asymmetrically often makes one susceptible to injury as the body shifts and turns during landing because the impact is not evenly spread between the two sides, making it so one side is more protected than the other. A 2015 study found that the stress on tendons and ligaments is also high when the gymnast lands with straight legs, as the supportive connective tissue takes the hit instead of being absorbed by the muscles due to lack of activation time. Therefore, it is important that we especially focus on having both sides of the body ready for a high impact landing- this includes focusing on alignment as well as increasing the time the body has to absorb the force.
The ideal stance in a landing is to have feet around shoulder width apart, which widens the base of support over which force is exerted. Knees should be in flexion (bent), tracking over the toes, along with the hips also being in flexion (the ‘I’m about to sit on the toilet position’).
A widespread known fact in the scientific community is that girls are more likely to land with their knees turned in (we call this knee valgus in anatomy). This increases the risk for ACL tears and can also lead to knee pain, which is why it is important for the knees to be in line with the big toes. In a sport with a decent amount of achilles tears and ACL injuries, we must reflect that maybe poor landings are partly to blame for increasing the rate at which these injuries occur.
Along with foot position, research states that increased bend in the knees helps spread the force throughout the body, as in this position the glutes become activated and absorb most of the force, while stabilizing the knees. According to Forzahealth, dysfunction in glutes can lead to that dreaded knee valgus, so it is important that we focus on having them function correctly. When the gymnast sequentially lands in a pattern of ball of the foot, heel, ankles bends, knee bends, hip bends, this increases the time the body has to take the force. Utilizing this type of landing with proper glute activation protects the joints. Often we see “jolt” like landings when the gymnast lands locked legged. This is to the extreme of straight legs, but demonstrates that the body does not have time to activate the muscles in preparation to absorb the force, therefore leading to higher stress on the joints.
In relation to joints, it is also important that the gymnasts learn how to control their deep core muscles. Spoiler alert: all the crunches in the world do not develop these types of muscles. Instead, exercises need to be taught that encapsulate the whole core (back, superficial abs, deep abs) Using these types of exercises to develop deep core muscles protects the spine at a vertebral level. For some great exercises and more info on this check out this post from Shift Movement Science’s Dr. Dave Tilley. He is a super knowledgeable PT and gymnastics coach who I could not recommend enough!
Just watching NCAA this weekend I can’t tell you how many times I saw a gymnast land with her back arched. In this position, the deep core muscles that protected the spine are NOT ACTIVATED. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible that not all of stress fractures in gymnastics come from back bending as once was the original thought (though some definitely do- I will not argue that!). Instead, the thought is that if gymnasts do not activate their deep core muscles during landing, the vertebrae that make up the spine and the intervertebral discs take the blow. Per the Mayfield Brain and Spine website, repeated blows to the spine can lead to degradation of ligaments and/or intervertebral discs that keep the spine aligned. Upon repeated high impact, this is when we start to see stress fractures as the vertebrae’s primary protection is compromised.
Why implementing proper landings is complicated.
The current code (speaking specifically of WAG) has it so that gymnasts are deducted for physiologically safe landings. As it currently stands in the 2017-2021 FIG code of points, current landing deductions that are potentially detrimental to the gymnast’s health include 0.1 for legs apart on landing, and 0.1-0.3 for body posture fault (which includes chest position). Knowing what we have learned- that hips should be in flexion for a safe landing, this makes it an automatic deduction to use a safe squat landing. Being a former judge and current coach, I can tell you that similar deductions exist in the JO code in terms of chest position. From my point of view, this is part of the problem. Especially at the higher levels where Olympic and world medals are at stake, gymnasts, (often perfectionists), and their coaches want to have the highest score possible. This often includes aiming for chest upright landings with feet together, to prevent landing deductions. If you’ve ever tried to do a squat landing with your chest upright you’ll notice this is impossible to do without compensating in some way, including decreased hip bend or arch through the low back. Then why do we construct our code to use these types of landings you may ask? Because historically, gymnastics is a sport based largely on aesthetics and less on function. Lots of our aesthetically pleasing positions such as a perfectly straight handstand line, or hollow body hold are not functional positions. The struggle then is to implement safety into the code while maintaining what makes the sport beautiful.
Where do we go from here?
Generally, I think we need to start teaching athletes how to perform a basic squat and squat landing at a younger age. Seeing as gymnastics coaches are experts in gymnastics and not strength and conditioning, this might entail having a strength and conditioning coach come in once a week to work with the athletes and the coaches. Learning correct form and muscle activation will hopefully lead to better foundational movement, and therefore, better dissipation of force upon landing. I also do believe the code needs to be revised in terms of landing deductions at the club, college, and elite level. Furthermore, there needs to be a medical professional and strength and conditioning expert who understands gymnastics on the panel that revises the code of points. Having turned a blind eye at athlete for safety for so long, it is important that we strive to change the way we see gymnastics. In a sport where it was once thought that female gymnasts peaked at 16, I think it is important to realize that this may be the case because we were not training them for longevity, as is reflected in the types of landings most of us still use to this day. My hope is that we as coaches continue to educate ourselves on biomechanics, physiology, and strength and conditioning to help protect our athletes’ health for their gymnastics careers and beyond.