There is a hidden safety problem in the sport of gymnastics that USA Gymnastics is obviously is aware of, but has not done enough to publicize, educate and eradicate. The problem is evident at all levels, at least all of the lower levels of the sport, but it is critically evident at Level 6.
The problem is a lack of shoulder flexibility in gymnasts. The problem often becomes very evident at Level 6 where the back walkover on beam makes it obvious which gymnasts don’t have sufficient back and shoulder flexibility. What makes us call this a hidden problem is that many gymnasts, who are able to do back walkovers on beam, are also tight in their shoulders and primarily use lower back flexibility to do the skill.
At Level 6, most gymnasts have been in the sport for two years or at least two summers of training. And they are still not flexible in their shoulders? Many skills require shoulder flexibility to do correctly. Flexibility makes many skills look better. Coaches should know that one of the primary purposes of the TOPs program is to promote the fact that gymnasts should first be strong and flexible and then taught gymnastics skills.
But the problem obviously remains. Any visit to a Level 6 meet makes it evident that many of those gymnasts have insufficient shoulder flexibility. You can see it in their broken shoulder angle when they are doing (or not doing) the back walkover on beam. What is more upsetting and dangerous than a gymnast who does not have either back or shoulder flexibility are the gymnasts who make the skill depending only on lower back flexibility but still obviously have insufficient shoulder flexibility.
This means that they are doing repetition after repetition of a skill, the back walkover on beam, that puts excess stress on the lower back instead of using both shoulder and back flexibility to do the skill. It is no wonder that lower back pain is common at this level. And the more a gym and a coach depend on repetition to solve inconsistency and fall problems with the back walkover on beam, the more likely there is a chance of a repetitive stress injury in the lower back, including the spine not just the lower back muscles.
While I am usually a big advocate of competitions in the gym, I watched in shock as a coach had their Level 6 team compete to see who could do the most back walkovers in a row without falling. The whole team had poor shoulder flexibility and the winner, who had already been complaining of lower back pain, did over a 100 back walkovers.
The first thing coaches and gymnasts, and even parents, need to know is whether they have a shoulder flexibility problem. Coaches should be able to determine this from watching gymnasts do backbends, back and front walkovers on floor and back walkovers on beam. If there is a broken shoulder angle when doing those skills, there is likely a shoulder flexibility problem (the other option is that it could be an execution error). If coaches have not already done so, they should test for shoulder flexibility problems starting immediately and take immediate action to improve shoulder flexibility.
The normal and traditional methods of improving back and shoulder flexibility – backbends, front and back walkovers on floor, tick-tocks, etc. – are often not effective in really improving shoulder flexibility. These traditional exercises tend to stretch the lower back more than the shoulders. Spotting gymnasts over and over again, when they have insufficient shoulder flexibility to do back walkovers, either on floor or beam, by themselves is time wasted that could better be spent on concentrated shoulder flexibility work.
The best ways to solve the shoulder flexibility problem and decrease the chance of lower back pain and repetitive stress injuries is to use any number of partner shoulder stretching exercises, to do backbends with the feet raised (up on mats, beams or other raised objects in the gym) so gymnasts can more easily stretch their shoulders themselves, and to do forward shoulder stretches (with hands together) on stall bars or beams. These types of exercise should be a high priority because of the chance of reducing or eliminating future long-term lower back injuries and pain.
If sufficient shoulder flexibility is developed early in a gymnast’s career before they are doing any skills that stress the lower back, gymnasts should be more able to anticipate a gymnastics career free of lower back pain and injury. And, of course, gymnasts with sufficient shoulder flexibility learn flexibility skills faster and look better doing them.
How do we know that USA Gymnastics is aware of the problem? After the Level 6 Compulsory beam routine had been out for a number of years already, they added the option of Level 6 gymnasts being able to do back extension rolls on beam, instead of back walkovers. Back extension rolls are so much harder to learn and gain consistency on that almost no Level 6 gymnasts do them in competition. It makes no sense for USA Gymnastics to have added that skill except to acknowledge that some gymnasts may have or are risking back pain, back injury or repetitive stress injuries doing back walkovers.
This whole problem is eminently solvable. Coaches must learn to test early in gymnast’s careers for shoulder flexibility and expand their shoulder flexibility preparation and training with shoulder flexibility training that really works for young gymnasts before they are virtually forced to do large numbers of compulsory skills like back walkovers on beam, front walkovers and back limbers on floor.
If gymnasts are compulsory level gymnasts and begin to complain of lower back pain, parents should talk to their gymnastics coaches about whether there is a need to improve their gymnast’s shoulder flexibility. Extra ab work can also sometimes help in reducing lower back pain until flexibility increases.
If you notice, I do not speak much about working lower back flexibility. This is because I believe that gymnasts probably already get enough of lower back stretching just from doing gymnastics skills, like walkovers, and want much more of those types of skills to be done utilizing shoulder flexibility and not lower back flexibility. Certainly, I would put priority on developing shoulder flexibility first and then see if working more lower back flexibility is necessary.