Note: This article is for educational & literature purposes only. Please seek professional council in order to learn any type of gymnastics or acrobatic maneuver. Never attempt to practice any gymnastics without the supervision of your certified professional.
Dissecting the Back-Tuck
What are the two most iconic skills in gymnastics, and practically all other forms of acrobatics? Arguably, this accolade belongs to the back-handspring. And the second most iconic? This honor should perhaps go to the Back-Tuck. Ask any gymnast for a performance, and the odds are very high that she will perform a back-tuck at some point during her demonstration. At our gym, the back-tuck is the most requested and sought after skill among newer students and parents. And why not? Being able to perform a back-tuck successfully demonstrates a certain level of aerial awareness, physical ability, technical knowledge, mental courage, coordination, and grace that separates one from her peers. However, there are bad back-tucks, and there are good back-tucks. This article seeks to enlighten you on what entails a good back-tuck.
(1) A good back drop on the trampoline is a prerequisite to learning a proper back somersault. This is because a back-drop is exactly one quarter of a backwards somersault. (2) Another prerequisite at our gym is a proper backwards-roll on the floor. This rolling motion on the floor is similar to the motion during a backwards somersault in the air. (3) Yet another prerequisite is the Backdrop Pullover, which can be learned as a merger of the previous two drills. Once an athlete has mastered these three drills, and depending on the individuals skill level, it may be time to learn a back-tuck. At first, the athlete will have a heavy spot from the coach. The spot can be by hand, or by mechanic/harness. Several sessions should be spent with the spot, reinforced with repetitious drilling of the back-drop, backwards roll, and pullover.
The Skill Itself
Advanced concepts such as kick-outs or line-outs should not be introduced to the beginner. Instead, emphasis should be focused on other motor skills such as the details of the eyes, head, and arms. The athlete should focus her eyes on a distant object in front of her, as shown in Figure 1. That object should stay in view even as the flipping motion has been initiated. Coaches should ask the athlete to try to keep this object in sight for as long as possible. This technique encourages the athlete’s chin to remain tucked closely to the chest and collarbone area. A tucked head and tucked chin forces the athlete’s spine to maintain the correct curvature that is necessary to decrease the body’s moment of inertia. This sudden decrease in inertia during the upward phase of the jump is what produces the somersaulting action.
A common fault is for the performer to look backwards when attempting to flip backwards, as seen in Figure 2a. By doing this, the athlete will undesirably reduce their rotation. From a physics stand point, looking backwards causes the chin to lose the posture required of the neck and spine during a successful backwards somersault. Beginning athletes look behind because they inherently feel that they should look towards the direction that they want their body to move in. This counter-intuitive concept should be taught to all gymnasts from an early point.
Another common fault is for the performer to not put their arms up before the somersault begins, as seen in Figure 2b. The correct technique is called a Set. Setting is an important aspect of trampoline, as well as floor tumbling, and even springboard diving. The physics works as such: it ensures that an athlete’s center of gravity is directly in line with her legs and feet at the moment of takeoff. This acts to amplify the height of the next bounce. Thus, if a gymnast’s arms are in front or behind her immediately before the somersault, then her height will be significantly reduced during the execution. Yes, it is true that some performers can complete a flip successfully without having the arms set above their head. However, without doubt, the performer would’ve been much higher and “floatier” had they done a proper Set. Lack of a set will certainly hinder one’s ability to learn a double somersault, or a triple somersault, or a twisting somersault at a later point in an athlete’s career.
The third most common error is in trying to perform a Set, the gymnast inadvertently bends her elbows. Sets must be performed with elbows locked straight for maximum effectiveness. From a frontal profile view, as seen in Figure 2c, bent elbows during takeoff reduces the degree of change in moment of inertia during the tucking motion. During the tuck phase, gymnasts should theoretically go from straight-arms to bent-arms to suddenly ignite a rotation. However, if a gymnast’s arms are already bent drastically, then she must go from bent arms to even more bent arms in order to produce rotation, which is much more difficult to do. Hence, a bent-arm set will generally produce a far slower somersault. For a similar reason, it is why figure skaters start with elbows straight before wrapping for a triple-axle. Gymnasts must learn to move from the biggest shape to the smallest shape for maximum efficiency.
Lastly, the fourth error is leaning backwards to prepare for the somersault, as seen in Figure 2d. On a trampoline, this mistake is often preceded by a preparatory jump forward prior to performing the somersault. Jumping forward throws the athlete’s hips out of alignment and introduces a curved-arch during the take-off phase, which results in loss of height for the skill, in addition to causing the athlete to travel backwards.
Somersaults are fun if gymnasts take the time to learn them properly. Using strict and proper technique can be a slow process, but it will eventually lead athletes to even bigger and better skills in the future.
Below is a video we made, for progressions towards a Back Tuck: