Everything We Need to Know About the Balance Beam

Female gymnast performing on balance beam, close-up, low section.

The balance beam, usually referred to simply as beam, is a women’s gymnastics event. In Olympic order, the balance beam is the third of four events completed during competition. A traditional competition beam is raised about 4 feet off the ground, measures 4 inches wide, and is 16 ½ feet long from end to end. The top of a beam is padded, but still feels hard to the touch. Most balance beams are also created to deliver a little spring. For many gymnasts, the balance beam is the most difficult event of the four, however, there are a few gymnasts who tackle the beam with grace and beauty that lands them the title “Beam Queen.”

Best Beam Athletes

Through history, some Olympic gymnasts have shined brightly on the podium thanks to their graceful beam skills. American Olympians, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, took home silver and gold medals in the 2008 Olympics, and Aly Raisman took home a bronze, in the same event,  in 2012. In 1996, Shannon Miller was the Olympic beam queen. Miller also earned a silver medal in 1992, and in 1994, a world champion title. While Miller was the beam queen in 1996, Nadia Comaneci holds the official beam queen title of all time. Comaneci won gold in beam in 1980 and 1976.

Balance Beam Skill Types

A gymnast will compete several different skills on a beam depending on her competition level. The most common balance beam skill types include:

  • Leaps
  • Jumps
  • Holds
  • Turns
  • Holds, Scales, and Handstands
  • Acrobatic Moves

It’s important to remember that as a gymnast progresses, her balance beam skills will get more difficult, and connection between skills will be necessary to fulfill competition requirements and raise her difficulty rating.

Balance Beam Leaps

In a balance beam leap, a gymnast will leap off the beam with one foot. At some point, the gymnast will perform a split in the air, and then land on one foot. To avoid a deduction, the gymnast must perform a 180-degree+ leap and can’t wiggle or fall off the beam during this move. Other leaps a gymnast may perform on a beam include twisting leaps, switch leaps, or ring leaps. No matter what type of leap a gymnast performs, she must do so gracefully. A twisting leap requires a gymnast to turn during a leap, and a switch leap requires a gymnast to start on one leg, kick forward, and then return to the split position.

Balance Beam Jumps

A balance beam jump requires a lot of the skill of a leap, but requires gymnasts to start and land on two feet. The most popular jumps seen during gymnastics competitions include sheep jumps, ring jumps, and sheep jumps. Many times leaps and jumps are completed in succession to increase a gymnast’s beam difficulty rating.

Balance Beam Turns

During a beam competition, a gymnast must complete at least one turn. The type of turn a gymnast completes will depend on her ability, and can range from simple turns to difficult turns with leaps or jumps implemented. The more difficult revolutions a gymnast completes the higher difficulty rating she will receive from judges. Gymnasts can also add to their difficulty rating by adding jumps that start from crouched positions or include kicking their legs high in the air.

Holds, Scales, and Handstands

Many gymnasts don’t add holds to their balance beam routines today because they try to pack as much skill as possible into their routines. Holds, scales, and handstands eat up a ton of the 90-second time limit, and don’t add any value in terms of difficulty. However, scales and handstands still hold a place in many lower level competitions, especially compulsory, today.

Acrobatic Beam Moves

Most gymnastics beam competitions are packed with acrobatic moves. The most popular beam acrobatic moves include handsprings and walkovers. The most sophisticated gymnasts will perform these moves in succession, and can add twists, jumps, and turns to increase their difficulty rating.

Beam Routine Requirements

During a beam routine, a gymnast must use the entire length of a beam, 16 ½ feet. A beam routine can last up to 90 seconds, and deductions will be taken if the routine goes over the time limit. The goal of any gymnast on the beam is to perform skills that will give them the most amount of points from judges. While doing this, a gymnast must perform the skills with the same grace as they would on the floor. To start the competition, a gymnast will mount the beam, and a dismount will be used to finish it. When a gymnast dismounts the beam, her most important thought in the moment is to stick the landing. To stick a balance beam dismount, a gymnast must land with her feet together, and not move her feet before saluting the judges.

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