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The Giant

By: Brian Bakalar

Gymnastics doesn’t get easier over time. Only a few years ago, Mary Lou Retton won the Olympic Games with a vault that would be considered an insult to an Elite gymnast today.  Greats like Nadia and Olga performed skills on the Balance Beam that today are found in lower level compulsory routines.  And in the late 1970’s, Elena Davydova first performed a skill that has become the basis for today’s optional Uneven Bar routines – the Giant.

Photography: Philip Morton

 

Technically, this skill is known as a Backward Giant Circle, and many variations exist.  Borrowed from Men’s Gymnastics, the Giant is performed using the same techniques and positions in Women’s Gymnastics.   

A skill that appears to be very simple, and also very elegant, when performed well, the Giant is a circling skill that rotates 360 degrees around a single bar.  For practical purposes, a Giant begins in a handstand on top of the bar, and swings downward through the bottom, then upward, ending in that same handstand position. 

In looking at this skill from a purely scientific standpoint, we have a simple physics diagram.  A Giant Circle is, in fact, not a true circle, but rather the closest the human form can come to a true circle, when faced with 2 opposing forces:  Gravity and Friction.  Air resistance is negligible in this case, offering little resistance to the circling body, but the friction between the hands and the bar, and the force of gravity, must be overcome to perform the skill.

In the performance of the skill, the body performs nearly 180 degrees of rotation in true circular fashion, beginning in a handstand, and ending at the bottom of the bar.  At that point, however, a “tap”, in the gymnastics vernacular, is performed.  This quick motion causes the lower half of the body to accelerate into the second half of the giant, where a second key to the giant occurs.  At this point in the circle, the body bends at the shoulders, and the radius of the circle is shortened.  This shortened radius creates an acceleration of the whole body, and if performed correctly, is enough to overcome gravity.

The friction of the hands against the bar is never eliminated – in fact, to eliminate that friction would be equivalent to releasing the bar, which is obviously not part of a giant!  However, the hands should be gripping the bar tightly enough to ensure safety in the 270 degrees of the skill, and then loosened around the bar as much as possible to allow the entire body to rise to the ending handstand position.

In many instances, gymnasts struggle with this skill.  They are unsure of how straight to keep their bodies, they are unsure of the timing on the tap, they are unfamiliar with how tightly to grip the bar, and are often uncomfortable with the proper technique for the final rise to handstand.  Commonly, a gymnast will forget to stretch on the first 180 degrees of the skill.  Simply, without the momentum gained by stretching the body as much as possible (without contacting the low bar on an Uneven bar set), they will have severe difficulties completing the giant.

Even more commonly, the gymnast will try to use her head to increase rotation.  There seems to be a sort of optical illusion here – the gymnast can quickly see farther around in the circle, and makes eye contact with the ground.  While this error often fools the gymnast into thinking that her body is rotating further, in fact, it is not.  The most common correction here is the coach telling the gymnast to keep her head “in.”  Similarly, many gymnasts create additional rotation by arching the back rather than lifting the toes toward the ceiling.  While arching the back can get the body over the bar, it does not lead to a proper giant, which in turn impedes progress to more difficult skills. 

Improper Head Improper Stretch Proper Stretch Arched  Back

The correct giant travels almost the entire circle in a hollow position, showing a change only at the very bottom of the swing, in the “tap.”  In fact, of the 360 degrees of a giant circle, only about 30 degrees of the circle are in an arch position, the other 330 degrees are in a hollow. 

Drills abound for the teaching of a giant.  Coaches will have their gymnasts use a floor bar to fall from a handstand onto a soft mat on their stomachs.  They can concentrate on stretching in a hollow position in this drill.  Coaches drill the tap swing, often for years before actually introducing the giant.  This makes sense, as the tap is so essential to the element.  Strap bars eliminate a great deal of friction, as well as the fear of falling, as the hands are firmly attached to a rotating bar cover with leather or nylon webbing.  Tumble Trak bars, mounted over the trampoline bed, back extension roll drills, and even just holding a handstand have all proven to be helpful in coaching the giant.

QUICK TIPS

The first step, however, and often an overlooked piece to coaching this skill effectively, is to understand its dynamics.  Knowing how the body should move through space, and understanding the forces working against the gymnast are essential in coaching the giant.  Familiarity with several drills, and the ability to impart the knowledge to the athlete is just as important.  Like many other skills, the giant must be coached carefully, and taught correctly, as it is infinitely important to the gymnast as her abilities bring her to higher and higher levels.

 

Brian Bakalar is the owner and head coach of Gymnastics Revolution in Bethel, Connecticut.  He has coached athletes of every level, from preschool gymnasts to international elites.  Since opening his facility in 2001, Brian has become an industry leader in web-based technologies, embracing the internet as a medium for numerous articles and commentaries on the sport, including the unique, “Gymnastics Interactive.”