The Front Handspring  By: Brian Bakalar

Photography: Philip Morton    

Vault, at first glance, seems to be a very simple event.  Run fast, fly high, score big, right?  Remember, this event is considered as difficult as any other, so don’t let the very short performance time fool you.  Vaulting is difficult, and requires careful attention different phases, and body positions, in order to succeed.

This work considers a basic, entry level vault, the Front Handspring.  The entire skill is broken up into 6 parts.  3 are “phases,” and 3 are “transfers.”  A phase is a period of time, and the movement during that time.  A transfer marks the end of a phase, and an abrupt change in direction.  To borrow from other sports:  the flight of a tennis ball would be a “phase,” and its contact with the racket, and reversal of direction would be considered a “transfer.”

In Vault, the three phases are, in order, the Run, the Preflight, and the Post flight.  Each is vitally important in the Front Handspring.  In any proper vault, these three phases appear, although there may be added twists and or rotations in more complex elements.  Likewise, the three transfers carry through every individual element on this event.  The attack on the springboard, or Punch,” comes after the run.  The Block occurs as the hands contact the vaulting table, after the preflight.  Finally, the Landing occurs, obviously, at the end of the vault.

What follows is an in-depth analysis of the Front Handspring Vault, very common in both compulsory and lower level optional gymnastics.  Many parents wonder what makes a good vault, and in extremely simple terms, we often answer them, “look for speed, and a straight body.  If the gymnast is fast, that’s good, and if her body stays straight the whole time, that’s good.”  But this is overly simplistic.  Let’s now look deeper into exactly how the vault is performed.     

  Phase One:  The Run

In the Front Handspring, the Run phase is quite straightforward.  It should be fast and powerful, and it should accelerate to the Punch on the springboard.  There are many opinions on how many steps are optimal in a vaulting run.  At Gymnastics Revolution, we maintain that 11 steps is a proper run.  The major obstacles to a powerful run are in helping the athlete to develop that power, and convincing the athlete to maintain that power.  Very commonly, gymnasts reduce their speed as they approach the spring board.

To develop running power, the gymnast needs to have strong legs and ankles, and proper running technique.  A good warm-up will include sprints, and a variety of different running methods and jumping methods.  These warm-up activities will help the gymnast to improve her running technique, as long as methodology is sound, and the coach monitors the techniques used.  Arms should not flail from side to side, but rather stay bent, and at the gymnast’s sides, alternatively pumping forward in opposition to her knees. The legs should always point straight ahead, and the knees should lift straight forward as the gymnast strides.  Feet also should point ahead, and not out to the sides.  The head should stay upright, not looking down.  Finally, at Gymnastics Revolution, we keep our athletes on their toes as they run.  This has been the best method for transferring the power from the gymnast’s thighs into the floor, while keeping proper alignment.  It also produces the most power, given the padded running surface that is a vaulting runway.  We time our competitive athletes’ sprints often, forcing the girls to remember to push through every stride to produce optimal speed.

Once the gymnast’s run has been established, she needs to be able to transfer it onto the vaulting runway effectively.  It seems that when faced with the large vaulting table, as well as the springboard, convincing the gymnast to keep her speed up is quite difficult.  To combat this difficulty, there simply is no substitute for practice.  The more the gymnast attempts to maintain her speed, the better she will become at it.  Practicing without the vaulting table may help.  Replacing the vaulting table with softer mats or covering the table with a “sting” mat may help as well.  The key is to provide an environment where the gymnast feels more comfortable accelerating to and working at top speed.  As she is learning this skill, she must also learn to get her arms into the proper position in preparation for her first transfer – the punch.  The key is to have both arms low as the gymnast arrives on the springboard.  At Gymnastics Revolution, we teach an arm “circle,” where the gymnast circles both arms backwards, arriving at the low position just as her feet arrive on the springboard.  The arm circle happens at the same time as the long “hurdle” onto the springboard.  This is the last step of the Run phase, and it should be very long.  Shortening the hurdle will result in the gymnast being unable to transfer properly into the preflight.

  Transfer One:  The “Punch” 

Immediately following the Run, and before the preflight, comes the contact with the spring board.  This is the first transfer in a front handspring vault, and it represents a sudden change of direction and momentum.  The forward power generated in the run is quickly directed upward in the Punch.  The two keys to the punch are having adequate strength, to transfer directions with minimal energy loss, and proper positioning, again to aid in the transfer of that power.

Core strength is vital here – abdominal strength, strength in the thighs, strength in the back.  Gymnasts who are unable to keep their bodies “tight” will have major problems with the punch.  Keep in mind that the body goes from a full sprint forward into the Punch, and any weakness can be exploited.  Knees may give out, the back may arch, the gymnast may be unable to handle the power.  In order to vault correctly, and powerfully, the gymnast’s body must be strong.

Proper body positions and technique will enable the body to use its strength.  First of all, the body should be in a hollow position.  As the feet contact the spring board, the arms should be low, as discussed before, and the knees should be slightly bent.  Upon leaving the spring board, the legs will straighten, as will the body.  Failure to hit these proper positions will result in a loss of power and momentum.
For information on additional vaults see Gymnastics Interactive from the link. ►

Phase Two:  Preflight

A bit of a misnomer, the body is in flight throughout this phase of the vault.  However, it is known as preflight because it is before the contact with the vaulting table in the second transfer.  Opinions vary on body position in the preflight.  Some coaches believe that a strong arch position, exhibiting “heel drive” is correct.  Others believe that a hollow position is desirable.  The only thing they seem to agree on is that a piked preflight is detrimental.  At Gymnastics Revolution, we teach a strong-arched position, despite the fact that later on, we may change that position to a hollow for other more complex vaults.  We feel that learning the heel drive is extremely important, and is not a step to be missed in the training of the young athlete. 

We believe that as the body leaves the springboard, it is naturally in a hollow position, with the arms lifting toward the vault table.  We work a variety of drills to help the athlete drive her heels upward and over her head, keeping the forward momentum of the vault.  The body goes from hollow to slightly arched, as the arms reach toward the vault table.  At the time of contact, the second transfer, the block, takes place.

Before that analysis, a few drills and exercises bear mention.  The arched front layout drill is outstanding, and a mainstay for teaching a good front handspring.  It consists of the athlete performing without the vaulting table.  After a proper run, and proper punch, the athlete then enters the air, and immediately forces her feet upward, creating a tight arched position.  Head position is essential in this drill.  The gymnast should keep her head up, and we often accomplish this by asking her to look at a spot on the wall in front of her, while her heels drive upward.  Just as in a front handspring on Floor Exercise, the head should remain back and up on the landing.  To perform this drill correctly, the gymnast maintains the arched position throughout.  This drill is primarily a preflight drill, but it is also very helpful in training the run and the punch.

Additionally, we like to have the gymnast perform “arch-up” exercises, to represent the heel drive of the front handspring.  One of the many ways to perform these exercises involves the gymnast lying on her stomach on the vault table, and grasping the sides of the table with her hands.  She then lifts her heels upward quickly, using the musculature of her back and her hamstrings to arch.  If the arched preflight is used, this drill is extremely important.  Most coaches will agree that this specific strength is vital, regardless of the method or position of preflight.

Transfer Two:  The block - continued ►