Every four years, we watch. We marvel at badminton and wonder about the modern decathlon. With more than 300 gold medals awarded across 37 disciplines, our lives are suddenly much less productive. To aid in your immersion, we continue with our daily edition of "know your Olympic sport," with more than you need to know about gymnastics.
Inside we'll provide a trick to help you finally touch your toes, expose a fault in major equipment and challenge our readers to win back a gold for America.
Apparently a simple split is not enough. With degrees of flexibility correlating with tenths of points, US gymnasts will try any form of Voodoo to get that limb just millimeters higher. Well aware of the value of an extra degree the ears of Dr. Bill Sands, leader of the Recovery Center for the USOC, perked up 15 years ago when he read research citing 100 percent improvements in flexibility in male physical education students.
"In a lot of sports, just making the shape is part of doing well. The elegance of the position itself is what's pursued," said Sands "The higher you can hold the leg, the better."
The source of the absurd improvement relied less on Voodoo than it did on vibration. Research had shown that resting a limb on a vibrating surface during stretching greatly increased the flexibility of that limb. Sands searched the literature but was surprised to find no attempts to repeat the data and capitalize on the potential advantage. Armed with $1,000, a local machine shop and an engineering intern Sands decided to make his own vibration box. The machine itself is surprisingly simple. It's shaped like a small pommel horse and shakes continuously at 30 hertz. After trials with young male gymnasts showed 400 percent improvements acutely and significant increases at four weeks, Sands felt the device was ready for Olympic prime time. Three years later, with a series of peer-reviewed publications, Sands says the effect of the machine is indisputable.
"As a physiologist I'm struggling to find improvements of one percent and so when you can find improvements of 20 -100 percent, that's big time," said Sands. "The results have been staggering, not just small. It's to the point where we stopped studying it because we know it works. It's by far the biggest results in experiments that I've ever done"