Last week, I introduced you to vault, the gymnastics apparatus known for its power and speed. Now we’re moving onto what is basically vault’s opposite, the uneven bars.
While the super powerful and strong gymnasts tend to excel on vault, bars are all about fluidity, rhythm, and lines. They do share one common thread with vault, and that’s a crazy amount of shoulder strength. A gymnast has to make it through a 30 second nonstop routine, throwing herself into the air and going back and forth from the low bar to the high bar using nothing but her hands, which takes a superhuman amount of strength…though the aesthetic requires that gymnasts must make these feats look graceful and effortless.
The apparatus itself is made up of one low bar 170 centimeters (5.6 feet) high and one high bar 250 centimeters (8.2 feet) high, with the two set between 130-180 centimeters (4.3-5.9 feet) apart (they can be adjusted based on the gymnast’s needs). The bars are made of fiberglass and are connected by a steel frame.
For a bit of history, the uneven bars originally were meant to be like the women’s version of parallel bars, and were literally just parallel bars set at different heights. For decades, the bars were set much closer together so gymnasts could go back and forth between the two somewhat easily. Originally, gymnasts would perform strength holds, and it wasn’t until nearly the 1960s that routines with fluid transitions and skills came into the mix. Over the next two decades, gymnasts experimented with release skills, including the very first same-bar release (aka when a gymnasts releases the bar, performs a skill, and regrasps the same bar), the Korbut flip, named for Olga Korbut in 1972.
This skill is now banned because it’s actually super dangerous, but it led to tremendous innovation, including the Comaneci salto. These flips and the others that followed began following what the men were performing on the high bar, and so by the mid 1980s, the bars were moved further apart to give women the ability to do giant swings in order to generate momentum for the bigger release skills the guys were doing. The greater width also allowed for innovation with transitional skills between the bars, like the Pak salto, named for Gyong Sil Pak of North Korea.
Now routines are all about piecing together these big release elements and transitions as well as pirouetting elements in a single fluid routine with no stopping until the dismount. Here’s a fun fact – both beam and floor are timed because gymnasts are pausing between skills or breaking up elements with bits of choreography, but on bars because every skill is supposed to lead into a subsequent skill, there is no need for timing!
Now let’s break down a bars routine. Whereas vault is basically a single skill, the other three events in gymnastics are all made up of a series of skills and requirements that build up to determine the routine’s start value. In the current code of points, gymnasts have to satisfy five required elements on each apparatus to meet the CR part of the start value, and the values of their eight most difficult elements in the routine are added up. This is where the bulk of the start value comes from, and then the gymnasts can also add a few tenths if they connect certain elements. For a more complete picture of how this works, check out our Getting Technical guide.
So we’ll start off with the required elements. Each of the following is worth 0.5, so if a gymnast reaches all requirements, she gets an automatic 2.5 D score on top of what she earns for the value of her skills. The composition requirements (CR) are:
- Transitions – flight from low bar to high bar AND high bar to low bar
- Same Bar Release – flight on the same bar
- Pirouette – non-flight element with a minimum of 360 degree turn
- Different Grips – elements forward and backward
- Dismount – any dismount rated D or higher
In terms of the dismount, if a gymnast only does a C dismount she’ll get a 0.3 CR instead of the full 0.5, but if she doesn’t do a dismount or only does an A or B element, she doesn’t get any CR, meaning that’s 0.5 missing from her routine. Basically it really hurts your score if you miss out on one of these five required elements. If a gymnast makes a mistake that causes her to miss her full pirouette and she doesn’t fit one in later on, for example, that could take her routine down from a 6.0 start value to a 5.5.
The elements on the uneven bars rank from A (the easiest skills worth 0.1 each) to G (the most difficult skills worth 0.7 each). Many of the stronger bar workers at the Olympic level will try to make sure all of the eight skills that count are D or higher, though because bars can be a difficult event for the majority of gymnasts, you will definitely see some gymnasts counting easier elements. And a gymnast can have more than eight skills in her routine, but only the top eight are counted. I’ll post a list of all of the skills with their names and values at the bottom similar to what I did with the vault list.
Finally, the connection values (CV). Gymnasts get a bonus if certain skills are connected, and those bonuses are:
- D + D (or more) = 0.1 CV
- D (transition from low bar to high bar) + C (or more, performed on high bar) = 0.2 CV
- D + E (both being flight elements, transitions OR same-bar releases) = 0.2 CV
If you don’t understand even half of this, don’t worry. You’re not alone. We’re getting into super advanced territory so don’t freak out if you’re watching bars at the Olympics and can’t pick out elements or build a D score. This is what judges do and it’s super tricky!
But if you are a little more advanced and want to see how the D score comes together, I’ll take you through an example using a video and time stamps.
Here we have Daria Spiridonova of Russia with a routine that earned her the silver medal at European Championships this year.
- 0:14 – Mount – glide kip – A
- 0:16 – Non-flight – cast to handstand – A
- 0:18 – Non-flight – pike stalder (inbar) full pirouette – E
- 0:20 – Transition – pike stalder (inbar) with flight to high bar (Komova II) – E
- 0:23 – Transition – swing forward to straight salto backwards to low bar (Pak) – D
- 0:25 – Transition – toe-on release with flight backwards to high bar with half twist (Van Leeuwen) – E
- 0:27 – Non-flight – cast to handstand – A
- 0:29 – Non-flight – piked stalder with half turn to reverse/L grip – D
- 0:31 – Same Bar Release – piked Jaeger – D
- 0:35 – Non-flight – cast to handstand with half turn – A
- 0:37 – Non-flight – backward giant – B
- 0:39 – Non-flight – pike sole circle with full turn (Hoefnagel) – D
- 0:42 – Dismount – double salto backwards tucked with full twist – D
Okay, so first let’s see if all of the CR have been met.
- Transitions – she has a low bar to high bar transition at 0:20 as well as at 0:25, and one from high to low at 0:23
- Same Bar Release – her Jaeger at 0:31 satisfies this requirement
- Pirouette – the inbar full at 0:18 counts, as does the Hoefnagel at 0:39
- Different Grips – like most gymnasts, the bulk of her routine is done backwards, but her swing down into her Jaeger is forward so that works
- Dismount – her full-out is a D, so this is all set
Spiridonova gets an automatic 2.5 points from fulfilling all requirements, as will pretty much every gymnast at the Olympic level.
Now, the skills. She technically has 13 skills, but remember, only the eight most difficult count. In order from high to low, her skills are as follows: E, E, E, D, D, D, D, D, B, A, A, A, A with the eight most difficult in bold. E skills are worth 0.5 and D skills are worth 0.4, so here you would multiply her three E skills by 0.5 to get 1.5 points and then her five D skills by 0.4 to get 2 points. Add these together, and her combination of skills is 3.5 points, which is added to the 2.5 CR to get 6 points.
But we don’t stop there! Now we look at the connection values. Technically every skill in a bars routine is connected, because the point of a bars routine is to show fluidity between elements. But more difficult connections get the bonus, and Spiridonova gets a bunch of these:
- Inbar full, E (0:18) + Komova II, E (0:20) = 0.1
- Komova II, E (0:20) + Pak, D (0:23) = 0.2
- Pak, D (0:23) + van Leeuwen, E (0:25) = 0.2
- Inbar half, D (0:29) + Jaeger, D (0:31) = 0.1
- Hoefnagel, D (0:39) + full-out dismount, D (0:42) = 0.1
So from all of her super difficult connections, Spiridonova gets a total of 0.7 in connection bonuses. That added on to the 6.0 we already calculated means she gets a huge 6.7 D score, which is one of the more difficult bar routines we’ll see in Rio.
Remember that routines aren’t all about D scores, though. Spiridonova also received an E score, or execution score, for this routine, which takes into account any errors she may have made. This routine was rewarded an 8.766 E score, which means starting from a 10.0 E score, the judges took 1.234 away in deductions. It sounds like a lot, but this is actually a superb E score for bars, where the best routines will tend to earn in the high 8s or low 9s.
So what are judges looking for on bars? Like vault, falls are obvious deductions, and incur 1 point. Pauses and intermediate or empty swings also get large deductions, so you know how Spiridonova had those casts into handstand between some skills? If she had done two of those in a row, it would be considered an empty swing and get 0.5 off. A gymnast who hits the apparatus with her feet (like whacking her feet against the low bar in a giant swing) gets 0.3 off, and a gymnast who brushes her feet against the floor while performing an element gets 0.5 off.
Spiridonova didn’t have any of these bigger deductions going on, so all of hers came from smaller deductions that build up. Every handstand or pirouette that isn’t perfectly over the bar is deducted between 0.1-0.5 tenths, and Spiridnova definitely picks up a couple of tenths in that department. In her Hoefnagel, for example, you can see that when she completes the pirouette and regrasps the bar, she is definitely way off from hitting a vertical position.
The judges have a perfect view of her handstand angle sitting on the sides of the bars podium, so it’s a bit harder for us to tell head-on, but I’d say she’s about 30-45 degrees shy of vertical, which would incur a 0.3 deduction. Had she been just a hair shy of a vertical handstand, it would’ve been only 0.1 off, and had she regrasped the bar 45-90 degrees shy of handstand, it would’ve been 0.5 off.
As with vault, the dismount is subject to landing deductions, like 0.1 off for tiny hops or steps, and 0.3 off for larger hops and steps. In this routine she has a teeny tiny readjustment on the landing which would’ve been about 0.1 off. And also like vault, the gymnast’s form is taken into consideration, with legs glued, toes pointed, and elbows straight. Spiridonova has very nice form and technique overall so she is a bad example if you’re looking for these form deductions, but you could see a clear separation in her leg form when she released into the dismount, which definitely would’ve incurred about 0.1 in deductions.
These are the most common deductions, but a few others exist as well, like a lack of height in a release move. Gabby Douglas was known in 2012 for going sky-high in her Tkachev releases, but some gymnasts barely get over the bar. I call these “butt-grazers,” and they can get about 0.1-0.3 off in deductions.
Douglas never had to worry about getting a deduction for low Tkachevs, but look at Ivana Hong in the second image! She barely cleared the bar, and definitely would have incurred a 0.3 deduction for being that low. Now, it’s not really a fair comparison, because Hong was performing a Li Li, which is a super tricky combination of elements with a rarely-done clear pike support with full circle swing backwards into the Tkachev…but her lack of height is a good example of what the judges don’t want to see.
Another common deduction is poor rhythm. I keep talking about fluidity and how bars are all about fluid transitions and connections from skill to skill, but some gymnasts have very little rhythm between elements, which can be 0.1 off each time the judges notice a problem. For many of the top bar workers, like Spiridonova, fluidity and rhythm come naturally, but for those who aren’t naturals at swinging bars, a seemingly good routine can still incur a number of deductions when there are problems with rhythm.
There aren’t very many penalties on bars, so it’s rare to see a tenth off in the “ND” or neutral deduction column, but if a gymnast falls and fails to mount the bars again within 30 seconds she gets a 0.1 penalty and if the coach touches a gymnast while spotting, there’s another penalty there.
Okay, we’ve made some pretty good ground with the uneven bars and I hope I made it easy to understand what can be pretty complicated to follow! But if there’s something coming to your mind and if I failed to share a crucial piece of information, please ask away in the comment section.
Before we go, here’s the list of the most common uneven bars elements in the code of points along with their values, sorted by type of skill. I’m linking each skill to a gif, all of which are made by the fabulous candycoatteddoom, who has this full list of every uneven bars element on Wikia.
I also used more colloquial gym language than the code offers, so check Wikia for the language used in the code as well. As a note, any skill is implied to be a backwards skill in regular grip unless I write “front” or “forward” and include the grip name (for example, “forward giant in reverse grip with full turn to regular grip” in code language = “front giant full” colloquially).
Article by Lauren Hopkins