Acrobatic Arts

17 September, 2015

Terms of Motion

The main focus of this article is to educate about terminology of various types of motion. This can help give you a deeper understanding of movement, and thereby hopefully improve your coaching, training, and possibly judging. One thing to keep in mind while coaching however, is that as a coach, you study hard and have a greater understanding than the athlete typically does. This means that although you might understand a lot of this terminology and use it to help your understanding of the movement, you will typically still need to use a lot more simplistic terms while explaining things for your athletes. A lot of times a coach can ask the athlete to do something that may not technically be possible, but may provide the required results.

Table of Contents

Planes & Axes
Muscle Contractions
Anatomical Terms of Motion
The Spine The Wrist
The Shoulder Girdle The Hip
The Shoulder The Knee
The Elbow The Ankle
The Forearm The Pelvis


Planes & Axes 

I will start with ‘planes of motion’ and ‘axes of rotation’ from a coaching view. This is for myself as much as it is for others as I constantly get confused and keep having to look it up myself.
A plane is the surface in which a movement takes place, sort of like saying the movement is going in that direction.
An axis however is a line through the body about which the athlete rotates.

  • Forward and backward rolls move along the sagittal plane, and around the frontal axis.
  • Cartwheels move along the frontal plane, and around the sagittal axis.
  • Performing a jump 1/1 turn moves along the transverse plane around the longitudinal axis.

Muscle Contractions

When talking about muscle contractions we do not simply mean the muscle shortens, as muscles are a lot more complex than that. What we commonly refer to as muscle contractions is a bit more along the lines of muscle activation that generates a force. These different types of muscle contractions are very important, especially when it comes to conditioning, as they can be used in various ways to prepare the athlete. Now lets cover the 3 main types of muscle contraction. [1]

Concentric – A concentric muscle contraction is when the muscle is activated and shortens. A good example of this is performing a pull-up. On the way to getting your chin to the bar, the biceps are using concentric contraction to pull.

Isometric – An isometric contraction is when the muscle is activated, but does not change its length. An example of this would be while performing the pull-up, once your chin reaches the bar you hold that position for a few seconds. While holding yourself up there, your biceps are performing an isomeric contraction.

Eccentric – An eccentric contraction is when the muscle is activated but lengthens. An example of this is after holding your pull-up for a few seconds you slowly start to lower yourself back to the ground. Lowering slowly like that means that your biceps are using an eccentric contraction to control your descent.

Anatomical Terms of Motion

Now to cover the anatomical terms of motion for the joints.
To do it from a coaching perspective I will cover the motions according to parts of the body, rather than by the motion definition.
I also want to note that I am not doing every single movement there is as I did not believe it was needed or ever really used for general coaching.

To begin we will start with the human body’s anatomical position as our reference point. The default position is basically standing straight with feet shoulder width apart, arms at the sides with palms facing forwards. This is the reference point for all motion. 

The Spine

Starting with movement of the spine (this includes the neck of course obviously). Here we have;

Flexion: Like holding a dish body shape.
Extension: Skills such as holding an arch or bridge.
Lateral flexion: Such as performing a side arch or cartwheel.
Rotation: An action used when using using a torque twisting technique.

The Shoulder Girdle

The movements of the shoulder girdle (scapulothoracic joint) are;
Elevation: Action used when shrugging shoulders such as in a handstand, handspring, or a swing on bar.
Depression: This movement is used in skills such as to help accelerate a swing on the parallel bars.
Protraction: A movement often used for front support body shapes or in circles on the pommel horse.
Retraction: An action used when gymnasts are in the rear support phase of a circle on pommel.

The Shoulder

We have movement of the arm at the shoulder (glenohumeral joint). These actions are;
Flexion: A movement used when trying to cast to handstand on bar.
Extension: A movement used a lot by men’s gymnastics in forward swings on the parallel bars or at the front of a circle on pommel.
Abduction: This action is hard to spot in basic skills, but is used in some advanced men’s skills such as a Japanese Handstand.
Adduction: This motion is used by any male trying to hold himself in a support of the rings.
Internal rotation: This is very hard to see used directly in a skill, however when doing flicflacs with fingers pointing inwards it occurs, as well as when a gymnast performs a muscle-up on the rings.
External rotation: Another action hard to spot directly in a skill, however when a gymnast holds himself in support on rings the rings are supposed to be externally rotated by 45 degrees. Arms are also externally rotated in a forwards giant on bar with an under grip.
Horizontal abduction: This action is often used while performing a forwards layout salto.
Horizontal adduction: Not easy to spot this action directly in a skill, the best example I can think of is during a backwards uprise on rings.

The Elbow

We also have movement of the forearm at the elbow (ulnohumeral and radiohumeral joints).
Flexion: Action used when performing a pullup.
Extension: Action used when performing a pressup.

The Forearm

We have motion in the forearm (radio-ulnar joint).
Pronation: This motion in used while performing a basic tap swing on bar.
Supination: This motion is used while performing an under grip forwards giant on bar.

The Wrist

Motion at the wrist includes;
Flexion: This is used often by male gymnasts who use a false grip on the rings.
Extension: This motion is used in any support on floor, like a handstand for example.
Radial deviation: Any forwards swing under the parallel bars or backwards swing on top of the parallel bars use this action.
Ulnar deviation: This is used in and backwards swing under the parallel bars or forwards swing on top of the parallel bars.

The Hip

We have movement of the leg at the hip (acetabular joint).
Flexion: This action is used any time a gymnast performs a tuck or pike body shape.
Extension: This movement happens in the back leg while kicking into a handstand.
Abduction: Any time a gymnast moves into a straddle they use abduction, such as while performing a cartwheel.
Adduction: Most skills in gymnastics require the gymnasts keep their legs together, this means they should almost constantly be using adduction.
Internal rotation: At this stage I cannot think of any skill using internal rotation, however it can often be seen happening on the front leg if a gymnast is not focusing on maintaining correct form while performing the splits.
External rotation: This action often happens to the back leg while performing the splits.

The Knee

Movement at the knee.
Flexion: Flexion occurs at the knee during any skill where the gymnast must tuck his legs.
Extension: Extension of the leg should occur during most skills as the gymnast should typically have straight legs during their skills.

The Ankle

The movements here at the talocrural and subtalar joint are; [2]
Dorsiflexion: Gymnasts move into this position while landing, although they come into this position, it is done so with an eccentric muscle contraction for plantar flexion.
Plantar flexion: During all skills the gymnasts are supposed to be pointing their toes, this is planter flexion.
Inversion: This action is not normally seen in any skills, however it still often happens while gymnasts try to point their toes and often end up with one foot half curled over the other.
Eversion: One of the main times this action will be used in gymnastics is when a gymnast is jumping into a torque twist.

The Pelvis

Now the one thing I did forget to photograph which should possibly be in here is the anterior and posterior pelvic tilt.
The anterior pelvic tilt is when the pelvis is rotated forwards so the lower back is arched (extended). The posterior pelvic tilt is when the pelvis is rotated backwards and flattens out the lower back (flexed). If you struggle to visualise it, it may help to search for diagrams of this action online. A good link that may help you understand it can be found by clicking HERE.

I hope this has been handy for you.

Thanks for reading!  🙂



[1] Muscle Physiology – Types of Contractions. (2006, May 31). Retrieved September 1, 2015, from

[2] Anatomy of the Ankle. (2012, September 30). Retrieved September 16, 2015, from

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