Can Gymnastics Stunt Your Growth?

My search for information about tumbling continues, and thus, I discover weird but persistent ideas about our sport- ideas I thought were no longer relevant. There are, it seems, many people who think (or at least want to know if) Gymnastics can stunt your growth. 

And I say many because Google returned About 1,350,000 results (0.56 seconds) for this search string. 

Possible Reasons for this Conception 

Before I proceed to the science available regarding this question, I want to note three possible reasons for the ostensibly typical gymnastics body types. 

First, there are apocryphal accounts of some coaches implementing puberty or growth suppression methods to control athletes’ body size. We know that dietary restrictions were traditionally imposed on athletes by some coaches.

Both practices are vile and the result of human stupidity and greed. 

More on this later. 

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Second, some athlete selection criteria determined by coaches who believe the ideal gymnastics body type to be small and shapeless. This reason is self-explanatory. Coaches allow only athletes who look a particular way to join their team. And another consequence of lazy, uncritical human thinking.

Third, a specific body type might be optimal for performing gymnastics skills. I say “might be optimal” because body type isn’t a limitation as much as it is a reason to modify training to fit the needs of the individual. This possible reason implies that gymnastics training doesn’t make you look a particular way but that you are good at gymnastics because of your natural body type.  

Warning to coaches
Warning to Coaches

Again, I want to warn coaches about the dangers of thinking that body type is detrimental to gymnastics training. It isn’t. If it affects training at all, an athlete’s body type is a challenge to the coach more than to the athlete. 

The Science

Science about gymnastics and body type.

I contemplated re-writing this part but I share it here in its original format to avoid misrepresentation of the science.

What follows is the abstract of a study published by The National Library of Medicine (National Center for Biotechnology Information). 

Role of Intensive Training in the Growth and Maturation of Artistic Gymnasts

“Short stature and later maturation of youth artistic gymnasts are often attributed to the effects of intensive training from a young age. Given limitations of available data, inadequate specification of training, failure to consider other factors affecting growth and maturation, and failure to address epidemiological criteria for causality, it has not been possible thus far to establish cause–effect relationships between training and the growth and maturation of young artistic gymnasts. 

In response to this ongoing debate, the Scientific Commission of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) convened a committee to review the current literature and address four questions: (1) Is there a negative effect of training on attained adult stature? (2) Is there a negative effect of training on growth of body segments? (3) Does training attenuate pubertal growth and maturation, specifically, the rate of growth and/or the timing and tempo of maturation? (4) Does training negatively influence the endocrine system, specifically hormones related to growth and pubertal maturation? The basic information for the review was derived from the active involvement of committee members in research on normal variation and clinical aspects of growth and maturation, and on the growth and maturation of artistic gymnasts and other youth athletes. 

The committee was thus thoroughly familiar with the literature on growth and maturation in general and of gymnasts and young athletes. Relevant data were more available for females than males. Youth who persisted in the sport were a highly select sample, who tended to be shorter for chronological age but who had appropriate weight-for-height. 

Data for secondary sex characteristics, skeletal age and age at peak height velocity indicated later maturation, but the maturity status of gymnasts overlapped the normal range of variability observed in the general population. Gymnasts as a group demonstrated a pattern of growth and maturation similar to that observed among short-, normal-, late-maturing individuals who were not athletes. 

Evidence for endocrine changes in gymnasts was inadequate for inferences relative to potential training effects. Allowing for noted limitations, the following conclusions were deemed acceptable: (1) Adult height or near adult height of female and male artistic gymnasts is not compromised by intensive gymnastics training. (2) Gymnastics training does not appear to attenuate growth of upper (sitting height) or lower (legs) body segment lengths. (3) Gymnastics training does not appear to attenuate pubertal growth and maturation, neither rate of growth nor the timing and tempo of the growth spurt. (4) Available data are inadequate to address the issue of intensive gymnastics training and alterations within the endocrine system.”

I recommend you read the entire study when you have the time. There are substantial data about this debate, and the science points to the same conclusion as the study above.

However, the philosophical implications are vastly more important. I’ll leave you with some questions to ponder.

How many people, especially parents, decide not to enrol their children in gymnastics because of the misconception that it will negatively affect their growth?

Are there any adults who blame gymnastics training for their small stature? And if so, what are the negative psychological implications?

Thank you for reading.

— Coach José

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