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The uneven parallel bars, or "uneven bars" as they are known in gymnastics, is an athletic apparatus where a gymnast swings from bar to bar taking the opportunity to perform release moves where the gymnast launches herself off the bars, performs a flip midair and then catches the bar on her way down. A gymnast's score on the uneven bars is based on the difficulty of the flips midair, her form when switching from one bar to the next, the way she grips the bar and her landing. The high bar stands 7'6", the low bar 4'10" and the bars are about 4'11" apart and are adjustable two inches either way. Uneven bar routines last between 20 seconds to 90 seconds.

History of the Uneven Bars

The precursor to the uneven bars are the parallel bars performed in men's artistic gymnastics. The first mention of bars set unevenly was in a French textbook from 1830. It is said that the first bar was lowered to allow both shorter girls and taller women to use the same apparatus for training.

The uneven version of the parallel bars was first used for the 1934 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. At that time the uneven bars were so close to each other a gymnast could (and would) hang off the top bar, swing, catch her hips around the lower bar (while still hanging onto the top bar) and flip around the bar using her hips. Most low to high bar connections common today were impossible. Instead of making low to high bar connections, gymnasts performed moves while holding both the low and high bars, hence the name "asymetric parallel bars" used in the United Kingdom. The only thing "asymetric" about bar routines today are release moves and grips that involve twists.

At the 1936 Olympic Games, gymnasts performed two bar routines, one compulsory and done on the parallel bars, and the other optional, where the gymnast could chose between the parallel bars and the uneven bars. At the 1950 World Championships, gymnasts could chose between the uneven bars and the swinging rings. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, the uneven bars became a full event. At this time uneven bars routines had become more powerful and complex enough that the uneven bars broke often during routines.

During the late 1950's and early 1960's two major developments in the construction of uneven bars allowed gymnasts to begin to create routines that would not result in bar breaks. The first was the addition of cross bars between the supports of the low and high bars to increase stability. The second was the addition of fiber glass cords inside the wooden bars. These two developments allowed the introduction of the "modern" uneven bars routine at the 1966 World Championships. Since then tension cables have been added to the uneven bars.

The Elements of an Uneven Bars Routine

Different moves and releases on the uneven bars are valued differently in the Women's Technical Committee Code of Points, and a gymnast can obtain connection bonus points for connecting certain moves together in one fluid motion.

The are seven groups or categories of moves on the uneven bars:

  • Mounts: Where the gymnast launches onto the bars, starting on the low bar.
  • Basic & Pirouette Moves: Elementary moves like kips, handstands and rotations.
  • Giants: Where the gymnast swings around the bars, with a specific way of holding the bars.
  • Stalders: When a gymnasts swings around the bar with piked body and straddled legs from one handstand to another.
  • Release Moves: Where the gymnast loses contact with the bars mid-air, both swinging forwards and backwards.
  • Transition Moves: Where the gymnast switches the bar she is in contact with, both from low to high and high to low.
  • Dismounts: Where the gymnast lands on the ground at the end of her routine.

The are six move skill levels:

  • A (0.1p), B (0.3p), C (0.5p), D (0.6p), E (0.7p) and Super E (0.8p),
and there are also many types of connection bonuses for performing moves together:
  • AE,BD,CC,CD,DC,DD,BCC,BBD (0.1p each) and BE,DE,BCD,CCC (0.2p each).
Note that connection bonuses are awarded for each forward permutation in a sequence.

Each complete uneven bars routine has a set of requirements:

  • One transistion from the low bar to high bar with a minimum B value.
  • One transistion from the high bar to low bar with a minimum B value.
  • One flight element caught on the same bar with a minimum B value.
  • One element from each group with a minimum C value.
  • A dismount with a minimum C value.

The Construction of an Uneven Bar Routine

When a gymnast and her coach put together an uneven bars routine, they are looking for a combination of moves that the gymnast is best skilled at that will result in the highest start value.

Let's break down an example uneven bars routine; in this case Carly Patterson's routine (2004).

  • Kip, cast to handstand, underswing to handstand 1/1, stalder shoot to high bar;
  • kip, cast to handstand, stalder 1/1, giant 3/2 (Dawes), giant 1/1, Tkatchev, Pak Salto;
  • kip, cast to handstand 1/2, underswing shoot to high bar;
  • kip, cast to handstand, giant, giant, full-twisting double back.

Each section separated by a semi-colon is a set. (As in forward permutation set, as we will see.) We can write this routine as a sequence of A, B, C, and D elements:

  • A,B,D,C;
  • A,B,D,D,C,D,D;
  • A,B,C;
  • A,B,B,B,D.

and taking each connection bonus, remembering that a gymnast is awarded connection bonuses for each forward permutation in each set, we get

  • A,B,D,C,BD,DC;
  • A,B,C;

so Carly Patterson's start value for this routine is

  • 4A + 6B + 3C + 6D + 8BD + 2CD + 3DC + 6DD + 3BBD + 2BCD =
  • 0.4 + 1.8 + 1.5 + 3.6 + 0.8 + 0.2 + 0.3 + 0.6 + 0.3 + 0.4 =
  • 9.9

That is Carly's start value would be 9.9 (out of a "perfect 10"). If all the moves are performed flawlessly, a gymnast can acheive a maximum score of her start value. Any mistakes are deducted from the total, and breaks between connections also break any permutation bonuses.


Gymnastics fans and judges look for different things on the uneven bars that do not have anything to do with tricks or skills per se, but with form.

For one, when a gymnast is doing a handstand at the top of the bars she is expected to keep her back as straight as possible. Imagine gravity pulling the gymnast away from the ground and stretching her legs towards the sky. That is the ideal "line" for a handstand. Often gymnasts will attempt to perform extended maneuvers while doing a handstand and gravity begins to take over. The resulting loss of balance is called "banana back" and is difficult (but not impossible) to recover from. A few of the best examples of this form are Kristal Uzelac and Amy Chow.

Gymnasts are also expected to keep their legs straight and uncrossed. Some gymnasts, like Kristen Maloney cross their feet while going over the top of the uneven bars. Though this gives rotational stability and makes it easier to keep your back straight it is considered bad form because if a gymnast slips up she needs time to uncross them so she can land more safely.

The final release move from the uneven bars is particularily important. The best releases are those where the body is straight and flips the way a domino would flip from end to end. One of the best examples of good layout release position are Simona Amanar and Andreea Raducan. Some gymnasts release in piked position, that is, looking like a pained fetus toppling over. Gymnasts known for piked releases are Henrietta Onodi and uneven bars uber-champion Svetlana Khorkina.

In the end, aesthetics has a safely element. Any move that restricts the body's ability to adjust itself while hitting the ground is "bad". Bad landings from the uneven bars are in fact more dangerous than the vault because most of time, the vault is already two metres behind the gymnast so she won't hit it on the way down. In particular, the lower portion of the uneven bars is the most dangerous. A gymnast can smack her feet or ankles on it while twisting around the high bar, or even bounce off it. Kerri Strug and Carri Nagle have both spent time in neck braces because of the uneven bars.

The Uneven Bars as Nemesis

The way a gymnast looks at an apparatus determines the mood, the psyche of how an exercise will play out. You can tell what apparatus a gymnast is about to perform just by looking at her eyes. If her eyes point downward at a 45° angle she's about to do a floor exercise. If her eyes point straight down or at a 30° angle down she's about to either mount the balance beam with her hands or launch onto it, respectively. If her eyes are straight ahead or she's looking to one side she's about to do a vault and she's either looking way down the length of the runway or looking at where she drew her chalk mark so she can "time" her run before her launch.

If a gymnast is looking at a 10° angle or up, she's on the bars.

Gymnasts spend more time prepping the bars and sizing them up than any other apparatus. Before any routine they jump onto the bars and hang off them to get a feel for the bars' "give", their elasticity. They sit on the bars rubbing them down with gym chalk to make them slick, and then use squirt bottles to reduce the slick. A gymnast will go through at least a couple iterations of this before any routine. The uneven bars is the only event where a gymnast can adjust the apparatus; she can select the height of the bars and the distance between them to accomodate her size.

Gymnasts spend just as much time adjusting their grips in the same way they do the bars, from chalking and watering them down to get the right feel to constantly wrapping and unwrapping their wrist guards.

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