The Balance Beam in Women's Artistic Gymnastics

A young gymnast practicing gymnastics with her coach. (Getty Images)

The balance beam is a women's artistic gymnastics event. It's the third of four apparatus, competed after vault and uneven bars in Olympic order (vault, uneven bars, balance beam, floor). It is often simply called "beam."

Balance Beam Basics

The balance beam is about 4 ft. high, 4 in. wide and 16 1/2 ft. long. It's slightly padded on top (though still feels hard to the touch) and has a slight spring to it as well.

Gymnasts sometimes use chalk to add additional traction to the beam or to mark an important spot (i.e. where they start a dismount) on the beam.

Types of Balance Beam Skills

There are many types of skills on balance beam, including leaps, jumps, turns, holds and acrobatic moves.

In a leap, the gymnast propels herself off of one foot, performs a split at some point in the air, and lands on one foot. The gymnast must hit a full split (180 degrees or more) to avoid deductions. More difficult leaps include ring leaps, twisting leaps (with a turn during the leap) and switch leaps, where the gymnast starts on one leg and kicks the other leg forward then back into the split position.

Jumps are similar to leaps, except the gymnast takes off from two feet and lands on two feet. Ring jumps, sheep jumps, and twisting jumps in various positions are commonly-seen jumps at the elite level.

Every gymnast must perform at least one turn -- a skill in which the gymnast pirouettes on one foot at least 360 degrees around (a full turn). The more revolutions a gymnast does the more difficult it is, so double and triple turns are rated more highly than full turns. Gymnasts also can add to their difficulty score by performing turns with their free leg high in the air, or in a crouch position low to the beam.

Holds include scales and handstands. There are many fewer holds in beam routines today than in the past, simply because gymnasts don't have time to spare doing hold moves -- they want to pack in as many skills as they can of high value, and these skills take up more time than others and are generally of lower value.

Acrobatic moves encompass a wide variety of skills, ranging from walkovers to handsprings to flips, performed forward and backward. High-level gymnasts do acrobatic moves in combination, and some of the toughest combinations being done involve full-twisting back flips in the tucked or stretched position.

The Best Beam Workers

Americans Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin earned the gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 2008 Olympics, and Alexandra Raisman won the bronze at the 2012 Games. Shannon Miller was Olympic beam champ in 1996, earned the silver in 1992, and won a world title on beam in 1994 as well.

Chinese gymnasts Deng Linlin and Sui Lu achieved the same feat in 2012 as the Americans did in 2008, placing 1-2 in the Olympic beam final. Russian Viktoria Komova and Romanian gymnasts Catalina Ponor and Larisa Iordache are also top-notch in the event.

The Queen of Gymnastics, Nadia Comaneci, was also the queen of the beam: She earned the Olympic beam title in both 1976 and 1980. Soviet superstar Olga Korbut won the gold in 1972 and took silver in 1976 behind Comaneci.

The Basics of a Beam Routine

Gymnasts must use the entire length of the beam during their routine, which lasts up to 90 seconds. (A deduction is incurred if it goes longer). The goal is to perform skills that are difficult and beautiful and to look so confident that it almost looks like she is doing her routine on the floor. The gymnast does both a mount to start the routine and a dismount to finish it, and, like all dismounts in gymnastics, she strives to stick the landing -- to land without moving her feet.