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Biomechanics of Backflip (Physics and human physiology of backflip)



Backflip is a move that conjures a primal fear in many.


The fear of death (landing on the neck) and injury.


However, courage lies on the other side of fear.


Although there’s not much you can gain after learning a backflip (unless you can use them in competitions), there exists a form of pure psychological joy, i would even claim it as ecstasy, that you can get from attempting a backflip -from overcoming the fear of death.


However, facing the primal fear with no necessary preparations is reckless.


We don’t stand for recklessness.


We take calculated risks, maximizing the chance of success and hedging the risk of injury through understanding how our body works and building muscle memories.


If you're interested in the biomechanics (physics and human physiology) of backflip, read on!



Backflip
Backflip

This is a backflip executed by Ray!


Table of Contents:


Understanding how to perform a backflip


First observations of Backflip (Pros VS Newbs)


A backflip done with perfect technique would contain height, good rotation at the peak of the jump, and easy landing, backflips that are performed by someone that maybe just learnt the skill, or self taught, might perform the backflip with very little height, rotating early in the jump, rotation initiated by whipping of the upper body, and very difficult landing due to the uncontrollably fast rotation and lack of height.



Our Student Ken's "newbie" backflip




Ken's Improved backflip




A thorough breakdown, and analysis of the backflip


Technique Analysis:

  1. Entry (Take Off)

  2. Execution (The Flip)

  3. Exit (Landing)



The Take Off: How to optimise jumping height for backflip.


Squatting to Jump

Preparation phase of vertical jump (downward movement)

  1. Why swinging arms down will help get a better arm swing for the jump:

    • Arm swung back using the rear delts

    • Swinging back lengthens/stretches front delts

    • Lengthening of front delts stores elasticity making it easier to swing your arms and generate more force with the swing







Why a counter movement jump is good for backflip:

  • Squatting down quickly, with triple flexion of the joints (hip, knee, ankle)

  • Squatting down stretches/lengthens the Glutes, Quads, and calves

  • Lengthened muscles store elasticity, which makes jumping easier and generate more force on the ground resulting in a higher jump, as compared to jumping from an isometric hold (holding a squat position for too long)


Important core and upper body posture to have to perform an efficient backflip:
  • First, leaning back during a jump leads to more distance travelled, what you want is as much vertical distance when performing a jump for backflip

  • Retracting of shoulder blades could lead to leaning back, and bad core position (arching of back)

  • The core on both anterior and posterior sides (front and back) should be performing isometric holds (static contractions) to keep the spine as straight as possible (Posterior pelvic tilt)

  • The posterior pelvic tilt is a result of contracting your abs and straightening your lower spine from arched to flat.

  • The posterior pelvic tilt is known to be the best athletic position due to the fact that it keeps your body in a stronger position to perform different movements more efficiently.






Getting an Optimal Jump for Backflip


Pushing off

How to get optimal height for backflip:

  1. Strong and well timed arm swing

  2. Triple extension of ankles, knees and hips simultaneously

  3. Tall body position during toe off


STRONG AND WELL TIMED ARM SWING
  • There are 3 forces we want to use from an arm swing. (forces down, up, and around)

  • Arm swing DOWN (when fingers and pointing to the floor) is an important point as it is also the time you start your triple extension (pushing on the ground), and it helps to generate complementary force from the ground to the body

  • Arm swing UP generates lift on the body at the shoulders which also generate complementary force upwards, and it also acts as a set for the back flip

  • Arm swing AROUND represents the circular motion in which the arm will travel when swinging, this angular momentum will be stored while your body is extended, and will increase in speed when you tuck for your backflip


TRIPLE EXTENSION OF ANKLES, KNEES AND HIPS
  • When we look out for triple extension of these limbs what we want to see is all 3 joints start extending at the same time and finish at almost the same time

  • What we do not want to see is the hips shooting in front, or behind of the coronal plane of the body









TALL BODY POSITION DURING TOE OFF:
  • TALL, meaning shoulders, hips, knees, ankles are stacked on top of each other from the lateral view

  • To achieve this “TALL” position, you have to avoid arching your back, leaning back, tilting chest forwards, all these are causes of a sub-optimal jump (travel forwards or backwards)

  • Remember to include posterior pelvic tilt (simpler explanation would be just maintaining pencil position when pushing off the ground.




The flip: How to flip quickly and efficiently for the backflip


The tuck
Tucking Efficiently For Backflip

Tucking technique for backflip VS tuck jump

BackFlip tuck: (What we want)

  • Tall shoulders positioning (not slouching forwards)

  • toe+knee drive up towards the sky scooping hips underneath you, which causes the rotation

  • Tucking with flexion of spine and hip

Tuck jump: (What we do not want)

  • Shoulders slouched forwards (to maintain balance)

  • Knee drive up towards chest

  • Heel may or may not kick butt

  • Tucking with only hip flexors (spine may or may not be flexed)


How to perform an optimal tuck for backflip:

  1. Toe drive+knee drive with Flexed/ straight spine (SLIGHT extension is fine)

  2. Shoulders movement only upwards/backwards

  3. Tucking legs to hands (as opposed to hands to legs)


TOE DRIVE+KNEE DRIVE with flexed/ straight spine
  • The toe drive is not so much a kick with your toes but the PENCIL POSITION, in the PENCIL POSITION, your toes are slightly pointed in front of your body as seen in the lateral view hence “toe drive”

  • The TOE DRIVE (pencil position) happens when you are well drilled into performing a vertical jump into a pencil hold

  • And how you would do this is keeping a strong isometric hold with your abs keeping a straight/flexed spine, and keeping the hold throughout the jump, this helps keep posterior pelvic tilt and keeps the core in a stronger position.

  • What you want to avoid: throwing head up and back, retracting shoulder blades, forcefully extending your hips resulting in kicking your legs back when jumping


Shoulders movement only upward/backwards
  • Basically don't do what you do when performing a tuck jump (dropping shoulders forwards)

  • Engaging the core when mid-air while performing the tuck to prevent majority of forward shoulder drop (with help of angular momentum of the arm swing)

  • Shoulders slightly angling back minimally is fine, as it helps the body flip better by generating force backward/downwards

  • Leaning forwards during a jump for bf will result in slower flip/ later flip.


Tucking legs to hands rather than hands to legs:
  • What this means is after the arm swing and the jump, the arms should stay above the head, and the toe+knee drive generating the flip will drive the legs up towards the arms, and the arms should just be catching/ hugging the legs for the tuck

  • As oppose to swinging the arms back down towards the legs to perform the tuck

  • Swinging the arms down generates another force opposing the force of the backflip, from a lot of students we see that and usually during the swinging of the arms downwards you will see their flip start to slow down significantly.






Understanding how the backflip happens:
  • The flip of a backflip is mostly initiated by the action of tucking the knees towards the chest, as you take off, assuming you have a decent take off, arms swung strongly above the head, legs are extended almost at the peak of the jump, the next thing to do to initiate the flip is to tuck the knees, crunching the core to keep your chest at the position it was already at, and lifting your legs towards the position where your chest is, this will create angular momentum that initiates the flip.



  • To perform a quicker flip, your knees should be flexed as much as possible once you have bring them up towards your chest as your arms come in to pull and hold onto your shin, or knee area, to create a small ball with your entire body, the smaller you are, the lesser the force needed to rotate the entire body, hence the speed of the flip will increase, making it easier to spot the landing because you finished your flip quick enough.








The Landing: How to spot and land safely for the backflip

Landing Backflip

  • The landing, backflips are one of the rare tricks where landing is easier than the take off and the flip, as long as you have the jump height, and the quickness of the flip, with good height, and a quick flip, you would be able to spot your landing before you even land, you could possibly be almost only past halfway through your backflip as you spot for your landing.

  • Drills can be done to improve body awareness to spot and land on your feet.

  • As you spot for your landing, the timing to let go of your tuck and reach for the ground is when you are almost right side up during your flip, as your legs extend downwards for the landing, you should be landing with the balls of your feet, knees and hips slightly flexed to absorb the impact of the landing, and arms stretched out in front of you to have a little more balance due to the major backwards momentum.


Strength and conditioning exercises to improve your backflip

The main muscle groups used in a backflip are the legs to produce jumping power, and the abdominal muscles to pull the legs up mid-air towards the chest to create a strong flip, hence some plyometrics, jumping coordination exercises, and core strengthening can be implemented.

  1. Maximum effort squat jumps is an important exercise to build explosive jumping power to help athletes get more height in their backflips in the future as they get stronger. At the same time, the athletes can learn how to catch themselves with their legs as they land from the jump. Weights can be implemented to increase difficulty.

  2. Tuck jumps with focus on tucking the knees up towards the chest tightly, not only does this help with training to jump higher, it also trains the athletes to use their abdominal muscles to pull their legs up towards their chest just like how the tuck is performed in a backflip.

  3. Weighted/ body weight squats, this can help build the base strength of the athlete, without a good base strength it is difficult to produce power to get a good, and high vertical jump, it trains the legs to produce more force to push the body upwards, and catch the body downwards.

  4. Hanging knee raises, this is a good exercise that trains athletes to get the stability, strength and power to pull their knees towards their chest by training the hip flexors, oblique muscles, and the abdominal muscles, as the athletes get stronger, they can progress by increasing the speed of their tucks, making sure they swing as little as possible, or they can increase the difficulty by straightening their legs, and doing a straight leg raise instead.

  5. Lying knee + hip raise, this exercise so important for training to core to do a backflip, during the exercise athletes will raise their knee towards their chest, as they do that they have to lift their hips off the ground hence ending up in a position where only their upper back is touching the ground, simulating the first half of a backwards roll, this exercise could be implemented to newer athletes if they do not have the strength to do a good backwards roll.

Important muscle groups used in a backflip


  1. Quadriceps, consisting of vastus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis, these are the muscles that aid in a strong and powerful knee extension to perform an explosive jump. These muscles are also the stabilising muscles of the knees which greatly support the knee when landing after performing a trick.

  2. Hamstrings, consisting of semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris, these are strong supporting muscles, having strong hamstrings help athletes improve explosiveness and power. When paired with the quadriceps, the strain is reduced on various ligaments around the knee. The hamstrings acts mostly like a rubber band during a jump and during landing, during a jump, when squatting down before a jump the hamstrings lengthens and creates tension, this tension acts like a rubber band, the moment you release it by jumping the muscles shortens and adds power into the jump. During a landing after a jump, the hamstring also lengthens as you try to catch your body, but this time it acts like a cushion so your body does not come crashing down on the ground, and also softens the impact on the knees as it flexes the knees.

  3. Calves,consisting of the gastrocnemius, and soleus, an important muscle group for protecting the ankle joint, but also mainly composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers, so the calves can execute quick explosive movements, like jumping.

  4. Abdominal muscles, consisting of the transversus abdominus, rectus abdominis, external oblique muscles, and internal oblique muscles, are an important group of muscles used in a back flip, as all these muscle help to create trunk flexion, which is the simultaneous movement of a forward pelvic tilt, and flexion of the spine (rounding of the back) which helps bring the knees up towards the chest.


Some wisdom gained from teaching backflip for almost a decade


Pre-backflip progression

First of all, backflips are one of the scariest tricks for most people, and it also is one of the most dangerous, hence a lot of support from an object, or second party is needed in order to learn this trick.

  1. Vertical jump ,focused on arm swing, jumping with arm swing is very important, being able to coordinate the vertical velocity created by the arm swing with the jump can help improve jump height. The starting position could be straight in front of the athlete or by the side, during the loading movement of the jump (downward squatting motion) the arms would be swung back and down around 45 degrees, and at the moment the athlete initiates the extension of the legs moving the body upwards, the arms should be at the lowest point of the arm swing, and when the athlete’s body is fully extended right before taking off the ground, the arms should be at the highest point where the biceps are beside the ears and the shoulders shrugged. If performed correctly, the vertical jump should be the highest or at least close to the highest of the athlete’s potential.

Things to look out for, for students:
  • Ensure students always swing with their arms straight, arm do not need to be swung right above the head to avoid retraction of the shoulders, this way it is easier to keep the core in a flexed/ straight position, ready to tuck.

  • Ensure swing is quick and powerful, and students actively try to stop the arm swing in its place at the top to transfer the energy to the rest of the body.

  • Create counter movement for faster arm swing, by swinging arms back, but remind them that a high back-swing is not needed, so they will not lower their chest before jumping.

  • Ensure their arm swing is completed a split second before they take off from their jump, and the movement of the lower limbs, the hip, knee, and ankle, are to be extended at the same time.


Note: An article in “Journal of Biomechanics” called “Understanding how an arm swing enhances performance in the vertical jump” by, Lees, Adrian & Vanrenterghem, Jos & Clercq, Dirk. (2005), can explain why is the arm swing so important. A test was done, comparing no arm swing jumps, and jumps with arm swing, of 20 adult males, it was found that there was a 28% increase in height, and 72% increase in velocity of the trunk at take off. The increase in height of the jump was due to the arms’ movement upwards, while the increase in velocity of the trunk at take off was because of the built up energy created by the arm swing during the early stage of the jump (during counter movement), and then transferring that energy to the rest of the body during the later stage of the jump (before taking off from the ground). This energy is created from the shoulders, elbows, and hip joints, this energy firstly helps increase kinetic and potential energy of the arms at take-off, secondly, it stores energy during the downward movement of the jump, and releases the energy during the upward movement from the muscles and tendons around the ankle, knee, and hip joints, and lastly, it creates extra “lift” on the body through the upward force pulling on the trunk at the shoulder. In summary the article is saying that the operation of the elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle joints working together enhances the performance of the vertical jump. (Lees, Adrian & Vanrenterghem, Jos & Clercq, Dirk. (2005))

Backwards roll lying down,

helping the athletes understand how the movement of bringing their knees towards their chest helps them rotate backwards. Lying on the floor in supine position (facing up), with palms at the side of the ears fingers pointing towards their shoulders, the athlete will bring their knees towards their chest and lift their hips off the ground by flexing their trunk, and trying to reach for the ground with their feet behind their head, while their hands are preventing the weight of their body from putting pressure on their neck and head. As their feet reach for the ground behind their head, the arms would be able to push themselves up into a squat position, completing the roll.


Things to look out for, for students:
  • If students are unable to perform a backward roll, they can be asked to perform a lying knee raise, lifting the hips off the ground, as they progress with this exercise, height of the hips should increase and legs should go past the head. This exercise teaches the students to use their core to lift their knees towards the chest to create the rotation of a backward roll.

  • A cheese block can be implemented for students who face a problem with backward roll, with the down slope implemented with the block, it would be easier for the student to initiate the rotation with the help of gravity. Coaches are to ensure that students protect their necks and head with hands positioned at the back of their necks, to also ensure their heads do not come in contact with the ground, students are to tuck their chins to towards their chest, and also round their backs to create a rounded surface area to roll.


Jump on to block with back landing. The focus of this drill is to teach the athletes how to rotate their body in mid air at the peak of their jump so that they can replicate the flip of the backflip. The athlete will first perform a vertical jump with arm swing, and at the peak of the jump with their hips in the correct position (hollow position) when they are falling they would tuck their knees towards their chest/armpit, and use their arms to grab their shins to create a tight tuck just like in an actual backflip, when the athlete performs the tuck, a backwards rotation would be initiated, rotating the athletes almost 90 degrees backwards allowing them to land on their back safely.


Things to look out for, for students:
  • Ensure vertical jump is performed almost completely, and tuck to be performed as they fall from the peak of the jump.

  • Ensure students tuck by bringing their knees up towards the sky, instead of dropping their chest towards their knees. The mistake will be performed if the student does not actively engage their core, what it means is they have to actively ensure their chest is up-right, their abdominal muscles should be tightened, so that it feels like a rock. A verbal aid to help students could be asking them to pull their chest back only when they fall as they tuck their knees up.

Firstly, bringing it to a crash mat, and with the help of a coach or someone experienced, athletes will perform (3.) but this time a second party will be supporting the athlete by preventing them from rotating past 90 degrees, this is to help them get over the fear of jumping higher and performing the tuck at a higher point, and helping them understand that their tuck will help with flip.


Secondly, a belt can be implemented and tied to the athlete’s waist for extra grip for the coach/second party, to help with spotting. The athlete would then perform the same actions in (3.) this time with no resistance of the flip, hence they would be performing an actual backflip, but with the support of the coach with the belt helping with rotation and a little boost of height if needed. Important things to take note of are, making sure that they always complete the full motion of a vertical jump with arm swing, arms to always be swung to the peak, with biceps beside the ears, and legs fully extended, and the tuck to be executed at the highest point of the jump and not to be rushed into, to ensure the jump was fully executed to get height in the flip, and lastly the tuck should be tight to increase the velocity of the rotation, so as to complete the rotation as soon as they can before spotting for their landing.


Things to look out for, for students:
  • ALWAYS ensure students complete their jump before performing any of these drills, ways to remind the students are to bring their biceps beside their ears at the peak of their jump before tucking, and fully extending their lower limbs to create a straight line with their entire body. A few jumping drills before performing the exercise could be done to help with engraving the muscle memory into the students.

  • Usually students are afraid to perform the tuck in fear of falling backwards, to help them get used to falling backwards safely, a backward trust fall onto a crash mat could be done, and also ensuring the students that they would receive the spotting of the coaches to build the trust, so that they can fully commit themselves to the exercise, removing the factor of fear.

If you'd like to experience a backflip and like us to walk you through the process, do not hesitate to sign up for a trial class! We're offering classes at 2 locations: Galaxy Gymnastics at City Square Mall as well as Sandbox Training Ground at 10 Raeburn Park.


Oh, did you know you could also bring a friend for the trial class?

Come through!



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