History Tuesday: Parallel Bars

Here is another brief article about the history of gymnastics. As a kid I remember my brother getting a set of 1950 circa P-Bars from an old gym. We set them up in our back yard and I remember helping him put the rails in because they were so heavy. I remember too playing gymnastics with him and thinking, “man, this thing kills my arms.” Yup, you guessed it, I never did parallel bars either.

Without any doubt, the parallel bars are an invention of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, whom I described as a man of great importance in a previous post. Originally they were used as a training apparatus for gymnasts to gain skill to demonstrate on the horse. Jahn, developed the bars to use at his training facility.

Mikhail Voronin holding a handstand: the most basic of skills on the event

In the mid 19th century, exercises with static holds and pressing were common but dynamic, or swinging skills were rare. There were great disputes in the development of the event in the late 1800’s. Some saw a change to swing and dynamics as inevitable and others maintained that static and strength skills should be the norm. These strength exercises were pretty typical until the 1920’s. Up until that time, it was evident where you trained because of how you did your parallel bar routine. Many teams would not compete against other teams if they did not agree on the “type” of P-Bars that would be done. parallel bars were present in the first modern Olympics in Athens, 1896.

At the “First International festival of the International Gymnastics Federation” in Antwerp in 1903 (which history looks back on as the first world championship), no swinging element was allowed except for a roll out from a handstand and a roll backwards to a handstand.

The German Alfred Flatow is the first Olympic Champion on P’s 1912 in Stockholm, his routine  still consisted halfway of power/strength elements.

Through the early twentieth century many skills were too difficult to perform consistently because some gyms trained on flexible wood rails as others had inflexible iron rails. Skills performed easily on one set might be impossible on another. In the 1940’s the bars themselves were standardized for training up to the 1952 Helsinki games. The equipment often broke when a gymnast was training or performing and the majority of injury came from the equipment rather than the skills. In 1963 the rails were developed into fiberglass which made the event much safer and allowed for a higher range of skills to be performed.

Watch Kohei Uchimora, seen today as the best gymnast in the world, on parallel bars. Notice that there are still many static skills but the majority of the routine is dynamic and even includes multiple release skills. I wonder if this is what the founders envisioned when they advocated for dynamic routines.  Also, as an aside, notice that he has protective sleeves on his upper arms; and rightly so. I’m just sayin’ I didn’t have those as a kid. I could have done all this too. (that is a joke, please don’t hate-comment me)


Sorry for the Japanese commentary

Leave a Comment