The vault is one of gymnastics signature pieces of apparatus. A component of both women's and men' competition, the vault is shaped like a table, with a rectangular flat surfaced sprung top, measuring 4 ft high, 5 ft long and 11 in wide (120 cm by 160 cm by 35 cm). The landing area in which the athlete descends at the completion of the vault is 12 in thick (30 cm). In the early history of gymnastics, the equipment was known as the vaulting horse.
The object of the vault is to perfectly execute an acrobatic routine that has four distinct components, rendered as a seamless exhibition of speed, power, balance, and body control, both in the air and at landing. The rules of the vault competition require that the athlete make contact with the top of the vault during the execution of the intended routine. The portion of the vault that occurs prior to the athlete making contact with the top of the vault apparatus is the pre-flight, with the segment from contact to the landing referred to as the post-flight. The vault for female competitors is positioned perpendicular to the runway, the width of the vault facing the competitor, with the vault oriented in a position parallel to the runway for male competition.
A gymnast begins a vault routine by running with maximum speed toward the vault along a run way that is 3 ft wide (0.9 m) and 82 ft long (25 m). The athlete's purpose in generating this run up speed is the desire to create the momentum required to carry the athlete further and higher in the post-flight phase of the vault. The vaulter ends the run by bounding from a springboard, driving the legs explosively into the board surface, with the legs then driven forcefully upwards behind the gymnast to assist in the movement of the gymnast on to the top of the vault.
When the hands of the gymnast are in position on the top of the vault, the gymnast will then execute one of a number of recognized vaulting maneuvers; the height gained in post-flight, the distance traveled from the vault, and the ability of the vaulter to land with one motion, avoiding an extra steadying step on impact (known as the ability to "stick" the landing) are the general qualities prized by gymnastics judges in vaulting. Each of these general principles is applied to the specific routing chosen by the gymnast. Vaulting has four recognized "families" of vaults, of which the Yurchenko, named for a Russian vaulter in the early 1980s, may be the most familiar. Each family of vaults is subdivided into individual variations, each often named for a former gymnast who either invented or developed the particular routine. Virtually all vaults include a form of handstand, somersault, and twisting motion.
Given the speed of the run up and nature of the body motion generated during the post-phase, the forces directed into the musculoskeletal structure of the gymnast are significant, and the risk of injury is ever present.