In terms of competition, gymnastics and tumbling are different disciplines. Tumbling involves a series of acrobatic skills down a long runway, while artistic gymnastics involves vaulting, uneven parallel bars, balance beam and floor for women; and vaulting, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, high bar and floor for men. The dimensions and properties of mats used for competitive tumbling and gymnastics are dictated by the governing bodies of the sports. For recreational or home use though, the terms gymnastics mats and tumbling mats are interchangeable.
A number of companies sell "gymnastics" mats or "tumbling" mats for home or recreational use. Often called panel mats, these mats fold up into discrete sections for easy storage when not in use. They vary in length and width, but are usually about 1 or 2 inches thick, filled with dense foam that cushions but does not compress with pressure. Panel mats are designed to provide a more comfortable surface for basic skills such as rolls and cartwheels. They are not designed to cushion hard landings or falls.
The mats used in floor exercise for men's and women's artistic gymnastics are a layer of 1 to 2 inch dense foam over a sprung floor. The foam transmits the spring while providing a more comfortable surface for take-offs and landings. The regulation floor exercise surface is about 40 feet long and 40 feet wide.
Gymnastics Landing Mats
The other men's and women's events use 4-inch mats all around the equipment for safety and to provide a layer of cushion over a hard gym floor in case of a fall. In addition, these events use an additional 4- or 8-inch-thick mat for landings. These mats are meant to cushion a fall or mostly absorb the shock of a hard landing. No mat, no matter how thick, can completely prevent injuries.
A pit mat is a training aid that is never used for competition. These mats are about 24 to 32 inches thick, designed to protect the gymnast or tumbler who is learning a new skill using a training drill that does not necessarily land feet first. They absorb the full force of a landing.
High level competitive tumblers use a long narrow tumbling strip that ends in a thicker landing mat. The tumbling strip consists of a spring floor topped with a single or double layer of 1-inch dense foam that transmits the spring but provides some cushioning. Depending on the level of competition, the strip must be from 72 to 85 feet long, and 5 or 6 feet wide. The landing mat is about 12 inches thick, designed to absorb the force of a hard landing.