You love your circus discipline. You take a class a couple times a week and you feel good about the progress you are making, but wish you could do more to help yourself get stronger and help you make more progress in class. You love the conditioning exercises you do in your class, but when you try to remember them to do them later–at home if they are floor-based or at open practice if they are aerial/equipment-based–you draw a blank.
You’re at a loss.
What were those exercises again?
This post will be dedicated to giving you a few ideas for things you can do at your gym while you’re not at the studio to help you get stronger and help your workout be more of a circus-activity compliment.
I say this every time I post anything about any activity: please take a few minutes to warm up. Perform some movements that will get your heart pumping: jumping jacks, high knees, body weight squats and some range of motion movements. Or, since you are at your gym you could warm-up on a stationary bike, treadmill or elliptical machine. Whatever you do, make sure it is for about 10 minutes. Whatever you need to get your heart pumping and feel warm enough either to shed a layer of clothing or get a little sweaty.
These are just a few exercises. There are many you could do, but here are some whole-body exercises that you can add into your current gym routine. If you don’t have a gym routine, you should really start one. Taking circus classes will make you stronger, but unless you start to supplement that class with training outside of class, you will probably plateau and feel frustrated or worse yet, potentially become injured. So if you aren’t working out yet, begin.
If you have no idea what to do or how to start, I’m a fitness trainer. I offer training sessions in person or online.
The video at the end of this post has explanations and demonstrations of the list of exercises I have included below. Under each exercise I provide some additional information about why I have included it and some extra pointers or ways to progress the movement pattern as you gain strength and stability.
I also want to thank my partner (in crime), Mike, of Get Circus Strong for videoing and demoing some of the exercises in my video.
Single Leg Dead Lift
I chose this exercise because it challenges your core and the stabilizing muscles of your hip and ankle. This exercise is driven by contracting the glute of your standing leg to control the lowering phase and to power the lifting (return to start position) phase. Your glutes are an important part of your core. They provide great power for beats, pulling your rear leg into split positions, crocs on canes or assisting in any knee hang position. You may want to begin with no weight or a lighter weight (dumbbell or kettlebell) and progress to a heavier weight. The heavier the weight, the more challenge to the glutes and the core.
The video demonstrates band assisted pull-ups and unassisted pull-ups. Band assisted pull-ups are a great place to start if you don’t quite have a pull-up yet. Another great way to work to your pull-ups is working on the negative (the controlled lowering phase). Pull-ups are wonderful for developing your mid- and lower trapezius muscles, lats (latissimus dorsi) muscles as well as arms, forearms and grip. Make sure to maintain a hollow body, elbows pointed forward and to have the upper trapezius muscles stay relaxed. Also avoid rounding your upper back or flaring your ribs.
This is a more challenging exercise than it may look. Through this whole movement keep your abs engaged to maintain your low back in contact with the floor. When you extend your arms and legs away in opposition make sure that your are extending the arms and legs as close to the floor as you can while you maintain that ab engagement and no arching happens. In addition, send energy out your arms and legs! This is a great addition because it really hones your mind/body connection of contraction of the core and isometric contraction of your appendages all while moving some of your body parts in space while not moving other parts-which is a lot of what is happening while doing aerial and circus positions.
Lying & Kneeling Hamstring Curls
There are a few different options demonstrated in the video: lying and kneeling. These exercises are focusing on strengthening your hamstrings, glutes and core. Strengthening these muscles will help open up your hip flexors and quads and make various knee hangs on aerial equipment easier as well as various hand-balancing positions. The lying option can be performed with a single leg (a great place to start), double-leg negatives (as you get a little stronger) or double-leg full movement pattern (the hardest of these 3). The kneeling version of this exercise is the most difficult. The video shows this with a bench holding your feel, but you could do this with a buddy holding your ankles. No matter which option you are currently working on, make sure to maintain an engaged core, including your glutes and feel the hamstrings do the work to pull your heels to your butt and really focus on that to make sure you aren’t feeling your low back doing the work. (equipment potentially needed: socks on hardwood floor or towel for under feet, if on a carpet Glides, furniture sliders or paper plates.)
Push-ups are a great option, but push-ups on a TRX or other suspension trainer are ideal because they require your rotator cuff to turn on (a lot) to stabilize your humeral head (upper arm) in your shoulder socket as you execute the push-up movement. Strong and stable shoulders are needed for all aerial and circus activities. Isometrically contract all the muscles of your core, glutes and legs throughout the whole movement. If you are just starting out begin more vertical in your stance and as you get stronger your can adjust your stance so you are more parallel to the floor or even bring your feet together to challenge core and shoulder stability more.
Rows are an excellent exercise for developing shoulder girdle strength and power and using the TRX brings that extra benefit of challenging your stabilizer muscles-the rotator cuff-while performing this exercise. Also, as with everything TRX (and their motto) ‘it’s all core all the time!’ which is why I include them in my suggestions. Also a strong shoulder girdle is needed for supporting your body in a handstand, hanging from good shoulder form while on an aerial apparatus and so many other movements in circus. As with TRX Push-ups, the more parallel you are to the floor the more challenging this movement is and the closer your feet get to one another, the more core activation your will require.
Hanging Knee Tucks or Straight Leg Leg Raises
These are so helpful with inversions by targeting your lower abdominals. Notice how in the video my pelvis rolls up with my legs with both the knee tucks and the straight leg options. When you are performing these, begin with knee tucks until you can roll your hips up and knees up towards your shoulders or face before you try the straight leg option. You want to make sure you maintain your hollow shape at the start and finish of this exercise. If you find that you are having trouble finding your hollow while hanging keep the bench close to support your feet and work on gaining the strength to maintain a hanging hollow before you add the knee tucks. We never want to be hanging with our ribs flaired and duck butt, my affectionate name for when you have an anteriorly tilted pelvis.
This is a very challenging exercise for the whole body. Many skills in aerial and circus require you to contract most or all of your muscles in your body and breathe while doing a skill and this exercise requires you to do that to perform it properly. Skills this can help you with are: handstands, crocodile positions on canes, front and back levers, windmills, stars and double stars, meathooks… If you’re into flying trapeze this exercise can help with your force out in your swing and the list goes on and on. Even something as basic as a knee hang requires you to be contracting most of your muscles, especially in your legs and core, but even your shoulders and arms. Like Patrick Swayze said in Dirty Dancing ‘No spaghetti arms’. Or as I always say ‘there is nothing passive about circus.‘ So use this and all the exercises above to really hone your ability to contract where you need to be contracted, relaxed where you can be relaxed and breathe.
I hope you find this post and video useful. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments or would like a consult for training.