What’s On Your Preflight Checklist?

Before pilots take their planes into the air, they run through a preflight checklist. The basic—yet critical—premise is that it’s better to check the condition of the plane on the ground so that you can minimize the chances of discovering undesired surprises in the air. Having a checklist is handy, but more than that, it’s vital for the pilot to understand what he or she is checking and why. The pilot must be able to determine what is airworthy and what is not.1.

This analogy may be a bit labored, but I’m sure you can see where I’m going with it. Dear flyers and aerialists, let’s talk about your preflight checklist.

Fly on purpose

Before we dive into some ideas about what should be on your preflight checklist, we should post the question: do you have a preflight checklist? Or do you simply climb the ladder and ‘warm up as you go’? This isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’, but the question is whether it’s effective. It’s worth noting that the lack of a preflight is something that I see with more flyers than I do with aerialists. For some reason, the value of a good warm-up seems clearer in the minds of most aerialists than it does to many flyers. This is, of course, a generalization: I’ve seen many flyers who religiously run through a preflight warm-up and, though they are few and far between, I have seen aerialists just jump up onto their apparatus without a hint of preparation.

To return to the pilot’s preflight checklist analogy, one of the intentions behind its use is to help them to avoid the “5 P’s”: “Poor Planning leads to Poor Pilot Performance”.2. This idea that planning and performance are linked speaks to the importance of training with intention and awareness. It might seem like a bit of a detour from the point of this post, but it’s actually one of the more important components of a preflight checklist: knowing why you’re about the train in the first place. What are you going to work on today? What is your plan? Sometimes, the plan for the day is based on the curriculum of the school where you’re training. At the risk of pointing out what should be quite obvious, this is why it’s so important to discuss the plan with your instructor beforehand. (Especially since there are also times when your plan for the day might require some tweaking in order to manage expectations…but that’s a topic for another time). Regardless, the point to setting an intention for your training session is to begin the process of mentally focusing and directing your energies towards the work that’s about to come. It’s a matter of whether you’re flying on purpose—and with purpose—or just swinging in the breeze.

This is where you can also begin visualizing the skills you plan to practice.

The problem with cold starts


A cold start is tough on an engine. Lack of heat means engine compression is higher and ignition is more difficult. Cold engine oil is more viscous and doesn’t circulate as well. Even the air in the engine is denser when it’s cool and that affects the flammability of the air-fuel mixture.3. For those of us who live in places where winters can be really cold, we generally try to give the car engine some time to heat up before we really kick it into high gear.

Not surprisingly, this analogy easily extends to your own engines and gears (meaning your muscles and joints). Doing something like jumping jacks or a light jog or perhaps even enjoying a spontaneous, yet slightly ridiculous dance party while Tay-Tay plays in the background will get your heart pumping, make you break a sweat and do some pretty helpful things for your body.

Direct physical effects of warm ups are:

  • Release of adrenaline (which facilitates energy production for your muscles and improves cardiac output)
  • More oxygen gets to your working muscles faster (which helps minimize and delay lactic acid buildup) because of decreased viscosity of your blood
  • Production of synovial fluid—the natural lubricant in your joints—increases, reducing friction in your joints, making movement more efficient
  • Increased muscle temperature of temperature in the muscles
  • Muscle fibers become more flexible and elastic
  • Muscles become able to generate more force
  • Muscles become able to contract faster
  • Increase in speed of nerve impulse conduction (which is a fancy way of saying you become able to react and move faster)

So what to do? What to do?

First and foremost, your warm-up should include movement. Vigorous, pulse-raising movement that makes you break a sweat. This will do all of the things for your muscles that the box above mentions. For any particularly physically demanding activity, your warm-up should include a pulse-raiser such as the aforementioned jogging, jumping or dancing.

For any particularly physically demanding activity, your warm-up should include a pulse-raiser such as the aforementioned jogging, jumping or dancing.

More than just moving, however, it’s worthwhile to try to begin moving the specific joints you’ll be using in ways that are similar to how you’ll be using them once your training session begins in earnest. For example, since so many circus arts involve overhead work, it’s a great idea to get your rotator cuff ready to do its job. Conveniently, we’ve already covered one such way to do this. Not only does this serve to prepare the muscles, but it also primes the brain-muscle connection, making your rotator cuff muscles better able to react quickly when they’re called upon to stabilize your shoulders. The trendy way to describe this kind of thing is to call it functional movement. Not to trivialize it at all though: gently moving your body through ranges of motion that are similar to those you’ll be attempting to do with full power or full speed later is one of the smarter things you can do to prepare body and mind for optimal performance.

Cleaning up movement

Warming up provides more than just an opportunity to prepare your muscles for work, it provides you with an opportunity to make sure the right muscles are ready to work. We’ve talked about this before: it’s quite possible that for some people, sitting at a desk all day before coming to train on their favorite aerial apparatus can have the unfortunate side effect of switching off the muscles that facilitate good shoulder mechanics. Your warm-up is a great time to continue working to counteract that.

This is where back-to-wall shoulder flexion comes in to play. Remember, if you don’t have a wall, you can do it on the floor as well.

Bonus: foam rolling!

Some people like to give their bodies a good once-over with the foam roller before they even do their pulse-raiser. Some prefer to do their foam rolling after the training session is done. There isn’t necessarily a wrong answer on that one. The important thing is that while it is, of course, possible to train without doing any foam roller/Self-Myofascial Release work, it does represent a great way to get to know what’s going on with your body in a variety of places.

Ready to fly?

And that’s brings us back to the question of airworthiness: perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of information you can glean from a thorough warm-up is a sense for how airworthy you’re feeling on any given day. Ideally, you are moving through full ranges of motion regularly and with good movement mechanics. You’re regularly checking in with body and mind and this way, if ever something is off, you’re more likely to catch it on the ground before it becomes a problem in the air.