Injury Prevention in Circus Arts: an approach we need to talk about more (part three)

[alert type=”info” close=”false”] If you’re just joining us, the rest of this rather lengthy explosion of thoughts can be found here: part one and part two. [/alert]

The Performance Continuum

In many sports, particularly at the higher levels, there exists a continuum of care, so to speak. At one end, we have an athlete’s entry point: the sports medicine team (orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, chiropractors). They are the ones who perform the initial assessments and screens.

From there, they hand the athlete off to the strength and conditioning team and the skills coaches.

The strength and conditioning team’s job is to build the athlete’s capacity (make them stronger and build conditioning to make them more resilient and capable of more skills training). It’s worth noting that strength and conditioning coaches often do screens and assessments of their own—so they can see what the PTs described to them.

In both cases, the point of the screens and assessments is to discover where an athlete may have movement restrictions, dysfunctions and/or imbalances. Usually, the physical therapists address these first and where necessary, provide treatment.

Copyright: mandygodbehear / 123RF Stock Photo

From there, the PTs hand the athlete over to the strength coaches. They discuss the PTs findings and recommendations so that the strength coach can design a strength training program that continues to improve the movement patterns that were lacking (and not make it worse with inappropriate exercise selection) and integrates that improved movement pattern into the process of making the whole body strong.

And then we have the skills coaches, who teach and develop the skills the athletes need to perform well.

On an ongoing basis, skills coaches, strength coaches and the sports medicine team will communicate back and forth about their athletes. Always, the goal being to improve performance and reduce injuries. This makes it more of an overlapping continuum.

Strength balance

[pullquote type=”right”] Your routine/act should not be the most physically demanding thing you do all day.[/pullquote]

Circus artist-athletes should have the specific strength required for the skills/routines they wish to perform, built on a solid foundation of general strength.

Balanced strength is vital for injury prevention and long-term health.

To be explicit, when designing strength programming, we need to make sure that we have a balance between horizontal pushing and pulling, vertical pushing and pulling and a balance between hip-dominant and knee-dominant movements. More specifically, the goal is to achieve balanced strength between each of those pairs. (I’m inclined to suggest that a balance between abduction strength and adduction strength at the hip would be worthwhile for circus as well. Circus happens in more than just the sagittal plane, after all).

Skills training is not strength training.

In recreational circus arts, we are largely missing the boat when it comes to strength and conditioning. Currently, the most commonly used model involves tacking some ‘conditioning’ work on to the tail end of a skills class. While certainly well-intentioned, it doesn’t work because it ignores the basic principles of strength-building and strength-training.

Strength Training 101

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a moment to go over some of the basics of developing strength.

Progressive overload

It’s very likely that someone who is new to circus arts and new to physical training in general will get stronger by taking one class per week.

At first.

The thing is, our bodies adapt. Eventually, the gains in strength will stop because the body will have adapted to it. In many cases, this person will still not be as strong as they need to be to perform the more advanced skills they’ll encounter as they progress, but this is because the training stimulus hasn’t progressed.

And let’s be super clear: if you’re only training your circus-art-of-choice, you’re not developing balanced strength.

Progressive overload—as a principle of strength-building—means that your strength training regimen needs to progressively challenge your current limits.

Five minutes of “conditioning” tacked on to the end of a skills class does not provide progressive overload. I mean, everyone loves to do a set of challenging core exercises or something like that, but doing it in this way doesn’t actually accomplish anything.


Tied very closely to the principle of progressive overload is the principle of reversibility: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

The biggest place where this becomes apparent is when people train for one class per week (stimulating little in terms of strength adaptations) …and that’s it.

One ‘training’ day per week ends up being like a weekly shock that your nervous system doesn’t ever really adapt to.

But the goal isn’t to simply get used to it anyway, the goal is to get so much stronger, so well-conditioned, that your skills class isn’t a tiring affair.

AND the goal is to use your strength and conditioning workouts as the place where you work to either improve and eventually, maintain functional movement patterns so that you can minimize your risk of injury.

I would like to add here that I completely understand why instructors add conditioning work at the end of classes: by and large, it’s some combination of

  • It’s just something you do when you’re teaching a class and you find you have ten minutes left at the end,


  • Many instructors recognize the need for students to get stronger. And the end of class is the best opportunity they have to offer some ideas/exercises to their students that could help them to become stronger…if they were to implement them into a training regime outside of their regular skills class.

Aye, there’s the rub: if only they had a training regimen that helps them to develop that solid foundation of balanced strength…

Skills training is not strength training.

The thing is, silks/trapeze/lyra/rope/partner acro/handstand class is not the place to build physical capacity. The goal for these classes is skills training. In order to build physical capacity—strength, conditioning—we necessarily have to work into fatigue. Fatigue is the enemy of motor learning. You can see the conflict.

[pullquote type=”left”]Fatigue is the enemy of motor learning.[/pullquote]

And then there are conditioning classes. Now, I cannot speak for every circus/aerial/acrobatic conditioning class out there, but what from what I’ve seen, most of the time the focus ends up being on specific strength when the foundation of solid, general—and balanced—strength is lacking.

Everyone knows about the principle of specificity (also known as the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). And more often than not, this is interpreted as meaning you have to train movements that mimic those you’ll do on your apparatus. There are all sorts of creative exercises out there to mimic all sorts of things in circus.

We need to tap the brakes on that one.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s true: we ultimately need to train movements that are similar to those you’ll be performing in your circus-art-of-choice…but if we’re training those movements with muscular imbalances or faulty movement, we’re simply piling strength on top of dysfunction.

This means that those circus-specific exercises are most effective when they are adding to the aforementioned solid foundation of general strength.

A brief rant about fitness

There is a trend in the fitness industry right now that’s driving me more than a little bonkers. It’s the All-High-Intensity, All HIIT, All-the-time nonsense. Yes, there is a huge benefit to having some high intensity interval training as a part of your overall training plan, but not as the entirety of every workout.

Sure, that’s what people want. The problem is that it’s not necessarily what people need.

There’s this idea of maximum recoverable volume: the maximum volume of exercise from which an individual can recover…and consequently, adapt. Too much high-intensity work ends up meaning never quite fully recovering…and thus, never quite fully adapting (meaning getting stronger) and eventually, breaking down.

To top it all off, these group classes very often are a result of the instructor stringing together a series of exercises that they think are either ‘cool’ or ‘hard’.

Based on what I have observed with classes like this, no one is paying attention to whether the people doing these exercises have the requisite mobility or stability to perform them. A kettlebell swing, for example, is a very technical exercise. With most of my clients, it takes at least a month of training to get their bodies ready to start learning the swing. And yet, the kettlebell swing features prominently in so many group circuit classes.

And the technique horrors that I see when I look in!

Oh sure, they can get away with doing a crappy version of it now. But ten years from now, the arthritis that will develop because of that crappy movement is really going to suck.

If you see an exercise and think ‘wow, that looks cool!’ or ‘wow, that looks hard!’, don’t do it. Take the time to figure out if it’s a good fit for your current training regimen and whether you have the ability to perform it right now.

For some, they try to balance their high-intensity ass-kicking circuit training with some yoga or pilates. Seemingly a good idea. But, I must confess that I have some serious doubts about whether either of those will help in developing balanced strength (horizontal pushing and pulling, for example).

The fitness industry is working so hard to respond to the trends and give people what they want…but too little attention is being paid to giving people what they need.

End rant.

So what do we do?

The starting point is thinking differently about movement and physical preparation for movement.

At this point, if you’ve read this far (You’re a superstar! And so patient! Thank you!), I have outlined some of the ways that movement can be dysfunctional, and if you weren’t seeing it before, you’ll start seeing it now.

That’s great!

Recommendation #1:

Now take it further: instructors and coaches, become movement experts. Learn all you can about what makes for functional movement and where that can go awry.

Learn to screen movement.

Chances are that many instructors are already watching and studying movement…this is simply a call to develop your eye so that you can more deeply understand what you’re looking for.

There are a variety of options out there. My recommendation is to learn the Functional Movement Screen. Increasingly, it is a tool that the best strength coaches and clinicians out there are using as part of their assessments. It gives instructors, strength coaches and medical professionals a common language to use when communicating about the athletes under their care. This will help to make us better partners with the sports medicine providers out there.

(I have no affiliation with them beyond my own certifications and years of using it as a very effective tool).

The more you learn about movement, the more you’ll see where it’s functional and where it’s not.

And once you start seeing it, you won’t be able to un-see it.

The trick remains: what to do about faulty movement when you see it?

This will be your opportunity to catch problems before they start. It might be a good idea to send them to see a physical therapist.

[pullquote type=”right”] Side note: build a network of orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, chiropractors and massage therapists that you know and trust. To do it well takes work and is an ongoing process, but it is well worth it. [/pullquote]

Just to make the point over again: let’s talk about rehab. By definition, rehab is the process of returning you to a previous state. Getting you back to where you were before your injury.

As a reminder: the basic equation of injury is that the tissue was subjected to a load that exceeded its load-bearing capacity.

In the basic model, as we see most often now, when a circus artist gets hurt, they go to physical therapy for rehabilitation. They get themselves back to where they were before the injury happened…which, to be explicit, was inadequately prepared for the training loads they were experiencing (hence the injury).

The key remains to take the good work from physical therapy and lock it into the body and make it stronger. In the case of circus, make it much, much stronger.

This prepares the body for the rigors of circus training.

(At the risk of sounding repetitive,) what would be even better—and perhaps more realistic, given that the cost of a physical therapy visit can seem prohibitive, depending on an individual’s health insurance situation—would be to avoid the injury in the first place.

We need a different way…

And we’ve already begun discussing it.

I recently became certified as a Functional Range Conditioning mobility specialist with Dr. Andreo Spina. The course was excellent and I strongly recommend it to any circus arts instructor who deals in developing safe, strong and usable ‘flexibility’. At one point during the training, Dr. Spina was talking about the combined elements that go into developing a training program for functional mobility: assessment, treatment and training.

One of the clinicians in the group asked the question: how do we fit all of that into a 30-minute appointment time?

Similarly, it’s fair to ask how can we address movement quality, strength, conditioning and skill development…all in a one-hour class?

The answer is you can’t.

Here’s my dream scenario:

Imagine a circus school where the sports medicine clinic is on site. Treatment rooms are adjacent to the training floor, putting the physical therapists literally right next door.

There is a weight-training area, furnished with foam rollers, kettlebells and rings and other goodies.

Students who come in for classes have the opportunity to sign-up for small group strength and conditioning sessions—with the strength and conditioning coach—to supplement their training. Entry into the small group format means going through an assessment and movement screen. The findings result in a general strength regimen being individualized. Potential issues are discovered before they become painful and treatment options are presented. In many cases, it could be that a session or two with the PT followed by dedication to the strength training program will be all it takes to improve movement quality and cement it with some badass strength.

Once a student (or instructor) has gone through a couple of small group sessions where the strength and conditioning coach teaches them technique for each of their exercises, they have the opportunity to come to recurring small-group training times throughout the week, in addition to their regular circus classes.

Obviously, we’re not there yet.

Maybe there are schools out there that are close (I can think of a couple that I’ve seen) but I believe that we have a cultural shift to make. The reason why ‘conditioning’ is a thing that gets tacked on to the end of classes…or why conditioning classes (generally) fail to develop a solid foundation of balanced strength is twofold:

  • Too many instructors either don’t understand strength training and conditioning, or
  • They don’t actually value it that much (as evidenced by their own strength training regimens).

I suspect that in the majority of instances, it’s simply a lack of knowledge.

And that’s completely legitimate. Being a circus arts instructor involves knowing a lot of stuff: your art, all of the skills you have to teach, how to build good teaching and skill progressions, how to give feedback, how to tailor your instruction to the individual based on apparent learning styles, relative training and movement experience…not to mention rigging and safe spotting practices.

Nevertheless, the physics of circus is inescapable. Bodies need to be strong and resilient if they are to be able to hold up to a lifetime of circus fun.

And so it is that the conversation that we’re all having—with each other, with our students—surrounding strength and conditioning for circus needs to evolve. And consequently, we need to be able to provide better resources and opportunities for functional strength training.

One strength training session (conditioning class) per week simply is not enough for the development of athleticism.

We need to come to terms with the fact that lifting weights is not just for muggles.

This is where we put our heads together

This is where the conversation goes deep. At the core of it, this is a culture issue. We know the facts: if you want to participate in circus over the long-term (and the short-term, really), you need to take steps to prepare your body for the rigors of training. In short, this means you need to make sure you move well, move well under load and do that often. It means recognizing that your trapeze/silks/rope/lyra/acro/handstand class is not the place where you’re going to get strong.

From here, I will continue to share ideas and resources to help move the conversation forward.

[blockquote type=”left”] Circus isn’t your workout. It’s why you work out. [/blockquote]

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#00BFFF” border=”all” inner_container=”true”] [custom_headline style=”margin-top: 0;” level=”h4″ looks_like=”h3″]Get hungry: Professional Development and Ongoing Education Resources for Circus Coaches[/custom_headline]

If you’re looking to further your knowledge of strength and conditioning, the industry gold standard is currently the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. This certification is no joke and requires a lot of study.

The team at world-renowned Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning have developed the Certified Functional Strength Coach. It is one of the only certifications out there that requires not only that you have depth of knowledge, but that you can actually coach.

In terms of personal trainer certifications, my go-to recommendation is the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Theirs is a robust certification.

For learning more about Movement:

The Functional Movement Screen—levels one and two—will provide you with a versatile set of tools for screening movement and then developing corrective strategies. I’m obviously a big fan.

I also recommend the NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist certification.

For more, see the Resources page (coming soon). [/content_band]


3 thoughts on “Injury Prevention in Circus Arts: an approach we need to talk about more (part three)”

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