Developing Power for Circus Arts

As circus artists, we probably don’t think of power as something we need, but there are actually a lot of power moves that happen in circus arts.

Beats on aerial apparatus, beats in partner aerials, dynamic lifts in partner acrobatics and floor work that includes tumbling are just a few examples that come to mind.

Now, you may be scratching your head because when it comes to “fitness for circus”, most of the time the focus is on developing more strength.

Power, on the other hands tends not to even get considered as a quality to train.

And you may be still scratching your head, wondering ‘what’s power got to do with it?’ Or, more to the point, you could simply be wondering what exactly is power and what’s the difference between power and strength, anyway?

The Difference Between Power and Strength

Strength and power are often confused, so let’s clear that up right away:

Strength is a measure of how much force your muscles can exert.

Power is a measure of how fast your muscles can exert a large amount of force.

Strength is expressed by slower, controlled movements. This is more like your strength training in the gym (although that is including both muscle strength and muscle endurance because you’re not always doing a 1 rep max lift…but that exploration is for a different post).

In a circus arts setting, strength is also on display when doing your (good form, controlled) pull-ups, your straddle-ups (or press for you handbalancers or in the air for you aerialists) or your squats with a human in hand-to-hand.

Power, on the other hand, is the ability to move weight with speed and control (albeit less control than when you’re moving weight slowly).

Another way to say it is that power is the ability to use your strength in rapid-fire bursts of energy. Being strong does not always translate to being powerful. It’s all in how you train. For life and for circus, you need both. However, you do need to have a good foundation of strength and joint stability in order to be powerful.

The Why

If you know either me or Mike, you know we find the ‘why’ really important. If you have ever trained with us, you know we are always sharing the why behind the skill, exercise or movement we are doing.

Why is training power important?

Well, in circus it’s because there are quite a few skills that require us to generate muscular force quickly (or, express power). Maybe even more skills than you thought.

Circus power moves include beats in aerials, tumbling, hand-balancing moves where your swing your legs up to a handstand from a croc or even jump or kick up into a handstand. In partner acro movements where you tempo into high hand-to-hand or hand-to-foot stuff or anything that you use a squat and extend up to standing to assist the lift. In flying trapeze power is in your hop of the board, your sweep, your force-out or your break to name a few. Banquine, Russian bar, Teeterboard: all require power.

But if we look past circus to everyday life, power is a hugely important quality to train while we’re young so we can maintain our independence and reduce the risk of falling as we get older. What power training looks like for each individual will be different based on where they are now, but as long as speed is involved with some of their fitness training, that’s what’s important.

When it comes to aging–because we all are doing it–we begin to naturally lose strength after the age of 30, unless of course we are strength training and doing activities that challenge us to use our strength.

Power also declines as we age, but at a much faster rate, especially if we don’t train it in any way and definitely if we are sedentary. As you can see here, the losses are quite significant: ranging from 3.5% per year to 8.3% per decade.

Developing Power

Now that you know why it’s important to train power not only for life, but for many skills in circus, how does one do that?

A quick note before we dive into the exercises:

As a responsible coach who is focused on injury reduction, I would like to point out that all of the following are general recommendations. You can get the best training plan for you and your body and your goals by working with a qualified strength and conditioning coach.

You can work with us in person or online or even reach out to ask us how to find a coach in your area.

I also know that is not always possible for everyone to train with a coach for any number of reasons and I hope that you can find the information below helpful.

Getting Started

Adding a power component to your warmup is a great way to ensure you are spending some time on developing power and it’s also a great way to get warmed up for your training.

Here are some great movements to begin with if power training is new to you:

Add some skipping to your warm-ups. Skip forward, backward and laterally. You’ll find some key pointers about performing the skipping movements in the videos below.

Another great way to add some power production to your warmup is with lateral bounding. The videos below provide two options: side to side and traveling forward.

Additionally you can play with medicine ball throws, slams and tosses or med ball slam alternatives. These help develop full-body power by integrating your hips into an apparent ‘upper body’ movement.

Lastly, let’s talk about jumping and how this is great for developing power. Below are the two common movements that can be added to your warmup or even your strength training program.

Box Jumps.

When you jump, you want to spring off the floor by shoving your feet through the floor to begin the jump. As you spring off, the floor this should have your body stretching out as it rockets up and over towards the surface of your box. I think of myself as trying to make an arc like a rainbow with the trajectory of my feet from the ground to the box. I often tell my students and clients to create this arc by thinking they are trying to jump higher than the box they’re jumping to.

When you are taking off in your squat position and on your squat in the landing position, you want to make sure that your knees aren’t collapsing in. If you find this is happening to you, think about pulling the knees away from each other as you squat and as you land. If you are still having some trouble with keeping the knees from collapsing in, then you would want to develop more strength in your outer hip (glute medius and minimus) to ensure the knees don’t collapse and cause potential for a knee injury. (Here’s a video of an exercise that can help develop that strength.)

One last tip for box jumps.

We are using this exercise for two main reasons:

First, the initial squat before you jump provides an opportunity to practice force summation–the quick, downward motion ‘loads the spring’, so to speak. This is an important part of power development because the more you can learn to ‘load the spring’, the better you’ll become at ‘releasing’ that force quickly.

The second benefit of box jumps are that the landing on the box provides an opportunity to practice good landing mechanics and force absorption. But in order to do this, you need to be able to land in exactly the same squat position you took off from.

If you jump to a box that is too high, you will have to pull your knees up into your armpits and land in an awkward position that does not lend itself to effective force absorption.

This is also why we always step down from the box, rather than jumping back down: the backwards hop that usually ends up happening makes for a rather jarring impact. From a risk vs. reward standpoint, it just makes more sense to step down.

Jump squats.

Similar to the box jump, jumps squats want to begin and end in a similar squat. Spring off the floor and come into a long body as you rocket up in the jump. As we get more accustomed to doing jump squats, we want to try to reduce the time between landing and taking off. Maintain that good form of the knees not collapsing in during either squat and landing nice and quietly like a cat.

For some upper body-specific movements, you could try adding some dynamic wall push-ups to your warm-up.

How to Add These to Your Warm-up

A wonderful place to add these types of movements is after you have warmed up with some range of motion movements and some other movements to raise your heart rate some.

You could do 3 sets

  • Skipping options (skipping about 20 paces)
  • Medicine Ball slams/Slam alternatives or Dynamic Wall Push-ups (Do 2 different types of med ball slams or do 5-8 reps of dynamic wall push-ups)
  • Lateral Bounding
  • Box Jumps and/or Jump Squats (performing about 5-8 reps of either)

This is by no means a complete list of movements you can do to develop power, but it’s an example of ways to start your journey of developing power with little to no equipment.

Please reach out and let us know how it’s all going or if you have any questions. If you want a more individualized program, we’d love to work with you.

Happy Training~~Theresa