How To Build Your Own Functional Strength Workout

So here we are. For a while now, we’ve been having an extended conversation about circus arts training and ideas surrounding how to keep your body healthy and happy so that you can do progressively cooler things.

At this point, I think we can all agree on a couple of things:

  1. Circus is awesome. It’s fun. It’s creative and expressive. It challenges you to challenge your ideas of limitation and possibility. And it comes with the added bonus of wonderful people.
  2. For the most part, circus arts ask you to be stronger than the average bear.

But just how does one get to be stronger than the average bear?

Yes: how do you get stronger? And not just strong, but balanced and functional strong?

One of the most common things we hear from folkx who want to get stronger is that their biggest obstacle is simply not knowing what to do when they get to the gym (or wherever they go to do their strength training).

Sure, you could do a workout made up of all the classic circus “conditioning” exercises, but often, those exercises are a bit too hard and, let’s be honest, they also don’t represent a well-balanced functional strength training meal.

Which brings us back to the question, what to do?

What? is a great question. But first, let’s talk about why and how.

So why do we strength train like this in the first place?

The why that underpins our approach to strength training for the circus artist is this: we firmly believe that every circus artist-athlete can benefit from developing, maintaining…and then continuing to develop…a robust foundation of general strength upon which you can add discipline-specific strength.

I feel like that was wordy and not as simple and straightforward as it could be.

There are a couple of ways to rephrase this one:

  • It’s not sexy and it’s generally easy to overlook, but it’s really helpful to build and maintain a super-solid foundation of strength in addition to the generally-more-exciting-and-sexy circus-specific strength.
  • Sometimes, the answer to ‘why are we doing this exercise?’ is ‘because it helps to make your body generally strong’.

Now then, let’s get into the how of it all.

Build your workouts around movement patterns and not individual muscles.

Why? Two main reasons come to mind:

One is that in the most basic way, your body functions (ideally) as a coordinated whole. Muscles working with other muscles to produce larger patterns of movement. Ultimately, it makes more sense for our purposes to train in ways that reinforce and strengthen the basic human movement patterns (which are related to the built-in relationships between “separate” muscles).

Two, training in this way also helps to maintain balanced forces on your joints…which is important for long-term joint health and injury reduction.

Balanced strength will help the forces on your joints to remain even. A centered, balanced joint will tend to have less wear and tear (because when it moves, it will move smoothly). And that’s good.

This is easy to conceptualize when we think of the shoulder: the joint will be balanced if the forces on the joint are balanced in all directions. Theoretically, this means a balance between horizontal pushing and pulling and vertical pushing and pulling.

Aerial work tends to involve a lot of vertical pulling. Developing the ‘vertical-pulling muscles’ will create a pull on the joint in one direction. In order to keep your joint balanced, a certain amount of vertical pushing (or pressing) should be included in your training plan. The same goes for horizontal pushing and pulling. And for hip-dominant versus knee-dominant leg strength.

One of the downsides to offering this as a general principle is the fact that how to achieve this balance is something that varies according to the individual. For example, we would choose different pushing and pulling exercises for someone who spends a lot of time with shoulders “down and back” when compared to someone whose shoulders are a bit more rounded forward.

Using those movement patterns as our starting point…

The key principle that underpins how to get stronger is called Progressive Overload.

Simply put, your muscles need a reason to get stronger. Progressive overload is that reason. By training in a way that regularly pushes the current limits of their capabilities, we (slightly) overload the muscles. The muscle’s longer-term response (or adaptation) to this overload is to get stronger.

Of course, once the muscle gets stronger, what was once a bit of overload is no longer an overload. It has become a manageable load. (Yay! Stronger!) And so, in order to keep getting stronger(er), you need to keep (slightly!) overloading the muscles.

Put another way, your muscles will adapt according to the imposed stimulus. The “imposed stimulus” is often also called a “training stress” and that gets to the heart of the matter: strength training is a stress. If it’s too easy or not done often enough, it’s not really stressful for your muscles and it doesn’t give them a reason to get stronger.

With those two ideas in mind—movements, not muscles, and progressive overload—let’s build you a workout.

First, the basics: your fundamental human movement patterns!

  • Horizontal pushing, e.g., push-up
  • Horizontal pulling, e.g., dumbbell row
  • Vertical pushing, e.g., dumbbell overhead press
  • Vertical pulling, e.g., cable pulldown
  • Hip-hinging, e.g., kettlebell deadlift
  • Squatting, e.g., goblet squat
  • Stepping/Lunging, e.g., split squat
  • Weighted Carries, e.g., farmer’s carry
  • “Anti-” core work, e.g., hard-style plank

How often?

As a general guideline, I recommend either two or three strength training workouts per week (with about 48 hours between workouts). Each workout can include an exercise from every category listed above or you could split them up over two different workouts.

How much/how many?

As a starting point, I would suggest that when building your strength training plan, choose weights that make it difficult for you to perform 8 repetitions of a given exercise with good form. (Meaning you find yourself having to work to maintain perfect form).

For exercises that don’t use weights, choose a progression that is similarly challenging. For example, if you’re doing a hard-style plank, I’d recommend starting with holding the position for five full breaths of full-body joy.

Do anywhere from 1 to 3 sets of each exercise.

How to progress?

Feeling a bit tired at the end of the set means that you have slightly overloaded the muscles involved. Yay! That’s the overload part of progressive overload!

In order for the overload to progress from workout to workout, what I recommend is to aim for 1-2 more repetitions at the same weight for every exercise you do. So, if in week one you did 8 reps of your dumbbell rows, in week two, aim to do 9 or 10 repetitions.

Keep doing this, week-to-week until you get to 12 repetitions. After that, it will be time to try a heavier weight.

And that, my friends, is basically how to build yourself a workout.

I’ll be the first to admit that it can still seems complicated and/or overwhelming from here. Perhaps start with the example exercises and build a workout around those. I think you can get a lot of mileage out of the guidelines presented above.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself wanting a little bit more help, then send me an email and we can chat!

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