Good news for flyers: you don’t have to be tight!

That’s right, flyers: for those of you who have struggled with this and for those for whom it’s never been an issue, I have good news. There’s no need to squeeze your everything when you’re in the air! Not if you don’t want to, anyway.

I can imagine people reacting to the title of this post in one of two ways. In one scenario, you could be thinking ‘Oh thank goodness! This whole staying tight thing is hard!’ and in the other scenario, you’re probably thinking ‘Haha, very funny…but just not true’. If you were thinking the second thing, you’d be right. If you were thinking the first thing, well, I’m sorry if I got your hopes up.

Ok. The truth is that I was just using a catchy title to lure you in. What do you mean I don’t have to be tight? How can that be possible? Of course you have to be tight. We all know that (in theory). So the real plan here is to ring in the New Year with a reminder about the importance of having a solid foundation. Where flying trapeze is concerned, having a strong foundation means from the moment you grab the bar to the moment you’ve finished rolling/climbing out of the net, you’ve got to keep your body, your muscles (and even your mind) engaged and active.


Now there is some truth to the title of this post. (Bear with me for a moment of facetiousness…) You don’t have to stay tight. That works in just the same way that you don’t have to ever swing higher or ever be able to nail that trick you’ve been working on for months. You don’t even have to ever do more than a knee hang.

Unless you want to.

And there’s the rub. You’re here because you want to be. You fly because the work does something for you. Flying trapeze is perhaps best thought of as a practice or a work in progress. After all, it’s built right into the language we use when we ask each other what are you working on today? In the spirit of the New Year, you might even be thinking about what you would like to work toward accomplishing on the flying trapeze this year. So for both today—and every day that follows this year (and next)—here are some reasons why you might want to start off by making sure you’re staying tight while you’re in the air.

Channel your inner boy scout: be prepared

Squeezing (your quads, your butt, your pelvic floor, your core) puts your muscles in a state of readiness. It’s like hopping off the board with your muscles already prepped for movement. This might be a bit of an oversimplification, but consider the example of that first sweep off the board. If you’re not tight, the sequence goes something like this:

takeoff–>brain directs attention to relevant muscles–>muscles switch on–>sweep

If, on the other hand, you’re tight from the moment you start your takeoff, the sequence goes like this:


 The most obvious conclusion is that being tight allows you to react faster and to move exactly when you want to without unnecessary delays resulting from your brain taking the time to locate and activate the muscles you want to use.

Being tight means your muscles are in a state of partial activation. This partial activation not only allows you to react and move faster, but it also enables your muscles to generate more force quickly. Think of it as a spectrum that goes from completely relaxed (0) all the way to maximally contracted (10 on a scale of 1 to 10…or 11, if you prefer). Being tight means squeezing your muscles so that the lowest they go is a 6 on that scale. When it comes time to move (requiring say an 8 or 9 out of 10), you’re already more than half way there!



Can I have your attention please?

You can only pay attention to so many things at once, right? Consider the example of learning to turn around on the bar (in order to swing or do a Cutaway Half or a Half Turn). In the moment of the actual turnaround, your brain is trying to keep track of a number of sensory inputs. These sensory inputs come from both internal and external sources. Internal sensory inputs come from paying attention to your body and what it’s doing/what you’re trying to make it do. Externally, you might be receiving some input from one of your instructors…and you may find yourself wanting to pay attention to that.

If you’re not tight, the list of things for your brain to pay attention to includes:

  • Your hands and your grip on the bar,
  • Your left shoulder,
  • Your right shoulder,
  • Your pelvis/hips,
  • Your left thigh,
  • Your right thigh,
  • Your left lower leg,
  • Your right lower leg,
  • Your left foot and the toes you’re trying to point,
  • Your right food the toes you’re trying to point,
  • The calls from the instructor telling you how and when to move all of the above.

If, on the other hand, you’re tight, things change both physically and, perhaps most significantly, mentally. Squeezing your “core” (this includes your butt, your pelvic floor and your abdominal musculature) creates that stable chassis that Kelley Starrett refers to so often. Your torso becomes one thing rather than several. Squeeze your butt, your quads and point your toes and suddenly, your lower body becomes one thing. That list of things for your brain to monitor while you’re in the air ends up looking like this:

  • Your arms/hands and your grip on the bar
  • Your upper body/torso
  • Your legs
  • The calls from the instructor telling you how and when to move all of the above.

This is probably easy to understand theoretically, but when you try it, the difference is remarkable. It used to be so overwhelming for your brain to keep track of so many things…squeeze and then suddenly your brain has attentional resources to spare. Suddenly, you might even find yourself aware enough to stop making that face while you’re flying…maybe.


Iron wrapped in cotton

This example may or may not speak to you, but when learning T’ai Chi movements, some teachers encourage you to be like iron wrapped in cotton. The idea is to be strong and powerful (tight) while maintaining fluidity in your movements. The same principle applies to flying: you need to be tight and strong without being rigid. Staying tight gives you control over how you move…but moving in time with the rhythm of the swing demands fluidity.

The most potent example of where this becomes relevant is learning the swing. In the beginning, the most important—and the most challenging—thing to figure out is how to find that “flat”, fully extended position at the front peak of the swing. The key is that you need to be fully extended at the front peak of the swing, but you need to move into that position smoothly, perhaps even gently, so that you can do so in such a way that your whole body begins falling back as one unit. If you’re too rigid as you extend into positon, your feet might rebound forward forcing you to kick forward too early.

Different schools have different skill progressions, but based on the TSNY curriculum, for students beginning to learn the swing and working on finding a smooth entry into “flat” at the front peak, this the first (and by far the most challenging) nuanced and feel-based skill you will have encountered. If, up to this point in your progression, you’ve been practicing being tight and strong without being rigid, then you’re starting your journey with the swing ahead of the game.


That’s all very fine in theory

So, dear flyer, let’s make it real. It’s all very fine to go on about all of the reasons why being and staying tight is the kind of thing that you simply can’t afford not to do; but how to practice?

Notice that I’ve chosen the word practice very deliberately. Being a tight flyer is a skill. Becoming a tight flyer requires deliberate practice.

What does deliberate practice mean? Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what tends to stand in the way of most people learning to be tight in the air. Quite simply, most people hop off the board and immediately shift their focus to the trick they’re about to do. The idea of squeezing everything—and maintaining that—is just not on their minds. Deliberate practice means making being tight the focus.

And how to make it the focus?

Here’s an idea: if you have are a flyer who could afford to be tighter in the air, use one or two of your first couple of turns in class to practice the skill of being tight.

If you’re doing a warm-up swing, use your first swing to focus only on squeezing your butt, your quads, your core, etc. –and not on the swing itself. Just get up in the air and think only about being tight. And see what happens. You might find yourself with focus to spare, so you can do a gentle swing—but do not stop focusing on being tight.

If you’re doing a set trick, ask your instructor to give you and extra swing—either before you get into position or after you’re in position and before you let go of the bar or both—and take that swing to focus on being tight. I would recommend beginning by practicing getting and staying tight as soon as you take off from the platform.

Try this for your first couple of turns in class and then get to work on your other goals for that day. Stay tight while doing so if you can, but make a point of practicing being tight every time you fly. You’ll make yourself a better flyer if you do.