Strength Training for Circus: 3 reasons to add weight-training to your circus training (part one)

  • An athlete should possess:

    • Specific strength necessary to perform the skills/combinations/routines they are aiming to do

    • A solid level of general strength

It’s not always sexy. It tends not to be what people are interested in (until they get hurt…then this conversation is easy to have). But, to be perfectly honest with you: I’m always thinking about the foundation.

The slide/quote above comes from Rupert Egan’s presentation, Strength and Power Training for Gymnastics at Dave Tilley’s Maximizing Flexibility and Strength for Gymnastics seminar and I wanted to stand up and shout “YES!” …but opted not to, since it was being filmed and it would have disrupted his flow.

A solid foundation of general strength is what will keep you from getting hurt or will reduce the severity of any injuries that do happen.

And, a solid foundation of general strength is the key to you being able to do cooler stuff sooner.

How to build a solid foundation of general strength

I would like to suggest that the goal should be for you to be stronger than your apparatus asks you to be.

A friend and former colleague of mine has something that he says to new (and old) flying trapeze instructors: “We want you to be stronger than your job”. He is usually talking about why the instructor fitness ‘requirements’ are there: as a means of ensuring/encouraging instructors to be stronger than what the job demands of their bodies. Ideally, that ends up meaning that nothing the instructors encounter on the job asks more of their bodies than they are already conditioned to handle.

I think you, dear reader, should be stronger than anything your apparatus (or circus-discipline-of-choice) will ask of your body.

And, I am currently of the opinion that weight-training is the most efficient and effective way to get there.

With that said, here are three reasons why lifting weights is good for your circus.

1.    Your Hips

Hips are important in circus. (#duh) Circus arts ask your hips to do some pretty amazing and impressive things.

Now, when we talk ‘hips’, what comes to mind for me are your glutes.

Specifically, I’m referring to your gluteus maximus…

Because your gluteus maximus attaches to your femur, one of its core jobs is to help to keep the head of your femur centered in your hip socket.

Copyright: bestdesign36 / 123RF Stock Photo

Quite often, cranky and/or always-feeling-tight hip flexors are a product of ineffective glutes plus a stretched out hip capsule.

For folks who want a front split and who are not naturally lax and who did not develop a split as a child, you may have to stretch out that capsule a bit as you pursue the rear-leg range of motion you’re looking for. All of that means that your hip’s natural, passive constraints (i.e., the joint capsule and nearby ligaments) end up providing less stability than they should.

So, having really strong glutes is a big part of keeping your hip joint happy long-term.

Also, you know how “they” say that hamstring injuries are really common and practically par for the course when you’re training in circus?

It happens to everybody…

(it doesn’t have to…)

Your gluteus maximus is primarily responsible for hip extension…and resisting hip flexion…like when you’re holding your front leg in place for active split positions (like a split on fabric).

Copyright: kladyk / 123RF Stock Photo

If your glutes are not particularly strong, your hamstrings will try to do all the work.

The hamstrings are not the ideal set of muscles to drive this kind of movement (or, in this case, non-movement). That’s the job of your glutes.

Want to protect yourself from hamstring-overuse and hamstring injuries?

Build really strong glutes.

Want to do more pull-ups?

Build really strong glutes.


Your glutes provide a strong anchor for your lats whenever you pull up.

If you want to be able to generate—and make use of—a larger amount of force with your lats, you need to be able to forcefully contract your glutes.

Back Functional LIne; Anatomy Trains, Thomas Myers, p.170

This is because the criss-cross of the thoracolumbar fascia connects your lats to the opposite side glute. A strong glute contraction provides a solid anchor for the bottom end of your lat. With that end held nice and steady by your glute, the other end—attached to your arm—gets to take maximum advantage of your lat strength.

And voila! Pull-up!

(Ok, strictly speaking it goes: strong glutes squeeze + hard work and then voila: Pull-up!)

What to do?

Sure, there are some great glute exercises you can do with bodyweight—and if they are challenging right now, then keep at it.

Eventually though, bodyweight just isn’t enough.

In order to make your hips stronger than the demands circus place on them, you need to pick up heavier things…

There are a variety of hip-dominant strength exercises to choose from:

My preferred starting point is the deadlift with a kettlebell. Particularly when you’re new to deadlifting, you can get a lot of mileage out of this variation:

And eventually, progressing to single-leg work is pretty important for circus folks:


Once again, I’ve managed to make a short story long, so I’ll leave it there for this week and post part two next week.

If you feel like you need some more specific direction, accountability and ultimately, a workout training plan designed specifically for you, check out my online training program for circus artist/athletes.