We’ve been hinting at it for a long time now. Some of us have even gone so far as to say it outright. My guess is that many of my instructor colleagues will read this and, possibly quietly to themselves but more probably out loud, they’ll say ‘it’s true’. It’s really a rather straightforward idea, yet so many seem to struggle with it. The fact is, flying trapeze is all about your butt.
Working on your swing? Start by squeezing your butt. Looking to clean up your takeoff? Squeeze your butt. Trying to land in the net in a better position? Again, you can start by squeezing your butt.
Having trouble squeezing your butt? It might be that your butt has been switched off.
Ah, sitting. Is there anything that sitting doesn’t make a mess of?
Please don’t get me wrong: sitting isn’t the exclusive plight of the desk jockey. Musicians and rowers and students do a lot of that, too. (And I’m sure there are other examples that are not coming to mind right now). It’s such a tricky thing because, on the surface of it, sitting is simply required in order to do the job. Although, beyond rowing, there might be room in every other instance for some bold thinking and new approaches…but we’ll get to that later.
Anatomy of a problem
Let’s revisit the work of dear Dr. Janda. As you may recall, Dr. Janda described certain patterns of muscular imbalance which he called Upper and Lower Crossed Syndromes. Last month we had a look at upper crossed syndrome and this month, as the picture suggests, is about lower crossed syndrome (LCS) and, perhaps most significantly, why it’s just horrible for flying (and probably performance in other circus arts as well). In extreme cases, it’s easy to spot:
- Anterior tilt of the pelvis (which we could over-simplify as the way that one’s pelvis needs to tilt in order to really stick one’s butt out, like when twerking, for example; you can spot it when your belt or pants sits higher in the back and lower in the front);
- Increased flexion at the hips—even (and especially) when standing;
- And the signature hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine (that’s a bigger-than-normal arch/curve in your lower back)
So here’s how this situation tends to unfold:
Let’s start with your hip flexors. (For clarity, this refers to a group of muscles—basically every muscle in the diagram—that work to create flexion at the hip. When you raise your knee, your hip is flexing.) When you are standing, these muscles are at their resting length. When you sit, they shorten. When you sit for long periods of time, those muscles—ah, clever, helpful muscles—adapt by shortening. After all, the message that prolonged sitting sends to them is that you must want them to be shorter. You spend so much time with them in a shortened position, after all.
When you stand up, your shortened hip flexors pull the front of your pelvis down. Your abdominal muscles want to pull your pelvis up (a better way to look at it is that your abdominal musculature contributes to keeping your pelvis in neutral), but with the extra tension from the hip flexors, they get shut down (or inhibited). This anterior pelvic tilt situation also ends up shortening the erector muscles of your lower back.
And, of course, with your hip flexors all short and tight, that really gets in the way of hip extension (and hyperextension—extending past neutral). So much so that the muscles that are the primary drivers of hip extension get shut down, too. Those muscles, by the way, are your glutes.
Let’s talk about your butt for a moment…
…as it pertains to flying trapeze. I mentioned hip hyperextension. Assuming that when you sweep, your legs are straight and your core is engaged (of course!), when your legs are behind you, your hip is in hyperextension. The key to powerfully hyperextending at the hip is to powerfully contract your butt.
But…if your hip flexors are tight, then your hip won’t be able to extend fully and it’s likely that your glutes won’t be able to contract forcefully anyway (since they’re likely not firing well).
But…the body, being the clever thing that it is, will come up with a way around this problem. Usually that involves (over-)using the hamstrings to move your legs (of course, the hamstrings also cross your knee joint, so they force your knees to bend…it’s like rubbing salt in the wound!). Unfortunately, in this situation, the core musculature is also inhibited, so that means excessive movement in the individual segments of your spine.
This might be getting a bit jargon-heavy, but that excessive movement often means shear forces being exerted on the individual vertebrae and the intervertebral discs. This leads to quite a bit of wear and, in the long run, is a great recipe for premature disc degeneration. From what I hear, that’s no fun.
So where were we? Oh yes: tight hip flexors lead to tight lower back muscles and inhibited glutes and abs. Your hamstrings (which are likely going to feel tight to begin with because your pelvis is anteriorly tilted) are working overtime to cover for your glutes, so they’re generally at increased risk for injury when you’re working hard. And then your core isn’t doing its job, so in addition to the lower back pain, you’re also at risk for eventually wearing out an intervertebral disc or two. Did I mention the increased stress on your hip joint?
I told you sitting was awesome.
So how about an action plan!
Well, now seems as good a time as any to remind you, gentle reader (or should I say, devoted circus athlete?), that in the same way that everybody’s swing is going to be different, every body is different. You may or may not exhibit any of the symptoms described here. The goal of this post is to give you some general ideas for self-care, along with a better idea of what might be going on for your body. The best way to really find out is to find a good Strength & Conditioning Coach and/or a good Physical Therapist.
Back to the action plan…
First, the test. The Thomas Test.
Lie down on your back. Pull your knees in to your chest. Pick your favorite leg and extend it out towards the floor. Can you get your leg, completely straight, all the way to the floor without letting go of your knee? If yes, great! If no, it looks like your hip flexors are tight.
Tight hip flexors?
The trick with this whole tight muscles/inhibited muscle back and forth is that until a tight muscle returns to a more normal length, the inhibited muscles—no matter how much you train them—just can’t really ever do their job. So let’s start by getting into the habit of stretching your hip flexors.
A quick note about stretching:
If the goal is to lengthen the tissue, you should hold the stretch for at least two minutes. This is best done post-workout when everything is warm.
Pre-workout (or pre-flying class or pre-circus anything), holding the stretch for 30 seconds is probably a better guideline.
After at most 30 minutes of sitting, get up and hold each stretch you do for at least 30 seconds.
I’m fairly confident that most people are familiar with these stretches, but there is a detail or two about performing the stretches properly that we should take the time to emphasize:
Assume the position, one knee on the floor, one knee up. Make sure you are positioned such that your hip is directly above your knee and your shoulder is directly above your hip. Do not shift your weight forward yet.
The goal of this stretch is to stretch into true hip hyperextension—but without losing core engagement or neutral pelvic position.
Now, squeeze your butt. Like you mean it.
While you’re at it, make your stomach tight.
If your hip flexors are particularly tight, this alone should light them up.
If you feel like you could do with more of a stretch, you may shift your hips forward. Only move as far forward as you can without losing core engagement (that’s the tight tummy) or letting your butt relax. Otherwise, you’re just not stretching your hip flexors.
A test that’s also part of the solution: the glute bridge
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Arms by your sides.
Squeeze your butt. Tight stomach.
Lift your toes off the floor and push your hips off the floor (through your heels) until you have a straight line from your knees through your hips and torso all the way to your shoulders.
Hold for two seconds. Where do you feel it?
Hamstrings? Chances are that means your glutes aren’t firing like they should. Lower back down to the floor (continue to squeeze your butt) and repeat. This is an exercise that will help wake those glutes up from their long winter’s nap.
Butt? Great! Lower back down to the floor and repeat.
Do one set of ten repetitions. This is a great exercise to include in your pre-flight warmup and as a part of your warmup before you work out.
And, for the love of your body, your health and your drive to be a better athlete because it makes you feel like a better person…
If you’re finding that you’re sitting a lot, make a change. Every half hour, get up and move. Stretch out your hip flexors. Stand up and squeeze your butt.
If you’re a flyer, consider squeezing your butt before you grab the bar. Contracting your glutes helps to position your pelvis in neutral. This enables your core to activate (and is your cue to make your stomach tight). The whole point here is that squeezing your butt and your core creates the optimal conditions for you to generate powerful movements with your legs and to channel force effectively through your shoulders.
If you’re an aerialist or acrobat, the same applies: before you get onto your apparatus or before you make your first move, consider squeezing your butt and making your stomach tight. It simply sets you up to be stronger and better able to do whatever amazing and graceful awesomeness you’re about to do.
And good alignment and movement mechanics makes you more likely to be able to stay healthy and strong as you do amazing and awesome things.
And that’s the whole point really: doing awesome, amazing things reminds us just how awesome and amazing we have the potential to be.