How to start training again after time off from aerials, by Caitlin Mader.
Grab your leggings, Circuslings, it’s almost time!
After 3.5 months and approximately 9834872378923 Zoom meetings, the CircoFit staff is unearthing itself from its dwindling piles of toilet paper and order-in containers, shaking off the haze of 2020 doom-scrolling, and preparing to stagger back to the studio and join students in performing 300 perfect, back-to-back, straight-arm straddles with straight legs and pointed toes. After which we will put on that playlist with all the Lizzo and everything will return to normal.
Wait… sorry, I just got word from my psoas… they say… hang on...
“Fuck off we are napping.”
Okay, so maybe it won’t go exactly like that.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone in the CircoFit community that our bodies won’t be exactly the same as where we left them. Many of us have been doing some form of conditioning, but basically none of us have been doing actual aerials. I for one have been gardening because life is short and I didn’t sign up for 3000 situps in my basement, goddammit. If this is your first reconditioning rodeo, or your 18th but they tend not to go so well, these tips are for you.
Remember that home conditioning is not the same as doing aerials because of straight up strength:
Aerials is a whole body workout which is very difficult to replicate on the ground. There are over 650 skeletal muscles in the human body, and no matter how well we tailor our workouts to target muscle groups and movement we know are important for aerials (thanks Erik!), we’re unlikely to be able to preserve the strength ratios we had when we were training. We’re also liable to just straight up forget some. For example, we tend to think about upper body and core strength for aerials, but have you been conditioning your piriformis? Your finger extensor muscles? No? Me neither! Whoops! There area a litany of muscles, especially in the shoulders and core that are not fancy glam muscles likely targeted by the average general-purpose home workout. But these are the muscles that keep us safe from injury by supporting our shoulders and trunks. For great and more-qualified explanations on these muscle groups, check out these blog posts on rotator cuffs by Dr. Jen Crane of Cirque Physio (https://www.cirquephysio.com/rotator-cuff-strengthening-for-circus-artists-circuscuff101/), and core stabilizers by Dr. Emily Scherb of The Circus Doc (http://circusnow.org/moving-from-the-core-an-anatomy-lesson/).
Taking a break from aerials might not totally be a bad thing. Many of us were suffering from “overuse” injuries resulting from having some muscle groups too strong, with others too weak. The opportunity to rest, heal and strengthen some of these forgotten muscle groups will have done some of us good. But generally speaking, even if you’ve been home conditioning diligently, there may be some muscle groups that haven’t been worked like they were when you were doing aerials. They’ll make themselves known when you’re back in the air, and it will be important to pay attention to what feels weak when you return, especially if it’s in these important groups of “safety stabilizers”. Things that feel weak will need to be strengthened, often with aerial specific exercises before continuing with skills.
Remember that home conditioning is not the same as doing aerials because of muscle engagement patterns:
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’ve conditioned perfectly in the last several months and maintained or built on your baseline strength in all muscles required for aerials. Wow! You’ll be able to bust out all the same dynamic strength moves as when you left, right? Lolnope. An aerialist is more than the sum of their parts, and it’s going to be important to give credit where it’s due for the reflexes we built during months and years of aerial training. You have all the same muscles you started with, but aerial acrobatics requires all of those muscles to work in tandem, often non-reflexive ways. When you built your aerial skills the first time, you built them slowly as you gained strength, and learned to engage stabilizer muscles in your shoulders, glutes, core and legs to maintain good form and keep you safe. A good coach nagging you on form would have helped this ;). Over time, many of these muscle engagements and movements will have become subconscious. That’s great. It’s also not necessarily going to be there on your first day back. Muscling through the moves you used to do without proper form will do you no favours. The good news is that these reflexes will come back faster than strength, but only if we devote some time to cueing them when we first start back.
Combine these two things, loss of strength and loss of reflexes/subconscious stabilizer engagement, add in an eagerness to rush back to where you were in March, and you’ve got a recipe for bad form and injury.
Picture yourself on a crossroad. To the left, there’s a quick jog over to the moves you left off in March. They look great from a distance (and on Instagram)! But when you arrive, they’re shaky, with poor form and rife with little physical cheats. Beyond that is a bumpy road of unlearning bad habits, a shoulder that doesn’t quite feel right, and possible injury.
To the right, there’s a slightly longer path, with a quick detour to check up on foundations of basic movements, strengthen some muscles that have weakened, and retrain the whole body to move well in the air. This metaphor sounds very alarmist, but it’s all to say that yes, a few “boring” training sessions reacquainting and reassessing your basics will be well worth it long term. If the basics feel hard, power through, it means you’re doing the right thing.
What do I mean when I say “basics”?
I mean baaaasics!
Body position while in a straight, vertical hang
Questions to ask yourself frequently, and your coach as much as is reasonable:
Are my legs straight if they’re supposed to be? Are my feet and toes pointed? Are my shoulders neutral (not hunched, not disengaged at the end of their range). Are my glutes engaged and back straight at the top of a straddle inversion? Are my glutes engaged basically all the damn time? Am I supporting my low back with my core basically all the damn time? Am I initiating this movement from where I should be, or am I compensating with something else? (Example, sloughing all the effort from an inversion onto the hip flexors instead of initiating throughout the core). Did I get here in a controlled manor or did I rely on momentum where I shouldn’t need it? (Example, throwing the legs into a hip key). Does anything hurt in a bad way?
If some of these questions sound weird, ask your coach! Ask your coach for an outside eye anyway!
The good news:
Reflexes come back quickly if we give them the opportunity, and this is a great opportunity to make a clean start on any bad habits (we all have them). If your strength is there, it may just take a couple of sessions of reminding your body how to move before things start feeling natural again.
Muscle strength will come back quickly as well.
In fact, building muscle the second time is much faster than building it the first time, according to research studies summarized in this great blog post.
Many of us have gone through a break this long or longer before, for injury, kids, work, etc., and can attest that strength and prowess does come back. There is a lot of wisdom on this topic among CircoFit and the broader circus community, and I encourage everyone to share their experiences. What’s different this time is that we’re all going through this at the same time, which is great in its own way. They say shared suffering is the best way to bond a group. Well, here we are.
Finally, remember to embrace this moment. Any new perspective can bring new inspiration, and aerials is not just an athletic pursuit, it’s also an artform. Getting reacquainted with your apparatus will be a journey, and may provide some new insights that you can keep with you after this moment has passed. You don’t have to be in top physical form to experiment with new ways of expressing yourself as an aerial artist, so make sure to take some time during this slog of reconditioning to just enjoy moving in the air again, even if you’re not pushing your physical boundaries or performing crowd-wowing tricks. If we’re lucky, we won’t have a moment like this again, so let’s appreciate its small gifts and not rush through it.