Last weekend, I attended a couple of Emily Scherb’s workshops on Anatomy for Circus. The concepts and ideas that were my big takeaways are the subject of this blog post. One of the cooler things about both workshops, for me, was that for almost every injury prevention idea that Emily mentioned, I thought: Sweet! I address that with my clients by doing (insert exercise or series of exercises)!

And then, Laura Witwer’s post about the why behind what your instructors are teaching you came out. Ah, the why. I knew there was (yet another) reason I like her. For those who have been reading closely, the teacher in me believes that knowing the why—the reasoning and rationale for what you’re doing—is tremendously important. My goal is to educate and empower you, as ‘trainees’, so that no matter what movement, skill or exercise you’re doing, you have a solid idea of how to keep your body safe and strong by making sure you’re in good positions with the right muscles engaged and active.

As I was writing about the ideas from Emily’s workshops that got me thinking the most, I ended up describing the various elements of your training plans—the concepts and exercises that feature in almost every program I design—that are specifically designed to strengthen the very ‘weak points’ that Emily had been describing. I took most of those more detailed parts out of the main post and have put them here, for you. The idea here being to give you a clearer idea of the why behind some parts of your training plans.

The key to being circus strong is being able to effectively generate and transmit force through your core.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone just how important core strength is for circus. Hopefully the blog post took that understanding a little deeper (unless you’re already an anatomy/biomechanics nerd, in which case: high five!). One of the places where I’m aiming to help you to develop and improve your force generating capabilities (beyond just lifting heavy things and getting stronger) is with the emphasis on tension development and using your breath.

Ideally, you will have noticed that when you purse your lips and exhale with the intention of emptying your lungs, that it triggers a deep core activation—your transverse abdominis and internal and external obliques—and your ribs ‘corset’ down towards your hip bones. By getting into the habit of linking your exhale to the initiation of an intense effort, you set yourself up for being able to generate as much force as you need.

Where strength training provides a bonus opportunity, of sorts, is in situations where you’re near the end of a set, or you’ve already done a couple of sets of an exercise, and you’re fatiguing. You can use your breath to focus your energy: the inhale can be like a marshaling of your reserves and then the exhale puts those energy reserves into focused action.

The hard-style plank is intended to be an exercise in both breathing and generating maximum tension. Beyond the exercise itself, the idea here being that you become familiar with just how hard you can squeeze your muscles.

There’s a concept called the maximum voluntary contraction. For many people, if they’ve never performed any sort of maximum effort, generating that much tension (contracting—squeezing—their muscles that much) is foreign to them. Their nervous system isn’t used to it and it takes extra concentration to get there. That extra concentration ends up taking time…delaying the onset of that contraction… from when you start thinking about it to when it actually happens.

What I want for you, when you are training in your circus-discipline-of-choice, is for as much muscular tension/force/power as you need to be ‘available’ to you as soon as you need it. The more you practice getting to 100% (obviously not right out of the gate, without a warm-up…that can be a lot for muscles), the better able to ‘access’ it you become.

Copyright: mandygodbehear / 123RF Stock Photo

(Brief aside: the warm-up sequence is intended to gradually ramp up your brain-to-muscle connection so that your nervous system is fully prepared to do good work by the time the actual workout begins. This gradual ramp up tends to work better than just jumping into running or jumping just because it’s kinder and gentler to your body and your nervous system/brain has time to adjust.)

Ok. This is getting long, so I’m going to break it up into multiple (private, just for you) posts. More next week…

Dear Get Circus Strong Trainees…

part two

If I were to summarize Emily’s workshops as succinctly as I could (and let’s be honest: being succinct is not necessarily a strength for me), I would say that her workshops outlined a variety of ways that circus artist-athletes’ bodies can be at risk of injury.

  • Effective force-transmission requires a strong and stable core
  • Your spine will stay happy longer if you make rotation come from your thoracic spine rather than your lumbar spine.
  • Overactive hip flexors combined with underactive glutes can end up leading to back pain over time.

In order to make sense of the places where I want to explain the why of your training plans, I’ve included the text of the blog post. If it’s not the first time you’re reading it and you don’t want to read it again, just read the bits in the boxes. 😉

Lumbar Rotation vs. Thoracic Rotation

Rotation is not something for which the lumbar vertebrae are particularly well-suited.

This reminded me of something Dr. Philip Beach wrote about the intervertebral discs of the lumbar spine, which is that “our lumbar IVDs (intervertebral discs) are particularly vulnerable to twisting insults”.

Listening to Emily describe the anatomy got me thinking about some of the movements you might see in a warm-up, such as the scorpion stretch.

As with any stretch, it’s worth taking some time to have a good think about why you’re doing it and what it is you’re looking to achieve. Just because your upper back feels tight and doesn’t feel like it can twist very well…and you feel less resistance when trying to twist your lower backthat doesn’t make it a good idea to try to make your lower back twist more.

[pullquote cite=”Shirley Sahrmann” type=”left”]Rotation of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial and rotation of the pelvis and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated to the other side is particularly dangerous.[/pullquote]

The key becomes making sure that when performing twisting-type movements, the bulk of rotation should happen through the thoracic spine and that the lumbar spine is stable. As you know, I’m a fan of using strength training as a means of reinforcing and strengthening these sorts of important movement patterns. There are several exercises that regularly feature in my training plans that are intended to train and improve thoracic rotation with lumbar stability. Training this ‘in the gym’ means that when it comes time to move in your circus-discipline-of-choice, you’re much more likely to move well.

Circus artist-athletes are prone to overactive hip flexors

There are so many things in circus that require you to have incredibly strong hip flexors. In order for those strong hip flexors to be most useful, they need to have a stable anchor at one end. If you’re aiming to lift your legs (a straddle invert, for example), then your spine and pelvis need to be that stable anchor.

If your hip flexors are strong, your spine and pelvis need to be extra stable.

That, once again, is the job of your core.

All too often, the hip flexors end up stronger than the core and they overpower it at the initiation of movement. (Heck, sometimes you can see them overpowering the core when people are just standing there). What you’ll see is a bit of a ‘pop’ or ‘flare’ of the abdomen as the hip flexors tug the lumbar spine and pelvis forward when they first contract. The issue here is that it creates a momentary shear force on the discs in between the vertebrae and, over time, might not be the best for those discs.

The key, then, becomes training (deep) core activation prior to (or at the initiation of) movement. Ideally, this is unconscious, but sometimes things get out of sync. This is where people like Emily can be very helpful to know. This is also where it can be helpful to have this deliberately built into your strength training program (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

[alert type=”info” close=”false”]That ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ was for you all.

This represents the difference between core strength and core control.

Dead bugs can be a useful exercise to develop awareness and control as you move both upper and lower limbs while maintaining a stable core.

Ideally, you start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

Initiate the move to ‘dead bug position’ with an exhale—just like in 90/90 belly breathing—that triggers core activation. (What I mean by core activation is that you should feel that impulse for your ribs to corset down and everything bracing just a bit. Not so much your six-pack/sit-up muscles flexing…more your cinch everything in and together like a corset muscles.) With your core engaged first, you then lift your legs and arms into position.

Lately, I’ve been having clients reach their right arm across to their left knee, and having them actively press the two together to create core engagement right from the start. It’s kind of like the yoga-block variation in the video. Holding this throughout the exercise does tend to make it harder…but that’s ok, right?

From there, each rep of dead bugs should be initiated with/by a forceful exhale. This is key. Extend your leg only as low as you can without changing the position of your lumbar spine …but regardless of which height you lower your leg to, make sure you squeeze your quads and calves and point your toes. Straight legs and pointed toes (and I could do a way better job of pointing my toes in that video!) should be practiced here with way more tension than you might think you need. These great lines will transfer to your performances later…and the intentional tension will make for improved awareness and faster increases in strength.[/alert]

Your core and your glutes work best when they work together

Training your glutes is something everyone should do—and for circus artist-athletes, that goes double. (See here and here.)

And, as alluded to above, core strength and control are vital for circus arts.

There is, however, an intimate relationship that exists between your core and your glutes. When we consider patterns such as lower crossed syndrome, it becomes easy to see how underactive glutes can have an impact on your core (and vice versa). In fact, there is a whole host of problems that can be avoided by making your glutes strong and making sure they’re working in concert with your core.

[alert type=”info” close=”false”]Basically, in every instance, what Emily was describing were issues that can arise from having underactive—and under-strong—glutes. This is where I felt really good about the inclusion of not only glute activation work, but glute strengthening exercise in your training plans.

This is also where coaching and cueing make a big difference. There are a number of exercises/movements that you can do that are glute-dominant and can easily be done without core engagement…unless you make remaining engaged an explicit part of the process. An easy example that I’m fond of using is the single-leg hip bridge. The exercise by itself is quite straightforward and is designed to focus on pure hip extension without lumbar compensation.

Where it gets an upgrade is when you intentionally use the exhale to trigger core engagement. In terms of sequencing, you exhale—and brace your core—and then drive your hip up off the ground. Your braced core makes your torso move all as one unit and your glutes extend your hip. Voila! Glutes and core learning to work together![/alert]

Strong lats: there is a time and a place

In order to move your arms overhead, your upper trapezius, lower trapezius and serratus anterior all work together to put your scapula where it needs to be.


A not-uncommon occurrence, however, is for the typical circus artist-athlete to develop big strong lats that end up overpowering the serratus anterior and lower traps. [Geekery alert:] I mean, after all, the fiber orientation of the lats is fairly similar to that of the lower trapezius…

The problem with having your lats doing too much work is that your lats do three things: shoulder extension, adduction and internal rotation.

To get your arms overhead, you need to do three things: shoulder flexion, abduction and external rotation.

You may have noticed that those are all opposites. This makes overactive lats less than ideal for getting your arms overhead.

This is where adding lower trap and serratus anterior activation and strengthening exercises important for circus folks.

[alert type=”info” close=”false”] To be explicit, exercises like back-to-wall shoulder flexion and wall slides (with upward rotation) and bear crawls do wonderful things for your lower traps and serratus.

And, because you have been building a strong and stable core as a foundation, when it comes to actually using your lats for the pulling yourself up (which is basically what your lats are for), you will be so much less likely to develop dysfunctional compensation patterns or movement flaws.

And, with your regular foam-rolling—you are foam-rolling your lats, aren’t you?—you’re so much less likely to develop overactive lats anyway…[/alert]

Ok. That’s enough for today. Don’t worry, though: I’ve got more thoughts a’brewin…