Too Much of a Good (Circus) Thing

When it comes to circus training, is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?

Sure there is.

And how much is too much will be different for you than it is for someone else, and with this post I hope to offer some tips or guidelines that will help make that easier for you to figure out.

So, you have found your circus discipline(s) that you love and enjoy training. But the question is how do you balance enough discipline-specific training with other physical activity and general strength training without over-training? And should your non-circus days be focused on movement patterns similar to what you are doing when you’re training or should they be different?

First, Know the Signs of Overtraining

  • Decline in performance. This is your telltale sign you’re over training, especially if you upped your training time or intensity and you only seem to be declining in the quality of your skill performance.
  • Excessive fatigue. This usually comes about from too much training and not enough recovery or inadequate ‘refueling’ (i.e., not eating enough calories).
  • Chronic or nagging injuries. Constant aches or pains in your muscles or joints that last longer than two weeks are not normal.
  • Frequent illness. Overtraining taxes all your body’s systems–including your immune system, making it more difficult to ward off illness or infection.
  • Increased perceived effort during training. When even the simplest movements seem harder than they should be, this could be a sign. If you happen to monitor your heart rate, then you might see an elevated heart rate (higher than your normal) during training, but also throughout your day.
  • Loss of appetite. Upping your training should stimulate more appetite, but with overtraining, your appetite may decline (largely due to the physiological exhaustion).
  • Loss of sleep (insomnia or restless sleep). Sleep is when your body rests and repairs itself. Overtraining significantly stimulates your body’s natural stress response, this over-stimulation makes it more difficult to relax and can disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Psychological stress and altered mood. Again, an overabundance of stress hormone production can really affect your mood: it can swing about, disrupt your ability to concentrate or even cause depression.

If you are experiencing symptoms of overtraining (as described above) then, depending on the severity of your symptoms, you would be well-served by seeking some help from either a medical professional or a qualified fitness professional to help with getting back to optimal for your training.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In this section, I would like to address the approach to training that is focussed on training the same movement patterns over and over–
things like knee tucks, leg lifts, skin the cats, different lever skills or side planches–whether this repetition of similar movements is happening after your specific circus discipline training (what most circus folks call “conditioning”) or as part of your fitness regimen outside of your circus training. I want to highlight for you why this is not the best for your body and how working movement pathways similar to the skills you want to improve can lead to too much stress to your joints or spine.

On the surface, it would seem to make sense that continuing to train similar movements to those you are doing in your circus training should be your focus, especially if you are trying to improve the movement or get strong enough to do the skill to begin with.

However, more of the same doesn’t always get us to where we want to go–especially after you may have just spent the last hour or two doing those things.

What?!?!?!?

…is probably what you’re thinking and I get it. When it feels like you are trying to really fine tune a skill or just get the skill without an assist, it feels like more of the same drill or similar movements would mean you’d get better at those skills sooner rather than later… but there comes a point (sooner than you might think) when we have to ask: but at what cost to your body?

When we train the same muscles and movements all the time, we set ourselves up for (huge) muscle imbalances. Consider some basic examples: if you do mostly aerial, what you do with your upper body is pull. If you are a hand-balancer/partner acro, mostly what you are doing with your upper body is pushing. But if you are not doing some of the opposite (pressing if your an aerialist and pulling if you are a hand-balancer/partner acrobat) then you run the risk of increasing the likelihood of injury by not having your muscles well-balanced around the joint, in this case the shoulder joint.

The body is also a wonderful compensator. It will find the easiest way to do the movement we are looking to do, so if we’re not careful, we could create faulty movement patterns to get ourselves into the shapes and positions that we may not have fully developed the strength to do, leading to some more imbalance around our joints.

Where is too much normally happening?

The three main areas are hips, shoulders and spine. (There are of course more, but for brevity I will focus on these in this post.)

Creating Balance: Let’s begin with shoulders.

As I said above, in aerials we pull a lot and in hand-balancing and acro we push a lot. What we would want to focus on is the opposite of what we do in our circus discipline. This means choosing exercises that will help balance your joints out.

So if you are a person who tends to add strengthening exercise (often called “conditioning”) after your circus class, then may I suggest choosing exercises that will challenge your muscles and joints in ways that are different from the ways they were just working.

This means that if you are an aerialist, do pushing exercises: push-ups, or straps/TRX push-ups for a super-hard challenge, you could also do them on an incline or a decline, depending on the challenge you need or want. Other pushing exercises include: Landmine press or overhead press exercises or handstand push-ups. Choose exercises that you can do with excellent form, based on your current level of strength.

If you are a hand-balancer or partner acro person, then add more pulling: pull-ups, low rows with silks/straps/TRX or even on a low trapeze or any row for that matter. There are also various pull-down options you can do: single-arm, alternating, both arms at the same time. In the studio, these pull-downs will probably need to be done with a band, but in the gym you could use a cable machine…(as most of you know, I highly recommend having a strength training program outside of your circus training as this will help keep you balanced and make you strong for all the cool circus things you want to do while helping to reduce injuries).

Creating Balance: Moving on to hips.

We use our hip flexors a lot in circus. Think about it: whether it’s tucking your legs under a bar, straight-leg inversions, pulling the legs into a pike/straddle/tuck in hand-balancing or for some acro shapes, those hip flexors are getting worked a lot.

Overworked hip flexors can really become dominant and make it hard to effectively contract your core. Hip flexor dominance can also direct a lot of force into the spine (since your psoas–a big hip flexor–attaches on your low back). This can sometimes be the cause of (or related to) a popping in the front of the hip when lifting or lowering your leg. Sound familiar?

And on top of all that, there tends not to be a ton of focus on glutes in circus, leading to even more muscular imbalance around the hip joint.

For sure, hip flexors are not the devil and some people need to strengthen theirs, but more often than not, a better strategy would be to stop training them and work on deep core and glutes to balance the pull on the joint to help reduce potential for injury to the hips or spine.

Some great exercises for your glutes are deadlift variations and hip-lift variations (double- or single-leg, feet-elevated…).

And finally, the spine.

Connected to your shoulders and hips is, of course, your core. Everyone knows that core strength is central to circus performance…but many of the traditional/most popular core exercises that people are having us jump right past activating our deep core. This puts your back at greater risk of developing an injury. Nobody wants back pain.

(I should note that back pain is often more than just a matter of whether you’ve developed sufficient core strength, but exploring that is a topic for another day).

Finding and strengthening your deep core can sometimes feel more like brain work than the ab workout you may be used to, but it’s really important to find those deep core muscles and not the ‘burn’. Doing so will probably help you make it over those ‘humps’ in many of those difficult-to-learn skills.

Great exercises here are a progression of Pilates toe-taps, Dead Bug progressions, Bird-Dog variations and very regressed Hollow Body work.


Here’s a playlist of many of the exercise (and more) that were listed above for creating balance around your joints. If you want to see the list here’s the link to the page otherwise the exercises will play one right after the other.

As always, train smart my friends and if you are looking for more customized training for you and your unique body and your unique goals, contact us.

Be Well~Theresa

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