Aerial Circus Arts - A Physical Therapists Perspective on Injury and Training

There is an increasing number of people discovering aerial circus arts. Men and women of all ages are now participating this acrobatic activity. Despite the growing popularity of circus training, the high demand placed on our bodies with this physical discipline means we must strive to prevent injury. An important way of preventing injury is with cross training. 

WHAT IS CROSS TRAINING AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? 

Cross training is the practice of combining one or more adjunct activities with your primary activity. The goal of cross training is to train muscles which are not otherwise being targeted. In other words, cross training is about balancing our bodies, with attention given to both load and intensity. 

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CROSS TRAINING? 

Cross training carries numerous physical benefits, include the following: 

  1. Promoting general physical fitness and health
  2. Injury prevention
  3. Avoiding burnout
  4. Anti-fragility

PROMOTING GENERAL PHYSICAL FITNESS AND HEALTH

Training exclusively for aerial skills, even if you are training in multiple disciplines, can lead to significant gaps in muscle balance. These imbalances will increase the risk of developing overuse injuries. Perfecting your craft takes focused training and attention to detail. As much attention should be given to training balance and continuity across your musculoskeletal system. Use aerial circus arts as a catalyst for general physical fitness.   

INJURY PREVENTION

Injury prevention is a crucial part to cross training. Even successful injury recovery can lead us to long term joint problems. Whenever possible, we should strive to prevent injury rather than recover from one. 

Have you ever heard the saying “skipping leg day” regarding people who do not incorporate lower body strengthening into their gym routines? Well, participating in aerial training without incorporating some form of cross training is like “skipping leg day.” This lack of balance it creates in our musculoskeletal systems leads to an increased risk of injury. 

Aerialists are often required to utilize the strong pulling muscles to move their bodies against gravity as well as our finger and wrist flexors to maintain a grip on a bar or silks. If an aerialist spends all their time training these muscle groups (both in the air and on the ground), then key muscle groups will not be trained. Other disciplines, such as ground based acrobats, train these groups much more intensely. A good cross training routine for an aerialist would then include activities such as push-ups and handstands. The specific groups of muscles that we need to incorporate into our cross training depends on our specific physical discipline. 

AVOIDING BURNOUT

This is quite simple. If we can incorporate various training techniques that require different muscle groups and skill sets, it will help us prevent losing interest in our chosen aerial discipline. It is easy to get frustrated if we feel that we have stopped making progress. Sometimes that frustration can lead us to stop aerial training all together. Keep your workouts varied and this will help prevent burnout. 

ANTIFRAGILITY

Antifragility is a property that is observed within millions of systems across the world. The main idea behind the theory is that an anti-fragile system can grow and strengthen and improves from exposure to stressors, disorder, errors, unpredictability and randomness. This is different from resilience, which simply resists these shocks and stresses. Fragile systems fall apart under stress. So, what does antifragility have to do with aerial training and cross training? 

If we think of the system described above as our body, then the stressors could be considered within the context of aerial training. Say we are trying a new skill or practicing a drop or inversion we are not confident with. The antifragile system (body) will grow, adapt and learn from the increased physical stress from this new skill. This is, in part, how we can safely learn new skills and not injure ourselves in the process. When we over train our specific aerial disciplines, we are not exposing our body to various stressors, disorder or randomness and thus our bodies do not respond appropriately. This poor response is often what can cause our injury. 

Cross training is a way of incorporating these novel stressors and shocks into our body’s systems. As we cross train, we are effectively building randomness into our training routines. Then when we progress back to our specific aerial discipline, our body is ready to learn and grow from the randomness and stressors that arise. 

Aerial and circus arts is a growing type of physical discipline. There are various styles of aerial arts. These can include trapeze, silks, lyra, straps and many others. Despite the growing popularity of these acrobatic activities, very little research has been conducted regarding the incident rates of injuries. Due to the high level of physical demand that training for a specific discipline can put on our bodies, the risk of injury is high, especially if we have inappropriate training habits.  

If our joints and muscles are not strong and/or flexible enough to deal with this demand, we risk injury. In circus, injuries can develop as a result of trauma: twisting your ankle dropping off a trapeze bar, straining a muscle when performing a pull up, or injuring the low back due to high dynamic loads while swinging. Most common injuries include the ankle, knee, low back, shoulder and elbow. 

Sometimes, however, it is possible to develop injury due to what is known as an overuse injury. These types of injury occur due to training for a specific skill set too repetitively. In circus, overuse injuries can occur through various mechanisms. Common areas of overuse injuries include tendinopathies or over stretching (hamstrings, hip flexors, etc.).

Injury is common. Train smart. If it really hurts…stop. Be motivated. If you are afraid of it…try it. It will get easier. Seek medical attention if needed. 

Our staff at SportsCare and Armworks have the professional skills to evaluate and treat both traumatic and overuse injuries seen in aerial arts and other activities. If you would like to speak with someone from our staff, schedule an appointment online or call one of our six convenient clinic locations.