Aerial, circus and acrobatic arts have recently seen an explosion of interest, thanks in part to the popularity of performance companies like Cirque du Soleil®. Combine this curiosity with the fun and variety that an aerial-based workout provides, and it’s easy to see what makes this an exciting fitness genre.
Aerialists are reminded every day how dangerous their high-flying acts can be. Strength and movement consciousness are vital for keeping artists flying safely. Andrea Murray and Armando Munoz, professional aerialists and acrobats, came to me looking to further strengthen their upper bodies, as well as to focus on areas often neglected “in the air,” such as leg strength. As a professional aerialist myself, I was happy to oblige.
Even if there are no high-flying aerialists among your clients, you may find these techniques and exercises useful. They train the core, back, legs and upper body, while developing the flexibility required for numerous activities.
Aerialists need strength to climb their apparatus, which they do constantly, and to keep themselves in the air for extended periods of time. One of my favorite exercises for building this strength starts from a prone position, on a long box. The aerialist pulls himself up onto the posts at the back of the reformer, completing 3 sets of 10 repetitions. It’s important to keep the elbows as close to the rib cage as possible on both the pull and the return. The neck stays long, the shoulders are stabilized, and of course the core supports the movement. The legs are together and fully extended. This exercise is great for the latissimus dorsi, deltoids and triceps—all necessary for climbing.
Any move that incorporates pushing away in extension is important for keeping the shoulders strong in a countermotion. To train for this, I have the aerialist lie prone on a long box, facing the foot bar, and slowly push out to warm up. I then have the client start “jumping” from the bar, with arms extended and legs lengthened, straight and strong. The arms bend on the return, elbows out wide. The head hovers over the bar.
The stability chair is the perfect apparatus for working the triceps. Andrea and Armando perform triceps dips by holding onto the chair bars, facing back. When I work with Andrea, I allow her feet to be on the pedal with some supportive weight, legs rotated out 45 degrees, heels high and together. Since Armando is very strong, he does the dips without the support. I instruct both clients to dip halfway down and back up again in sets of 10 while keeping the elbows back and close to the rib cage.
Leg Flexibility and Strength
Though most of an aerialist’s strength is in the upper body, legs are important for dancing movements in the air. Splits are one of the aerialist’s most impressive tricks, and they are done upside down, right side up and sideways! Thus, flexibility is a vital part of the program.
There are many effective ways to stretch the hamstrings for a beautiful split; Eve’s lunge is one way. Place one foot at the reformer’s shoulder pad, toes tucked under, and place the other foot on the foot bar at the hip. Holding onto the bar, push out the front leg first, stretching it as much as possible, and then lengthen the back leg out as far as it will go, remaining square with the foot bar.
Basic footwork and strap work on the reformer keep the aerialist’s legs strong. I always include single-leg work in addition to double-leg work, as an aerialist often has one leg supported by apparatus while the other (free) leg is posing. I cue the client to put one foot in the foot strap, leaving the other foot free. As he comes into abdominal flexion, the client “scissors” the legs while maintaining pelvic stability. This is a great core workout as well as a hamstring strengthener and lengthener.
The core is used constantly in aerial inversions. This is where the aerialist generates the strength to bring her legs overhead and hook them in an upside-down position. Thus, our program consists of many corkscrews and pikes, which strengthen the lowest parts of the abdominal wall (transversus abdominis, specifically).
We perform pikes on several types of Pilates apparatus. With the chair, for instance, the client places her hands on the top of the chair bars (facing the pedal) and, using arm stability and core strength, raises her upper body into the air. Once the torso is lifted, she raises and lowers her legs into a tuck, or pike position, staying as lifted as possible with stable shoulders. I then have her hold the last pike for at least 10 seconds.
Another fun exercise is pulling into pikes from forward plank. Andrea and Armando do this with their legs on the ball, adding a few push-ups in between. Finally, pikes on the reformer are a great challenge. The client faces the back of the reformer, feet together in the middle of the carriage, hands holding the frame (shoulders over hands), starting in a forward plank. He then pulls the carriage toward his hands (initiating the movement from the core), and carefully pushes back again—without hitting the bumper—until he is finished with the set. The heavier the spring is, the greater the challenge.
Aerialists often produce poses that can be considered contortion, so it’s important to keep the back strong and supple. I instruct Andrea to work her back on the reformer in wheel, and she adds an extra challenge by lifting a leg into extension.
The Trapeze Table
The perfect apparatus for the aerialist is the trapeze table. Here, we actually use the frame to get the aerialist into the air. Tricks like upside-down plank pull-ups, upside-down splits, “candlestick,” “back planche” and “skin the cat” can be performed safely on the table. Holding one’s body weight in the air strengthens the core, back and arms.
Flying High and Free
In my experience as a dancer and an aerialist, Pilates has always been my secret weapon. When I made the career transition from dancer to aerialist, I needed a new strength base and a whole new set of skills to take my body from the floor to the air. The techniques described in this article are the result of my own adventures in aerial work, combined with what I’ve learned from coaching and teaching others. It’s my intention that these exercises will help people who are curious about exploring aerial work to fly strongly and safely.
Photo credit: Meghan Meredith.