By Rachel Ostrow
We all know the rush of finally getting a new trick after so many hours of strain, sweat, hard work, (and chalk). How proud we are, and should be! Although, one misstep and all that hard work can easily go down the drain. We have all experienced when the smallest movement tweaks our ankle, wrist, or knee, and the discomfort doesn’t go away for months! Or ever! These accidents seem to happen more and more often as the level of circus tricks increase, which can be, quite literally, a huge pain.
As someone who has had plenty of setbacks due to injuries, I have learned (unfortunately the hard way) to appreciate how certain exercises and warm-ups help to prevent these accidents. And over time, I have compiled some exercises that I learned from trusted coaches, physical therapists, or discovered on my own that I believe make a real difference in preventing injuries, and helping to build overall strength. Although, before I share them, keep in mind that circus is a dangerous sport, and exercises work differently on different bodies, so you should always be careful while testing new ones out. That being said, here are the exercises (and general tips) that I would recommend incorporating into your warm-up.
**for some of the harder to explain or less well known tricks, I found a video of people demonstrating the skill on youtube, so just click the blue underlined text
Calf raises are an amazing way to warm up your legs and feet while also strengthening your ankles. They can be done quickly if you are working more dynamic movements, or slowly if you want to work more on waking up your ankles and calves. If these become too easy, you can also do them on one leg or on a step. Holding the dip down from a calf raise can also be a great stretch for aerial toe hangs.
Handstand blocks (and some other more difficult drills) are not only great for tumblers warming up dynamic movements, but can be super useful for pretty much any apparatus. This is because handstand blocks really warm up and engage your shoulders, and shoulder strength is super important for anything where you are hanging or just generally moving your arms a lot. Since this exercise requires good body lines and form to be executed correctly, it can also bring to light those specific areas to work on in your handstands or tumbling.
Jump Squats not only warm up your body for more dynamic movements but they also warm up your glutes, which help with stability. They are also just a great way to warm up your knees, legs, and body in general, since when done energetically can be a form of cardio (like jogging or jumping jacks).
Core engaging abs:
Go with whatever core engaging ab exercises help you warm up for your particular apparatus. If you want to warm up for aerial and you want a more difficult version of an ab exercise, combined with the stamina of hanging, stall bars leg lifts would be great. If you are a tumbler, maybe consider a set of tuck ups where you can combine abs and form refinement (since the correct reaching position at the top of a tuck up is also the ideal position and dynamic movement required for a back tuck). It is absolutely not a requirement to feel like you are pushing your limits, but rather wake up your abdominal muscles so they can perform best when you actually begin training.
One big thing about warm ups is that they aren’t necessarily used just for conditioning, they are also used to discover if there are any tight muscles or areas where your body has some unexpected weakness. These areas may behave fine throughout your normal day’s activities, but can be uncomfortable when doing circus skills, and can become a potentially dangerous issue if you throw a hard skill before discovering the weakness. This happens pretty frequently, especially in my experience with tumblers, since one unexpected reaction from a joint can lead to a painful landing or an ankle sprain.
Some exercises that can help with this identification are the ones that require you to engage many of your muscles while doing that exercise. A good example is holding a handstand (with or without a wall), since everything needs to be pretty active, and it is easy to get a general sense of how your muscles and joints are engaging. Another exercise that my current coach uses for this is standing on one foot with your eyes closed. This really helps with balance and understanding your present state, but it is also a great way to center yourself and focus before you start training.
Start with the basics:
I cannot stress this enough, if you are doing a trick that can be dangerous, or is on the newer side, then do a slightly easier version during the warm up. For example, don’t connect two skills that are usually connected, warm them up seperately. Or, move your apparatus closer to the ground. Or, if you usually spin while doing the trick, warm it up without spinning. Use these modifications to make sure you are capable of doing the tricks with lower stakes before you begin working on the harder versions, instead of just jumping right in. This does not take much time, and can drastically reduce risk of injury. Doing this easier trick successfully can also boost confidence and help with consistency in the long run.
I did not specify a number of repetitions for any of these exercises because it really depends on how strong you are and how many you need to do to feel warm. Since this is a warm up, you should do enough to feel a bit of soreness, but not too much that you are going to tire yourself out. I would start with the lowest number you can do and feel warm, and then work this number up as time goes on.
Ultimately, you are going to be the one making choices to protect your body. I seldom do a really extensive warm up, but these exercises help so much in the long run, and can be done so efficiently, that I now have the habit of doing them before any intense skills. They will definitely help with injury prevention and building strength (leading to harder, cooler tricks). And to state the obvious, it sucks to be out due to injuries, or even just not functioning at your best level. So, I highly recommend trying these or finding others that you like better.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and good luck with your circus careers and avoiding injuries!