What is Specificity in a workout, and does it even matter?
If you’re a human just trying to be more active? Probably not too much. Pick what you like, or at least what motivates you to move, and start with 1-2 days a week and progress to more as it gets easier. Make sure you’re cleared by a physician and grab a qualified coach to teach you about form and safety in whatever you’re doing.
If you’re an athlete though? Specificity absolutely matters. And if you’re aerial or pole workouts are starting to progress past the Intermediate level, you are probably starting to train more like an athlete. So, it matters.
The SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) principle in exercise science is what says that specificity matters in your workout: everything from exercise type down to what metabolic system you’re targeting, matter when training athletes for specific outcomes.
•Sprinting, and quick explosive movements require and build more fast twitch muscle fibers in your muscles, while slower and heavier lifting modalities use and build more slow twitch fibers. In practice, this means how you need to use your muscles is how you should be training them.
•If you’re a marathon runner, you are going to be using your oxidative metabolism to fuel the ATP your body needs for energy in your sport. If you’re an Olympic lifter, on the other hand, you’re going to be using your Phosphagen System to provide energy in your sport, while a Soccer player might primarily use their Glycolytic Metabolism. So in practice, while having a basically healthy aerobic capacity is good for our hearts and lungs, beyond that, overtraining the oxidative system won’t help the Olympic lifter’s body adapt to use their anaerobic systems more efficiently. Only training those systems will.
•While strength training the muscles one needs to use for a movement in a sport doesn’t need to be the exact movement of the sport, the closer it mimics the pathways required for the sport, the higher the likelihood of the muscles developing strength effectively through the full range of motion needed. For example, imagine you were to only ever practice hanging in the air from a full hollow hang, and a short arm hollow hang. You’d develop all the muscles we use in our aerial practice, for sure. But the first time you tried a pull-up, you’d likely get stuck, or more quickly tire at a certain point in the movement in between these two endpoints. This would be because you hadn’t worked the muscles through that angle of the movement, and every angle of a movement has different moment arms that make the resistive force feel more or less heavy.
So, how are some ways we can train with specificity for our aerial practice?
•We can use movement that uses the same metabolic energy systems, like dance (bonus points, as forms like ballet can also improve our movement quality).
•We can use movements that use the same speed under resistance as we use in our aerial or pole work. Do you tend towards more dynamic movement, you may want to add some plyometric training once a week. And to build muscles that can support you for long periods of hanging in the air, do your strength training slow and steady through a full range of motion.
•Want to strengthen the muscles required for a specific trick? Mimic the strengthening of those muscles as similarly as possible to the movement. For example, I love the banded tuck Paper Doll Militia or the inverting under a broom drill that The Artist Athlete gave us in last year’s #fit4theholidays Instagram challenge.
•Stuck on getting the timing of a specific trick? Try visualizing doing the movement correctly to strengthen the neurological pathways, practice the movements required with aerial theory, and/or break down a specific part to more safely practice it. For example, to switch hands in the cut-catch, practice hand changes in your trapeze beats.
Stay home and safe, y’all.
Need an aerial and pole specific workout while the studios are closed?
Check out my Fly FIIT month long bootcamp! This special COVID19 edition is discounted to $27 for the month. Forget trying to create your own plan, or remembering when to log onto Zoom or Instagram live. Just show up and follow along in your custom app.
This week I’m thinking about how #perfection ideals get in the way of our goals, and how feeling uncomfortable plays into that.
There’s a lot of hype about how we have to be uncomfortable to change. It makes sense. If you’re comfy and happy with something, you probably don’t want to change it. So, if you want to change, you have to acknowledge that you’re not currently where you want to be, which is less than comfy. This is true in my experience, but what is that discomfort really about? And if we need to live in our discomfort in order to accomplish our goals, how can we get comfortable with being uncomfortable, long enough to change?
I think a big factor in the discomfort comes from our feelings about perfection. And maybe what we really need to do is get comfortable with being imperfect.
Have you ever given up on a goal (consciously or subconsciously) because you felt like you just weren’t getting it fast enough?
Have you ever shut down your own joy and pride in an accomplishment because you still have so far to go before you’re <fill in whatever perfect idea you have in your head>?
Have you ever not asked for help because it would mean you didn’t have all the answers, or that you couldn’t do something all by yourself?
In other words, does failure or imperfection stop you from going for your dreams and goals, or living the life you want?
You’re definitely not alone. But what I notice in my students and friends that succeed in their goals more often is that they seem to have gotten comfortable being who they are, where they are. They know they aren’t perfect and don’t try to be. But for those of us who struggle with that, how do they do it?
I think the solution is embracing our failures and imperfections as a part of the journey. Obviously, if we want a change, we will have to work for change, but that doesn’t have to mean we can’t honor who and where we are on our path along the way. Easier said than done, sure.
But, the alternative is we keep ignoring/denying whatever it is we think isn’t good enough about ourselves, which I think attaches shame to it, which causes us to attempt to hide our failures and imperfections, which inevitably stops our growth. Why? Because we can’t go ask for help or openly work on overcoming an obstacle that we’re pretending isn’t there (whether we are pretending to everyone else, or just to ourselves).
Instead, we can accept that we are imperfect (and currently failing at something) long enough to get to the next step. The key is accepting it, which doesn’t mean we have to like it. If we did, we wouldn’t desire to change. And I think this is where the discomfort really comes in. It’s a balance of disliking that we aren’t where we want to be with something, while also being okay with the fact that we’re working on it. It requires us to accept that we are not perfect.
Of course, the big secret is there will always be a next step, or another goal to level up to. Change is hard, but being perfect is impossible.
Hard work gets results, right? Can you really train too much? What happens if you do?
While yes, you have to put in the work to see gains, to answer the questions above, we need to talk a little bit about the differences between reasonable progression, and overreaching. In athletics, progression is a systematic way to increase demand on the body over time to improve performance, usually by 10% or less at a time, as certain goals are accomplished and during certain “cycles” of training. This percentage depends on a bunch of factors like your age, fitness level, and the muscle group that you are training.
For some professional experienced athletes, extending past these reasonable progressions may be implemented temporarily by a coach to produce performance gains. This is called overreaching and is split into either functional or non-functional types. Really, at this point, not enough is known about why different people react differently to overreaching, but it’s assumed the usual factors influence reactions: age, experience in the type of training, genetics, etc. Some professional athletes seem to be positively affected by short periods of overreaching, while others develop a host of symptoms that seem to be precursors to what’s called Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) (1). When these symptoms appear, overreaching becomes non-functional overreaching (NFOR). This is because it is not helping the athlete reach further gains, in fact, one of the symptoms of non-functional overreaching is a decrease in performance. Unchecked NFOR can lead to the onset of OTS, which can be seen as a continuum of more chronic symptoms (6) that some claim can lead to serious, life-threatening, or at least quality of life-threatening symptoms (15).
So where is the line between working hard and going too far? A key factor in using overreaching in a training program is the timing of how it is used, for instance how long an intense training program lasts. To understand this further, let’s look at typical seasonal training models in organized sports, to help us understand when overreaching might be implemented. In most models, there is an off-season (also called base training or a generalized training), a preseason (specialized training or ramp-up season), a performance/competition season, and an active rest season (2). Let’s break that down further and see how we might translate them to our training in aerials or pole.
The term off-season is a bit misleading. Unlike an active rest season, this season is about preparing an athlete athletically for the preseason, rather than a break from training as the term suggests. Athletes focus on generalized fitness and endurance training in both
cardiovascular and strength training. Cardiovascular training may focus on longer, but lower intensity training distances. Strength training may include hypertrophy or muscular endurance focuses, with higher reps, but lower weight loads. An athlete may also choose to cross train in another activity during this time. If I were to translate this season to aerials, pole, and circus training, I might suggest a period focusing on generalized conditioning and flexibility programs with skill building in complementary trainings such as dance, as a way to ease into a regular training routine. I may focus on increasing “in air” endurance times, for instance, and conditioning with reps based on muscular endurance or hypertrophy (muscle growth) weight and rep schemes. Skill training would probably include “use it or lose it” skill maintenance, and basic skill progression, as opposed to a focus on learning new intensive strength or dynamic skills.
During a preseason, think of training as amping up for the performance season. Remember, this is also called a specialized training season. This season is short, around 4-6 weeks. This is the part where one would push a little harder, practice sport specific strength training and movement patterns, maybe work sprints instead of long runs (3). It’s short for a reason. The focus is on amping up training intensity, and the body can only sustain high intensities for so long before injury and stress start to take their toll. It would only be during this 4-6 week preseason, that a short overreaching program would theoretically come into play. During this time in the aerial or pole worlds, one may be focusing on building power based or dynamic skills, and/or increasing muscular strength or power, rather than muscular endurance. This would mean conditioning with more weight for less reps and/or trying to develop more “explosive” types of movements. Practically, this may be an ideal time to focus on building skills that require these types of movement (strength intensive moves like levers or catch and release style tricks for instance).
The easiest comparison to the performance or competitive season is the holiday gig season from Halloween-New Year’s, or the competition seasons designated by the timing of when organizations such as Pole Sport Organization host their competitions in a regional area. In this season, other sports would be on a maintenance strength and aerobic training program only (4). And I feel that this holds true for our “inseason” cycles as well. Like a competitive sport season, our holiday gig season comes with both more time in the air, as well as increased life stress overall, which affects our bodies capability to recover (5).
There are more run throughs in addition to more performances, more costume and make-up prep to get done, on top of holiday errands to do, etc. The holiday season also tends to add an uptick in our overall stress levels with family and work commitments, and volume of travel, which some think can be a factor in OTS risk (7). I think it is also important for our particular “sport,” that research has shown that there is an uptick in psychological and physiological stress when performing; even just being observed actually (8). This stress can be “good” or “bad,” depending on the feelings of the actor as well as the complexity of the act being performed (9). This means that your 5-20 minute performance may cost your body more energy than 5-20 minutes of freestyle practice in the studio, and this toll should be considered. Depending on how heavy your performance schedule is packed; your run-throughs, and performances with a focus on adequate warm-ups and recovery plans, may be plenty for maintenance. Or you may find a lighter conditioning routine to keep what you’ve got is more appropriate. It’s important to monitor your body and mind and take care of yourself.
Finally, ideally there is a post season of active rest. Active rest is generally a two week season with focus on recovery from the competitive season (12), which still includes a movement practice of some kind. Generally this is a time for rehabilitative and prehabilitative focus on weakened or injury-prone areas, as well as maintaining the same maintenance-only level of conditioning and cardiovascular training we saw in the competitive season. In addition to a longer active rest season, I personally also feel that short total rest periods should be incorporated throughout several macro cycles during a year (10), as well as effort made to help the client find the best recovery strategy for their individual body and lifestyle (11). Taking the above referenced gig season model, perhaps a period of active or total rest could fall somewhere around January-March. Contrary to all the New Year’s Resolution hype, for the professional aerialist, this could be a great time to build in a recovery period, where especially in the western hemisphere, it coincides with our winter evolutionary desire to hibernate. If we coach though, we should consider that we can’t ignore #resolutionseason, so for students and recreational circus athletes, this time period may be either an off season/base season, or a preseason/ramp-up time, depending on their level and their individual training schedules. And if students are planning on auditioning for professional circus schools they would definitely be preparing or in the midst of the rigorous demands of a competitive season at this time. These factors may mean that for many professionals, their student base’s needs dictate that this time period contains an uptick in travel to coach more workshops and the stress of that type of “performing”, rather than a true active rest season. Other professionals may be performing year round. This variety in how any typical aerialist or pole athlete’s schedule and demands look is what makes translating these concepts and timing any periods of overreaching a tricky puzzle to figure out compared to other athletes.
Now that we’ve reviewed how a typical sport season might look compared to our varied aerial, circus, and pole lives, let’s look back at the concept of non-functional overeaching vs progressive overload. For clarity, it is important to note that some coaches/articles/social media posts will refer to normal progressive overload as functional overreaching (13), while most scientific articles indicate the term overreaching to mean periods of training beyond typical progressive overload and recovery (14). With the information available at this time, I currently feel that anything beyond typical progressive overload in aerial, circus, & pole training is an unneccesary risk to take, that is not ideal for most, and needlessly hazardous to recreational athletes of any level. If it were to be useful, it would likely be implemented only for truly experienced and professional athletes, ideally while overseen by a team of coaches & medical professionals skilled in monitoring every aspect of how the athletes body is adapting to the training program.
I hypothesize that the danger of OTS in our industry is actually highest in emerging professionals trying to up their game without direction, and recreational or beginning students bitten with that addictive flying bug. Imagine this scenario. An individual ups the volume or intensity of their training. They start to see gains, so they up it further, perhaps before they’re ready. Maybe they see some more gains. But, eventually they start platueaing, feeling unmotivated, maybe even losing gains. Maybe they keep getting sick, or injured. They decide that they just need to buck up and buckle down because they probably just need more discipline. But they still aren’t seeing gains and are feeling more and more unmotivated, fatigued. This dialogue about discipline gets fed by popular fitness culture: they are just being lazy, no pain-no gain. Additionally, because the symptoms of OTS and NFOR are somewhat elusive, recognizing them is not as clear as say falling off your trapeze and knowing that your concussion or broken wrist are a direct result of the fall. It would be more like trying to recognize if the fall happened because of brain fog or weakness from consistent overtraining, there’s no real way to know. By the time they realize that they’re overtraining, they would probably already have been in NFOR for awhile and may already have moved into OTS.
And let’s be honest, many people in this population would be unaware of the terms overreaching or overtraining, unless they follow some blog or instagram for weight lifters that is telling them to suck it up and “overreach” to reach their goals. It’s worth noting here that aerialists and pole dancers are far more than weight lifting athletes. We are also endurance and flexibility athletes, and each aspect of our training counts towards a total volume and intensity cap to what the body can handle. For most of us, it is my opinion that gains from overreaching are not worth the potential ill-effects.
The unsexy truth is, sustainable gains and progress occur with time-tested, slow and steady programs, and progressing in aerials or circus disciplines is no different. I get it that when we get excited about a new thing, we can easily overdo it. We may want to take all the classes, do all the things, progress past what our body can keep up with, even push ourselves into overreaching without knowing it. Or we may increase our training without considering things like adjusting our diet, sleep, and rest days accordingly. We may attempt to increase our strength, flexibility, and endurance training volume, level-up in our skill classes, and start a new dance class all at the same time, not allowing space for adequate recovery. We may not factor increases in both positive and negative life stresses to our training plan. This approach can end up in burnout, injury, OTS, etc. and sets us back from our ambitious plans, and can create frustrating cycles of stopping & starting over, over and over again. Our goals drift away with the frustration. Steady progress allows consistency, which really does win the race.
I like the concept of translating the concept of periodization of training into our aerial and pole training plans because it focuses us into stages that build on each other, with clear goals for when to level-up. Many of my programs involve a rotation of focus on (1) hypertrophy & active flexibility, (2) strength/power & skill building, (3) performance/choreo focused seasons, followed by active an/or total rest periods. No one focus means you aren’t keeping up with the components of other areas, but rather that the intensity of training is balanced towards the focused areas. For instance, aside from total rest weeks, maintenance conditioning and flexibility are always included, as are open studio sessions to maintain learned skills and/or let creative juices flow in a freestyle. But the bulk of the work during one phase is focused on the specific goal of the cycle. And while this is one way I like to break up a training plan, each plan truly is individual to a person’s unique goals, challenges, available time and resources, and response to recovery. One of my favorite parts of coaching is finding the right answer together with each unique client to their training plan puzzle. I hope this information helps you to navigate your own training with a little more knowledge. Interested in virtual training plan management or coaching? Reach out to schedule a free consult at http://www.erininamarieness.com/whatsup
I’m in my little corner of the counter culture world right now, ad I’m thinking about what it takes to be different in life.
I’m thinking about what it takes to choose to run a marathon when all your friends are busy partying. What it takes to choose to take up pole dance or burlesque when your family or bosses might disapprove or not understand. What it takes to stand-up against oppression when it might cost you your community and privilege. What it takes to get up everyday in the face of that potential ridicule or actual loss of relationships or jobs. That is bravery.
Needing to belong is a deeply ingrained part of our human brain. It has helped us survive as a species. So choosing to follow a desire that makes us “different” is so damn uncomfortable and scary. If you are lucky enough to belong in a community (even if you feel different), I think it takes actually wanting something enough to brave that rejection and ostracism.
But I know from experience that there is also something so empowering about following your heart, standing in your truth, and living your one precious life on your own terms (as long as your terms don’t include harming others obviously).
Today I find myself wishing that experience for y’all Flight Crew. For one, I wish you to experience feeling that much passion, desire, and drive for something in your life. And two, I wish you the feeling of self-actualization, self-love, wisdom, and strength that staying true in the face of the haters brings. And the joy of meeting other different weirdos that are weird in the same way as you.
Then I wish you to try to fight those urges to make your new “same” the same that everyone should be. To fight that ingrained urge to make one way better and become the hater yourself. Because at the end of the day, I think haters might just be other humans who are just as scared to be different as we all can be. And I think finding this self-actualization allows us to be more open-minded, loving, and change-making beings.
So, it’s the Holiday Season. I thought it would be a good time to delve into a question I’ve gotten many times; what happens when you have to take a break from your training routine. I say ‘when’ because if you plan on doing any kind of activity long term, there will come points where life will demand you take a break. And what happens to our bodies as aerialists, pole dancers, and circus athletes is a little different than in many other sports and activities. The first difference is in how our long term training plans look. Most sports, professional dance companies, even traveling circuses have on and off seasons, which allow for recovery time. Even resistance training (weight lifting) and endurance sport (triathlon) training plans work in what’s called macrocycles and mesocycles with built in “rest,” light days, and/or cross training cycles.
But many of our aerial, pole, or circus training plans look like the same regimented class and open studio schedule every week; or like a constant stream of gigging it, always prepping the next choreo, for years on end. This can be a recipe for overuse injury, over-training syndrome, mental burnout, and plateaus in technical skill, training motivation, and creative inspiration. There’s plenty of science that says a healthy break can be an excellent way to allow your body to absorb what it’s been “learning and building (1).” But how long is it okay to rest before you’ve essentially just gotten lazy and will have to start all over from the beginning? Or what happens when you’re forced to take a longer break because you are ill or injured, or your family member in remote Siberia* needs care and there’s no studio there?
*I’m actually pretty sure there are tons of pole studios in Siberia–#TrainLikeARussian–but you get the idea.
So, I delved into all of the various ways that our body responds to extended breaks from physical activity, to share with you and hopefully help you see just how long it will take to lose what you’ve been building so you can plan your training, and enjoy your much needed rest accordingly.
First, let’s learn the term for what we’re looking at: “Detraining (in the exercise world) refers to the bodily effect experienced when one takes an extended break from regular, vigorous fitness training (11). Aerial Arts, Pole Dance, and Cirque Athletics are unique in that they combine a variety of physiological and even neurological elements that all dissipate at different rates during detraining. These factors are muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, muscle memory, and dexterity. Each of these categories has their own sweet spot for an ideal break to avoid over-training, before we start to lose everything we’ve worked for. So, let’s take a look at each category individually. I’ve done my best to give you a good summary without getting too technical. But I’m pretty sure you could easily devote your life to this study, so feel free to investigate further. I’ve included a host of links at the end to start you off.
Muscular endurance seems to fade the most quickly when you take an extended break. Muscular endurance is the ability of muscles to exerttension (contract against resistance) over an extendedperiod. While tied up with a number of adaptations from cardiovascular endurance; our first signs of muscular endurance fatigue seem to stem from changes in substrate utilization within the muscle and can decline even before we lose our cardiovascular benefits with a decrease in training (4). Specifically, elevations in magnesium during training after a period of detraining, may inhibit calcium’s ability to continue to trigger our muscle fibers to contract. These changes occur within the muscle fiber (cell) at just two weeks of detraining, resulting in our muscles giving up sooner than they used to in our regular workout. In application we’re talking about whether you can climb to the top of that rope in your studio without touching the floor five times in a row like you did two weeks ago, or if your grip starts failing you around climb number three.
Cardiovascular endurance is measured by VO2 Max, which begins to decline after about 2 weeks of complete detraining, and drops much more considerably after a 4 week break (3). It differs from muscular endurance by dealing specifically with the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the body. Ventilatory efficiency (efficiency of our breathing) begins to abandons us first, very shortly after ceasing endurance exercise (as little as 10 days, but really picking up speed in its decline after 2 weeks). Decreased cardiac output, and a decline in blood volume to fuel your body began after about 4-8 weeks of rest in endurance athletes (12). This results from a variety of factors, including the weakening of the heart muscle itself. The good news is that when taking a short term break, as little as two sessions a week of cardiovascular training at a similar duration and intensity of your regular training can maintain the achieved level of cardiovascular endurance (14), in other words it’s easier to maintain aerobic capacity than to build it. Additionally, a trained individual can decrease the total volume of aerobic exercise by up to 70% for up to a few weeks before affecting their VO2 max (15). This most affects us in things like extended acrobatic passes, or longer dynamic routines. While muscular adaptations to endurance training is highly sport-specific, you can keep from starting to get winded going up the stairs by adding walking, dancing, or running to your schedule during breaks to maintain your aerobic capacity.
Muscular Strength is clearly our most loyal physiological friend when it comes to taking a break. Defined as the muscle’s maximal ability to contract against resistance in one repetition, our muscles will retain (or improve in) strength gains for at least 2 weeks of detraining (5), and quickly regain any atrophy (weakening/muscle loss) after up to 4 weeks of detraining (6). One note here, is not to look in the mirror and get discouraged. It could appear that your muscles are withering away after even one week off of strength training. This is actually more a result of glycogen stores being depleted within the muscles (7), and they’ll quickly bounce back when you return to your training or possibly even with a glycogen loading meal plan (8). Please note, I’m not advising that you adjust your meal plan like a body builder in order to look good in that Holiday family photo. Always ask a registered Dietician your complex healthy eating questions. I like Cirque Nutrition. Still worried about losing strength? Basically, if you could do 5 good pull-ups before you went home for the holidays for a couple of weeks, you’ll probably have 5 or possibly even 7 good pull-ups there for you when you return from your break, or regain them shortly afterwards (20).
Flexibility begins to decline as much as 7-30% in the average individual after 4 weeks of detraining. Interestingly, high intensity strength training has been found to help maintain and increase your range of motion gains (10). I kind of love that Flexibility is defined by Dictionary.com as “the quality of bending easily without breaking (#BendDon’tBreak).” But in fitness or sport training lingo, the definition is the range of motion at a joint or group of joints. And getting even more relevant to our applications, active flexibility is defined as “the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only the tension of the agonist and synergist muscles whilst stretching the antagonist muscles. Example: hoisting the leg and holding it without external support (15).” This means that keeping our active flexibility requires keeping our muscular strength and endurance, especially at end ranges of motion, in addition to the ability of our antagonist muscles to lengthen into a stretch. As far as what kind of complete flexibility program you should be doing, I recommend approaching an accomplished contortion coach for the kind of demands that we put on our body. I like Catie Brier, Cirque Physio, Physio Flex, Fit and Bendy, and Bendy Anya. Or, if you’re in Austin, TX check out Paul Zuker, or the Bend Not Break classes at soFly Social.
For maintaining muscular strength and endurance, I recommend adding some isometric exercises to your practice. Isometric exercise is any muscle movement where the force of the contraction of the muscle is equal to the force of the resistance opposing it. So, while you are still in a static position, you are not just passively stretching (watching TV in your splits). In practicality an isometric strength exercise targets the agonist and synergist muscles (like holding a static, engaged position such as plank pose, L-sit, the top of a V-up, or an engaged hollow body hang). A specific benefit of isometric strength training is that you can really focus in on building strength in your weakest part of a movement (called the sticking point). The complimentary practice of isometric stretching works on overcoming the stretch reflex by engaging the antagonist muscles that you would be trying to lengthen (for example, actively contracting your inner thigh muscles while in a middle split). This type of stretching has been sited as the fastest way to increase passive, static flexibility (17), but there’s a vast world of opinions and techniques for flexibility out there, often movement type specific. So be sure to reach out to one of our communities’ flexibility experts for what’s right for you.
Fun fact: isometric strength has been shown to be able to be maintained with as little as one training session every 2-4 weeks once it is built (18), for up to at least 12 weeks. This is good news for when we do have to take those extended breaks.
Muscle Memory is a term frequently used to define two different concepts, and both have great news for extended periods of rest. The first is motor learning, which can also be called skill, dexterity, or coordination. Coordination can remain ingrained in our body’s memory well into our fifties if we’re lucky and healthy. This means that the ability to play notes on an instrument, or wrap your body in a cross-back straddle while upside down, if practiced well and often, can remain with you far longer than the physiological strength or endurance to do so. The process that makes this so is called myelination and my favorite book discussing this principle and how to train well is Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (13). Basically, you build myelin around important parts of the neural pathways (axons) that are firing when you learn a skill, any skill. And when practiced in a precise manner, over time, the myelin builds up and better insulates the pathways involved, allowing the neurons to fire over 100 times faster (16). So practice well, and enjoy those long-term benefits.
The second muscle memory concept involves one way in which muscle tissue adapts to strength training (18). Basically, when a person starts building strength, muscle fibers (cells) first aquire new nuclei before the process of hypertrophy (muscle growth) can begin. The nuclei assist in protein synthesis to help build up the muscle so that growth can happen. When you stop training, your muscle will eventually atrophy (weaken), but the nuclei stick around. The term muscle memory in this case refers to the phenomenon in which regaining lost hypertrophy (muscle growth) occurs more quickly the second, or third, or fourth time you retrain your muscles after a long break, and credits the extra nuclei with helping to speed the process.
To recap, the good news is that if you have to take a couple of weeks off from your regular and consistent training program, it actually can take at least that long for your body to start losing ground, and there are ways to maintain and even improve your gains during your “time-off.” The most important is of course, to allow yourself to rest. But, if you feel the need to do a little training, or if your break is more extended, here are a couple of tips. Try to maintain some sort of eccentric strength training in your routine, as this is the type of strength most quickly lost through detraining in trained lifters (9). This is “training the negative,” like jumping to the top of a pull-up and slowly lowering, or lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly from the top of a bicep curl. To keep up muscle endurance, try something new that uses the same muscle groups like swimming, yoga, or rock climbing. Isometric exercises (such as holding plank pose) can also help to build muscle and maintain muscular endurance (16) and active flexibility without requiring a lot of extra equipment to perform. Trying something new has the added benefit of giving us a mental break from our routine, and allowing us to recharge and come back with fresh creativity and energy. And if you are really missing your circus skill of choice, you can always try daydreaming about new routines or skills, reviewing mental tapes of your past successes, or imagining yourself successfully accomplishing a trick you’ve been struggling with. Envisioning yourself performing tricks successfully also builds up your myelin (19). 😉
Looking for exercises for the holidays while you’re away from your apparatus? I’ll be sure to be posting #aerialready from anywhere ideas on my Instagram. Check it out!
Online or in person, is it ever okay to “coach” someone who hasn’t asked you to? I’ll be the first to admit, I’m guilty of a minor version of this in the virtual world. I’m guilty of seeing an Insta-friend posting progress on a move that I’ve been watching them struggle through and work on improving, and they’re getting so close to finally nailing it. I get excited, and I’m like “OMG Yaas!! Just try (insert suggestion here), and you’ve got it!” Well intentioned, I promise, and definitely in the realm of “tuck your tailbone,” not “and then let go, flip and recatch.” But, the thing is, I’m realizing that even this small thing, assumes, at best, that the person doesn’t already know what I’m telling them. And at worst, it’s possible that they are in fact trying to do that very thing I said, and maybe not fully succeeding yet. And in that light, my comment could even make them feel less proud of their well deserved achievement. It could make them feel like they aren’t succeeding because I’ve declared that it isn’t happening, even though they clearly have improved at the thing (again, maybe even by doing what I’m suggesting they do more of). And because this isn’t happening face to face, things get left there irrevocably, because there may not be any follow-up. Now, if they were already my client, that’s one thing. Because I’d know and they’d know what we’ve been working on. But unsolicited, it may not be as well received, or as helpful as I intended.
There is another side to the coin of course. There’s the fact that we live in a DIY world, where more and more people are learning things from the internet-which has as many disreputable as reputable sources of information to sift through. As trained athletes, artists, and coaches; it can feel like we have a responsibility (like paramedics at an emergency on their day off) to chime in when we feel that someone is being unsafe, or is missing critical guidance. And there are definitely times online, and in person, when saying something is in everyone’s best interest.
My personal example of self-reflection is probably not the hill we’re all going to die on regarding this issue, and thankfully not something anyone’s seemed to take any way besides positively, yet. But recently, I witnessed a friend get unsolicitedly “coached” online, not just technically, but aesthetically as well. It got me thinking about where the line is. Is it ever really appropriate to coach someone unsolicitedly? And where do I want to draw the line personally in my own practice.
Let’s start with a definite Nope example. So, of course, much of what I touched upon in my personal story above, in reference to the dangers of giving coaching comments online, applies to doing this thing in person as well. But when I told my fiancé (a professional modern dancer of 24 years) that I was considering writing about this topic, I was a little surprised by his enthusiasm for the theme. Until he dived into a story about the time he was practicing a yoga handstand in the dusty playa at Burning Man, when an overly excited stranger (who happened to also be a Ranger…) took it upon himself to grab him by the hips from behind and try to “properly align him.” I am saddened that we still have to keep saying that touching someone without consent (unless this is that “you’re going to die right now” situation described below) is absolutely NOT OKAY! No. It’s just not. On a side note, I was recently sexually harassed by a coworker who said that if I wasn’t open to being randomly touched by strangers without consent then I was going to have a really boring life. Um, let me just pause right here, to promise that has not been the case at all in my full 38 years of life, and unsolicited touching has not added definitive positive value to my life. Really. Besides being just uncool, and potential sexual harassment, there is also the fact that by grabbing an unsuspecting person (especially one balancing upside down), you’re more likely to cause a fall or an injury because they are startled or uncomfortable with your surprise gift of the touchy feelies.
On the other hand, the most obvious example of when an unsolicited intervention is more than acceptable, is in an actual “stop doing that immediately, you’re about to die” situation. Someone’s rigging is failing before your eyes, or they’re falling out of a handstand into a moat of fire. In this instance, I’d absolutely say, grab them, warn them, catch them, push them away from the moat now (unless that’s part of their act or something) and apologize for any breach of propriety later. But also note, the extreme of this situation. Where safety is concerned, I personally believe that there is such a thing as informed consent, and adequate preparation to decrease the level of risk. After that (and only after that), there is personal choice. None of us are getting out of this life alive and what level of risk we choose to expose ourselves to (exposing others is another issue entirely) is a matter of self-expression and self-determination. It is possible that in our desire to assist someone by exposing the dangers of an action to them, we don’t stop to consider that they may already be aware of and providing for the level of risk they are comfortable taking in regards to said dangers. Aerial arts, fire arts, pole dance, sword swallowing, and more are all dangerous. Anyone undertaking them thinking the opposite, or someone promising another undertaking them that this is not the case, is naive or untrustworthy respectively.
This is not to say that there isn’t a way to share our concern for safety, or offer our support, encouragement, expert suggestions, or even flat-out opinion to others. It all comes back down to consent and a little diplomacy. We see a thing and want to offer advice to help someone soar to greater heights, or to help prevent another person potential pain or death. Simply asking if we can offer some feedback, perhaps even in a private forum is the respectful way to go. “Were you aware that…?” can be far more tactful than “That trick looks scary to me, don’t do it.” By the way, saying it looks scary to you, is not the same as saying it’s actually being performed unsafely, especially if you don’t know anything about the trick. Additionally, taking the conversation off a public forum has the added benefit of ensuring that our urge to comment is less about us simply feeling the need to be seen and heard, and is actually about the intention that we are aiming for (guidance, encouragement, safety check, etc.). And asking if the person is ready and open to receiving our input, helps to ensure that we are in fact listening and showing concern for them. When we’re talking about approaching an issue involving safety, it has the added benefit of allowing our message to be heard with respect and not to come across like trolling or online bullying, which makes the dangerous thing much more likely to be corrected.
Finally, in my friend’s case, there was also the unexpected criticism of whether they should perform a certain trick in front of an audience at all, because it looked dangerous and uncomfortable (and I suspect not ‘pretty’), all of which are arguably personal artistic choices (again assuming that the trick is performed with all possible risk mitigation, and with fully trained professional-level execution). The fact that it might make an audience member feel uncomfortable, nervous, amazed, disgusted, etc. could all be feelings that the artist intends to evoke. Because that is one of the definitions of art, to evoke an emotional response. Other notable parts of the definition are to master a skill through practice, and to create works with imagination and creativity. Art, even aerial arts, pole dancing, and ballet do not always have to be stereotypically beautiful or look completely risk free. And you don’t have to like it or watch it. But, perhaps stop and consider if your opinion on how it “should” be (besides properly executed) is relevant artistic criticism.
There is also a time and a place for giving artistic criticism. Generally that is only when it is solicited by the artist while they are in process, or after the art has been submitted as a completed work to the public. I would argue that showing a work in progress online, while public, is not a completed work, and so not open for artistic criticism unless solicited. The process of creating quality art can be a delicate, vulnerable, emotional, and physically taxing journey. Giving feedback too soon, or unconstructively can kill great art before it reaches it’s potential. However, educated and well thought out criticism is also needed to polish rough pieces into brilliance. This paradox is why there actually are processes for guiding solicited feedback in the theater and other arts. I particularly enjoyed the version that has been developed by Liz Lerman. It is called the Critical Response Process, which I had the privilege of going through with the Arcos Summer Movement Intensive here in Austin, TX a few years ago. And it was blissful. And appropriately timed in my process. And solicited. I highly recommend the experience.
In closing, I’m grateful for witnessing the strangely angry responses to my friend’s post. It got me thinking about how I want my voice as a coach and cheerleader to appear online (and in person). I’m definitely going to keep shouting encouragement to my Insta Feed (you can’t make me stop!), and while I hope to be a little more aware of how I shout that encouragement, I’m certainly not perfect. None of us are. What I do hope, is that we all maybe think a little more about how we engage with each other, especially in the easy to misunderstand world of the interwebs.
*Remember when we go upside down, an overhand grip will look underhand and vice versa.
Welcome! I’ve been wanting to start a blog for Flight Training, but have been sitting in the contemplation phase of creation, pondering what I would want to share. Well, grip position in moves like Lever (specifically for Aerialists) seemed like a good place to start. It has just the right balance of conflicting information and debate online, personal interest for myself and my clients, and the opportunity to geek out on movement mechanics. These moves (Front Lever and Back Lever), originate in Gymnastics, but have taken on lives of their own in the Calisthenics (bodyweight training), Street Workout, and Aerial Worlds.
Even the names of these moves morph across disciplines, causing confusion.
For instance, I call the positions in the first two images Levers (front and back, respectively), which seems to be the most used terminology in Calisthenics and Gymnastics. Yet, the Aerial world has adopted the term Planche for these positions. In Calisthenics and Gymnastics, a Planche is the third image, a move where your weight is supported on your hands on a surface or apparatus below you. The shape of the body in each is relatively similar until you look closely at the hands and shoulders. And in mechanical terms, all three are in fact levers. Want to nerd out on the physics of a Back Lever? Did you know that systems of levers enable all of your movement? Alright, back on topic, let’s talk about grip.
Let’s start with Front Lever, as it’s grip is less hotly contended. Front Lever is entered with an overhand (pronated) grip, or occasionally in the case of rings or parallel bars, a neutral grip (palm faced inwards). Two common entrances are to pull up into it from a dead hang, or to lower into it from a straight body inversion (Needle in Aerial terminology). The latter is definitely easier and is the generally prescribed entrance if you are still working on gaining the strength to hold your lever confidently, no matter what progression you are on. This variation also has an advantage in helping you to find the proper shoulder position (which I’m including because it’s intimately related to grip). In front lever, your shoulders are simultaneously trying to externally rotate, depress, and retract slightly. Here’s a quick anatomy summary if you need it.
Now, let’s break that down. The best cues I’ve heard to achieve the advised slight external rotation, is to think about your hands trying to pull the bar apart or break it in half by bending the ends downward, or to imagine wrapping the triceps under and in. They can’t actually externally rotate fully when on a bar apparatus, but this puts them into a more supported, engaged position. For scapular depression, we’re thinking about the tried and true yoga cue to pull your shoulders down your back. And finally, the shoulders are actually in a neutrally engaged position and not fully retracted (squeezed together in the back), however the action of trying to keep the shoulders squeezed back and down as you lower from your inverted position, will steer most people to the right position (retracting fully while in a front lever is actually incredibly difficult). Like I said, there are less hotly contested issues of form in this position. The biggest debate I came across, was how hard to retract your shoulders. We’re sticking with neutral, or slightly retracted over here. What about the rest of your body? Think about your handstand position, or being slightly hollow. Keep excessive curve out of the low back, be fully engaged through the core, don’t pike at the hips, and the eventual goal is to be able to keep those legs squeezed tightly together. This holds true for both Levers, and Planche for that matter.
This brings us to the most debated form cue in lever training. What grip do we use in a back lever? Traditionally, male gymnasts use an underhand (supinated) grip when moving into back lever, with the shoulders slightly protracted and depressed. When transitioning on rings from a dead hang (straight arms, facing forwards) to a back lever, the grip rotates from pronated to neutral (palms inwards) to supinated as you invert through. You can think about the thumbs of the hands turning outwards, as the shoulder rotates through this transition to picture what’s happening. In this grip variation, the end point for your triceps are to glue to your lats, which helps to keep the shoulder in external rotation as well. Here’s an example of the movement on rings with an added press to planche.
As I mentioned previously, there is fierce debate out there in the FITer-Net about proper grip position in back lever. If you want to waste (or enjoy) an afternoon, browse some fitness forums with keywords “grip in back lever.” The debates is endless. If you search through long enough though, you will start to hear a consistent cry from the Men’s Gymnastics community. This is that supinated grip is essential for building bicep, shoulder and tendon strength (especially the biceps tendon) to enable progress to more advanced gymnastics moves, like Hefesto and Maltese. Of note, the Back Lever, while classified as one of the “hardest bodyweight moves” you can master in Calisthenics, is the base level (Level A) of strength in Men’s Gymnastics. Sigh, progress is always a matter of perspective.
In my experience, an underhand (supinated) grip in back lever has the same proposed mechanical advantage of pressing down on the bar against the force of your bodyweight’s gravitational pull, as the pronated grip of front lever does. Pushing the bar seems easier to me than pulling the bar to overcome gravity, and the propensity to a more internally rotated shoulder when entering a back lever from a pronated grip, isn’t my favorite thing to fight against. Conversely, others in forums state that using a pronated grip makes the move seem easier for them, or that the supinated grip puts strain on their elbow. The pro-supinated grippers claim that this pain is an indicator that they are not actually strong enough to be doing the level of training they are attempting (Full Lever Hold attempts rather than Advanced Tuck Lever Hold attemps for instance), and that they aren’t strengthening properly by going through proper progressions using the supinated grip. Their particular concern is that the biceps tendon is weak, or weaker than the surrounding muscles if progressions have happened too quickly. Here’s an experiment, try putting your hands out straight behind your back while standing. Face your palms up and have a friend (gently) press up on the back of your hands, while you try to resist. Now, face your palms down and have the friend (seriously, be gentle) try to press up on your palms while you resist. For me, the second is easier and more comfortable to all joints involved. I’m curious, what about you? Feel free to spam me with your answers in the comments.
Ultimately, the consensus that seems to have developed in the Calisthenics world is that either grip is okay, as long as you are not having pain, the rest of your form is on point, and you are truly strong enough to be working on these moves by following the proper progressions. I think it’s definitely possible that some people are more natural pullers or pressers due to genetics, and what kinds of movements their body is accustomed to. So, in some sense, while there seem to be functional strength benefits to a supinated grip in back lever, natural preference may be the right answer for how to grip if you’re not training as a male gymnast,* or planning on working on those more advanced moves.
Now, I am an aerialist, and I train aerialists. And we have unique considerations in this debate. If your primary apparatus is Straps or Silks, you can most likely go ahead and apply much of the wisdom from how grip and shoulder rotation in back lever are cued on the rings (remember, thumb rotates from in to out). The difference is that the wrist is put into a different position when gripping a flexible apparatus than when gripping a hard surface. So, while you’d still be thinking about the same shoulder and grip positions, and wrapping in of the triceps and elbow; your grip will most likely actually remain and look more like a slightly neutral grip. Though, I’ve seen both fully pronated and supinated grips on these apparati as well. Since Trapeze is my primary aerial language though, I’ll defer to the experts in these apparati, but my opinion is the best grip for an individual is the one that puts the least strain on the wrists, while keeping them in alignment, and the rest of the body in proper form.
When we approach this move from a Lyra or Trapeze, we encounter a more practical issue to consider. Most of our moves on a Trapeze are going to use an overhand (pronated) grip, and while Lyra moves utilize an underhanded (supinated) grip more often than Trapeze (due to the curve of the bar making this a more ergonomically desirable grip), there are still a good number of situations where you’ll find yourself moving from an overhand grip on this apparatus. Since you cannot simply rotate from pronated to supinated grip on a bar apparatus, being able to enter our back levers safely and strongly from an overhand or underhand grip simply offers us the advantage of more choices in our choreography.
For myself, and my clients practicing back lever on a bar, my advice is to not neglect the supinated (underhand) grip, and even to train with it most of the time, to protect your joints and build the necessary strength in the bicep tendon (as long as this grip is not causing you pain). Keep in mind that it takes tendons longer to strengthen than muscles. I would recommend sticking with the supinated grip as you work on the progressions that you’ll want to go through long before you actually ever try to hold your body in a full lever. Then, once you are ready to hold a back lever (no matter how strong we are in other areas, this could take six months-a year), train with a supinated grip 60% or more of the time, and switch the grip to pronated for the rest of your training. An example of what this could look like at an advanced/intermediate level is 3 sets of the following 4 exercises, performed to failure of proper form (not complete muscle failure): Full or Straddle Back Lever holds (supinated grip), Advanced Tuck or Basic Tuck Lever holds (alternate 2 supinated, 1 pronated grip), Skin the Cats (pronated grip), Back Lifts or Skin the Cats on Rings, Straps or Silks with the grip and shoulder rotation described above.
*For purposes of this blog, I use the term ‘male’ not to make a distinction between male or female identifying people who may be trying to get a Lever, but to distinguish between people of any gender identity who are choosing specifically to pursue training in the style of gymnastics referred to as Men’s Gymnastics.
**Please for the love of your life, always train with a qualified, experienced coach, in person, when trying new things. Use proper landing mats when going upside down. And make sure the equipment that you use is rated and rigged for what you are using it for. For example, over the doorway pull-up bars are not generally made for inversions or dynamic movements. Your safety is only a strong as its weakest link.
**The Most Relevant of the Sources and Resources I read for this Post**
My aim in creating this blog is to translate fitness information for aerialists, pole artists, and circus athletes. While I can only truly write from my own experiences, and what I have been taught or learned so far in life; it is my promise to research as fully as I am able to on the subjects that I tackle, to site my sources, and try to sift through any misinformation in the miasma of the FITer-Net (I just made that up) before distilling relevant information to my specific community.
Stay tuned for my first post by the end of the week on Grip and Shoulder positioning in Front and Back Levers.