Featuring Janelle Dinosaurs
Imagine this familiar moment: you’re in an aerial/stretching/acrobatics class, and a student is trying a new skill. “Ow!” they say, “that hurts!”
This scene is the root of a series of several articles Janelle Dinosaurs and I are writing together to address the spectrum from “discomfort” to “full blown injury” as related to circus training. As it turns out, there’s a LOT to discuss, so today’s post is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our goal is to get everyone on the same page regarding how we describe physical sensation, to more appropriately guide and inform our training.
As with everything, there’s not ONE RIGHT WAY to discuss or describe what you are physically feeling- but there ARE ways to do so that will be more productive than the run-of-the-mill “OUCH”. The goal of this first article is to fill your tool kit with more descriptors of discomfort, and help you and your coach/students understand which are red/yellow/green lights with respect to training through discomfort.
SO! Tell us how you really feel! In the scenario described above, we are assuming two main things: 1) a skilled coach and/or physio, and 2) a student who has a basic level of body-awareness. The coach should respond to “IT HURTS” by asking for further descriptors of what this looks like. To start, we want to give you an array of categories to assess and describe physical sensation associated with circus arts.
Location: where does it hurt?
The first step here is to localize the area in which you are feeling altered sensation. Is it in a muscle belly? A joint or tendon? A focal line that crosses multiple joints? WHERE you experience altered sensation can tell you a lot about the origin and meaning.
1) Muscle belly: Discomfort in the meaty part of the muscle is not necessarily bad. This is often associated with normal muscle soreness that comes with gaining strength. This can simply mean that you are pushing the muscle to work beyond its comfortable ranges and intensities, which is what you MUST do if you want to improve in strength, power, and flexibility. HOWEVER, if you experience discomfort in a muscle belly that does not substantially decrease after a thorough warm up, this might be your body’s way of telling you it needs a BREAK. Take a few rest days, don’t push through it. See Jen’s article on the soreness rule to learn more.
2) Joint/tendon: if the sensation is extremely localized to a joint (shoulder, knee, ankle) or tendon (where the muscle attaches to bone), this is your body giving you a “yellow light.” Its time to pump the brakes, reassess your training, have a coach check out your technique on new skills. Something needs tweaking. Joint and tendon pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is off—you may be experiencing an inflammatory response to some sort of pain/injury stimulus. This is a great time to seek advice from a qualified coach, and formal assessment from a physio!
3) Nerve pain: If the sensation that you’re feeling is more of a long line of sharp pain, that crosses more than one joint, you may be in nerve-stretch territory. Do NOT pass go, do not collect $200, go read this article and/or see a physio!
After we’ve narrowed down the location of the pain, next we move on to the obvious: can we blame our apparatus?! Because, let’s be real, my aerialistas, we all know fabric, rope, trapeze, lyra etc can be “crotchy,” “pinchy,” “twisty,” “burny,” and a smattering of other indignities. If the discomfort you’re feeling can be directly attributed to the pressure of your body on the apparatus (or vice versa), always check with your coach to make sure you’ve wrapped or entered a position correctly, and in the right place. Coaches, look out for this, as even a few inches can make a difference between “uncomfortable diaper feeling” and “genital torsion.”
Sometimes, this deep pressure is inevitable in a movement or position, and it takes practice and familiarity to begin to execute the skill without significant discomfort or pain. A whole other article on this process is in the works, so stay tuned!
Does it feel productive?
Is the sensation you’re experiencing one that feels productive? Is it a “hurts so good” stretch or soft tissue mobilization (think peanut/lacrosse ball)? Is it an appropriately difficult muscular contraction (straight arm inversion)? OR is it a sensation that, if it continued, feels like it may be harmful or detrimental? Most of us have some sort of innate intuition with this- is it good? Or is it bad? Does our brain tell our body “PANIC, STOP,” or does it just bitch and moan a bit because it’s DIFFICULT?
Use your words.
After we’ve determined if the sensation is productive or detrimental, we can then go on to further describe it. What KIND of hurt is it? This is the fun part-- where we get to use our words to describe exactly the sensation we’re experiencing. I (Janelle) remember once as a little kid, telling my mom “it feels like I have 49 bees in my stomach they’re stinging me one at a time” (this was for a stomach ache with sharp cramping, and I was only 6 or so years old).
If your use of poetic language is not up to the 49 bees level, here are some descriptive words that go beyond “pain” “ow” and “UGHHHH” to help convey to your instructor what sensation you’re experiencing, so they can appropriately direct your training session.
pressure, pinching, pulling, twisting, stretching, difficult muscle contraction, sharp/burning, deep/aching, weak, numb, fatigued.
The descriptor you use here is MASSIVELY important- when you’re more specific with your verbiage, your coach will be able to more appropriately direct your technique, training, and overall experience.
quantify it: rating your discomfort
Circus can be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful. When describing the extent of an uncomfortable sensation, scaling is a fabulous way to make sure you and your coach are on the same page. The medical field has developed several “pain scales” that you can use, or you can simply say “on a scale of 1 to 10, it feels like a [insert number here]. We have included a PRE scale (more focused on exertion than simply pain) and an entertaining (yet excellent) modified pain scale for you to use with your coach to make sure you’re communicating clearly and understanding one another.
A good rule of thumb is that stretching and discomfort from pressure on an apparatus shouldn’t exceed “80%”, and that a student should be able to modulate their breathing in a stretch or pose. If your breathing quickens outside of your control, or if it stops, come back out of the stretch to a place where you can master your breathing.
This “80%” would fall at about a 6 or 6.5 on the RPE scale, and a 4 on the “improved pain scale” for reference.
when does it hurt?
It’s important to pay attention to what causes the discomfort or pain, especially if a sensation visits you at different times, or is becoming chronic in your body, and is not a one-time sensation in a class. Do you feel it during a specific movement? Just after a movement? All the time? Only when warm? Only when cold? This information is especially helpful in the pre-injury and injury range, and the more you can observe about this for your PT the better! Coaches and PTs have a wealth of knowledge, and good ones will make sure to send you to the right level of care for your discomfort to prevent or heal an actual injury should it arise.
all together now...
Now that we’ve covered the basic categories to consider when describing your #circusfeelings to your coach or physio, lets put it all together in a few examples.
Scenario 1 (aerial):
Student: OUCH!! That SUCKED!!!
Coach: What sucked? Can you be more specific? Where did you feel pain, what was it like?
Student: When I came out of my meathook, I felt a pinching pain in the front of my shoulder.
Coach: Has this happened before? Can you rate the pinching on a 0-10 scale?
Student: It’s been going on for the past two weeks, just now it was an 8/10. It also usually aches for a day or two after aerial class.
Coach: Pinching isn’t a normal or productive sensation during meathooks. Since it’s been going on for a week, and it’s an 8/10, it’s probably time to see a physio about that.
Scenario 2 (stretching):
Student: OHMYGOD I THINK I’M DYING
Coach: Good thing you filled out that waiver. Can you be more specific with what you’re feeling in this stretch?
Student: When you’re pushing my pike, I feel burning down my hamstrings. It’s fine. Circus hurts.
Coach: Where does the burning start and stop? Does it last longer than the stretch?
Student: it starts below my butt, and stops in the arches of my feet. I feel tingly for the rest of the day after this pike stretch.
Coach: that doesn’t sound like a normal muscle stretch. Let’s take a break from pike stretching until you see a physio to make sure it’s nothing more serious.
Student: But I filled out the waiver…
Scenario 3 (aerial silks)
Student: Oooohh!! Ow ow ow!
Coach: What’s going on?
Student: It really hurts!
Coach: You said “ow” when you sat up into that wrap, is it squeezing your thigh too much?
Student: Yeah! Jeez, it’s REALLY tight!
Coach: It looks like you have the wrap a little too low on your leg, so it’s squeezing more than it has to. Try lowering out, and sitting up again taking more of the weight in your arms while do you so the wrap can slide up to your hip crease.
Student: Oh, that’s...better. It still squeezes though.
Coach: How does it compare to before? Like on a scale of one to ten?
Student: Before was like a 7 or 8, this is more like a 5 or 6.
Coach: That sounds about right if you’re new to this wrap. As you practice, it will get more familiar and more comfortable.
moral of the story?
Words matter, especially when related to discomfort. We often default to a blanket "OUCH" or "THAT HURTS" when describing sensation, which is fine- as long as you follow it up with more accurate descriptors of what you're feeling...because, contrary to what we often hear, circus should not (always) hurt! Being able to more accurately dissect your feelings will help you and your coach/student train safer, more productively, and will ultimately help avoid injury.
Learn more about janelle dinosaurs, co-author to this blog
Janelle (Peters) Dinosaurs is a contortionist, aerialist and coach with an eye for detail and a heart for student wellbeing. Janelle regularly writes about experiences learning, teaching, and performing circus on her blog at www.janelledinosaurs.com. She has experience as a therapist and case manager, which informs her relational approach to teaching. Her strong background in martial arts, dance, and circus arts lend her a unique understanding of the importance of strong technique.
Featuring Catie Brier, contortionist and contortion coach
There are a few super hot topics in circus/yoga/performing arts, and this is one of them…what should your glutes be doing in a backbend? Should they be engaged, or should they be relaxed?
There are a lot of strong opinions out there on this topic…and I, too, am highly opinionated on what glutes should do in a backbend. However, I’ll reserve my opinion for the end of this post, after we discuss the cold, hard facts below:
Lets get started.
We’re going to talk about the two main glute muscles, for the sake of brevity: gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.
In layman's term...
Glute max attachments: this muscle starts on the back of our pelvis and sacrum, then attaches on the top of our femur.
Glute max actions: this muscle extends the hip (leg behind you, like an arabesque) and externally rotates the hip (like turning out in dance).
...huh? The aBRIDGEd version (see what I did there?!)
Glute med attachments: This muscle originates underneath, and slightly lateral to, the glute max: on the back/side of the pelvis (ileum). It attaches on the side of the femur.
Glute med action: this muscle abducts the hip (brings leg to the side of our body, as in a jumping jack) and internally rotate the hip.
the glutes start out on the pelvis and sacrum, and attach on the top of our leg bone (femur)
Glutes do not attach on, or cross, the lumbar spine (low back). When glutes activate, they do NOT cause any movement at the low back. They cause the hip to move backwards, and rotate in/out.
Biomechanics of a technically correct backbend
Catie Brier, perpetually adjusting and improving my bridge. Thanks, Catie!
For the sake of simplicity, we will discuss the bridge (or wheel, for those of you who speak yoga!), which is the pose pictured above. We’ll go joint by joint, and discuss (the basic version, sorry anatomy nerds...) of what anatomic position each region should be in for a technically correct bridge.
Not too complicated, right?
All together now
To attain a technically correct bridge, we can infer that we want to activate the muscles that cause the above joints to move towards those positions described above.
Because activated glutes cause the hips to extend, and hip extension is part of a technically correct bridge…YOU answer the question.
Should your glutes be engaged in a backbend?!
YES, yes they should.
Argument #1 against activating glutes in a backbend
The argument I most commonly hear from those who advocate relaxed glutes in a backbend is this:
“When you squeeze your glutes, you cause more bending and compression in your low back! That’s bad, because it can lead to back pain.”
My answer: look at the anatomic attachment points, and the action of the glutes. Because they DO NOT cross, or attach on, the lumbar spine, isolated glute activation does NOT cause extension of the lumbar spine.
The next argument:
“But that doesn’t make sense. When I squeeze my butt in a backbend, I feel like my low back is getting more compressed/I feel the backbend happen more here!”
My answer: You probably don’t know how to isolate your glutes from your low back muscles. Super common. Our glutes are inherently lazy, and our low back muscles tend to kick in and activate when we don’t necessarily ask them to.
Take Home message
If the backbend variation that you’re working on involves hip EXTENSION, your glutes should be activated. When you activate your glutes, you’re causing more of the composite backbend motion to come more from your hips vs low back, which takes pressure OFF your low back.
Want to learn more about how to properly activate your low back and hips in a backbend, so you can avoid injury? Start by reading this blog post.
Still want more? I have an active flexibility plan for that…check it out here.
Questions? Comments? Vehemently disagree? Leave me a note below, and we can chat!
What does current performing arts culture tell us about muscle soreness? Aches and pains? Bruises, burns, and rope rash?
“Train through it.”
“Tears are for home, not circus”
“Here, have some circus candy (advil/ibuprofen).”
These are all common "circus-isms" that I've heard, and I want to talk a bit about soreness- is it productive? How much is too much? How do you train optimally while simultaneously avoiding OVERtraining and subsequent injury?
This is a HUUUGEE topic, and I’m only going to address a small component of it in this post.
I was recently reading an article on implementing pitch counts in little league players (woah, #notcircus?! I know…what was I thinking…) and it REALLY got my gears turning. Not because I love baseball (…I don’t), but because one of the criteria they used for progressing pitch intensity and frequency was something I felt could also be applied to circus artists who are returning to training after a long hiatus, or even to those who are wanting to progress skill and strength levels in an efficient amount of time, without getting injured.
the soreness rule
This criteria for training progression is referred to as the “Soreness rule.” It was initially created for pitchers, but has since been adapted and modified to fit other sports as well (running, weight lifting, etc). These rules give athletes the ability to modify their progression of skill/strength according to the soreness they experience. If the athlete feels sore, tender, or stiff, then they can use the soreness rules to guide their training for the rest of that week.
Start by finding your anterior-superior iliac spine (ASIS, also known as the “pointy front hip bone"). The bottom ball of the peanut goes just inside this bone. With the peanut in place, lie on your stomach. Start by taking deep breaths into the peanut. Once the initial intensity subsides, lift and lower your back leg, on the same side as the peanut. Still not enough to loosen those hip flexors? Try adding a push up into a cobra position as you lift your back leg. Your psoas(..es?) will be singing "Joy to the World" in NO time!
Need a peanut? You're in luck.
Like these tips? Find even MORE awesome, flexibility-promoting, injury-preventing exercises and mobilizations in one of my two online training programs for splits and mobility:
GLUTE MAX BIAS:
Start on the floor in a one-legged childs pose, one leg behind you, both arms in front of you, sitting on your back heel. First, straighten your leg all the way. Then, keeping it straight, lift it off the ground. Hold 5-10 seconds, then relax. DO NOT come up off your heel. DO NOT let your hips tilt.
Too hard? Try on a yoga block to boost you up (as pictured).
STILL too hard (because GLUTES!)? Do the same exercise off the edge of a panel mat/raised surface.
GLUTE MED BIAS:
Next, in the same starting position, bring your leg out to the side, as in middle splits. Start by straightening your leg all the way, then lifting up towards the ceiling. Keep your knee pointed forward, don’t let your leg turn out.
If this is too hard, do the same exercise off a raised surface, like a panel mat.
KNEE HANG HIP ROTATION (Biasing hip rotators)
Lie on your side, in a knee hang position- knees DIRECTLY under hips. In this position, it’s really important to keep your abs engaged to ensure your low back doesn’t arch. With a theraband around your ankles, lift your top leg off your bottom leg. First, drop your knee as you lift your ankle, then switch, bringing your knee up and your ankle down. As you do this, make sure your pelvis stays stable.
If this is too challenging, bring your knees forward slightly, and do the same rotation exercise from here. Progress to the knee hang position.
Yeah, these are NOT riveting...and I bet we ALL have been guilty of sloppily rushing through them before class so our Russian trapeze instructor won't yell at us for not doing our "bands." NEVERTHELESS, they are VERY important. The reason I like them and force myself to suffer through them before every training session is because they "wake up" the individual muscles in the rotator cuff. They're our rotator cuff's ISOLATION exercises, and a responsible circus artist who cares about their #circusshoulders does them before each training session, and does them with proper form.
The pec minor is a relatively small muscle that lies underneath the pec major. It attaches to the upper ribs (ribs 3-5) and to the front of the shoulder blade (on the coracoid process). Because of this, it has functions in a few different realms: in breathing (specifically, deep breathing, and “chest” breathing), and it also anteriorly tilts and protracts the shoulder blade (see photos below). When this muscle is tight, this manifests as a constantly protracted and anteriorly tilted shoulder blade: in normal terms, this looks like rounded/hunched shoulders…basically, bad posture. Underneath the pec minor, running between the muscle and your ribs, are a bunch of nerves and blood vessels, that travel from your neck down to your arm.
In my typical nerdy physio style, I like measuring and tracking progress. Here’s my favorite way to measure tightness in the pec minor. Lie on a hard surface and have a friend take a photo of you from the top down. You can either eyeball it, or measure with a ruler or tape measurer. I look at a few different things here: first, height from the posterior acromion (marked in the photo at the top of the arrow) to the floor, and second, symmetry between right and left. Research suggests that optimal measurement here should be no more than 2 cm from the ground. There should be no more than 1cm difference between the two shoulders. As you can see in the photo, I have EMBARRASSINGLY tight pec minors…I blame too much recent air travel on ergonomically questionable Chinese airlines.
Use your opposite hand to press a peanut (or lacrosse ball, or tennis ball) into your pec minor, just below the top of your shoulder on the upper edge of your ribcage. First, just take a few deep breaths— because of its attachment on the ribs, even just deep breathing is a great way to actively release this muscle. Next, incorporate some arm movements. Start with your arm out to your side at 90 degrees on the floor. From here, move arm up and over towards your opposite shoulder. In addition, you can do a similar release with a “snow angel” type movement. Make sure you keep consistent pressure on the ball the whole time, taking breaks as needed…this is NOT a comfortable exercise!! I suggest 2 sets of 6-8 slow repetitions per side. For an added stretching bonus, do each rep while exhaling. Because this muscle is tightest during the end of a forceful inhale, you will get a more comprehensive stretch if you focus on movement during exhalation.
What's this, you ask!? A foam roller AND A water bottle in ONE?! GUYS. I got this for Christmas, and it is my new favorite PT gadget. It hurts. So. Good. And then it apologizes by hydrating you.
Every aerialist I know has a love-hate relationship with their lats. We love how they help us scale a 10-meter silk, we hate how they make clothes shopping SO difficult. An aerialist (who shall remain nameless) once told me "Its bad. My boyfriend calls me LATniss Everdeen." We complain endlessly about how tight they are...especially if we do both aerial AND handbalancing (god forbid a straight line was ever easily attained!)
This post is all about relevant lat anatomy, mechanics, and how to measure progress in flexibility and control of the lats…both for a nice handstand line, and for injury prevention!
The lats are a HUGE muscle that affect many different regions of our bodies. Here are ALL of the different parts of the back and hips that the lats attach to:
Because our lats attach to so many different structures, they also influence WAY more than just the shoulder. For example- if you have problems with your lats, this can appear as pain, stiffness, or general dysfunction in your low back, hips, thoracic spine, ribs, or shoulder. Circus-wise, here are a few examples of specific tricks that you may have problems with if your lats are too tight or otherwise dysfunctional:
Starting position: sitting with your back to the wall, scoot feet forward and flatten your entire back completely against the wall. Engage abs to keep ribs in.
From here, raise one arm in front of you slowly as far as you can, with your palm facing up and your elbow STRAIGHT. Use your other hand to monitor the point at which your back comes off the wall OR the point at which your palm starts to turn INWARDS instead of staying UP. Take a photo of this point. This is your functional lat muscle length.
If you’re a super nerd like me, you can download an app like “Coaches eye” or “dartfish” that will let you actually measure this angle. If you’re not a super nerd, you can just use this as the “before” photo for lat muscle length.