Featuring Shannon McKenna, Photo by Daniel and Corrina Owens
As some of you know, I recently returned to San Francisco from China, where I had been working as a physio for the Chinese Olympic teams in prep for Rio. In China, the cultural standard of beauty for women is to be small and thin- no curves, no muscles, and definitely NO butt. As a result of this, it was nearly impossible to convince ANY female athlete to do their glute/hip strengthening exercises. “But I don’t want to get a big butt! Big butt not cute!” was the common complaint. It was like. Pulling. Teeth. As a result, the first FULL phrase I learned in Chinese was NOT “Hi, how are you?” or “Nice to meet you!” or any number of other useful phrases one typically learns when starting a new language…the first phrase I learned was “Every day is GLUTE day!” This was much more useful for me and my line of work..I used it at LEAST 10 times per day, way more often than the other standard phrases. I would run around the gym, excitedly exclaiming “every day is glute day! Every day is glute day!” While the Chinese athletes and their coaches looked incredulously at each other, wondering who the white girl was who wanted everyone to grow big butts. This was one of the biggest recurrent battles I fought in China (#battleofthebooty??)
Luckily, in working with circus artists in predominantly western cultures, I don’t encounter the same resistance to glute work. In America specifically, we really love big butts…this makes my work SO much easier. Thanks, sir mix-a-lot. My #battleofthebooty here is much different. Typically, many circus artists I work with are already incorporating glute training into their warm up and/or conditioning…however, what I see being done to train glutes is not usually the most effective or efficient methods for glute training for circus arts. SO- this post will discuss the common errors in glute strengthening in circus arts, and a few options for exercises that may be more circus-specific.
The Problem with Traditional Glute Training
Squats and lunges are some of the most common “traditional” exercises that we do to target glutes. The problem with these is that during these exercises, the hip moves from a neutral position to a flexed position, and then returns to neutral. In many activities in performing arts, we need our glutes to be strong in EXTENSION (leg behind you), not flexion. Examples of how our glutes need to be strong in extension:
If you think about the positioning of our legs in the above tricks, and then think about squats and lunges, you can see that there is limited similarity to how glutes work in squats, and how they work in an arabesque. Specificity of training is important in all sports, but is especially tricky in performing arts, since we’re…ahem…slightly different than the “average” athlete, and have very unique requirements of our bodies.
The Problem with Glute Training in Performing Arts
In performing arts, we like to train our glutes in positions like these:
What’s wrong with these exercises? Nothing. They are great total-body exercises. What they are NOT is glute-specific. Lets take a step back and talk about the natural tendencies of our #circusbooties before moving forward...
First of all, left to their own devices, our glutes prefer to do as little work as possible. They’re lazy, and not team players. You know that kid in high school who you didn’t want to get stuck with on a group project, because they never pulled their weight? Yeah, that’s our glutes.
The problem with these exercises is that it is REALLY easy to substitute by using our low back muscles. Our low back muscles are the overachiever in class, that always does TOO much and picks up the slack for the lazy kid on the group project. What all of these exercises have in common is that they are done with our backs arched- spinal extension. This is a position that our back muscles are very comfortable in, and therefore kick in extra. As a result? Glutes don’t tend to activate as much as they should. So, while these exercises are not inherently bad, they do not tend to bias our glutes- especially for those of us who KNOW we have difficulty with activating our glutes.
So...what do I do to get my #circusbooty working??
The following are a few of my favorite starter exercises for ACTIVATING your lazy #circusbooty, while putting the low back muscles in a position that makes it near impossible to cheat with them. These are also positions that are much more functional for us as circus artists- most of these are either with the hip in end range extension, or neutral…not the same flexed position as in squats and lunges.
Childs Pose Glute Progression
This is one of my favorite glute activation exercises for performing artists. I was originally inspired by one of Dave Tilley’s posts on his website. I started using it in China and saw AMAZING results. It’s also an incredibly versatile exercise that can be adapted multiple ways.
Once you’re feeling confident with these two variations, you can turn it into a ronde-de-jambe. Start with your leg to the back, then circle it to the side.
Proper glute training is SO important in performing arts. Strong glutes will make your circus experience much happier, flexy-er, and probably more pain free. However, this conversation is just the tip of the iceberg. Every circus artist is SO different, and everyone has different limitations, flexibility issues, and weaknesses. If you want to find out more about your specific issues, find a PT!! Or, if you're currently UNinjured, but interested in improving your flexibility and strength in a safe way, schedule a skype session with me!
Want more great active flexibility exercises?
My active flexibility programs are FULL of fantastic exercises that not only will help strengthen your glutes in positions relevant to performing arts, but will ALSO help decrease your risk of stretching-related injuries. There's a program for everyone, check them out at the link below!
Aerialist: Sophie Godwin, Photo by Raymond Rudolph
Why are hip flexors SO stubborn??
If you’re a circus artist concerned with improving flexibility, you probably whine and complain about your stubborn hip flexors on a semi-regular basis. Why are they so tight?? Why does hip stretching suck so much? WHY AREN’T THEY LOOSENING UP?! Let’s take a step back.
Why do we want to stretch our hip flexors? Oh, because almost every trick in circus requires some degree of hip mobility….right. Here’s a list of common tricks that require “open” hips:
OK, so basically the foundation of everything in performing arts. Cool. However, if all we ever do is stretch our hip flexors, we probably wont make a ton of progress. So, you ask…what is the KEY to life, the universe, and open hips??
Glutes. The answer to everything is always glutes.
Here is my recipe for ideal hip extension mobility (hip extension = leg behind you, as in the back leg in a split):
This means that in our split, not only do we need open hip flexors, but ALSO glutes that are stabilizing our hip in that extreme position. Our bodies are REALLY smart, and like to try to keep us injury free. If we stretch our hip flexors endlessly, but don’t spend time strengthening our glutes and other posterior hip muscles, our bodies KNOW that our hip isn’t safe in end-range extension (back leg of the splits) AND WILL TIGHTEN RIGHT BACK UP. Therefore, you may see some gains within one session, but they will likely disappear soon after if you’re not concurrently strengthening your glutes IN that end range movement. Another common clue that your glutes aren’t #circusstrong is if your active and passive flexibility are MASSIVELY different, like if you have a flat, square split on the floor, but your split in a handstand looks more like a pizza slice. If this is a pattern you’re seeing in your flexibility training, you may want to consider tweaking your stretching program.
I know, I know…the suspense is killing you! How do you strengthen your #circusbooty?! Hold tight, that info will ALL be coming your way in my next blog post.
Contortionist: Caty Mae, Instagram: @catymaecircus
ATTENTION: Circus artists with back pain!
Here's a REALLY interesting (and SCARY) statistic on the NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR of if your have surgery for low back pain....
Yep. The number one predictor is HOW MANY SURGEONS ARE IN YOUR ZIP CODE!! Surgeons like to do surgery.
What's the second predictor? Whether or not you get an MRI.
Here's why: When you have back pain, you go to the doctor. Maybe urgent care, maybe your primary care physician, maybe the ER. That doctor does one of several things: refers you to a physio, gives you drugs, or refers you to an orthopedic surgeon. If you end up at an orthopedic surgeon's office, they will do an exam and either 1) send you to a physio, or 2) order an MRI.
Here's where issues arise. MRI findings are NOT always correlated to pain and dysfunction in the lumbar spine!! What does this mean? This means that disc degeneration or disc bulging is a normal part of the aging process.
Take a look at this chart. This study examined MRI's on over 3,000 people WITHOUT BACK PAIN. You can see that over one third of people over age 20 showed findings of disc degeneration, and 30% had a disc bulge.
Here's where the problem is: if you have back pain and end up with an MRI, your surgeon MIGHT say something like "you have a disc bulge. Surgery will fix this! Let's do surgery." This makes sense, right? Plus, there's something very comforting when, as an athlete in significant pain, someone offers a seemingly logical solution.
PUMP THE BRAKES
But what if the pain ISN'T coming from that disc? Then, you just went through a LOT of expensive imaging, had an invasive and risky procedure done, and it didn't even fix the problem.
To avoid this scenario (and potentially save A LOT of money), go see a PT. They might be able to offer a different perspective, and just might get you back on your apparatus quicker, more efficiently, and with more cash in your pocket.
Fun fact: The zip code with the highest incidence of surgery for low back pain is in Denver, Colorado!
Handbalancer: Zoe Jones, www.zoemjones.com, @handstandswithzoe
Thoracic mobility to physiotherapists is kind of like coconut oil to hippies…it fixes EVERYTHING. Low back pain? Shoulder pain? Bet your thoracic spine is stiff. Neck problems? Hands ripping? Fear of heights? Time to work on t-spine mobility.
If you’ve been keeping up with the circus shoulder posts, you’re probably noticing a theme. Even though you feel pain or discomfort in your shoulder, the actual PROBLEM is likely coming from elsewhere. We like to call this “regional interdependence;” it's an impressive, multisyllabic phrase that means “everything’s connected.” It’s always important to look beyond the region of pain, and see what the rest of the body is doing (or not doing). More often than not, the cause of the problem is NOT the same as the location of pain. This is why I REALLY want to stress the importance of seeing a physio if you have ANY lingering aches or pains...they can help you solve your #circusproblems, because the answer is not always obvious!
So far in this shoulder series, we’ve talked about the lats, the rotator cuff, and the pec minor. This week, I’ll be discussing the importance of the thoracic spine in preventing and addressing shoulder pain.
If you haven't read the earlier shoulder blogs in my series, you can read the series intro here. Post number one covers common misconceptions about your #circuslats. Post two covers how to properly attack tight lats by leveraging shoulder and back muscles. Finally, once you read this post on the pec minor, you'll be all caught up. And now, moving on...
Anatomy and Mechanics
Your thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae between your neck and low back. This is also where your ribs connect to your spine, which means that by nature, your thoracic spine is much stiffer than your neck or low back- and therefore has less movement. Your shoulder blade is connected to your t-spine by several muscles, and also sits on top your ribcage. Because your thoracic spine directly affects ribcage position, it also plays a HUGE role in scapular position and shoulder mechanics. A “normal” person might be able to get away with having some thoracic stiffness, but for the circus artist (or anyone who plays a sport where your arms are overhead at ALL), the slightest bit of increased stiffness can cause some big problems.
In the properly functioning t-spine, each of the 12 vertebrae is able to move SLIGHTLY on the vertebrae above and below it. We call this “accessory” motion. It's too small to quantify, but very important nonetheless. Accessory motion at the thoracic vertebrae should move allow for forward, backward, and rotational movement. This is VERY small, more of a glide than a large scale motion. However, this little glide between all 12 vertebrae allows for a larger COMPOSITE motion from the thoracic spine as a whole. The thoracic spine should be able to flex, extend, rotate, and side bend. Here’s why we care as circus artists: when the arm goes up overhead, whether we’re in a handstand or doing beats on trapeze, the healthy thoracic spine should EXTEND slightly. This helps put our shoulder blades in the most optimal position to keep the rotator cuff from being impinged.
Where it goes wrong
There are a lot of possible causes for decreased thoracic mobility, the most common of which is probably SITTING. And texting. And working at the computer for extended periods of time. When we sit, especially with poor posture, we tend to hunch forward and slump into a more rounded back posture than normal. This causes our shoulders to move forward, and our heads to jut out, and it all goes downhill from there. Generally, I think I see the most issues with the circus artist who’s the “desk job by day, circus star by night” type. If you sit with bad posture for hours a day, years at a time for work, you’ll probably develop increased stiffness in your t-spine. If you take this increased stiffness and throw it on a trapeze, or in a contortion class without addressing it, you’ll probably end up with issues SOMEWHERE. If our thoracic spine can’t extend when our arms are overhead, we have issues.
What does "wrong" look like?
Photographer: Arielena Reed Photography
There are a lot of different circus skills that will be negatively affected (or especially difficult to attain) if you have a tight t-spine. Most commonly, the basic back bend or bridge. If you look at your back bend, and you have nice movement through your hips and low back, but it looks sub-par from the mid back up, it could be your thoracic mobility causing the problem. Additionally, here are some skills that require a VERY healthy dose of thoracic mobility:
There are SO many awesome ways to mobilize your thoracic spine and improve overall spinal flexibility. One problem I see with a lot of circus artists is that they only focus on the extension aspect of thoracic mobility, when you really need to work both extension AND rotation. If all you’re doing to warm up your upper back is rolling on a foam roller a few times, you’re missing out! Because of the architecture of the t-spine, the rotation and extension movements are coupled- this means that if you want to improve extension, you MUST also work on rotation..and vice versa. The following are my favorite exercises to get your upper back moving. These are great to add in as part of your warm up before class….especially if you know you’ll be doing a lot of back bending!
Peanut thoracic extension
What’s a peanut? If you train at the San Francisco Circus Center, you may know the “peanut” as the “sock and balls.” Whatever you want to call it, its my FAVORITE tool for improving thoracic mobility on your own. To create your very own peanut, take two tennis or racquetballs and either tape them together or put them in a sock and tie off the end with a hair tie. For this exercise, first place the peanut on either side of your spine, at mid-back level. Take a deep breath in, then as you breathe out, drop your butt and head to the ground at the same time, so you “hinge” over the peanut. Do this between 5-8 times at each level, between mid back to where your shoulders and neck meet. You can also do the same thing, but alternating arms overhead instead of hinging over the peanut.
For extra intensity, do the same movements with the peanut on top of a yoga block. This gives you extra neck extension, which will increase the intensity of the mobilization!
Resisted quadruped thoracic rotation/extension
For this exercise, you’ll need a theraband tied to stall bars, or something similarly fixed. Hold the theraband with the arm furthest from the stall bars while on all fours. Engage your ribs, and on the exhale, rotate up towards the ceiling. Try to initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blade towards your spine. Hold at the end of the rotation for a complete inhale and exhale.
For bonus points and an AWESOME core exercise, do the same thing in a plank position. You're welcome.
Straddle thoracic flexion/rotation
This exercise is SUCH an awesome multitasker. You not only get thoracic mobility, but also lat flexibility on the opposite side, and obviously a bit of a leg stretch too. Start with a foam roller parallel to your thigh and the back of your forearm on top, palm up. On the exhale, roll forward and into the rotation, while reaching your chest through your arms and towards the ceiling. This is nice, because you get a different stretch in different degrees of straddle, so try a few out!
If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of back bends (or other aforementioned t-spine heavy tricks), throw a few of these exercises in to your warm up and see how you feel! For those of you with desk jobs, I HIGHLY suggest keeping a peanut or foam roll at work…a few stretch breaks throughout the work day will do wonders for your circus shoulder…and probably every other ailment you have! And hey, if thoracic mobility doesn’t solve the problem, maybe rub some coconut oil on it…or better yet, see a physio!!
Is your thoracic spine EXTRA stubborn? Check out my active flexibility program: The Science Behind the Art of Backbending: Upper Back and Shoulders. It has ALL the tips and tricks you'll need to coax that elusive upper back into [safely] bending!