Featuring Shannon McKenna (www.circusshannon.com), Photo by Daniel and Corrina Owens (http://www.danophotography.net)
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, www.shiftmovementscience.com. 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.
OMG, I CAN’T LIFT MY LEG OFF THE FLOOR!
Don’t freak out. You’re not a weakling. MANY super strong circus artists CANNOT lift their leg off the floor at all when they start this exercise. A nice modification to start with is doing this on the edge of a panel mat. You can grab on the sides of the panel mat for added stability, and then let your back leg drop off the side. This way, you’re still working your glutes in end-range extension, but in a less intensive way.
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!
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.
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