​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.


​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!


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?


​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.


​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.


​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.


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):
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…
Coach: PHYSIO.

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.


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.


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.


  • Ian Necor

    Great article

    January 4, 2018

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.