A High-Flying New Fitness Trend

There is no shortage of fitness trends out there (think pole fitness, aerial yoga, prancercise…), but there is one that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “clowning around.” Circus fitness merges functional with fun to create an exciting and engaging new style of workout. The workouts can range from practicing handstands and cartwheels to flying on a trapeze, and everything in between. You can leave your red rubber nose at home though – this type of movement is an art form, and while it’s fun and sometimes silly, it should still be taken seriously! 

How It Works

Often affectionately referred to as “clown school,” circus classes are usually held in gymnasiums, warehouses, or big studios with soft floors. Usually you’ll start with a fun but challenging warm up, including some cardio, big arm stretches, hip releases, and overall mobility to prepare for some tough work. Then, at most studios you will move to one of the circus apparatuses: 

caucasian woman in white suit on red silk ropes in the air

  • Aerial silks: Possibly the most iconic aerial apparatus, silks are a pair of long strips of fabric suspended from a rig on the ceiling. Performers will climb, tie, drop, and twirl in and on them. 
  • Rope: Much like silks, but not quite as flashy, the rope is a true testimony to strength. Rather than hanging down in a pair like silks, a rope is a single strip of heavyweight, rough canvas. The acrobat uses their feet and sometimes hands to maneuver the rope into dazzling knots, shapes, and drops – similar to silks in visual.
  • Sling: Much like a hammock, this is essentially a silk, but in loop form, in which the performer can swing, circle, and do inversions in. This is also commonly transformed into a “strap”, with a small loop to go around the wrist, from which an acrobat can be lifted into the air and suspended by just their arm. woman in a gold outfit hanging on a trapeze with one leg
  • Trapeze: Another common and iconic apparatus, the “high-flying” trapeze is a bar suspended by ropes that is used to swing, flip, and catch a partner from. Most circus studios don’t have the space to accommodate this act, and the safety net it demands, so instead have the “static” trapeze, which swings much less and is used for solo or partner moves.

    caucasian woman hanging on a hoop that is connected to a rope on the ceiling
    Learn how to hang on a hoop hanging from the ceiling.
  • Tightrope: The tightrope in your circus gymnasium won’t be suspended 20 feet in the air, but it is still difficult to master! Instructors will start you out much closer to the ground, with thicker straps, as you work to greater heights. This helps new performers safely work on their balance and step precision as they practice within their comfort zone.
  • Lyra: A lesser-known apparatus, the lyra is a large metal hoop suspended much like a trapeze, in which the performer can swing, spin, hang, and climb. 

Functional Fitness

Circus fitness is incredibly unique. It’s not every day that you get to scale ropes or hang from a trapeze, and you’d be hard-pressed to find other exercises that utilize your own bodyweight quite as effectively. Professionals make it look easy, but using your own two arms and legs to climb a slippery piece of silk is no easy task! It requires grip and grit as you realize the only thing between you and a 20 foot fall is your own strength. 

Building up that strength is at the heart of circus fitness, which, because of its focus on core stability and making your muscles work together to support you, doubles as functional fitness training. Trainers will usually start and end sessions with working on grip and core strength, as these two things are the keys to strong climbs. They will never send you up higher than you can safely descend, and will allow you to build up strength – and confidence – until you are ready for inversions (or poses in which your heart is higher from the ground than your head). 

Is Circus Fitness For You?

caucasian arm showing off the muscle
Circus fitness will help strengthen your hands and grip.

Circus arts, much like yoga, pole fitness, or dance, is a creative expression medium that primarily features long, lean bodies. Never fear if that’s not your body type – circus training truly is for every body. Because circus fitness works hard-to-train muscles and increases overall strength, it can have a myriad of benefits for your daily life, including increased core stabilization (which can help with improving posture and alleviating some back pains), greater flexibility, better balance, and general conditioning. You might not be able to climb the silks right away, but while you’re practicing, you’ll work your core, arms, and back, as well as strengthen your hands and your grip strength, which will prepare you for climbing with ease.

If you’ve ever seen Cirque Du Soleil or another professional circus troupe, you might be hesitant to try your hand at circus classes. The beauty of circus training, however, is that it is what you make it. There is something invigorating about trying new, somewhat scary things, and it can leave you feeling empowered, brave, and stronger than ever. If you step out of your comfort zone, you might be surprised at what you find!

The One “Fitness Habit” You Have To Stop Immediately

Many people are obsessed with fitness, and obsession can spiral out of control quickly.  Following fitness celebrities and looking into new diet trends may seem like steps in a positive direction, but doing so can lead to binge dieting and excessive exercise, and can have an extremely negative impact on your self image. 

Following fitness celebrities can be particularly dangerous, as they sometimes offer toxic “health” tips that defy science and can be downright dangerous, like restrictive eating. Some “fitness experts” with little-to-no medical, health, or nutritional training  will share “what I eat in a day” posts, suggesting that people follow similar 1000-1200 calorie per day diets. These celebrities neglect to mention the first basic tenet of fitness: everybody is different and requires different levels of caloric intake and exercise to feel their best! This type of restrictive mindset not only takes a physical toll, but can also take an even larger psychological toll. 

The Psychology of Restriction

black and white picture of woman looking down
When you restrict food, your brain begins to form feelings of shame and guilt. 

The science behind calorie restriction seems to make sense: if you want to lose weight, burn more calories than you consume. The problem isn’t with the science, it’s in the application. There are physical issues that can arise from a restrictive diet, but the real danger is in the psychological toll. Experts at the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) caution that paying too much attention to caloric intake can lead to an obsessive and negative mindset. 

When you begin to restrict calories, your brain can form a negative association with the foods you consume, usually centered around feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. These emotions can cause you to further restrict what you eat, or can result in binge eating, which can damage your metabolism and exacerbate the negative feelings you have come to associate with your food. 

NEDA also warns that denying yourself foods that you love that aren’t necessarily healthy, like french fries or ice cream, can lead to placing a greater emotional value on food. Your restrictive diet becomes “sad,” and food becomes a beacon of happiness. Connecting food and emotions can lead down a slippery slope, meaning you could end up binge eating in search of happiness, or denying yourself nutrients to absolve a sense of shame.

The Secret To Sustainable Weight Loss

Further research shows that restricting calories is not only psychologically damaging, but is also ineffective. While restricting food intake can cause a short-term weight loss, long-term studies show that it’s incredibly ineffective for sustained weight loss. A severely restricted diet leaves you feeling deprived and lacking important nutrients, so you end up  “yo-yo dieting,” meaning that you try to severely restrict your calories but are unable to keep it up and end up returning to your old habits. There has to be a more sustainable way to lose weight. 

Holistic experts who focus on the whole body, including the mind, suggest that balance is the key. Instead of fixating on calories, people must prioritize moving their bodies frequently and fueling themselves with healthy, whole foods. Finding delicious recipes you love, allowing yourself to eat anything (yes, even french fries and ice cream!) in moderation, and engaging in an exercise you find enjoyable is the key to long-term success. Instead of living a life of restriction, try these tricks for returning to simple, conscientious, and healthy eating habits.

  • Be Consistent: Eating at roughly the same time every day conditions your body to expect food at those times. Stick with the three squares – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and two to three snacks. african american woman in sports bra cutting fruit
  • Go for quality: Fuel yourself with whole, unprocessed foods. Make raw or simply prepared vegetables the center of your plate, go for lean proteins, fill up with whole grains, and snack on fresh fruit. 
  • Pay attention to quantity: Portion control is a great, non-restrictive alternative to calorie counting. Some weight loss programs sell pre-portioned containers to measure your food with, but you can also familiarize yourself with what your portions should look like. A widely regarded rule of thumb is that portions of grains and starchy veggies should be about one handful or the size of a tennis ball; protein should be about the size of your palm; dairy products should be about the size of one or two fingers. 
  • Eat consciously: Eliminate distractions while eating! This might not seem like a big deal, but studies show that people who put away their phones, walk away from their desk, and turn off the TV are less likely to overeat. Those same people also report feeling fuller and more satisfied with their meal for longer. 

Remember that we live in a society where popular culture tells us what to eat, how to dress, and who to look like. Feeding yourself well, moving your body joyfully, resting when you need to, and letting go of an obsession with calories and faux-fitness is an act of radical self love. And it works. You’ll find yourself more comfortable in your skin, and feeling better than ever.