Circus hurts…but should it?!

It’s one of the first things that you hear when you get into circus: “circus hurts.” 

It’s true, to an extent. We do all sorts of weird shit in circus that’s bound to bruise or abrade us – whether it’s getting your intestines squeezed out of you by some fabric wrap, or missing an acro trick and face planting. A little armpit fabric burn, anyone? Fun stuff! 

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Whether you’re a professional, advanced student, or just starting out, part of what keeps you coming back for more is the intensity of it; pushing past your comfort zone, doing uncomfortable things, and succeeding! 

However, it’s easy for the line between intensity and injury to become pretty well blurred in the desire to push through to get that trick, to keep training because you’re not ready to call it quits for the day, or because you just want to be tough. It’s part of the culture. Everyone has their “spot”, their tweak, or they think “that’s just part of circus, right?” I’ve been coaching for 10 years and spent a year at NECCA in their intensive program. I’ve heard and seen it all. And I’ve done it! And let me tell you, that way lies danger. 

First, let’s talk a little bit about different types of “pain” and why it’s important for you to be able to differentiate between them!

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Intensity pain: The fabric is squeezing my leg! I’m balancing all of my body weight on a steel bar! This is classic “circus hurts” territory. My answer to my students when they say this is usually “yup, sure does. Do you need to come down?” Probably this pain isn’t dangerous, but to a new student who has never experienced a physical sensation like a front balance, it might be really distressing! It’s important to take that seriously and figure out if there is a placement issue or some other detail that might help alleviate some discomfort, but ultimately regular exposure to the cause of discomfort (aka doing more front balances) is going to be the solution.

Cramping pain: This one is pretty similar to intensity pain in that it’s intense and probably not dangerous. This one usually happens when you’re asking your body to move in a range of motion it doesn’t have any experience with. Have you tried any of those active hip flexion drills where you sit with your back against the wall and try to lift a straight leg? And then your quad cramps like a mofo and you curl into a ball and cry for a while? That’s what I’m talking about. Short story is that when you take a limb into its end range of motion and then ask the muscles to work, they can freak out a little because they literally have no idea how to work there. And they cramp. Your muscles are throwing a little tantrum, but they’ll get over it. Shake it out, try it again, and it’s probably not as bad the second time!

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The dreaded butt cramp!

Sharp pain: Also described as stabbing, shooting, lightning, ice pick. I hope it goes without saying that any pain that can be described this way is BAD BAD PAIN! Please, stop what you’re doing. Please make an appointment with your Doctor or PT. DO NOT COME BACK TO CLASS TILL YOU HAVE SEEN THEM. I don’t care what your coach says (and hopefully they are saying the same thing I am!!) Unless your coach is also a Physical Therapist or other health care provider, they cannot diagnose or treat your injury, and if they try to, you should run, run away. 

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Don’t show up at the studio like this

That brings us to my “favorite” pain…

Lingering pain: You know what I mean. The spot, your tweak, hip, shoulder, whatever. Everyone has one. That place that always feels uncomfortable and tight. It never gets all the way better. You lacrosse ball the shit out of it, stretch it, ice it, heat it, have your witch friend do a spell on it. It’s still there. 

You took a break, and rested and it felt better. Went back to class and *BOOM* it’s back.

Here’s the thing. No amount of foam rolling or resting is going to fix this pain. Because the problem isn’t that your muscles are “tight”. The problem is that they’re weak. “WEAK?!? How dare you??” I can hear you say “I can do 300 pull ups!”

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Yup. Weak. I said it.

Now, I don’t mean that YOU are weak. You’re probably pretty strong! Look at your muscles! But, you can be strong and not be balanced in your strength. And that’s what I’m trying to get at. 

All of our muscles have an opposite, like a soul mate. Or a nemesis, if things are out of whack! Let’s take, for example, quadriceps and hamstrings, also known as the fronts and backs of your thighs. Your quads (and we’re talking specifically about your rectus femoris here) flex the hip, while hamstrings extend the hip. They work in opposition to each other! When your hip is flexed, your hamstring is stretched, and vice versa. But what happens if one of them is stronger than the other?

 Maybe you spend all your free time flexing at the hip to lift your legs up to help you go upside down, over and over again? Those quadriceps are getting really strong, and maybe your hamstrings aren’t. And the stronger your quads get, the more they pull your hip into flexion. And remember, when your hip is flexed, your hamstring is stretched. Maybe now, your quads are so strong that your hip is a little bit flexed all the time, which means that your hamstring is a little bit stretched all the time. And it starts to feel tight, and you get this spot right at your Sitz bones that feels a little bit sore all the time. So you roll it out, and you stretch it, and it feels better for the moment, but the next day, it feels tight again. So you do it all over again, and it never really feels better, but circus hurts and this is just part of it. Right? Sound familiar?

Get Ready Pain GIF by Rodney Dangerfield - Find & Share on GIPHY

Friends, I am here to tell you there is a better way! 

That feeling of tightness in your hamstring (or behind your shoulder blade, or in your neck, or…) is probably a muscle that is weaker than it’s nemesis but trying to fight back. It’s trying to get out of stretch. It’s trying to get shorter, but it can’t. It’s nemesis is too strong. And stretching it is just making this problem worse! Because the issue isn’t that it’s “short”, it’s that it’s weak! So, what’s the answer? Strengthen that hamstring! Strengthen it, like, a lot. In different directions and ranges of motion. With weight or resistance and without. There is no one exercise that’s going to do this for you. And you should probably stop stretching it for a little while. At least until that persistent discomfort goes away. 


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Now, this is all a really simple explanation for some really complicated stuff. And there is ultimately no one-size-fits-all answer for any of this. But that’s okay! Because if this post describes you, I’ve got some suggestions for you!

Seeing that we’re all stuck at home and forced to take some time off of training our skills or apparatus of choice, you have the perfect opportunity to take a step back from pushing yourself as hard as you can, and refocus your energy on caring for your body in a way that will bring it back stronger and smarter than ever.

If you have the funds, I’d suggest seeking out private coaching – someone who is certified in Pilates, Strength and Conditioning (CSCS), or mobility training. There are A LOT of circus educators who can help you (cough, me, cough). 

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Even one or two private sessions will help you identify what you need to work on, go over technique and details so you’re working on it effectively, and give you a workout or routine that you can do on your own. If you work with me, I’ll even make you a homework video!

Don’t have the funds for a private? Try a class that emphasizes mobility, rehab, Pilates (seriously, it helps with everything), stability, restore, rx, you get the idea. Consider looking outside of circus. I know, it’s scary, but there’s a lot of great stuff out there!

OR if you want some free and totally awesome advice to help you improve your circus skills with less pain, join my mailing list! HELPING PEOPLE GET BETTER AT CIRCUS WITH LESS PAIN IS LITERALLY MY OBSESSION IN LIFE. Just saying. 😉

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With all that, we come to an end of this little rant. I hope you are encouraged to cut your body some slack, and spend some time caring for it. It’s a pretty amazing body, it does so many amazing things! It deserves the attention.

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