So, you’ve discovered the thrilling but often confusing world of aerial arts. Whether you’re new to the sport or have been training for a while, you’ve likely heard some common wisdom from your teachers and fellow students. However, because aerial is a rapidly evolving, relatively new art form, there’s still a lot of misinformation about it. That “wisdom” might be anything but wise.
Perhaps you’ve avoided certain apparatuses or skills because you believe you’re not suited to them.
Or you’ve pushed yourself too hard because you’re desperate to land that trick.
Or you keep putting off your first aerial class because you’re convinced you’ll fall to your death.
As with any sport or performance form, there are plenty of myths surrounding aerial acrobatics — especially since it’s a combination of athletics and artistry. Unfortunately, many of these myths lead to unsafe training practices or discourage people from exploring this incredible world.
Let’s take a look:
Myth: You must be naturally flexible
Fact: There’s no such thing, really. Everyone’s body is configured differently, and everything from hormones to the depth of your hip socket can impact flexibility. Most people’s flexibility can vary by the day, depending on their hydration level, muscle fatigue, and so on.
Now, some people are “naturally flexible” because they’re hypermobile. This means they have a connective tissue disorder that allows their joints to extend beyond the normal range of motion. Some have leveraged this super-flexibility to perform contortion or aerial acts. However, hypermobility disorders often increase the risk of injury.
So remember, if you’re not super-bendy, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve your flexibility. And by training for strength as well as flexibility, you ensure that your joints have the support they need.
Aerial flexibility goes beyond what the body can normally do. Even if you can hit a full split on your apparatus, it might not be a good idea. Your muscles must be able to counteract the forces acting on your connective tissue — especially if you’re hypermobile.
In sum: whether you’re fairly flexible already or not at all, your aerial training will help you gain the right type of flexibility — safely.
Myth: You must be buff
Fact: Although I just mentioned that strength is important, that doesn’t mean you must be super-strong before your first aerial class.
First, you won’t be doing advanced tricks and feats of strength your first time — and if the instructor tries, run far away. As you learn foundational skills, your strength will gradually improve.
Second, strength is still not as important as technique. Even some instructors perpetuate this myth. They focus on building their students’ strength, and they equate strength with ability.
But good technique makes skills easier, more accessible, and of course, safer. I myself used to “muscle through” certain skills. Once I learned the correct technique, it was much, much simpler … and I had more energy for the skills that did require strength. (And for more aerial time, which means more fun!)
Third, even if you are strong, here’s the thing: aerial strength is different from weightlifting strength. You need whole-body strength, and honestly, your standard workouts aren’t going to cut it. It’s true, you do need strong arms, but you also need strong legs and a strong core. More than that, you need all your muscles to work in tandem to sustain your movement in the air, especially if you’re inverted/spinning/dropping.
Being able to pull 10 chin-ups in a gym doesn’t necessarily translate to aerial ability. That is an isolated strength exercise. I have seen some muscle dudes try aerial and immediately get surprised that they can’t get on the trapeze. And I’ve known some extraordinarily strong performers who couldn’t do more than 3 pull-ups in a row.
All that is because aerial strength is more than the sum of its parts. You are not only working against gravity but also against the force of an apparatus pushing back on you.
But with heightened body awareness, you can figure out when to apply force, when to select certain muscles to contract or extend, and how to coordinate your movements. Students who can do this often progress better than people who are just mega-strong and try to beat the apparatus into submission.
To conclude: strength is important, and being able to do a pull-up is crucial to many aerial skills. But ultimately, you need a potent combination of clean technique, enhanced body awareness, and well-coordinated muscle engagement.
Myth: You’ll fall a lot
Fact: For every wonderful aerial scene in the movies, there are at least two that depict a fall. Both “America’s Got Talent” and “The Masked Singer” featured competitors who fell during their aerial acts. And disastrous, career-ending falls during circus shows have quickly become hot news.
It’s no wonder that many prospective students are scared to try aerials. And those who are training will often avoid certain skills or apparatuses out of a fear of falling.
There’s always a risk of falling — you are in the air, after all. However, it’s not inevitable. It’s not even as common as it seems. As long as you train safely and with proper technique, you likely won’t fall. For example, I’ve been training since 2015 an average of 3-4 times per week. I’ve fallen once. ONCE. And only when I attempted a trick before I was ready. Lesson learned!
Of course, some skills put you at greater risk of a fall. And that’s why we train those low to the ground with a crash mat.
But falling frequently is not normal. It usually indicates that you’re (a) using poor technique or (b) overworking the muscles. At a certain point, your muscles will run out of glycogen, which fuels ATP. Without ATP, the muscles can’t contract and will loosen. That’s why you should not attempt a skill if you’re feeling muscle fatigue. Your glycogen levels will replenish, but give them a moment!
Myth: Your nerves die
Fact: I hear this one spread by students and instructors alike. Some aerial skills, especially those that bear weight in the joints (e.g. knee hangs, toe hangs), seem agonizing the first few times you practice them. Then, the pain magically vanishes. Many aerialists believe the nerve endings have “died” and that this is desirable.
Nerve death is never desirable, but the good news is, that’s not what’s happening. Rather, your wonderful body simply realizes that extreme pressure on the joints isn’t a cause for alarm. (Imagine that!) It adjusts the pain response to that particular stimulus.
In other words, a lack of pain signals doesn’t mean a lack of nerve integrity. Your body is learning which movements and sensations are becoming your “new normal” for aerial. (This is why conditioning is so important!)
However, you must still protect your joints. By acclimating to the pain signal, you may not notice as quickly that something is wrong. Always warm up your joints thoroughly, and avoid overextending or over-compressing them.
Let me share a quick anecdote. I saw an Instagram post in which an aerialist wrapped her wrist three times for her music box on silks, apparently to keep herself from letting go.
It backfired. Her grip loosened and she fell.
The moral of the story? Don’t rely on “deadening” the nerves. Good muscle engagement and technique come first!
Myth: You must feel pain to make any gains
Fact: All athletic activities share this myth, expressed in the popular mantra: “No pain, no gain.” I’d like to be generous and say that this merely refers to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which often happens after strength training. But I’ve encountered too many people who take a masochist approach to sports and performing arts.
DOMS is normal and treatable. But pain is a bad sign, especially when it’s sharp and abruptly happens during a skill. Take it from someone who sustained a rare type of tendon tear: you must take pain seriously. Don’t try to push through it.
Here’s a quick cheatsheet:
If you ever feel anything in the yellow light column, take a moment to adjust or rest before proceeding. If it doesn’t feel right, listen to your body, not your ego!
Pain indicates that your muscles or connective tissues are taking on too much stress. Resist the temptation to force them into action. Damaged muscles will do you no favors! You need muscular integrity to be able to sustain dynamic movement and isometric holds in the air. And that means giving your muscles all the TLC they deserve. Don’t push them so hard that they hate you.
And from a psychological perspective, pain and stress can literally impede your growth. If you’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable, the motor neurons that power your muscles don’t work as well. Neurological stress can even limit your ability to learn movement. So, focus on pleasure while training, rather than pain!
I’m not trying to alarm you, but I want to be clear: torn tendons or ligaments could end your aerial career! I was lucky to be able to recover from my injury and resume training, but honestly, my left tricep will never be the same.
The aerial arts can be incredibly empowering and energizing. But these myths about our sport are limiting its growth…and potentially yours as well.
If you’ve been feeling too weak/thin/fat/inflexible to start aerial classes, kiss those myths goodbye! And if you’re currently training aerials, don’t let misinformation about strength, pain, and flexibility dissuade you from pursuing your aerial goals — or persuade you to train unsafely.