// Run away with circus training

by Lisa Westlake

Once upon a time the circus was for lion tamers, freaks and daredevils. The agility, flexibility, strength and crazy courage of circus performers placed them in a small ‘carny’ breed of their own, with such abilities being inconceivable to us mere mortals.

The concept of ‘running away to join the circus’, however, is no longer a ridiculous fancy. Circus schools and trainers all over the world are opening their doors to welcome everyday folk who are looking for a fresh fitness alternative to their training spaces and programs. Children and adults alike are enjoying the fun and the physical benefits of tumbling, hula hooping, acro-balance, juggling and aerial classes.

Working mostly with bodyweight, plus apparatus such as a trapeze, rope or cloud swing certainly provides a workout to be reckoned with. Strength, flexibility, core stability, balance and body awareness are just some of the physical gains of circus fitness. Empowerment, self-belief and confidence are just a few of the equally valuable psychological gains.

Those who choose to try their hand at static trapeze, tight rope walking, hand stands or any of the other circus mediums are often there for the novelty factor, initially at least. This is later replaced by an appreciation of fresh challenges and the fitness benefits. Many partake in other exercise programs, which are obviously helpful considering the physicality of circus skills, but for others who are not drawn to the gym environment, circus can make for a desirable option. For kids it’s just plain fun, with laughs, shouts and smiles accompanying the swinging, balancing, bouncing and rolling – all the while developing body awareness, courage, self esteem, team spirit, trust and physical fitness. Naturally the quality of safety, supervision and instruction is imperative – and spotting, harnesses and crash mats are a high priority!

The choices at circus schools are varied, but there is usually something for everyone. All classes have an extensive warm up and stretching component followed by a circus-specific element. Some of the options include:

Tumbling: mini trampoline, rolling and jumping through hoops make for a fun-filled and energetic workout.

Acro-balance and adagio: involves pairs and groups performing hand stands, balance, strength and control with ‘bases’ supporting ‘fliers’ to create poses, postures and pyramids of all shapes and sizes.

Chinese pole: not to be confused with pole dancing, it requires significant strength and monkey-like flexibility.

Manipulation: includes a range of activities including juggling, hula hoop, roller bowler (balancing on a series of small cylinders and boards) and Diablo. Often a choice for those looking for a slightly less physical circus challenge, but nevertheless fabulous for core, coordination and posture.

For those who want to fly, spin and get their feet off terra firma there is a vast range of aerial options.

The Spanish web: is a rope that hangs vertically. Initially participants learn to climb the rope but are soon wrapping and hanging in numerous poses and performing dizzying spins and death-defying falls.

The tissue or ‘silks': is similar to the rope but the colourful, soft flowing material allows for other tricks and positions.

Cloud swing: is a rope attached to the rig at both ends to create a huge rope swing which the student will swing on as they fall and spin into various amazing positions.

Static trapeze: hangs high off the ground but remains still. The participant performs controlled moves around the bar and ropes of the trapeze, using strength, control, flexibility and a sound awareness of which way is up!

Swinging trapeze: is rigged even higher. The student sits or stands on the bar to build up a massive swing, at which point they fall into various palm sweating and seemingly impossible positions.

Flying trapeze: involves climbing a ladder to a platform, reaching out for the trapeze, jumping off and swinging out and back, learning various positions that will later be released to the catcher who is swinging on the second trapeze. Timing and trust is everything!
Whatever your fancy, circus is a fabulous and fun option to compliment any fitness program. While many circus schools welcome beginners, a degree of pre-existing fitness will certainly be an advantage.


A few fitness clubs have started to incorporate equipment such as static trapezes into their training programs. If you are considering doing this, keep in mind that the rigging must be safe, set to official standards and hung by a professional rigger. The instructor must also have extensive circus experience and teaching ability and all safety components, such as mats and harnesses, must be in perfect order. An unsupervised trapeze in a gym is an accident waiting to happen, so if you are keen to offer your club participants a circus skills option to their fitness program, but have safety or logistical concerns, it may be worth building up a rewarding liaison between your club and the circus school, and to leave the trapezes at the circus.  


The National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) is Australia’s government-funded institution for training in contemporary circus skills. Encompassing a range of courses and programs, NICA offers everything from short courses for children, teenagers and adults to a three-year Bachelor of Circus Arts Degree incorporating a Diploma of Circus Arts and an Advanced Diploma of Circus Arts. For information
on courses and programs, visit www.nica.com.au. For circus skills providers in your local area simply Google – there are lots about!


Lisa Westlake, BAppSc (Physio)
Lisa has worked in the health and fi tness industry for over 20 years. Australian Fitness Network named her Author of the Year in 2009, Fitness Instructor of the Year in 2000 and Presenter of the Year in 2003. Through her business, Physical Best, Lisa combines physiotherapy and fi tness to create classes and programs for a variety of ages, levels and abilities, and is well known for her work in developing the Fitball program in Australia. Visit www.physicalbest.com for more details.

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