You’ve probably seen the MULTITUDE of new mobility, proprioceptive, prehab drills, and other exercises being posted on the internet since the start of the pandemic, and you might be thinking;
“Shit, I need to do all of those to make sure my body is properly warmed up, and I’m not missing anything in my conditioning or training!”Aerial has TON of requirements on the body so it can be easy to feel like we need to do a ton of drills to address those requirements.
You end up with a list 300 exercises long, so you get up at 5am (or stay up until 11:30pm) doing them and you lose out on your sleep, relaxation time, or just find yourself training for way too long (especially if it isn’t your job).
The TLDR is: if you’re spending hours a day training, doing a variety of drills, and aren’t making progress, change how you’re training. If you’re training hours a day, doing drills that have redundant pathways, consider being choosier about the skills/drills you’re training to save yourself time, potentially reduce risk of injury from overtraining, and learn, for yourself, what the minimum amount of time/effort is for you to train a skill and safely progress.
What if there were ways to make progress on certain drills or skills without EVER training them directly? What if the concept of specificity only goes so far for certain things?
For those who are newer to the principles around training for sport, those principles, including specificity are:
- Individual Differences: what works for one person, may not work for another, and vice versa. For example: don’t teach or train a beginner the same as an advanced athlete.
- Overload: to improve over time, increase the stress or load the muscles (and to some extent tendons, ligaments, and bones) are exposed to. In aerial, looking at individual exercises based on the ease of adding or reducing load in them to increase the workload and stimulate for supercompensation.
- Progression: as fitness level improves, training should become more difficult and the workload greater. Over the course of a training program, the workload becomes greater in different metrics like volume, intensity, range of motion (ROM), or total capacity for fatigue.
- Adaptation: ideally, the body adapts to training over time – if it isn’t it is probably time to re-assess training method, program, or factors like sleep, diet, or stress.
- Reversibility: how much time and effort a skill takes to maintain – learning to drive or bike is a low reversibility skill.
- Specificity: training for a particular athletic activity, drill, or skill. This exhibits in circus with the belief that it is only possible to make progress on a skill or drill if you’re doing that exact skill or drill.
- Periodization: systematic and structural variation in training plans or programs over time.
Consider modifying the mentality of required direct specificity to incorporate the idea that you can make progress on a skill without directly training that skill. This is one way to save time and cultivate a mindset in which you can see when one skill or pathway you’re training will build strength, proprioception, et cetera for a host of other skills.
Let’s say you want to get hand-assisted single coil roll-ups to back balance (Back C) or beyond to Front C, and also want to build strength in your back flag (also Back C).
In a training session, you could train:
- Progressions for waist roll-ups on rope
- Back flag progressions
- And/or accessory drills to help with shoulder extension and internal rotation, side bending, elbow extension, and hip extension.
This would definitely work, though it might take extra time or require apparatus switching (which isn’t always allowed in today’s COVID world.
Or you could program a cycle (maybe 4 weeks) where you work and focus on:
- Progressions for entering your back flag from skin the cat or from meathook (passing through your Face-down Side-C) to build strength through your shoulder, lateral, and posterior chain.
If you test your side planche or back balance roll-ups at the beginning and end of the cycle, you’ll likely find them either to be the same or improved without any direct work on them. You’d probably also see benefit in your back flag from waist roll progressions that load the shoulder.
Consider the benefits of training a position through a range of motion (ROM), rather than doing static or isometric holds. Besides the fact that this can save you time, it also builds greater awareness of what is firing to maintain a position in the variety of subtle differences within one position and gives greater freedom of movement for aesthetic and skill choice.
Rather than holding an ideal back balance on rope for time, someone would likely gain more control, proprioception, and strength from moving between back balance position variations by rolling up and down the pole (using assistance as needed).
Rating or Categorizing a Drill
There are different categories of exercises that can help you pick which you HAVE to do, which might be useful under the right circumstances, and some that maybe just aren’t worth doing. In all of the examples, the idea is that you are already able to do some form of the mentioned drill safely.
- GREAT (NEED to use) exercises:
- Use full ROM – and build strength and control in the full ROM.
- Progressive – has clear progressions from beginner to pro
- Build towards a multitude of pathways
- Leads to gains in areas specific and nonspecific to the exercise
- Build strength in the stabilizing muscles of the joint
Example: A GREAT exercise would be back flag rocks, which build strength, control, and endurance for back flag, towards vertical flag, and a variety of entrances and exits.
- GOOD exercises (use sometimes)
- Are supplemental drills/exercises to use if you know you’ve got a certain weakness in a pathway
- Have utility in more than a few instances
- Help overcome a plateau when you are having trouble progressing beyond a certain amount of strength/ROM in a movement
- Safely allows for loading more weight/resistance/intensity in non-risky joint positions
Example: A good exercise would be something like pull-ups, a non-specific strength drill that builds strength and control through a large ROM, can help with eccentric control in moving to a straight arm hang, and benefits inversions and front levers.
- MEH exercises – those hardly worth doing (use minimally or not at all[PS5] )
- Hyper-specific to your goal
- May be a waste of time – is there an exercise you’re already doing that uses the same muscles in the same orientation but also provides broader benefits?
- Builds up unnecessary fatigue in your workout
- Takes away from the time spent on GREAT or GOOD exercises
- Only useful in few specific instances
Example: hollow body rocks and holds. Unless someone has a really hard time understanding the front dish/hollow/sweep position in a front beat, there are so many tools that build core strength and positional awareness (specific to beats/swinging) that aren’t just static holds or rocks. Hollow body holds also can end up with people using their diaphragm as a core muscle, which can lead to some really strange breathing mechanics.
Here are a few examples of drills that I think can be left out of (most) training sessions for (most) people as they progress. Even if you disagree with the below, hopefully you start analyzing what you’re doing in your training and if it is actually serving your goals.
Example 1: Straddle Meathook Windshield Wipers
Good: this exercise has some utility early on in teaching the pathway and the lifted hip position in meathooks. Builds some awareness of leg pathway for some transitions.
Bad: only builds strength in the isometric shoulder closed position, rather than lifting or lowering from meathook or nutcracker. Some progressions are there, but often unused.
Once someone can successfully hold a meathook, drop their hips, and pull back to a lifted meathook, there isn’t a compelling reason to spend a bunch of time training straddle meathook windshield wipers. At that point, move on to other drills that build more strength, more dynamic proprioception, and use your time more efficiently.
Similarly, 1-arm meathook to 1-arm nutcracker and back by lifting the opposite leg (doing a 1-arm windshield wiper) only builds isometric shoulder strength in a single position.
What might be better: there are plenty of inversion progressions that build towards 1-arm isometric, eccentric, and concentric shoulder strength while training core and lower body transitional/positional awareness and strength.
Someone working 1-arm inversion progressions is likely going to make gains in 1-arm windshield wipers without ever touching them, while someone just working 1-arm windshield wipers will find likely find their 1-arm inversions stagnating.
Example 2: Inverted Pencil Shrugs and Inverted Internal and External Rotation
Good: this exercise can be useful with the right cueing, especially for beginners who aren’t stable upside down yet. It can help people get a sense of internal and external (IR/ER) shoulder rotation with their arms by their sides. Holding it for time could be argued as a way to train grip endurance.
Bad: understanding shoulder rotation doesn’t always carry over between right-side up and upside-down and arms overhead versus arms at your sides. Someone good at internal rotation and external rotation in pencil may not have ANY idea of how to make ER happen with their arms overhead. I have seen it end up getting people over-engaging their upper traps. Doesn’t have lots of carry over to other pathways or skills. There are drills that teach shoulder rotation in a greater ROM moving between bent and straight arms for shoulder extension, flexion, and at neutral.
What might be better: full range of motion overhead bent to straight arm pressing drills using banded resistance to cue external rotation. As an added bonus, you could add weight and control your arm moving into flexion (or opening your shoulders). You could then rotate to internal rotation and extension a la back flag or skin the cat.
Example 3: Back Lever Froggy/Straddle Extends
Holding a tuck back lever (like a shallow skin the cat), and extending the legs out into a straddle or froggy straddle in little tempos.
Good: builds time under tension for isometric shoulder strength in an extended position resisting gravity.
Bad: the primary factors in a full, legs together back lever are shoulder strength (pressing out of shoulder extension) and posterior chain activation (getting the glutes to lift the legs up and trunk to hold pelvis up). It is another example of an isometric hold in the shoulders with a leg position, the froggy straddle or straddle, that doesn’t build strength in the hips in a way that translates to a full, legs together back lever (even one leg extended and one leg tucked would be better).
What might be better: consider drills that progressively (perhaps towards 1-arm) builds strength in the full ROM from a deep skin the cat or german hang all the way up to pencil and/or an exercise that builds the trunk and lower body posterior chain strength needed for holding a full back lever.
To illustrate, I have a student who made static back lever gains just from doing shoulder directed c-shaping exercises in the All Apparatus C-shaping Manual without her doing any direct back lever work.
There are some skills that need direct work to make progress on, but before assuming a skill, strength, or drill needs direct work, critically assess if there are ways to make gains on it while making gains on another skill at the same time. Most beat pathways tend to need direct work to be smooth and effortless, but successfully beating to an end position, like side planche or Back C, requires that the end position, your side planche is solid. The first time I tried split grip beat to side planche, I’d never done a split grip beat, but had enough experience in my back flag that it worked first try (and that’s not because I have amazing beats like Alex Allan…I don’t).
All of examples above are exercises that you could use if you had a REALLY compelling reason (whether it is for warm-up, a workout finisher for volume-based overload, or something else…like they’re just for fun!) for them. The goal is to illustrate that there is a hierarchy among drill utility that can frame how to choose the primary exercises used in any given training session. As you learn more about your own body, what it needs, and works for it, start to be choosier about your drills, and even make your own drill hierarchy.
If you can’t come up with a clear reason why, reassess that drill’s place in your workout and your drill hierarchy. If you’re spending 5 hours training 300 different drills that have similar movement pathways or muscle activation, consider instead looking for a drill or two that effectively and efficiently targets the desired outcome.
Check out this article on periodization and reversibility to learn more about how to program your own training in the long run, and check out this article on autoregulation to learn strategies for picking rep ranges in individual workouts. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or questions. If you’re looking for help with your own training, building your own training program, or for someone to build your own training plan, email or fill out this intake form.
Thanks to Trisha (@theflyingchemist) and Ariane (@itsarianelagulli) for reviewing!