This article was inspired by a conversation between me (Aaron Koz) and Chelsea Laumen (@chelcraylolo) – though I have talked with many of you about periodization and organizing training. I wrote the article with the help of a few different international physios and Chelsea wrote the questionnaire with input from circus & medical professionals.

Variability, Training Buckets, Reversibility, and Skill Maintenance 

Feeling like you can’t keep up with all the skills you *need* to work on? Some weeks you succeed more at that one skill than you expected and then you regress (or feel like where did that skill go)? Not sure how to structure your training to make efficient gains?

Some conceptual and practical answers to the above questions come in the form of concepts like variability (which sometimes is looked at through the lens of periodization), training buckets, and reversibility. WHAT THE HECK DO THESE ALL MEAN??!!?

  • Variability seems like a pretty obvious concept from a circus training perspective, right? Like train different stuff and don’t beat a dead horse training one skill over and over and over.
  • Periodization is defined in different ways in contemporary sport/strength training research but generally means “ideal training structures with set time frames and progression schemes with fitness attributes being developed in sequential hierarchy” or generally put, creation of a mindful training program. Periodization models induce structured variability though research is inconclusive as to which, if any, periodization model is best. There has not yet been much research on periodization in circus. Current research around variability and periodization is primarily looking at strength training – so for us aerialists, extrapolation of the research would be geared towards aerial strength skills like inversions and other movements that require more strength (active flexibility and gross muscular output) to execute rather than creative movements or dynamic skills (those will be touched on later). Similarly, building cardiovascular and muscular endurance to run an act falls into the strength training category. Building endurance for an act still falls into strength related periodization (cardiovascular strength – our heart is a muscle!) and muscular endurance (we still want to be able to use our grip strength at the end of an act). In general, periodization programs are designed to prevent overtraining, undertraining, and plateauing (though in circus, typically we see more examples of overtraining and plateauing, than under-training).

Periodization for Skill Maintenance Versus for Strength Building

Periodization is becoming more known in aerial and circus, with certain coaches at least mentioning it within the creation of their training programs. When I’m coaching or building a program for someone, I use periodization and skill buckets (more to come later) when working with long-time students to help them meet their goals by rotating through skill and strength groups. Since aerial and acrobatic skills rely heavily on strength fundamentals, this is great because it encourages less thoughtless structuring of how to organize training programs and individual training sessions.

Sometimes when I ask someone what they training with the goal of getting a movement or skill, they just tell me they are trying the skill every day with a random rest day thrown in. This scattershot-do-everything-often-approach isn’t really the best method for efficiently and safely learning or mastering a skill.

But there is a difference in how one might periodize for strength training versus skills development and maintenance. Periodization for strength should involve regular deloads (of a lighter week of movement relative to the normal training demands) the strength exercises and strength skills one is training for, while skill related periodization (true skills, rather than strength skills) can be approached differently.  

Why do we care about variability in strength training for circus and aerial?

What we do know is that “variation is a critical aspect of effective training” and that high levels of “training monotony –… lack of variation– leads to increased evidence of overtraining syndromes, poor performance, and frequency of banal infections,” in other words you and your training will suffer if you are doing too much of the same (Kiely, 2012). However, too much variability can be a problem too – “if a performer’s adaptive energy is too thinly dispersed among training targets” then likely we will see slower or non-existent gains. Training FOMO (drill and exercise FOMO is the next article coming up!) is a thing – yes, I get it, being determined and hard working and training all the things can feel productive, but sometimes that ends up with the training in general suffering. Picking a focus as a top priority for each training session can help with that.

So how do we structure our aerial strength training in such a way to balance variability to reduce overtraining risks with our desire to make rapid gains?

Finding a balance between variability and focused training may be an answer here. What helps me, and might help you, to do this is returning back to the concept of periodization (or in this instance, really just a training structure of progressions within a set time frame – weeks, not an hour of training) in conjunction with putting the movements I am training into different strength “buckets” – a bucket being functionally defined as all strength skills that involve hip extension, or all C-shaping skills (for example, waist roll-ups on rope), or all pushing skills, like handstands (regardless of apparatus). Your buckets can be made up of whatever distinct movement groupings that make sense for you and what you train.

Up until now we’ve been looking at this through the lens of strength training, but much of aerial and circus includes skills that require fundamental strength AND varying degrees of neuromuscular control and coordination. Here are some useful types of buckets below that one could use to categorize aerial strength skills:

  1.     Pushing (bucket A) versus pulling (bucket B) skills (planks, handstands, the arm supporting your body in a back balance versus hanging leg raises, inversions, pull-ups, et cetera.)
  2.     Anterior chain (bucket A) – so skills that primarily use the muscles in the front of your body versus posterior chain (bucket B) – your back, glutes, et cetera.
  3.     C-shaping skills (bucket A) versus movements that are unidirectional/uniplanar (bucket B) – waist roll-ups versus wheel downs.
  4.     Static strength skills – static switches from meathook to flag and press to scorpion versus dynamic skills – flare to flag or beat to scorpion).

Regardless of exactly which buckets you use, within each bucket of related skills, it helps to then mentally organize skills in order of those with highest reversibility (see below) to lowest reversibility for you (or similarly, difficulty if you are still in the process of learning or acquiring the skill).

Reversibility is the idea that skills which require more constant rehearsal and practice have a higher reversibility. Think of those frustrating skills which degrade or quickly become hard again (high reversibility) versus skills that once you acquire them, you can practice them once a month (or at some low frequency) and they still work (low reversibility).

Skills (and whole skill buckets) may shift in levels of reversibility during your time as an athlete/aerialist, but keeping track of skill and bucket reversibility is worthwhile. For example, complex dynamic skills (so that skill bucket) and within that bucket, top switches (also known as tic/tocs)have generally been high reversibility and difficult for me. I can then use that knowledge to prioritize what skills I put into my training program with a higher frequency. I train top switches often, while very rarely do I train roll-ups or flares to flag.

If you aren’t sure about the reversibility of a skill, usually a good subjective metric is if you can do the skill 3-10 times in a row without fail (depending on if it is a strength skill or coordination skill), the skill likely has low reversibility. If it starts to feel hard or imprecise in the 1-3 rep range, practicing that skill more regularly would be worthwhile. 

Keep in mind that strength gains are non-linear and that lower variability training with the goal to acquire a skill quickly can lead to overtraining – so while it is frustrating when a skill or strength that was improving or working well doesn’t work, it also provides information (though in some cases too late) on when to definitely add variability and rest in. What can be helpful is making note of how frequently you’ve trained X skill versus resting versus factors that might reduce strength or induce central nervous system fatigue.

With that in mind, intentionally building in some variability in advance, potentially by planning practice/training sessions with those lower reversibility skills or skills in another bucket is useful in allowing you to focus on certain skills or buckets for a period of time (let’s say 4-6 weeks). This process allows you to balance skill maintenance with training variability and skill acquisition.

So laid out fully you can start by:

  1.     Making buckets of skills that you care about learning and/or maintaining.
  2.     Order them in terms of difficulty of them for use in learning, or level of reversibility in maintaining.
  3.     Pick those with high difficulty and reversibility in different buckets to work in a structured fashion for a set period of time (different buckets each day you train – let’s say you train MWF – for example, you could practice high difficulty/reversibility pushing skills on Monday, hanging skills on Wednesday, and C-shaping skills on Friday). Within those training sessions, put the skills you want/are hardest closer to the beginning of your training session. This will be dependent on what your training schedule is like.
  4.     Add in a regularly scheduled day for rehearsal of lower reversibility skills – it may take some time to figure out how frequently some skills need to be rehearsed before they start feeling sloppy, harder, or you lose them again temporarily. No one has time to rehearse every skill all the time (social lives, naps and baths, and planning your retirement are important too!).
  5.  Take a REAL rest week at least every 4-6 weeks if you can – no matter what your inner voices say, if you’re training hard (rather than training chronically) and working efficiently, your body will probably need it. 
  6. If your training is unfocused, inefficient, and too highly variable, you probably won’t be making gains or pushing your body hard enough for a rest week to feel necessary (though you may still be fatigued).CLICK THE LINK BELOW TO TAKE THE ASSESSMENT! Stay tuned for PART 2 – How to Periodize for a Performance/Showcase/Gig

Kiely, J. (2012, September). Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22356774.