Everyone likes to be suspended in the air. Seriously, we all do. Even if you are afraid of heights you still spend time in a hammock, right? And so when coupled with my calisthenics obsession this summer, I suppose it was all but inevitable that I’d one day be hanging inverted from aerial silk.
If you haven’t seen a production by Cirque de Soleil or count yourself among the company of dance inspired friends, here’s the gist: Aerial silk is a type of performance where an artist will perform aerial acrobatics while suspended from a special fabric. The fabric is used to wrap, spin, fall, and spiral into different positions. There is a high degree of dance and art involved, but also – (admittedly, my primary interest) strength.
The women and men who train with aerial silk have enviable strength and great movement quality. And with recent press on the subject of aerial silk training for recreation, I couldn’t help myself from digging a little deeper and answering (2) big questions:
1. Will I get a good upper body workout?
2. How can I enhance my own movement?
And so it was that I tracked down Gala Orba out of Boulder. Orba is the first of what may become a growing number of aerial silk instructors who are focusing on recreation more than performance.
A little background
For those of you that follow this blog you’ll know that my bread and butter is strength training and movement. Consequently, this is how I approach aerial silk. I think in terms of push, pull, carry, squat, and deadlift. I want to understand how an art like aerial silk may help me and others to develop a more well rounded athletic profile. And not unlike my other blogs, I hope this will inspire you to take a close look at aerial movement – whether your goals are strength based or more dance-centric.
My bias is strength training and movement. It is through this prism that I approach aerial silk.
[Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there is a whole world of aerial silk dance and technique out there – discussion far beyond the scope of this post. I’ll leave it up to you to dig deeper and pursue the performance and dance side of this training.]
Aerial silk as strength and movement training
The studio I visited was not unlike a yoga studio with hardwood flooring and a mirrored wall. However, a handful of colorful silk fabrics hung down from the ceiling in two pieces (imagine pinching a shoelace in the middle and lifting). The silk is smooth to the touch and comfortable when wrapped around the legs and arms, but what surprised me is that there is quite a bit of elasticity. For instance, if you reach up and plan to load your body weight, be prepared to lower a few inches in stretch.
Orba took me through a handful of typical exercises. My first was simple: Approach the silk, grip with either hand with arms down by my sides and support my weight. My first thought? Wow, this feels like a pair of rings!
True, the grip was a wee bit different, but pretty darn close. However, it was more comfortable. It is silk after all. And as you may imagine, most anything you can do on a pair of suspended rings, you can do with the silk. The simple change in grip will be enough to test you. Skin the cat, pike, L-sit – all good candidates.
Another exercise that I felt 2 days later was more or less an inverted core exercise. I was to grip with both hands, lift my weight, open my legs straight with toes pointed and invert myself with my head down and my hips above me. That’s only the starting position. Now, I scissored my straight legs 4 times behind the silk (challenging) and 4 times in front of the silk (diabolical!). This is not easy. The combination of your core firing for stability, your legs extended and your grip and forearms lighting up to ensure you don’t fall on your head is enough to give your CNS a run for its money.
But here I am thinking like a strength trainer. The movement is really where aerial work shines and Orba was willing to show me some impressive postures. Some of her movement had the unmistakable grace of someone who had danced for years, but even the more basic movements were excellent examples of mind-body connection. I’m convinced that this is a huge benefit of aerial silk training.
Simply put, when you are suspended in the air in unnatural positions, you mind is going to find a way to make it work – or you will fall. What really stood out for me was when I realized that I was absolutely crushing my grip on the silk; more so than I would on a more familiar tool like a pull up bar or the dip bars. Yes, I wasn’t familiar with silk and this was my first time training, but it got me thinking. Just as I would train someone on the Turkish Get Up to apply tension only when needed, I realized that the same technique applies to aerial silk. Neuroplasticity, motor control, proprioception and overall CNS development are all on the menu here.
Tension where you need it, none where you don’t. Efficiency begets movement.
Orba took me through a few more of the basic movements and a central theme began to emerge: You have to be strong enough to hold a position before you can advance and incorporate movement. In other words, these exercises are self-limiting, just like the best old school strength exercises.
But if there was one single takeaway that stood above the rest after my experience on the silk, it was that my grip was absolutely pushed to its limit. And bear in mind that this summer, I have committed to training calisthenics using the pull up bars and parallel bars that I find in parks. So I’m no stranger to a high TUT (time under tension) with my training.
But you know what it was about the silk that really rocked my ego? The simple fact that my grip was now not in line with my forearm. Think about it, with a pull up bar you’re using a pronated grip (or supinated grip for chin ups) and your grip is loading your skeletal system at a perpendicular angle. The inverse is also true – P-bars, handstands, etc.
However, what about a rope? Now you are trying to grip with a bent wrist while hanging your body below this point of contact or holding your body in place above it. Just for fun, trying holding a sledge hammer with it first horizontal to the ground and then hold it by the handle and let the mass hang down towards the ground. Feel the difference?
If my experience on the silk taught me one thing, it was that cross training in this manner could be an excellent way to assess for weak spots. Just as in gymnastics, moving throughout postures with grace while maintaining form is the ultimate expression of strength. For me, the simple change in grip was enough to get my forearms screaming. We can all use more checkpoints in our training careers. You don’t have to become a complete generalist, but cross training with unique art (dance?) forms can pay dividends in the long run.
But what’s missing
You may have noticed this already, but there’s not a lot of leg work involved. Indeed, there is tons of pulling involved. All the climbing and body manipulation is largely driven by a pull. And the chest and triceps are engaged with prolific isometric holds. Forearm recruitment? Ya, trust me, there’s plenty of forearm and grip demand. But the legs are largely absent from a strength perspective.
But that’s OK. I don’t think aerial silk sets out to be a full body workout anyway.
So, about the dudes?
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Are there a lot of guys training this way? In a word: No. Aerial silk has predominantly a feminine stigma and the pink and lavender color scheme at the studio I visited isn’t going to help get guys in the door either. Perhaps if aerial silk came in a skull and cross bones pattern? Camo maybe?
But seriously, I do see aerial silk as a productive form of cross training for those of us interested in strength training and movement fitness. If your grip strength is weak on your deadlift, I challenge you to spend a couple minutes aloft on silk – your forearm flexors will be tested in ways you may never have seen before.
Personally, I see aerial silk as a mix between rings and rope climbing. Two of the most commonly underutilized training tools in fitness today. But for guys that do climb rope, what’s the end goal? Get to the top and come back down. It’s simple and quick. But where aerial silk excels as a strength building tool is that it encourages you to spend more time aloft. Now as Orba demonstrated, there are numerous ways to support your bodyweight and rest using the silk, but I was honestly more interested in ways I could make it harder. And what it really comes down to in my opinion is a unique mix of TUT and motor control. If one were so inclined, it wouldn’t be difficult to dream up a devilish workout that would fry your forearms in less than 60 seconds and at the same time force you to control your own movement – or fall out of the sky!
Guys: Don’t discount aerial silk as purely feminine recreation. The experts have seemingly superhuman upper body strength and guys can build some impressive physiques. Not unlike what you’d expect to see from the gymnastics crowd.
Wrap up (no pun intended)
Aerial silk is beneficial as a cross-training tool, of that I’m convinced. There is a unique mixture of strength, motor control and movement. The latter of which is where it really excels. And if we as fitness geeks are to take a page from Ido Portal and begin exploring art forms like dance and performance style movement to supplement our strength training then aerial silk is a relatively approachable method.
I also learned that aerial silk is hugely popular in the Denver/Boulder area. Professionals from all over the world come to train here in Colorado. How did I miss this? Perhaps it’s overshadowed by all the triathletes and ultrarunners!
The more interesting question is where is all this heading? Is aerial silk as recreation only going to grow? Will it work its way into hybrid workouts? Vertical Fusion has teamed with Orba to offer youth classes in aerial silk. I’m anxious to see where all this leads.
As for me? I plan to try my hand at the silk again to build my grip strength, work on movement and see what I can learn from the dancers, acrobats and eclectic performers in the community.
Have you tried aerial silk? Sound off in the comments below – I want to know what your experience was like.
By Ryan Wagner
Gala Orba at Angelic Acrobatic Arts
T Nation, Climb your way to massive arms
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Correction: June 30, 2014
An earlier version of this post misstated the collaboration between Apex Movement and Gala Orba. Her upcoming youth series is in collaboration with Vertical Fusion (in the Apex Movement facility), not Apex Movement.Cross training with aerial silk by Ryan Wagner