23 November 2016

Circus Arts, Life Skills, and Crushing Your Game!

A few days ago I wrote a note, that both what we do and don't do, matters. Today, I want to elaborate on that and get into the nitty gritty. Yes, you should roll up your sleeves, because were about to go deep. A friend of mine presented the question and concept of transferability, which will serve as the platform we're about to dive off. He wrote:

"I've been moving into circus arts over the last year and kind of backed off other disciplines. I'm curious on your take on cross training for transferability from functional to artistic movements?"

Before we go any further, I want to address "Circus Arts." Now, I am not going to pretend to be well-versed in something I have never explored myself, but I have seen a Cirque Du Soleil show so I feel confident that I have the authority to speak on such matters. Circus Arts refers to the physical practice of skill sets revolving around hand balance and balance board, acrobatics, feats of strength, body contortion, aerial expression on circus rings, ropes, silks, or trapeze, juggling, and tight-wire performed in an aesthetic presentation for entertainment/artistic purposes. Although, not necessarily truly categorized as such, I would add acro-yoga, free-running, and aesthetic gymnastics to this group of skill sets.

Essentially, what my friend is asking is how does General Training (training without a specific objective), either benefit or detract from his ability to perform during his Specific (Circus Arts) objectives? Great question! Because if we don't know why were doing something, we have no purpose and operating without purpose can be limiting and wasteful. 

Everything I coach, teach, or instruct always starts with a principle. Principles provide the foundation for Why, we do or choose to do what we do. Enter the Principle of Providing a General and Versatile Foundation for Future Specialization. Say that five times fast! Hold on, while I catch my breath. What are we talking about here? Before we begin specializing (narrowing down our focus to address a specific set of skills or abilities), it is imperative to develop a variety of general skills and abilities. Imagine trying to perform a handstand on a pair of gymnastic rings before expelling yourself through the air in a series of svelte tucks and then landing on two feet. This example highlights gymnastic ring training as the specific objective, but underneath it all, the glue that makes it all possible are the general abilities of upper body strength, balance, coordination, shoulder stability and mobility, core strength, spatial awareness, accuracy, precision, muscular endurance, proprioception, and motor control. Removing proficiency in any one of these general skills negates ability in executing the specific skill. 

In essence, developing general abilities establishes the base of our pyramid. The wider the base, the higher we can build the pyramid. If we limit ourselves to a narrow base (training finite skills and focusing on specifics too soon), we will not be able to achieve greater heights. So what are these general skills and abilities? I don't own a "debate hat" so I won't try and sell you the rigmarole you'll find plastered across the incorruptible and reputable Internet. But, I will give you the benefit of how I approach things and program training for others. These are my "Three Keys" to building a solid base (blue section of the above pyramid):

1. Mobility/Stability
Mobility is a "golden" word right now. People eat it up like cake and bacon, and other yummy things. Everyone is foam rolling, sticking lacrosse balls deep into their iliopsoas, pulling traction on joints with rubber bands, standing on golf balls, and doing other painful things to "supple-up." Nevertheless, when I say mobility I am referring to our body's ability to mobilize or move freely. Mobility is the ability of a joint to move through a given range of motion without becoming susceptible to injury. We should all be able to move freely and articulate our joints into healthy positions that allow for us to express function, form, and enjoyment. If we can't do this or have identified a deficiency, moving past this and on to other forms of training can be detrimental, inhibiting, injury-inducing, and time-wasting. Stability refers to having strength throughout those ranges of motion, that protects the joint while expressing or resisting movement at different angles of articulation. Just because you can move your arms into an overhead position doesn't mean you have the stability to support yourself inverted on your hands. 

2. Strength
There are many types of strength, especially if you ask Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell, but for our purposes we are simplifying our understanding down to: The expression of force against resistance. Resistance being anything from gravity or bodyweight, to weighted barbells or tractor tires. Our ability to apply force against these factors equates to our level of strength. Strength is mandatory in life. Every time we move we are applying strength, because we are resisting the forces of gravity. The more strength we possess the more able we are to accomplish greater degrees of work and activity, and overcome challenges. Please, note that training strength without the appropriate foundation of mobility/stability is asking for complications and setbacks (you've been warned, trust me I've been there).   

3. Endurance
Most people hear endurance and think running, Ironman, or skinny weak athletes that can last forever; wait, maybe that's just what I think. In the context of this article however, endurance is used to describe our body's ability to resist fatigue. I don't know about you, but that sounds desirable, especially when your newborn baby thinks that when the sun goes down its time to party and by party I mean cry, a lot. So we are not only talking about going long, being faster farther, or sustaining sub-maximal effort, we are including both intensity and duration. How efficient are your aerobic (oxygen requiring) and anaerobic (non-oxygen requiring) systems at producing energy throughout the performance of all activity. Remember our opening example of performing a handstand on the rings, this too is a demonstration of endurance. Your muscle fibers are fighting to resist fatigue as energy is expended sustaining an inverted and balancing position. 

Harnessing appropriate levels of mobility for each joint in the body and building the necessary levels of stability in those ranges of motion allows us to move well and safely. Developing strength, so that we can apply force while expressing or resisting movement provides us with ability to complete tasks, enjoy activities, interact with others and our environment, and tackle obstacles of various natures. Lastly, establishing greater levels of endurance ensures we can continue to operate and function in both occupational and recreational capacities while negotiating the demands of life. Proficiency in these three combined attributes establishes the base of our pyramid. The greater the degree of development in each, the wider the base we create. 

After our base is built up, we can begin to refine each of these attributes to achieve specific and focused objectives or goals. Mobility/stability can be increased to allow for advanced postures or body positions. Strength training can be tailored to develop power, speed, maximal force, or muscular endurance with specific purposes of competitive athletics, recreational endeavors, martial arts, aesthetics, career necessity, or personal desires. And endurance efforts can be oriented toward single modalities like running, biking, swimming, or diverse skill sets like fighting an opponent, conquering an obstacle course, or climbing a rock face. 

To build our pyramid up to the next level we need to train for specificity (white section of the above pyramid). Enter the S.A.I.D. Principle, Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. What did you just call me? In plain English, the body responds and adapts to the demands (training stimulus) we subject it to, therefore we need to expose the body to the appropriate stimulus in order to achieve the desired effect. If you want to increase your vertical jump, it doesn't make sense to start running long distances. Instead you need to expose yourself to stressors that induce an adaptation of explosive power in the hips. This introduces another important principle, the Principle of Specialization. To fully realize your potential in a given activity, sport, or endeavor you must fully concentrate on that single discipline. If we look at the diagram of the pyramid we can easily recognize that although the base is wide, covering a diversity of general ability, the base is shallow and in order to climb higher the range of ability begins to narrow. 

This is where my friend's question comes into context. His goals revolve around performance in the circus arts. To become proficient in tight-wire walks, ring routines, acrobatics and the like, those objectives must be specifically focused on to the exclusivity of eliminating other activities that hinder or detract from their advancement. Hence his departure from other disciplines. However, we also have learned that without a solid base of general ability he will not be able to excel in those specific skills. So the question becomes am I deficient in any of my general abilities, mobility/stability, strength, or endurance? If so, targeting that weakness and bringing it up to standard will afford greater ability in reaching specific goals. So there is value in cross training and ensuring a variety of general ability. Yet, it is equally important to focus on your chosen discipline. The key, as with most things in life, is establishing balance.

What about the rest of us who don't have dreams of eighty-foot leg-less rope climbs in an L-sit, or aspirations of twirling another human being on our feet while we lie back pressed into the ground? My recommendation is to continue to develop as wide of a base as possible. Learn as many different skills as you can. Develop proficiency in the functional human motor patterns of squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, throwing, climbing, jumping, crawling, and moving. I am an avid promoter of gymnastics training to develop quality movement shapes, healthy connective tissue, and stability to support your frame in these positions. I advocate strength training with heavy resistance and odd objects to prepare yourself for the challenges of life. Picking up something heavy off the ground, carrying heavy awkward odds and ends, pulling yourself up on top of something, sprinting from danger, jumping to safety, rolling around playing with your kids, these are each life skills. Why, because they are the skills that allow us to overcome physical adversity in life. 

Assess Yourself
General Mobility/Stability
Can you press a broom stick overhead without hyper-extending your spine or craning your neck?
Can you squat with that stick overhead without pitching forward, hyperextending your spine, or driving your knees inward? 
Can perform a back bridge fully opening the shoulders and accessing healthy range of motion in the thoracic spine?
Can you perform a pistol squat on each leg? 
Can you extend your arms behind you past ninety degrees with ease? 
If you answered no to any of these, I highly recommend taking a serious look at your movement quality. Consult a professional coach for drills and training to address/correct your deficiencies. 

General Strength
Can you perform a strict pull-up?
Can you perform strict push-ups and dips?
Can you lift twice your bodyweight up off the ground without compromising proper body mechanics?
Can you support yourself in a handstand?
Can you carry your own bodyweight for at least 400m?
If you can't complete all of these, no crime has been committed. However, addressing the areas where you are lacking will grossly increase your ability to tackle life head on.

General Endurance
Can you run a mile without stopping? 
Can you go for an all day adventure and keep up with everyone around you?
Are you capable of sprinting to safety if chased for 100 yards?
Conditioning is not an end goal, it is a continuous practice. No matter how efficient you currently are never stop growing or pushing to progress forward.  

Please, feel free to leave your comments below. Present your perspective for myself and the benefit of others. If you are wondering, my deficiencies are found in the first group, and so I am diligently working to correct my mobility. There's no shame in addressing your weakness, only fault in ignoring it. 

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