What is Aerial Fitness?

Original article written by Alisha Smith for What’s New In Fitness Magazine – Autumn 2013 edition. Updated April 2024.

A new wave of fitness fanatics are emerging inspired by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and pop star Pink. Their latest devotee, Alisha Smith, shares her initiation into the alluring world of aerial fitness.

My first experience of aerial fitness

‘Chest up, second hand on the bar.’
I could feel the firm grip of the instructor’s hand on the back of my harness, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d be able to hold me if I fell. I waited for my cue, hands sweating and heart pounding audibly in my chest.

‘Bend your knees, ready…. HUP!’
With a nervous whinny, I clung tightly to the bar, stepped from the platform and felt the whistle of air in my ears as I swung out over the net and back towards the deck.

‘KNEES UP!’
Instructor #2 yelled from somewhere below me on the ground. One mid-swing crunch (and some twisting, wriggling and grunting later), and I’d somehow managed to end up hanging from my knees in an aptly named ‘knee hang’.

‘Ready! And… swing backwards, forwards, backwards, DROP!’
I tucked into a ball, bringing my knees to my chest as I simultaneously released the bar, and landed, bottom-first, in the net below me.

After a few more turns I was ready to release the bar mid-air, fly into the expert hands of a catcher and attempt to return to the bar (all the while imagining which colour combination I should go for with sequins I’d have sewn onto my costume once I had become a world-famous trapeze artist).

There was something so exhilarating about being able to fly that, faster than you can say ‘lycra unitard’, I’d become hooked on all things aerial!

what is aerial fitness

What is aerial fitness?

Once relegated to the realm of the big top, the exposure that aerial performance has received through shows such as Cirque du Soleil and performances by pop singer Pink has given rise to an explosion of circus schools, classes and workshops across the country.

One such school is Integral Aerial on Sydney’s northern beaches, owned and run by Kalile Lima. Once a self-proclaimed ‘lazy girl’, Lima discovered circus arts quite by accident 10 years ago in her homeland of Brazil. As a university student studying Fine Arts, Lima was spending little time on fitness and plenty of time on her social skills, when she decided that she wanted to do something active and fun. After starting with acrobatics on the floor of her local circus arts school, Lima progressed to lyra, trapeze and, her favourite of all, silks.

‘The possibility of doing things on silk is limitless. It’s more elegant than some of the other aerial forms and, even if you’re not flexible or strong, silks can make you look beautiful,’ Lima explains.

It’s all well and good for the lean and lithe Lima to claim that; the ease with which she drops into the splits and contorts her body into all manner of shapes leads me to believe that Lima emerged from the womb in a backbend. But that’s not the case.

‘When I started, I felt my core was one of the things that changed so much; specifically, the strength and the shape of my torso. My flexibility also improved a lot, too. I couldn’t do the splits at first and I didn’t have a dance background or anything that could help me, so it was more about trying and trying,’ she says earnestly.

‘Because the fabric can be used for so many things, you can start with exercises that will build strength. It’s such a complete exercise form- you need a little bit of strength everywhere. But, more than strength, the most important thing is determination.’

aerial fitness for beginners

What is aerial fitness good for?

As someone who loves to run and do weights training, I had always considered myself strong. So you can imagine my delight (and shock) to find that, for the first few months, I’d emerge from every single class drenched with sweat and shaking from fatigue. Watching the more advanced students scurry up the fabric and go from hanging outstretched to straddling overhead with complete ease made me feel as if I had so far to go but also made me more determined than ever to master moves such as the ‘2.5 crazy’, ‘scorpion’ and ‘backwards 360’.

Almost 18 months on, I’ve seen my upper body and core strength develop immeasurably (largely a result of the countless chin ups, body weight rows and V-snaps that we do to condition ourselves), I can backbend ‘til the cows come home and, perhaps best of all, I can now do the splits without feeling that my hamstrings are about to tear off the back of my leg!

Far from being a ‘girly pursuit’, the guys that practice aerial arts possess incredible strength along to wear leggings (and mercifully little else) with masculine pride.

Is aerial fitness suitable for beginners?

While people of all ages and abilities can walk away from their very first aerial arts class with a sense of accomplishment, for those keen to hone their strength before heading to their first class, Lima recommends incorporating the following:

• Chin ups/lat pulldowns
• Cable rows
• Back extensions
• Hanging leg raises
• Planks
• Push ups
• Step ups and single leg squats.

More than just a method of developing strength and flexibility, aerial arts teach self-confidence and team work, and encourages every participant to push the boundaries of their comfort zone. With schools popping up all around the country, it’s never been easier to run away and join the circus!

What different types of aerial classes can you try?

Trapeze: A bar hanging from the roof by two ropes, either swinging between a platform and a catcher above a net (flying trapeze) or hanging stationary (static trapeze) that is used for tricks, drops or slides.
Silks/Tissue: Two long pieces of fabric that hang from a point on the roof. Climbs, wraps and drops are performed either solo or with a partner.
Lyra: A metal hoop suspended above the ground. Hang, drop and create amazing shapes with your body.

Want to run away and join the circus in your state? Try these for starters:

VIC: National Institute of Circus Arts www.nica.com.au
NSW: Integral Aerial www.integralaerial.com
Sydney Trapeze School www.sydneytrapezeschool.com
ACT: Warehouse Circus Inc. www.warehousecircus.org.au
QLD: The Aerial Body www.theaerialbody.com.au

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