Exercises every circus artist/athlete should do: single leg hip bridge

MikeD Circus, Strength & Conditioning Leave a Comment

So, I spend most of my day looking at other people’s butts.

Wait.

That needs more context so it doesn’t sound incredibly weird:

Since my job is to help people to move better and get (really freaking) strong, it’s important for the right muscles to be working when they need to. And the fact of the matter is that your glutes need to be able to either do the work or help with stabilizing your body in a large majority of exercises and movements.

The same is true in most circus disciplines.

So let’s talk about your butt.

Specifically, I want to talk about your glutes.

Sleeping on the job

It’s become all too common for glutes to be underactive.

Underactive?

Yes. There can be any number of reasons why—and the most common is probably too much sitting combined with not enough work designed specifically to counteract the effects of sitting—but the end result is that your brain decides your glutes aren’t needed, so they end up downregulated (or, for a less nerdy explanation: the signal from the brain requiring them to work gets turned down…kind of like a dimmer switch).

This usually means your hamstrings step in and try to cover for your sleepy glutes. And this usually works out ok…sort of…until it doesn’t.

You see, the hamstrings just aren’t well-suited for doing the same kind of work that the glutes. They are anchored in different places, which means their line of pull is different, so the amount of force required for certain movements just isn’t the same. It also means the movements they can create (or the kinds of movements they can resist) are different. It’s just not an ideal situation.

And so, your hamstrings can compensate. And they can become really, really good at compensating. And they can also go through some extra strain—at times, too much extra strain—and that kind of causes gradual breakdown of the tissue, a la tendinopathy.

Of course, sometimes the breakdown happens quickly, a la hamstring strain or tears.

And we haven’t even mentioned low-back pain…

We should also take a look above the glutes at the low back.

Just the other day, I was working with someone who had come to me for post-rehab support after working with a physical therapist. He had some low back pain and was looking to bridge the gap between rehab and getting back to his regular workout routine.

We were setting up in the half-kneeling position and I was cuing him to squeeze his glute on the down leg.

half-kneeling

Squeeze it!

Nothing.

Squeeze your butt cheek!

Nothing.

(Gentle tap of glute with yoga block) Here. Squeeze that muscle.

Nothing.

We even did the grab your own glute trick.

Nothing.

And suddenly, his low back pain made even more sense.

The 'Grab Your Own Glute' Trick
Not entirely sure whether you’re contracting your glutes? Get into position (like in the photo) and put your hand on your butt. Kind of like you’re cupping your own butt cheek. Squeeze your glute. You should feel a very noticeable change in shape. If you don’t, you need to keep reading… (If you do, the following will still be useful for you).

Glutes! Huh! Good God, y’all, what are they good for?

Quite a lot, actually.

Take a single (or even double)-leg knee hang, for example. Your glutes are responsible for keeping your hip extended (straight) while you hang from your knee(s).

Glutes (plus many other muscles, but still: glutes).
Copyright: seenad / 123RF Stock Photo

That bend in your hip while you hang? Even if it’s tiny, it’s probably still causing your pelvis to tilt more than is ideal which results in shear forces between the individual vertebrae of your lumbar spine…which is one of the recipes (there are several) for low back pain.

Your glutes are required for any position that requires you to maintain a straight leg/body position or an extended hip position.

And how about just about every climb on fabric that involves your legs? We can extend this to any stepping-up motion on fabric, trapeze, rope or lyra.

Oh, and any sort of split on any apparatus.

And for my flying trapeze friends: every sweep, every break and every split and planche.

So before you train, get your glutes all fired up!

Here’s the point of all of this.

The following is a great little exercise that you should include in your warm-up. Before you train for circus. Before you lift heavy things for circus.

If your glutes are a little sleepy, this will help wake them up a bit.

(And if your strength training plan includes this in the warm-up, combined with a good balance of hip-dominant works, you’ll get your glutes good and woke).

And even if your glutes aren’t sleepy (which is great, by the way!), this will ‘prime the pump’, so to speak, by getting the brain-to-muscle pathway all ready to go before your real work begins (in class, in your workout).

The Single-leg Hip Bridge

  • Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  • Pull one knee into your chest. (This is important because it prevents you from cheating by arching through your lower back. This is meant to be pure hip extension).
  • Lift the toes of the other foot off the floor.
  • As you exhale, drive through the heel into the floor to raise your hips and back off the floor…all as one piece.
  • (Here, the exhale should be forceful, triggering a core contraction that makes your spine one stiff column)
  • Hold at the top, exhaling fully. When you run out of air in your lungs, lower your hips and inhale.
  • Do 2-3 set of 8 repetitions on each leg.

Troubleshooting

Yowza! Hamstring spasm!

That’s your hamstring trying to do all of the work. What I would suggest trying is one round of 90-90 Belly Breathing to help things calm down. Then try again. It might take some time for your glutes to ‘wake up’ and do their job. Be patient with it.

I can’t get my hip very high.

There is some room here for overlapping concerns: sleepy glutes plus overactive hip flexors. This is where the true hip flexor stretch can be your friend. And, again, it can take some time for your glutes to figure this one out.

That’s all for now. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

If you find yourself in physical therapy, please consider finding a strength coach or personal trainer who does post-rehab work. Maybe your PT can recommend someone. It is one of the greatest things that can happen when the PT and strength coach can coordinate and discuss your training program. You really do get to come back to circus in much better shape than before