All About That Lat, ‘Bout That Lat

As aerialists, or just movement artists in general, it is important to take care of our body in order to insure longevity and safe practices. It is common in many other intense sports to burn out well before the age of 30. But in aerial, it is more common to start after 30! This is very unique in the world of movement and I strongly believe it is due to our focus on self preservation and longevity. Therefore, we should make sure to always include some sort of conditioning, flexibility, or cross training for the main joints and muscles that are used in aerial dance. A muscle that is of particular importance for aerialists is the latissimus dorsi, or commonly known as the lats. Dr. Jennifer Crane from Cirque Physio helps us to understand how to care for our lats in this blog post.

What are the Lats?

The lats are a huge muscle that affect many different regions of our bodies. Here are all of the different parts of the back and hips that the lats attach to:

  • Back of all the vertebrae- from mid back to our sacrum (T7-L5, and sacrum)
  • Lower part of shoulder blade (inferior angle of scapula)
  • Lower three or four ribs

From these attachment points, they course under your armpit and attach on the top part of your upper arm (intertubercular groove of the humerus). Yep…that’s a big muscle. Because our lats attach to so many different structures, they also influence way more than just the shoulder.

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How Can we Measure the Flexibility of Our Lats?

An easy way to measure lat flexibility starts with: sitting with your back to the wall, scoot feet forward and flatten your entire back completely against the wall. Engage abs to keep ribs in. From here, raise one arm in front of you slowly as far as you can, with your palm facing up and your elbow straight. Use your other hand to monitor the point at which your back comes off the wall or the point at which your palm starts to turn inwards instead of staying u. Take a photo of this point. This is your functional lat muscle length.

While not all cases are the same, I recommend at least an angle of 180 degrees of active range of motion.  However, the best way to determine your specific needs and goals is to obviously see a sports medicine provider- there isn’t a one size fits all answer!

How Do We Improve Muscle Flexibility in General?

There are three main categories of flexibility, being: passive flexibility, active flexibility, and end-range control. The best way to go about increasing flexibility is by following this warm up/training regimine:

  • 10 minutes of cardio.
  • Soft tissue prep: spend some time using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or peanut to address the muscle group that is about to be stretched.
  • Passive stretch. Whenever I do passive stretching, I always integrate a contract-relax component to the stretch.
  • Active flexibility. I like to take the muscle through a full range of motion into end range of motion, usually with resistance via a weight or a theraband.
  • End range control. With end range control exercises, I will typically start by only focusing on activating the antagonist muscles in the last 10-20 degrees of active range of motion of that joint.

What about Flexibility Exercises Pertaining to Lats?

  • Peanut Mobilization: Lats

Start lying halfway between on your side and on your back, with the peanut placed as shown below. First, move from internal to external rotation with your shoulder just below 90 degrees. Then, move from bent arm to straight arm overhead. This often takes some peanut-adjustment to find the appropriate spot, so if you’re not feeling the “hurts so good” muscle release, move the peanut back a little or down a little. I suggest 10 repetitions per position, per arm, for the best effect.

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  • External Rotation-Biased Lat Stretch

Start in child’s pose with elbows shoulder width apart on the bench, and yoga block in hands. Let chest sink, hold 10-15 seconds. PNF contract-relax: gently push your elbows down into the bench while squeezing the ball/block. Hold for 8-10 seconds, then relax and stretch slightly further. Focus on keeping your ribs in during this whole stretch. If you let your ribs splay out, you’re allowing spinal extension, which is one of the most common compensations during lat stretching, and significantly decreases the effectiveness of this exercise. If you feel a pinching sensation in the front of your shoulders, back off the stretch and widen your elbows. If it persists, stop.

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  • Modified Dead Bug for Active Shoulder Flexibility

Start with a theraband or tubing around stall bars (or similar). Hold the ends of the theraband with your thumbs pointing up. First, engage your abs and focus on keeping your ribs in for the whole exercise. Bring your arms overhead, while you simultaneously lower one leg. Bring your arms only as far overhead as you can while keeping your lower back flat on the floor. Return to the start position and switch legs. You absolutely must breathe during this exercise. If you hold your breath, you substitute by using your diaphragm instead of your abs for the core strength component. Keep your ribs in and your lower back flat on the mat the whole time. The second you start to arch your back, it is no longer an active lat stretch.

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  • Child’s Pose Shoulder Elevation for End-Range Control

Start in child’s pose with your thumbs up. With one arm, first engage shoulder elevators by shrugging your shoulder up slightly. From here, lift your arm up as far off the floor as you can. It may not be very far, but that’s okay! Focus on engaging the muscles around your shoulder blade to start to maintain end range position. Hold this end range position for 5-10 seconds, then switch. This should also be done 2-3 times to fatigue.

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A big thanks to Jenn Crane for providing all of the material for this blog post! Dr. Jennifer Crane is a physical therapist, athletic trainer, board certified orthopedic specialist, and published author. She has been a sports medicine professional for eleven years, and has worked with a wide variety of athletes and performing artists throughout that time. In 2015, she worked as a physiotherapist living in China with the Chinese Olympic Teams in preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Now, in addition to maintaining her practice in California, she works on a contractual basis with Cirque Du Soleil, as a physiotherapist in their performance medicine department. You can visit her website here – cirquephysio.com. I would highly recommend checking out her MyFLEX program if you’re looking to improve your flexibility!

 

Nerve Flossing to Improve the Pike

It is an all too common occurrence. A new – or seasoned – aerialist finds themselves stuck in their flexibility journey. It seems that no matter how often and hard they stretch, no matter how many different approaches they take, their flexibility simply will not improve. Maybe it’s just the way our bones are shaped? Or maybe even our muscles are just too large? The list of possibilities goes on and on… But something that maybe you haven’t heard of yet is that your nerves might be highly involved. What does this have to do flexibility and how can we fix it? In this post, Jenn Crane of Cirque Physio discusses how to improve your nerve flexibility specifically in the hamstrings. Hamstring mobility directly impacts many of the popular flexi-positions we find ourselves in during aerial dance, such as splits and the pike.

 

  • Anatomy of the Posterior Thigh (The Back of Your Leg)

 

There is a lot going on in your posterior thigh. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to discuss the anatomy of the two main structures that most frequently limit flexibility in your pike stretch: hamstrings and your sciatic nerve.

Hamstrings

There are three hamstring muscles (per leg) and they all originate on the bottom of your pelvis (half of one originates on the back of your thigh bone, if we’re being picky). They course down the back of your thigh, and insert on the bones of your lower leg- the top of your tibia and fibula, just below the back of your knee.

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What Makes Hamstrings Stretch?

To fully stretch any muscle, you have to move the insertion away from the origin. For hamstrings specifically, this often looks like the standard forward fold/pike stretch. However, frequently in this stretch, we let our pelvis rotate downward (“tail tucked” position), which technically means you’re not fully stretching the hamstrings, because the origin is creeping towards the insertion.  To get a true hamstring stretch, the knee must be extended straight, and the pelvis must not be posteriorly tilted.

Sciatic Nerve

The next potentially pike-limiting structure of the posterior thigh is the sciatic nerve and its branches. This is the largest nerve in your body, and is about the diameter of your pinky finger. The sciatic nerve is formed from several segments of nerves exiting your spinal cord in your lower back, then it courses down behind the gluteal muscles, in between your hamstrings, and all the way under your calves and into the bottom of your feet (it branches into other nerves at several points along this course, but they’re all connected).
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What Stretches the Sciatic Nerve?

Because this nerve runs from your low back to the bottom of your feet, to completely stretch this nerve, we can also be in a pike stretch- but there are several key differences with this vs the aforementioned hamstring stretch! Here’s what puts the sciatic nerve on max tension: Sitting in a pike, slouching forward (spinal flexion/tail tucked), and feet flexed.  ​​

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  • Nerve Flossing

 

​Okay, so…how do you un-stick the nerve? Nerves tend to respond very well to a “gliding/flossing” action as opposed to a long hold “tensioning” action.  This means that you increase tension at one end of the nerve, and put the other end of the nerve on slack- then reverse this motion. Nerves respond better to slow rhythmic movement, and as such, you want to repeat this “gliding” pattern for multiple repetitions in one set.

This video discusses proper nerve gliding technique.

 

  • Nerve Mobility Exercises

 

For the purpose of your pike, I like to use the following sequence of events in this order:

Tissue Prep

​Sit on a hard surface (chair, panel mat, weightlifting bench) with a lacrosse ball or peanut right below where your glutes meet your hamstring, and knee bent. Start by straightening and bending your leg, and apply light pressure to the top of your thigh if you want to ramp up the intensity. Do this at three different points along your hamstring. You can also do this along your calf with your legs stretched in front of you.

Video demonstration: https://youtu.be/mgvr_NLUtvU

Nerve Flossing/Gliding

There are a lot of ways to do these, but the variation that seems to be the one that works quite well for most performing artists starts with lying on your back. First, grab behind the back of your knee and pull towards your opposite shoulder. Keep your toes pointed and straighten your leg as much as you can before you feel a slight tug – you could feel it in a few different places- hamstring, behind the knee, calf, or foot. Once you start to feel the tug, back off the stretch- bend your knee and flex your foot until you’re back in the starting position. Repeat this 10-15 times per side. ​**It is not beneficial to push into a big stretch or go to the point of pain, improving nerve mobility is not a “no pain no gain” type thing. Do not worry if your leg doesn’t straighten completely.

Video Demonstration: https://youtu.be/1zD1pTNbrhg

Active Flexibility: Bend and Snap

This is a great exercise for active hamstring flexibility. Start standing on one leg, with the other foot propped beside the standing ankle (for balance). During this whole exercise, you must keep your back straight and standing leg knee not locked out- with a very slight bend. Slowly reach forward, back straight, as far as you can go before your back bends or your hamstrings tell you to stop. Think about “booty out” the whole time. This keeps your pelvis anteriorly tilted, and ensures maximal hamstring stretch. If this is too easy, try the same thing but balancing on one leg instead of using the other leg for support. Keep your non-weight bearing foot glued to opposite ankle, don’t let it drift back.

VIdeo Demonstration: https://youtu.be/ByfhMjI0PJo

 

A big thanks to Jenn Crane for providing all of the material for this blog post! Dr. Jennifer Crane is a physical therapist, athletic trainer, board certified orthopedic specialist, and published author. She has been a sports medicine professional for eleven years, and has worked with a wide variety of athletes and performing artists throughout that time. In 2015, she worked as a physiotherapist living in China with the Chinese Olympic Teams in preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Now, in addition to maintaining her practice in California, she works on a contractual basis with Cirque Du Soleil, as a physiotherapist in their performance medicine department. You can visit her website here – cirquephysio.com. I would highly recommend checking out her MyFLEX program if you’re looking to improve your flexibility!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aerial Taxonomy Explained

Here it is — the blog you’ve been waiting for. The one where I reveal all my secrets. Before I do, a little backstory to give motivation:

When I used to tutor math, I would start by giving a speech at the beginning of my tutoring session, “I am so good that I am bad for my own business. My job is to work myself out of a job by giving you all the tools you need to do this on your own. You don’t need me and I’m going to show you. You can do this on your own and if I am successful, I will be out of a job here and on my way. That’s the goal.”

Teaching is about letting the student become the master. In my case, I feel that if I can just get students to *think* a certain way about aerial, then the whole world will open where they will no longer desire classes to teach just skills. They will hunger after classes as a means of communal research, training, fun and exploration, and not at all about teaching trick, trick, trick, trick. Aerial is about something much more fun and exciting — it’s about creating and exploring! And this is why I teach using the methods of aerial taxonomy. The “tricks* I teach are the classics, the basics, the standards. The fun part is the layering, the discovering of the millions of ways to manipulate and weave in between the classics. It’s not fun to go steal how someone on Instagram weaved and twisted and turned. It may be inspiring to see that things can be done a different way, but it could also be done YOUR way if you took the time to research. There are enough variations for us ALL to have our own unique pathways, threads and weaves in and around our apparatuses. Stop being someone else. That’s what this is about. Let’s start teaching the TOOLS to create and each be pioneers of the art form.

The following is from a workshop I give called “Aerial Taxonomy 101,” but I’ve recently started incorporating the language into everything I do. You will start to see classifications of this sort in each of my upcoming books, starting with the Aerial Sling Manual Volume 2, which will be out by the end of 2019. These are all important terms to know and understand in the science of classifying aerial skills.

Aerial Taxonomy Terms

SKILLS

If we are drawing the analogy to the animal kingdom, then skills are your animals. Our job in aerial taxonomy is to classify and put each skill into categories, drawing out the underlying similarities between apparatuses, etc.

Each skill can be defined by four elements: (1) the underlying base position(s) you are in, (2) what actions got you into your skill, (3) what shape you are in and (4) what apparatus you are on.

For example, the following skill can be classified as:

leg rollup 10

 

apparatus: fabric

base position: footlock

action: roll-up

shape: bowsprit lean

BASE POSITIONS

Base positions are the skills which grow other skills. The branches from which the leaves emerge.

Base positions can vary from studio to studio, but the overlapping Venn diagram would include skills that everyone can agree are “must-knows” on each apparatus. For example, a footlock on silks is a classic base position, as is catcher’s (aka open thigh wrap), s-wrap, hip key, etc. These are skills that everyone can agree on that every aerial fabric student should know. Each are independent of one another and help build the rest of the vocabulary.

Skills such as crossback straddle would not necessarily be considered a base position for the sake of aerial taxonomy, but rather a combination of base positions. Crossback straddle is a combination of the base position of crossback and footlocks.

ROOT POSITIONS

These are a subset of base positions. I won’t go into this in detail here, but root positions are helpful when you are trying to boil down all base positions into as few elements as possible. Root positions can be thought of as the tree trunk which grows the base positions, which are the branches; which grow the leaves, which are the skills. More on this in my workshop.

SHAPES

Shapes help describe the orientation of the body while in a particular skill. For example, I could be inverted under a hoop (a base position) and make a wide variety of shapes. I could be in a meathook, a straddle, a pike, a ball, the splits, etc. None of these really affect my location in terms of my contact with the apparatus, but they can affect my tilt, orientation, and general look of the skill.

Some examples of some well-recognized shapes:

Amazon
Angel
Arabesque
Arch Back (Global Extension)
Arm Straddle (aka Nutcracker)
Armbreaker
Arrow
Back Balance
Back Planche
Back Planche Split
Bird’s Nest
Butterfly
Candlestick
Chair
Crucifix
Cuddle (sleeper)
Cupid (Press-Out)
Flag
Frog
Front Balance
Gazelle
L-sit
Lay Out
Leanna
Lotus
Lion
Man in the Moon (Profile Sit)
Martini
Meathook
Mermaid
Neck Hang
Pancake
Pike
Planche
Plank (Straight-body of various directions)
Popsicle
Scissor Legs
Scorpion
Shoehorn
Splits
Spear
Stag
Star
Straddle
Toe Star
Tuck (aka ball)
Vareki (aka arched arrow)

ACTION CLASSES

Actions are the transitions of aerial. They tell us how we got from the trunk to the branch to the leaf. Did we walk, run, skip or crawl? I have placed these in “classes” in order to study them more in-depth as categories.

For example, my favorite action class is knee hooks. On any vertical apparatus, you typically have six classic knee hook options: (1) same-side regular, (2) opposite-side regular, (3) inside reverse knee hook, (4) outside reverse knee hook, (5) inside 2-knee hook, and (6) outside 2-knee hook.

It is a very interesting study to take this list and apply it on top of each base apparatus in term. For example, try each of these 6 knee hooks atop a hip key. What do you get? (In one of my workshops, we go through all these examples, and find some fun connections!)

Some other examples of actions of aerial:

push-out
invert
arch
lean out
tilt
pike (crease/fold)
tuck
sink (trash can)
heel hook
flex foot (ankle) hook
knee hook (reverse, inside, outside, 1 or 2 knee)
leg thread
knee thread
arm thread
(note: arm and knee threading are all a part of the threading class)
spin
hula
balance
key over
flamenco grip (part of the grip-options class)
angel roll
hip block
shoulder block
roll (roll up, down, sideways, etc)
turn
stuff-it (soft bar only)
climb
slide
wedge (press-support)
beat
grab overhand
grab underhand
crochet
sickle block (golf club foot press)
skin the cat
toe grab

APPARATUS

This category is pretty straight-forward. However, I do want to note that often times, I will use terms like “We are in silks-land now” even though we are working on a sling. For example, if you climb up high enough and put on footlocks above you, you are really in “sling-land” anymore. That’s a fabric skill that is being placed on sling. So, sometimes the apparatus where the base position is rooted is different than the apparatus where the skill is being applied.

Let it be understood, that even though I don’t study footlocks as a base position in sling, I am never opposed to using them there. That is part of the fun, the exploration and the creativity. It’s one thing to classify the classics. It’s another to start breaking all the rules. :)

In Summary…

My aerial taxonomy goes more in-depth than this introduction here, but I hope that this gives you a good overview for understanding my categories of study. Like I mentioned above, you can expect to see these classifications come more to the fore-front of coming manuals as I work to create a universal language and curriculum for the aerial arts. I hope to maintain great consistency across all the aerial apparatuses, and provide the study of each apparatus that highlights the unique properties of each, allowing you to cross-train and break all the rules as you may.