Know Before Your Go: Your Aerial Class Cheat Sheet

Live your childhood dream of becoming a circus performer—and get a serious total-body workout—performing aerial acrobatics.

Peeking in on an advanced aerial class may look like you’ve walked into a hybrid between the circus and a Las Vegas nightclub. The moves are impressive: it is a type of performance sport in which people perform acrobatics while hanging from a hoop (referred to as lyra) or on fabrics (referred to as silks) hanging from the ceiling.

It may look foreign, and honestly a little frightening, but mixing up your workout routine and keeping your muscles guessing is a great way to ensure that you continue to see results (which we’re all looking for as we count down to summer). So now may be a better time than ever to step up to the hoop and give it a try.

Here’s what you need to know before heading to a class.

Don’t Skip the Intro Class

Like any exercise that is new to you, start with the basics. Yes, even if you’re a dancer or gymnast or had a stint in the circus.

“The best place to start is in an intro class; There you will get a formal introduction to the apparatus, commonly used terms and positions, and the necessary basic skills to allow you to successfully progress to the next level,” said Summer Lacy, aerial instructor at Body & Pole in New York City. “Even if you have done other fitness activities, gymnastics or dance, you still want to take the intro class and make sure you’ve mastered the basics. Depending on strength level and fitness history most students will take anywhere between two to six intro classes before moving to the next level. Sometimes more for those looking to master the inversion.”

Body & Pole

Hoops vs. Silks

Some studios will use fabrics, while others will use a hoop—and many will offer classes on both. “The aerial fabric is a 2-way stretch material folded into two strands which hangs vertically from the ceiling,” said Lacy. The Hoop is a steel circular bar hanging from the ceiling by either one or two points.”

So how does the workout differ depending on which equipment you choose? “The main difference between the two is with fabric you manipulate the apparatus around you, where on the hoop you have to move and bend around the apparatus,” said Lacy. “Which apparatus you prefer tends to just be personal preference. The fabric is a little softer on the body but tends to tire the forearms quickly. The hoop is easier to hold on to and sit in however it is a bit harder on the body and hands. I always suggest trying both and decide for yourself which one you like better. Many students often enjoy both.”

What to Wear

You’re going to want to cover the back of your knees and torso, which will be rubbing against, and hanging from, the silks or hoop. “Leggings or close fitting workout pants with a tank top or t-shirt are great,” said Lacy. “For some skills you may also want to bring a long sleeved shirt or hoodie to protect your arms from burns and abrasions.”

The Structure of Class

You’ve selected your apparatus and stepped into your leggings. Now what?

Every class will begin with a warm up that “incorporates some cardio to get the heart pumping and blood flowing, conditioning to get our bodies strong for the air and active stretching to make sure our bodies are ready to go through the poses we’ll end up doing in class,” said Lacy.

You’ll then move on to conditioning exercises on the apparatus of choice, “focusing on proper form and technique which will help us build the strength for the skills of the day,” said Lacy.

After this, you will move into more intensive, step-by-step instruction that breaks down each move in detail. “We often put the skills learned in class that day into a sequence and practice flowing from one skill to another. Before we end, we do a cool down. Which allows us to stretch and relax all the tense muscles we just worked,” said Lacy.


The Basic Moves

So exactly what moves can you expect to master in an intro class?

“In aerial hoop class the first things you learn are how to hang from the bar with your arms, various inversions and mounts (straddle mount, trapeze mount, pullover mount), knee hangs and various seated poses and balances within the hoop. We also explore the physics of the basic spin,” said Lacy.

If you’re heading to an aerial fabric class the first thing you learn is “how to hang from the fabric, stand on the fabric, basic climb and descent, figure 8 footlock, wrist locks, inversions and various poses in figure 8 footlocks and hammock inversion,” said Lacy.

A Full Body Workout

You are going to tap into every single muscle group at some point during class—so get ready to be sore.

“In any aerial class we are generally getting a full body workout with emphasis on the upper body and core. Lats, biceps and triceps help to pull our bodies up into the air. And our core (transvers abdominus, rectus abdominus, obliques) helps keep everything together as you move in the air,” said Lacy.

When using a hoop, your hands will be the first thing to get sore and tired, and when using fabric, the forearms and fingers will be the first to fatigue.

“With every class the hands and forearms get stronger. You will eventually toughen the skin and build up a pain tolerance” said Lacy. “After class (especially after the first class) students often feel sore in those same muscle groups the next day. But it is the good kind of sore that comes with the accomplishment of getting through class.

While aerial classes do incorporate some cardio, yoga and pilates style exercises into the warmup, the workout primarily a based around strength training exercises. “The focus is on building strength and flexibility to do the skills and find your flow in the air,” said Lacy.

A Basic Level of Fitness Will Help, But Isn’t Required

With all of the strength-training exercises you will be doing, a basic level of fitness will help, but if you haven’t been hitting the weight room, don’t worry.

“Of course if you have a background in gymnastics, dance or are physically active you will see progress quicker than someone who doesn’t. However, my favorite thing about aerial is that it is absolutely accessible to everyone, even with zero fitness background,” said Lacy. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done anything physical before. It doesn’t matter your age or weight. You don’t have to have upper body strength to start because you will build the nessesary strength just from showing up.”

If you have an injury or some kind of issues, say a bad back or neck, all of the exercises can be modified. “I always communicate with students if they have an injury or issue and adjust so that they can work on a skill without exacerbating an injury and still feel accomplished,” said Lacy.

Be Ready to Feel the Burn … Literally

Just as with pole dancing, where you are using an apparatus to perform exercises, you can expect burns from the friction against your skin. “It is common to get mild burns or bruises from fabric and hoop. This happens more often when trying new skills,” said Lacy. “The more you practice the more resilient your skin will be. Burns and bruises eventually just become part of the journey and I often refer to them as accomplishment marks.”