Flexibility Training with Cirque du Soleil

By USA Weightlifting Director of Coaching Education Michael Conroy

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week with Cirque du Soleil’s strength and conditioning staff, performance coaches and athletes in response to their request for a dedicated sport performance course. As we worked together, sharing information about weightlifting and Cirque du Soleil’s performances, the item that really came to the forefront was the warm-up and flexibility training these athletes complete every day. So vital is this training to the success of the eight Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas that USA Weightlifting coaches, athletes and members can benefit from an overview of this training.

A day in the Life of a Cirque du Soleil Athlete

Before delving into the training itself, it’s important to understand the environment that a Cirque du Soleil athlete lives in. Prior to this training, the first statement Cirque du Soleil made to USA Weightlifting was, “There is no offseason.” There are 10 shows per week for Cirque du Soleil performers, and very few athletes ever have two consecutive off days. This means that most athletes perform in 486 shows per year. The shows are typically 90 minutes long twice a day, with a one-hour break for the athletes between the two shows. During the break, athletes will rest, eat, visit sports medicine, watch the DVD of the performance—with or without their performance coach—or complete a cool down.

For most of the Cirque du Soleil athletes, this is a second career. Most of the athletes come from accomplished, distinguished and traditional athletic backgrounds. Cirque du Soleil boasts 17 medalists from the Olympic Games as current performers in shows. Gymnasts, divers and trampoline experts make up most of the athletes, but a significant number are former European or Asian circus performers. Acrobats and trapeze artists are also common.

The Progressions

Their day begins at 3:00 p.m. with a walkthrough from the catacombs of the theater into the makeup room. Makeup can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more depending upon what needs to be applied and how skilled the athlete is at doing so. I ask quite a few athletes, and 50 minutes is the most common time for this. Another trek through a maze of narrow hallways leads them to their training room. The flexibility and warm-up session begins, and they go through all phases of stretching and flexibility training in a set progression. They use static, dynamic, ballistic, AIS and PNF movements, and then, as all athletes do, the ritualistic movements take place. These are not only specific movements relating back to the skill done in the show, but some are the activities that the athletes were taught as children and have emotional and mental components to them.

This initial session of stretching and flexibility lasts between 30 and 50 minutes depending upon what the athletes need to achieve to get their bodies ready for the next step. The attention to detail and the concentration to this training are noticeable: no one just goes through the motions; everyone realizes the importance of preparing the body for the task that lies ahead. As one athlete states, “When it’s go time, it IS go time.”

In the next phase employs foam rolling, plyometric, pilates and even massage before going to the strength and conditioning program for the day. Here, the exercises and movements are short, to the point and specific to each athlete’s performance.

This is the area where both Cirque du Soleil and USA Weightlifting believe a true collaboration can occur. The weightlifting movements have all the elements that can assist the athletes in maintaining stability while training. Movement through three planes—dynamic, change of direction and motions that can be trained effectively in a short amount of time—fits nicely with the type of activity that occurs during the shows.

It’s now approaching 5:45 p.m., and the athletes go to their performance training. This is a rehearsal of various skill movements. Working with teeter boards to a four-person “high” is what I observe with the show “Mystère.” Head Coach Karl Abraham has the athletes use peg boards and fall from heights of 20 meters, while other athletes work on high bar training, balancing and their aquatics.

There are two ways that USA Weightlifting members can benefit from what Cirque du Soleil employs in its performance preparation.

First is the absolute commitment to a true warm-up session that is purposeful and has an expected outcome. Far too often, an athlete will just go through the motions of a warm-up and flexibility routine or try to endure it—not perform it. There used to be an adage that stated, “If you don’t have time to warm up, you really don’t have time to train.” Unfortunately, in the current environments of a lot of athletes, the window of time is short, and warming up and flexibility training are the first items to be shortened. Weightlifters should rededicate their efforts in developing a focused warm-up and flexibility routine.

The second benefit is in the area of concentration. You won’t see ear buds, iPods or MP3 players in Cirque du Soleil training areas. There is little—if any—open air music as performers either prepare mentally, listen to their coaches or speak softly to a training partner about a specific ‘cue’ or performance step.

More than impressive, this pre-performance routine shows a level of preparation and professionalism that inevitably leads to a flawless performance just minutes later.

The athletes never rush or seem anxious or nervous. A sense of calm pervades everyone. Everyone is just in the moment, with complete focus on the task at hand.

USA Weightlifting should try to do as well as the Cirque du Soleil athletes in warm-up routines.