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You Weren’t Using Those Joints, Were You? 5 Essential Tips for Injury-Free Shoulders

When I first fell in love with aerial silks about 14 years ago (be kind, don’t do the math), I tackled it the way I approach just about everything in my life: HEAD ON. I’m not known for moderation, and I set up a training schedule that would make Cirque du Soleil’s rehearsal schedule look like the Dolly Dinkle School of Circus. And then, I got schooled. Big time.

The Trials of Tendinitis

It started with a little burning in my arm around the deltoid muscle. I put heat on it (fatal mistake #1), got a massage (fatal mistake #2), and kept right on with my INSANE training schedule (the nail in the coffin). Within two weeks, I couldn’t even lift my arm. I was diagnosed with severe tendinitis and bursitis, and told by a doctor that I would never climb again (that’s a story for another time). Thankfully, a friend brought me to the physical therapists who treat the Soleil artists in Montreal, and they helped me get back in the air. It took about three years before I was working totally pain-free, and my shoulder was damaged irreparably (I’ll need a new one someday). So how can you avoid making the same mistakes I did? Here are some thoughts, though this is just the tip of the iceburg.


  1. Maintain proper shoulder positioning while training. Shoulders should be pulled firmly into the socket like so: draw your shoulders away from your ears, sliding your shoulder blades down the back. Your chest should be lifted very slightly. Think of “screwing your shoulder into the socket”, and maintain this position while training. I’m going to try to post some pictures later this week so you can get a clear visual.
  2. Train consistently. On-again-off-again training is really hard on the body. If you’ll be away from your beloved apparatus for a time (VACATION! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!), make sure you train exercises (PULL-UPS!) appropriate to your circus discipline.
  3.  BUT, don’t over-train like I did. As hungry as you are in the beginning for training, ramp it up slowly. Flinging yourself full steam into a crazy training regimen is a sure-fire way to wind up awesomely injured. Start with one or two classes a week, supported by Pilates, weight training, stretching, and whatever else your little heart desires, just ramp up GRADUALLY – you can open up a can-o-whoop-ass on yourself as you get stronger.
  4.  Pay attention to sensation. Feeling a burning, grinding, clicking, or other pain in your shoulder (or any other) joint? STOP. Get thee to a doctor, and take a break. When you’re ready to come back, make some time with your coach to have your form evaluated (** a bit of candor here – not all aerial teachers are well-versed in proper shoulder alignment. Can they speak knowledgeably about the structure of the joint, etc? Something to keep in mind.)
  5. Ice preventatively, treat inflammation aggressively. It’s never a bad idea to ice your shoulders (or other iffy areas for you) after class or a workout whether you have pain or not – break out those frozen peas! Heat + inflammation = more inflammation, so step awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay from the heating pad until you know what you’re dealing with. NSAIDs (ibuprofin, etc.), cortizone shots, and physical therapy are common items in the Western artillery to treat inflammation. I’ve had phenomenal results with acupuncture, and lots of folks swear by their chiropractors.


Chocolate and Flowers?

Keeping shoulders happy is quite the endeavor – I’m still learning a lot! It’s a funny joint: lots of mobility = lots of instability. Have you had shoulder issues? What worked for you? What didn’t? Share share share! Love and pull-ups, Laura


UPDATE: Many thanks to Heather from Asheville Aerial Arts for the awesome comment about the “Thrower’s 10” – resources below!

Thrower’s 10 Shoulder Exercises PDF:’s%2010.pdf

This is part one of a 10 part video series – amazing!

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21 comments on “You Weren’t Using Those Joints, Were You? 5 Essential Tips for Injury-Free Shoulders”

  1. Betty Scandretti Reply

    Ooh, great post! I’ve just watched video of some of my trapeze practices (I’m very much a recreational beginner) and I know and can see that my shoulder strength and stability is a weak link. Doing aerial stuff has actually helped to finish healing an old shoulder injury, but getting strength and power back has been a slow process. Being able to review video really helps for me, though, in terms of finding where I lose stability and being aware in subsequent sessions. When my injury was fresh, gliding cupping from a physiotherapist was the best thing ever!

  2. Jordan Reply

    Great post! I have interesting shoulders…I always used to think they were very flexible because I could get them into crazy positions easily. Before starting aerial I actually injured one from overstretching in a yoga pose, and the aerial work helped heal it. A great aerial instructor helped me realize that my shoulder muscles were actually very tight, even though my joints were loose, and she taught me the importance of keeping my shoulder engaged while stretching. Through this process I learned a lot about the shoulder and realized that it’s easy for me to disengage my shoulders and get too deep into any stretch. But when I am being mindful I can keep them engaged and work on stretching the muscles actively. This is a lot of work for me, but it has made a huge difference in my shoulder health and strength. I think there’s nothing better than aerial work to really learn about the shoulders and how to keep them in tip top shape!

  3. Heather Reply

    I highly recommend the Throwers 10 exercises for shoulder rehabilitation. I’ve known many aerialists with shoulder injuries to make a full recovery with these awesome shoulder exercises.

  4. Michele Reply

    I use massage, but it’s focused on releasing trigger points. Additionally, I have a PT and Physiatrist who specialize in trigger point release. I’ve also discovered Ortho-bionomy and positional release, which is really helpful for my lower back. Aerial is an outgrowth of my intense Pilates regimen (many of my teachers are aerialists) and I only work with aerial instructors who have a strong body awareness. One of my best teachers is also a Feldenkrais practitioner and she leaves time for those exercises at the end of every session. I also utilize Yamuna Body Rolling to work out tension and trigger points in my body.

    And I make sure to do my pull ups every day ;-).

  5. Kelly Reply

    Tendinitis… so that’s what it’s called. The burning in the deltoid isn’t that bad (anymore), but the tingling in the fingertips is annoying. Of course, I did all three bad things you did.

    Since it doesn’t actually hurt [much], I took a week off and then I’ve just been favoring it for the last couple months. It seems to slowly be getting better.

    I guess I’ll go to a doctor. The problem is everytime I go with an injury, the doctors look at it, and say the same thing “It’s a sports related injury… stay off it for 4-6 weeks and take ibuprofen if it hurts”. I can figure that out without them 🙁

  6. Diane Mcgrath Reply

    I have a great article talking about INJURY PREVENTION for aerialist , from an Aerial book written by the the Serenity sisters from Vermount. They both had shoulder injuries and I believe one of them had an operation n her shoulder.

    It was helpful for me to read as I too have had many problems with my shoulders which I have slowly recovered from . The book has some great exercise’s that I have put into my conditioning section for my 40 and beyond Trapeze class.
    I will find away to post a link to article or the book .

  7. Lewitwer Reply

    These are some AMAZING and super helpful comments – keep ’em coming! Here’s an excerpt from an email thread I had with the Fabulous Julie – hope it’s helpful! Great question, Julie, with lots of food for thought!

    Julie: I just had to ask though, why do you say “getting a massage” was a fatal mistake for your shoulder injury? As a (very) amature aerialist and Massage therapist I have had a lot of success both with giving and getting massage for aerial injuries but I am always looking for new insights.

    Laura: Massaging an inflammation injury (tendinitis, specifically) is a lot like scratching a rash – it brings more blood and irritation to the area, thus aggravating the injury. The PT’s in Montreal were very strict about no massage, rubbing, or pressure point work during treatment. Massage can be useful therapeutically for a number of injuries, but not so much for anything involving tendinitis, bursitis, or the like – it’s just too irritating (but damn, it feels good).

    Julie : Hmmm. That is an interesting perspective. I certainly would never want to further injure anyone who came to me for help! I think I can agree in certain acute phases, which it sounds like you were in. Otherwise I believe that with proper technique massage can really help in the healing process of tendonitis after the acute phase had passed of course.

  8. ohwell Reply

    I train aerial straps and rings, aside from rope, and the first two are definitely major shoulder beaters…had torn my rotator cuff earlier and had shoulder impingement as well before, on both shoulders, plus massive tendinitis all over upper (and lower) body–easier to name where I did NOT have tendinitis than where I had it–I have to say that I spend a lot of time on variety of shoulder pre-hab work, including stuff similar to “Throwers 10” (there’re lots and lots of prehab/rehab exercises out there, with variations that can be done)–little weights, rubber bands, pull machines, static holds, no-resistance moves, floor-resistance moves, etc, etc. For the love of god, I stay away from “massage”… I never do that and able to train pain-free (knock on wood) on my straps now, even with shoulders as previously bad as mine, and do the hardest elements. You have to live and breathe shoulder pre-hab work if you want to seriously load your shoulders. Once you get all comfy “I don’t need that stuff anymore”…you’re in danger. I personally don’t believe in chiros, acupuncture or massages…I guess I’m an old school person somewhat, where I grew up people got around without that…but the pre-hab/re-hab/conditioning high-rep exercises are the meat of all hard training: bringing lactic acid to the tendons, as it’s been shown to heal tendon tissues in numerous studies–is very important….can’t help by envy those monkeys that jump around branches without any “conditioning” or rubber band work…

  9. Jessica Reply

    I’m a year out from a subscap tear & bursitis in my left shoulder. The most immediate relief for me has been dry needling. I definitely recommend at least trying it. If I keep at it every 2 wks along with my PT exercises, I stay pain free. But if I slack…

    • Lewitwer Reply

      I’ve never heard of dry needling – I’m looking it up! Speedy healing – I hope you’re flying again SOON!

  10. Kristin Reply

    OMG! I have that same pain in my shoulder from time to time. It started 3 years ago when I was pulling up on a Lyra. I was spinning ridiculously fast and pulled up at the wrong time ( facing side ways)! I had to immediately let go & hit the floor. It was so painful. I went to my doctor & thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I still worry about it though. I train my pull ups like crazy these days, but I have also found that doing push ups & handstands helps keep it strong as well.

  11. MonicaP Reply

    Ah, I thought I read every post, but I must have missed this one (the post I needed to read the MOST!). I did the exact same thing. Went to one aerial silk class and thought I LOVE this I am not in shape so I am going to TRAIN SO HARD .. which I did. So I was about to take my 4th class when I woke up with swollen hands that I couldn’t move .. yikes. Had to cancel my class.

    Went to the dr, got tested for RA and Lupus, both negative, but my hands still hurt after 1 month so I think it’s a soft tissue injury .. 🙁 so sad. No problem with my shoulders, oddly enough .. but I wish I paid attention to #3. Oh, well .. I’ll get better and hopefully, I’ll get to return .. with less weight on me and stronger 😀


  12. Shaun Reply

    Icing preventatively (and even to calm down inflammation) is a terrible injury prevention/treatment suggestion.

    • Lewitwer Reply

      The jury is still VERY much out on that, Shaun. But thanks for your thoughtful contribution!

  13. Jeff Reply

    That comment about the lactic acid in your joints was interesting. I have a pain that goes from the back of my shoulder blade down my arm and into my elbow. At night it hurts a lot but I keep training on silks and honestly as soon as I am warmed up it doesn’t hurt anymore, but wait a little bit and then. Scary.
    I feel like if I just concentrate on keeping my shoulders pulled down and do some of those exercises it will be alright, right?

    • Lewitwer Reply

      Jeff, I’m sad to say it, but I’ll bet a lot of money that it’s tendinitis (I had the exact same experience). Get thee to a sports doctor and start PT soon. You have a lot of treatment options! You’ll also want to try to determine if the cause is improper use of the shoulder or just going from 0-60 in a short amount of time (overuse).

  14. Jay eustice Reply

    This was very helpful ! I practice pole fitness and aerial silks, hoop and hammock. (My main focus is hammock). I’ve had some shoulder pain recently and my chiropractor said it was not my rotator cuff because I have full range of motion. When I take my aerial classes it doesn’t hurt my shoulder at all, even after the class. Pole moves make it hurt. So I’ve taken a break from pole classes. Even though it doesn’t hurt before/during aerial should I stop for a bit? I’m about a little over a month in and I’m not doing anything crazy. I don’t want to make it worse but I don’t want to stop taking classes. Could my flexibility be involved too? (I have tendonitis in my knees so I know what the pain is like but this shoulder pain is different)

    The only time I feel pain is when I push something but not pull. Would you recommend I stop my classes all together ? Also I take about 3-4 aerial classes a week and 1-2 pole classes. I’m also very aware of pulling my shoulders down. Sorry for rambling !

  15. Aloveforaerials Reply

    Hi everyone
    As I am writing this I can barely hold my phone. My veins are so big and my hand is numb and k. Pain. I know is definitely because of the silks since I definitely have gone overboard since opening my own school but no one seems to be able to tell me how to make this pain go away other than to take a break. Can anyone share some stories of remedies or ways of recovery? I don’t know what my life would be like without silks! The experts say it cod be pinched nerves. Any thoughts?

    • Lewitwer Reply

      Get thee to physical therapy – stat! Try to find a clinic that deals with lots of sports injuries (weirdly, particularly baseball – repetitive arm movements).Experts are going to likely prescribe a period of rest, NSAIDS, PT, etc. You can supplement with acupuncture, which can often work wonders for inflammation. Get this treated sooner rather than later – repetitive stress injuries are often harder to treat than acute injuries, and can take much longer to heal. Take heart – you’re in good company! Inflammation is the bane of the aerialist’s existence. 🙁

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