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At first glance, aerial fitness might seem like one of those things your best friend tricks you into doing for a good laugh. Or one of those workouts only the professional dancers/trapeze artists among us can do, you know, to casually keep their muscles moving on their off days. A circus act. Walk into a loft-style room with 10-foot-long silk hammocks hanging from the ceiling, and your first reaction might be, "Aw hell no. Yeah right," as you back up slowly for the door and get ready to run before the instructor makes eye contact.
But I am here to tell you, as someone who survived not one but two aerial fitness classes on consecutive days, that it was one of the single most challenging, delightful workouts I have ever had the pleasure of doing. It was a harder workout for me than Barry's Bootcamp. And I do not say that lightly. It was the kind of experience that you wake up from deliciously sore and hungry to do again. (And by hungry, I mean, I was aching—literally, physically, and mentally—to get back into the studio, four hours after leaving class). I loved it, and I'm no acrobat. If you're intrigued in the slightest about what aerial fitness even means/entails, keep scrolling for my firsthand account of what it's like to work out on a suspended silk swing—and why you'll want to, too.
What is Aerial Fitness?
First thing's first, your knowledge of aerial anything is likely aerial yoga, because that's what gained popularity over the last decade; I had only ever heard about aerial yoga, too. I did not realize that the concept of aerial exercise applied beyond traditional yoga, to the idea of a standard fitness class—except one that involves the use of silk hammocks. Basically, AIR Aerial Fitness is like a boot-camp workout, just involving the silks. So you do push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, burpees, as well as yoga- and Pilates-based moves—all of it—except with the individual silk swing pictured above. And let me tell ya—that stuff is hard when you're stabilizing your body to balance different parts suspended in the hammock. It is majorly muscle-intensive and utterly amazing and empowering. But more on that in a minute!
AIR started in Chicago and later expanded to Los Angeles. Even when it was still relatively under the radar, it was the kind of workout that spread by word of mouth and was different enough to become cultish. The studio is quite visually impressive, which, for a workout, is kind of the idea, if you ask me. How much more inspiring is it to work out in a place that makes your eyes happy, versus some dingy, windowless gym? My jaw basically dropped when I walked into the high-ceilinged space with stunning turquoise silks; it looked like an art exhibition. The room is so open, bright, and airy, with views of The Hills past La Cienega (and my favorite Coffee Bean to boot). It's a very breezy, uplifting place in which to exercise. So, +1 for the venue. Pictures don't even do its impressiveness justice.
The Benefits of Aerial Fitness
• Increased flexibility
• Strength via a full-body workout
• Balance and stabilization
Basically, every move is that much harder than anything you would do with a stable object at the gym, or anywhere, where you're using benches, walls, and boxes to do the same exercises. A bench or box onto which you might step up, or do triceps dips with—those are inherently stable objects. But the hanging curtain-silk is not, so your body and muscles are working that much harder to stabilize, with body parts suspended all the while. Picture a tricep dip with your legs on the floor. Now put your legs into the hammock, and your legs, inner thighs, butts, abs, and entire body are literally quivering, trying to stabilize as you do a tricep dip. That much more bang for your buck.
What to Expect During an Aerial Fitness Class
When I first arrived for the Air Foundation class, the instructors were practicing all kinds of moves in the hammocks (see above)—crazy, swinging acrobatic spins that reminded me of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, "Vitruvian Man," which depicts the human body in motion in a circle. The funny thing is, watching them up in the air on the swings didn't induce mild panic—it had me itching to start the class. I just wanted to get up there and do what they were doing. Let's do this, let's get to the fun, get me up there is what my body/mind was saying. It looked like a lot of fun. I was also wondering how hard vs. easy it could be. Was the super-cool stuff they were doing something that's easier than it looks, or is it the kind of thing I'd barely scratch the surface of as a beginner? Only time would tell.
At one point, I did have the image of myself literally falling out of the air onto the floor, and had the urge to ask them if people thud to the floor in class all the time, but decided against it. They had us sign a waiver at the beginning of class, and I figured people probably don't fall/injure themselves left and right, or the class wouldn't be a thing.
The fundamentals class, as the name implies, really just kind of walks you through the basics, familiarizing you with the hammock, stepping up into it with one leg, then the other (pictured above) and working from basic split moves at the beginning of the class (called "candy cane") to more-complicated twists and turns that build upon previous moves as the class progresses. I tried both the fundamentals and the boot camp, and though it was very interesting to have the comparison point of trying both, you definitely do not need to take the fundamentals before trying the boot camp. I would say the fundamentals class is more useful if you want to legitimately get good at aerial fitness—like be a total swinging badass and just impress the heck out of people in your life when you can do some really complex-looking aerial moves (or "tricks," as the instructors call them, which I love); whereas the boot camp is a killer, badass workout for anyone.
But starting back at the beginning, both classes begin with floor work. So, in case you were wondering, you don't just hop right into the hammock. You really have the chance to get comfortable with this potentially intimidating experience before you're doing gravity-defying moves.
The silks themselves are 10 feet tall and generally land about three feet off the floor. The instructors tie them into knots to make them fall to different heights for different people, so they tell you to pick a hammock whose end hits at about hip height. What's interesting is that you want it to fall at different heights depending on the exercise at hand, so sometimes you switch swings during class to find the right one for your particular body height.
For instance, there's one move where you throw the silk behind your back (like the image pictured above) and position it right above your butt; loop your arms around and through; sit back to lean backward and then stick your legs out like a frog with your ankles looped around each side for stability; and basically swing upside down, to crunch up for aerial sit-ups (yep… and trust me—you can do it, and the instructors walk you through it and help you get into each pose if you're struggling, like I was for every single one). Point being, if your silk is hanging too low for that move, it won't work, because your head will be on the floor. So you can kind of move around to different silks for different moves. (The upside-down hanging move looks somewhat like the below.)
So, when class is first starting, you pull a mat around near your silk, which you're almost always on. Whether to the side of your silk, behind, or in front, you do a lot on the mat using the silk. Warm-up involves about 10 minutes of both stretching using the silk, like leaning forward into it to stretch your low back, and putting a leg into it and pulling to stretch your hamstring, as well as getting your heart rate up with moves like jumping jacks and high knees. I was surprised by how much better I was able to stretch my body out using the tension of the silk for enhanced mobility. It was the kind of thing where I was thinking, Damn, my body hasn't been stretched this good in years—even in yoga. It felt amazing.
Then you do things like stick one or both feet into the hammock with your back flat on the ground, and lift your hips and butt up for booty lifts (pictured above). After a 10-minute warm-up, the boot camp entails three, 10-minute intervals where you do 10 different exercises, one exercise per minute, consecutively, with learning a trick in between each 10-minute interval. It was so hard and so fun, and it felt so good. A few example exercises: We went from hip lifts for a minute; to sit ups with legs in the hammock; to one-legged burpees with one leg back in the hammock (honestly one of my favorites), to triceps dips with your legs in the hammock (incredible for your arms); to roping your arms down the silk until you were at a 30-degree angle with the floor, then pulling yourself back up the silk with your own body weight (holy cow, that one is no joke); to one-legged squats with one leg in the hammock.
The Final Takeaway
Like I said earlier, I honestly think it was one of the most physically difficult (in the best way) workouts I've ever done. Alternating between 30 minutes of running and 30 minutes at the hardest boot camp in town felt easier to me, as I was in the midst of aerial boot camp. I absolutely loved it.
What's more, it was really cool to feel so strong; and in the rare chance that you master a pose in your first class (I think I got maybe 80% of the way there with like, one exercise of 40), you feel like you're an exotic dancing goddess. Manipulating all the twists and turns of the rope, wrapping it around your body, and ending up looking like a flying limber swan should you get there, is super-sexy and empowering, and looks beautiful if you can hit the pose (see above). But even when you don't, it's genuinely beautiful to see other women in the class who do happen to be good at it. I was pretty mesmerized watching the instructor and other women, thinking to myself how gorgeous and captivating they looked in the air.
And it doesn't have an overtly sexual feel or focus. Fitness classes that take inspiration from chair dancing, pole dancing, and striptease have gone mainstream in the last few years and become very popular (you know you considered that Groupon, at least for a bachelorette party), but aerial fitness isn't like that at all. Unlike the former category, the exercise form itself isn't about trying to make you look sexual or embrace your sexiness; the "tricks" just so happen to look really, really damned beautiful and sexy in their finished form (see below).
A few things you should know, however, that I learned pretty quickly and would never have known without taking the class: It's really, really wrist intensive! I was pretty surprised by this, but you're pulling yourself up the silk and wrapping it around your wrists so much that it becomes very wrist-involved, so if you have any wrist issues, it would be pretty difficult. The silk also kind of hurts your hips and legs in certain moves, especially when swinging upside down. You get really wrapped up in certain poses, so it's going to dig into certain soft spots and joints and isn't always the most comfortable thing in the world. Though I had a really strong desire to learn cool moves and be an acrobatic and limber swan, I also sometimes just wanted to get the eff out of certain "trick" poses and back to doing burpees and squats with the silk. So I liked the boot camp more than the little trick tutorials, but that's how I am in yoga, too. Whenever the actual exercise part of the class is over and it's time to do inversions and stand on your head, I'm like, "No thanks/There's no point. I'll just watch everyone else do their shoulder stands until the teacher stops making us learn things." I pretty much only like the parts where you're not individually working on your craft.
All in all, it was a truly fabulous experience, and I cannot wait to get back into the swing, even for the move that's called "The Diaper," which you'll have to try for yourself some time, because I'm not sure I could describe how one gets oneself into the diaper with words.
Aerial Fitness Moves You Can Do at Home
As a bonus, AIR Aerial Fitness shared five killer exercises you can do without a silk hammock, so keep scrolling to check them out.
1. Step-ups: Place the right sole of your foot on a chair and step your left foot up to meet your right. Don't put too much pressure on the right foot. To get the full AIR effect, you can grab two shampoo bottles and pull them down to your shoulders while stepping up. (This simulates the arms portion of step-ups.)
2. Squats: Use the kitchen table or desk. Keep your feet parallel with one another. Squat down, pushing your weight behind you and keeping your knees over your ankles. Keep the grip nice and light on the table. If you feel like the table is too low, squat lower.
3. AIR plank: Place the top of your feet on the edge of a couch. Hold the same form as you would on the ground, keeping your shoulders over your wrists. Squeeze your abs and inner thighs together. To make it more advanced, bring your left and then right knee to your chest.
4. AIR push-ups: Using the same form as the plank, with feet at the edge of the couch, bend into your elbows and push through your palms. Try to get your nose to the ground. To make it more advanced, take your body one inch above the ground and pulse, one inch up and one inch down.
5. Crunches: Flip your body around so your booty is now on the ground and your heels are on the end of the couch. Interlace your fingers behind your head, with elbows out wide. Exhale out on your crunch. Try to get one inch higher every time. To make it more advanced, take a little pulse up and down, never letting your shoulder blades hit the ground.