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Circus school offers adrenaline-charged alternative to traditional gyms

Toronto School of Circus Arts

Decker LaDouceur/Decker LaDouceur

In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.

Flying may be off the table, but if you dream of floating through the air with the greatest of ease, try circus school. Several have cropped up across Canada, including École de Cirque de Québec and Circus West in Vancouver. I checked out the Toronto School of Circus Arts (75 Carl Hall Rd.).

The promise

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The TSCA offers an adrenaline-charged alternative to traditional gyms where athleticism, grace and movement reign supreme. Housed inside an impressive 15,000-square-foot former airplane hangar, students develop core stability and body awareness while perfecting their skills in the aerial arts (silks, static trapeze, aerial hoop), ground arts (acrobatics, handstands, Chinese poles), trampoline or flying trapeze. Specific muscle conditioning and flexibility courses are also offered as either stand-alone classes or as a complement to aerial and ground training.

What to expect

Your experience will vary depending on the course you're taking, but chances are you'll be operating well outside your comfort zone. That's the idea. I was among the dozen or so participants in the 90-minute Friday evening flying trapeze drop-in class ($25 at the door; $20 if you're a registered student). For someone with a mild fear of heights (that's me!), the simple act of climbing up a telescopic ladder to an open platform from which you're expected to leap is a victory in itself. And even though I'm strapped into a safety harness, and there is a sprawling net below, I'm still scared.

The instructors do an excellent job of calming my nerves with their relaxed demeanour; before I have time to second-guess what I'm about to do, I'm already soaring through the air while hanging upside down from my knees, The Stones' Gimme Shelter blasting from the loudspeaker. After a less-than-graceful dismount, I'm back on solid ground, literally shaking from the rush. Everyone in attendance spoke of how addictive this stuff is. They weren't kidding. Within minutes, I'm champing at the bit, ready to fly again. By my third and final turn, I felt calm and relaxed, much more in control of my body. I even managed to execute a somersault on my dismount.

The verdict

This was the most fun I've had on a Friday night in a while. If you're tired of the big-box fitness scene, and not afraid to put yourself on display, give circus-style training a shot.

You're not going to lose a lot of weight or build a ton of muscle from a drop-in flying trapeze class alone, however, anyone registering for a complete three-month course in one of the offered disciplines will see physical results. Bodyweight training builds the sort of strength that goes unnoticed at first; it wasn't until the next day that I felt a slight soreness in my legs and abs from stabilizing my body on the trapeze. Multiply that over the span of a few weeks, and you'll be well on your way to building some seriously functional fitness.

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Of course, this sort of training isn't for everyone. There's a strong social element, with participants cheering each other on and offering encouraging advice. Lone wolves be warned. Also, many of the veterans I spoke with mentioned their history of rotator cuff injuries. Anyone with shoulder mobility issues would be wise to exercise caution.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA and a striking coach at Black Devil MMA. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrpaullandini.

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