The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

What’s Your Workout: Dangling From Hoops and Ropes

by Christopher Shay

The Executive

James Barrett, a quantitative equities researcher for  Royal Bank of Scotland, wears women’s tights to work out. After buying them from the Ladies’ Market in Mong Kok, he stitches the seams by hand, reinforcing them so they don’t rip as he flips, spins and swings through the air like a member of the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil.

“A lot of the guys don’t understand why a bloke would do this sort of thing,” he says.

But aerial acrobatics keep him fit, he says. Mr. Barrett attends aerial classes where he practices moves using a hoop suspended from a ceiling, a pair of hanging silk ropes or a climbing rope. Variations and freedom in the routines allow him to either go slow or do a faster, more strenuous workout.

Add some ‘Cirque du Soleil’ spunk to your fitness routine. Swinging from a rope can sometimes chafe your skin, but tangling your body in different ways does wonders for your core strength, says James Barrett, quantitative analyst for Royal Bank of Scotland.

“I can work out to relax or to release tension,” he says. If he wants, “I can just lie there for a moment and chill out.”

Mr. Barrett, 27  years old , was first exposed to the aerial arts when he won a door prize at a 2009 party for a month of free classes. He decided to give it a try, even though it’s a female-dominated activity. He’s often the only male in a class, but “if you take ownership of it and you’re proud of it then there’s nothing for [others] to tease you about,” he says.

Mr. Barrett has gone on to perform in three public performances in Hong Kong with the Aerial Arts Academy—one time wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy red shorts for a hoop routine.

“If you’ve been in a performance in front of 300 people, wearing very little clothes, dancing in the air, then you’ll think, ‘I can do this client meeting, no problem,’” the Australian native says.

The Workout

Mr. Barrett practices aerial acrobatics about three times a week, with each lesson lasting one hour. Classes usually include about four or five people, he says, and the instructors cap the class size at 10.

Warming up before an aerial routine is essential, Mr. Barrett says. He learned this the hard way: In a competition last year–his first and only–he failed to stretch beforehand and tore his pectoral muscle while attempting to do an elbow hang, a move in which he hooks his arm at the bottom of a hanging hoop and holds his body parallel to the ground. It took about six months before he was strong enough to return to the sport.

Classes normally start with a dance routine on the floor and then stretching to get the blood flowing. After that, the classes will usually go into abdominal exercises. Though flexibility and leg and arm strength also play crucial roles, “the most important thing in aerial is your core,” he says. A strong core stabilizes the body. “If you look wobbly or not in control, then the performance suffers,” he says. “Aerial is about making things look effortless and fun.”

Mr. Barrett will do different types of crunches that use both the legs and arms not only to strengthen the core muscles but to improve coordination. For example, he will do sit-ups where he will pass a ball between his hands and feet when in the “up” position. “When you’re performing,” he says, “you need all the muscles in your body working in unison.”

Following core exercises, the classes will often work on an aerial routine. If they are using the hoop, students will start by practicing tricks on the bottom part. Moves include the “half angel” (where one hangs from the hoop from one leg and one arm), “trapeze” (where one hangs from the legs) and “skin the cat” (which involves lowering one’s body close to the ground and back up by rotating the shoulders ). Once properly warmed up, Mr. Barrett will practice doing “cool drops and flips” from the top of the hoop. For instance, he will drop upside down with his legs still holding him up on the top of hoop but with his arms gripping the lower part of the hoop.

His studio will put on about three public performances a year, for which students create their own aerial routines. For these performances, Mr. Barrett will often practice outside of the lessons he takes.

Aerial acrobatics is not Mr. Barrett’s only exercise. He also plays soccer twice a week with friends and goes for at least one eight to 15-kilometer run on the weekend along Victoria Road in Kennedy Town. Even though the main focus of aerial acrobatics is strength rather than cardio, he says the classes have helped his running because they have improved his posture.

“You won’t run as efficiently if your core is weak,” he says. “I’m finishing a soccer game sprinting just as hard as when I started, and it’s not because I’m better aerobically, it’s because I’ve got a stronger core.”

The Diet

Mr. Barrett likes to start the day with a carb-heavy meal like congee, or Chinese rice porridge. He says this gives him energy for the rest of day. For lunch, he will often eat lightly-dressed salads with protein like nuts or meat, or sandwiches with lean meat like chicken. After about four or five o’clock in the afternoon he limits his carbohydrate intake and eats only lean meats and vegetables. He often eats Thai food, including fresh Thai salads, nam tok (a sliced beef dish) and larb (ground meat and vegetables). These meals, he says, are low in carbs, high in protein and have lots of fresh, uncooked veggies for vitamins.

Cost and Gear

Mr. Barrett says the only gear that one needs for aerial aerobics is thin, tight-fitting clothing that won’t get caught in the hoop or other equipment.

“You don’t really want shorts, because the rope and hoop will really burn your skin,” he says. “The only real option is tights.”

At any given time, Mr. Barrett has about four or five pairs of 30 Hong Kong-dollar (US$3.86) tights. He buys the largest size on offer, but  because he is six feet tall, they’re often a little snug, so he stitches the seams to prevent them from ripping. For a top, Mr. Barrett normally wears form-fitting old soccer jerseys.

Mr. Barrett buys sets of 10 classes at the Aerial Arts Academy, which cost HK$1,980 per set.


Aerial workouts and performances are always done to music. While the other aerialists usually choose slow, lyrical songs for their routines, Mr. Barrett says his favorite music for performance is Australian hip hop, especially the group the Hilltop Hoods.

Category: Article, Lifestyle


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