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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Updated: May 2, 11:38 AM ET
Trapeze workouts soaring in popularity

By Alyssa Roenigk

We're not much for celebrity fitness trends. Most are usually just an excuse to burn as few calories as possible while showing off your Lycra-clad goods. So we were skeptical when we heard trapeze workouts are soaring (so to speak) in popularity. Pink is a fan -- the pop star trained at Trapeze School New York (TSNY) in Los Angeles before her 2009-2010 Funhouse tour. And Reese Witherspoon enrolled at Cirque School LA in Hollywood to prep for her role as a Depression-era trapeze artist in "Water for Elephants", which hit theaters last week.

Cirque School
Cirque School student Kat Purgal shows off her high art. Purgal has been attending weekly class for a year.

"[Trapeze instructors] protect you. They make sure you're safe," Witherspoon told "Entertainment Tonight" recently. "But I like to push the limits. I was always sort of a tomboy, so I'm having fun tumbling around and swinging on a trapeze."

Turns out, swinging from the rafters can be an amazing cross-training option, especially for runners and cyclists, who are so focused on their lower bodies, according to TSNY instructor Ryan Riggs. Unlike many of the popular group fitness classes such as spinning, kickboxing and Zumba, which are typically focused on the lower body and cardio, trapeze is mostly about the core and upper body. It's also good for teaching timing, body control and air awareness, which are important tools in any sport -- and really helpful for things like catching yourself the next time you trip over a curb.

"One of the benefits of trapeze training is that it can transform multiple muscle groups simultaneously," said Aloysia Gavre, the co-director and co-founder of Cirque School LA. "Yes, your upper body needs to be strong, but if you don't have a solid and reliable core there's nothing to support what those arms are doing. Likewise, in aerial arts the glutes, lower back and adductors are always activated, so without a toned booty and inner thighs an aerialist cannot stay safely upon their equipment, especially when upside down!"

Aside from the physical benefits, trapeze is a challenging mental workout. Even though you're wearing a secure safety harness, you still have to be willing to climb a ladder and jump from a two-story-tall platform.

And, as the tricks get tougher they require more focus than physical strength. Trapeze is about timing and technique -- and letting your body utilize gravity and react to the moments of weightlessness at the top of "the swing."

Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson
Three of the stars of the film "Water for Elephants": Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Tai, the 45-year-old elephant.

"Most people have limited ideas about what they can and can't do before they take a class," Riggs said. "But you would be amazed at the things you can accomplish in a two-hour class."

With schools opening across the country -- there are more than 100 in the U.S. -- classes aren't hard to find. However, if you don't have a location nearby (or don't want to fork over the cash), we've got you covered. All you need is an outdoor pull-up bar at your local playground. No harness required.

To start, practice hanging from the bar to increase your grip strength -- your fingers, hands and forearms hold most of your weight -- and improve your shoulder flexibility. Place the bar in the palm of your hand just below your fingers and wrap your fingers tightly around the bar. Bring your thumb to the front and wrap it around your fingers. Start by hanging for 15 seconds, and work up to three sets of 60 seconds.

The first trick you learn in trapeze is called a knee hang. For a good homemade option and a serious abdominal workout, try a static knee hang on a pull-up bar. While hanging from the bar by your hands, use your abs to pull your knees into your chest -- legs and feet together, toes pointed -- and then drop your head back to bring your legs over your head. Bring your legs through your arms and wrap them over the bar so the bar is sitting directly behind your knees. (Wearing long pants is a smart move for this exercise.) Once your legs are wrapped securely around the bar, let go with your hands and grip the bar with your legs. Hang there for a second or so. You can get fancy by adding some upside-down crunches while hanging from your knees.

To dismount, use your abs to reach back to the bar and, once your hands are gripped tightly around it, pull your legs back through your arms and slowly lower them to the ground.