Home Blog What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach You About How to Build Muscle

What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach You About How to Build Muscle

Written on June 28, 2014 at 3:34 am, by Eric Cressey

I'm in Chicago to speak at the Perform Better Summit this weekend, but fortunately, my good friend Chad Waterbury provided this guest post for today. Enjoy! -EC

In 2001, I went with a buddy to Vegas. I wish I could say the trip was replete with all the temptations that Sin City had to offer, but it was strictly business.

At the time, I had a packed personal training calendar that kept me busy from dawn to dusk. Most of my clients were guys that wanted to build muscle, so I had them do a combination of heavy and high-rep training to failure.

That’s how bodybuilding protocols worked back then, and most of them still do today. I made my clients work hard and they trained each major muscle group about twice per week.

Now this is where my Vegas trip comes in.

That year I went to see the Cirque du Soleil show, Mystere. Many of my clients had seen the popular show and they mentioned that I should make a point to attend, mainly because of two heavily-muscled gymnastics that display mind-blowing feats of strength: the Alexis Brothers.

As my brain assimilated what I was seeing. I remember feeling blown away. What astonished me most weren’t the incredible routines they did, even though they were the coolest and most impressive things I’d ever seen.

Nope, I was absolutely shocked by the frequency they had to perform that routine. These guys were doing 10 shows per week!

What the Alexis brothers were doing defied all the “laws” of training and recovery I’d been taught in college, textbooks, and online write-ups. That moment I had an epiphany, if you will: I was going to have my clients train their underdeveloped muscles with a higher frequency. I was determined to figure out just how often a person with average genetics could stimulate a muscle group and still recover.

Eleven years later, in 2012, I had accumulated a huge amount of data on frequent training that I was ready to share. So, I released my High Frequency Training (HFT) training system to teach my audience how to build muscle using this approach.

My approach for HFT was pretty simple. First, you would choose an exercise you could do for anywhere from 12-20 reps before failure. Then you would perform a target number of total reps each day, say, 50. Finally, you would add a rep each day over the course of a few months.

It was a very good system, especially with exercises such as the pull-up, and many people gained a lot of muscle from it.

However, I still felt I could make HFT better. So over the last two years I continued to experiment with different training protocols while taking in the feedback from those who were following HFT.

What did I learn? A whole lot. Now my frequent training plans are shorter, and more specialized for each major muscle group. There are three components for making a frequent training plan work for you.

1. Understand whether a muscle responds best to high or low reps: The biceps won’t grow with high rep training; if they did, collegiate rowers would have massive guns. The quadriceps, however, will definitely grow with high reps – just ask any cyclist.

2. Stimulate the muscle group as quickly as possible: When you start working a muscle more often the last thing you want to do is spend more time in the gym. Plus, if the extra workouts are too long you’ll burn out fast. You must stimulate that muscle as quickly as possible, and it doesn’t take long if you know what to do.

Here’s one example for the pecs:

Push-up Iso-Squeeze: Get in the top position of a push-up, then attempt to pull your hands together as intensely as possible for 10 seconds (any longer than that and you won’t be recruiting the largest motor units).


Do 5 sets of that iso-squeeze with two minutes rest between sets every other day. It works!

3. Spare the joints: All forms of exercise stress the joints, but some do more than others. If you start doing an overhead triceps extension or leg curl every day, you’ll run into joint problems in a hurry. That’s why my latest muscle-building system, HFT2, incorporates instructional videos so you can learn how to best spare the joints and target the muscles.

As an example. Here’s how I spare the knees for the Goblet Squat:

Keep these three points in mind as you train with a higher frequency and you’ll get much better results.

Note from EC: we've already started experimenting with some of Chad's ideas on the high frequency training front, and I think it has tremendous merit. If you're looking for some direction to take the guesswork out of these applications, I'd encourage you to check out Chad's new resource, High Frequency Training 2, which is on sale through Tuesday at midnight.


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11 Responses to “What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach You About How to Build Muscle”

  1. Sam Says:

    Instead of seeing how much training you can handle and how many hours you can tolerate in the gym, why not figure out the minimum amount of training needed (minimum effective dose) to stimulate the desired adaptation.

  2. Ken L Says:

    Eric, when will your next high performance product which will incorporate these concepts be available? 🙂 Meanwhile, I’ll be checking this out

  3. Eric Cressey Says:


    No plans for a new resource just yet! Chad’s will certainly do you well in the meantime.

  4. Antwan Harris Says:


    I found this article to be quite enlightening! I have personally never seen Cirque du Soleil show but after watching the video in your article I am eager to do so. Your 2nd point about stimulating the muscle as quickly as possible is astute! I hope to check out Chad Waterbury’s new item as well.

  5. robert huber Says:

    Why are you writing at 334 am

  6. Eric Cressey Says:


    Wrote it earlier; that’s just when it was scheduled to publish!

  7. Matt Biancuzzo Says:

    Not only is the number of the shows per week incredible, but the current trainings they perform, on top of the years of training they performed to perfect their skills, strength, and body control are all quite amazing. Lots of training volume, frequency, and repetition.

  8. Robert Says:

    Everyone really going to ignore the Elephant in the room? Steroids…The key to making just about any program work. These two guys, while obviously incredibly talented are on the sauce, guaranteed.
    Not saying Waterbury’s protocols can’t work without them, but it drives me crazy when everyone ignores the obvious.

  9. Eric Cressey Says:


    I think that’s a tough assumption to make, especially for guys who have to keep body weight in check because so much of that is relative strength in nature. Regardless, it’s still incredibly impressive.

  10. Jeff Says:

    Don’t forget that the Alexis Brothers started performing when very young — like 8 or 10 years old and this is what they have done every day, gradually adding to it over time. I remember seeing a video of them performing their act when they were kids for Prince Rainier in Monaco. So your article should be about starting kids young in hard traiing. I doubt seriously if an adult can learn do this safely. They are in the same category as chinese circus acrobats who start training almost literally by the time they learn to walk.

  11. Jim Says:

    I agree with @Jeff and @Robert.
    Also, demonstrating strength is different than building strength. We shouldn’t assume that they built their muscles solely via high rep bodyweight stuff. For example, from watching ripped gymnasts perform, I might be inspired to do bodyweight exercises. But most gymnasts lift weights as well. Charles Atlas sold a bodyweight system, but lifted heavy to build his muscles. Others also stressed bodyweight stuff, while lifting heavy to gain muscle, like Jack Lalane.

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