Celebrity bodies are honed in surprising and mysterious ways, their fitness regimens never failing to raise an eyebrow. But the A-list workout of the moment is a departure so far from the clinical monotony of the gym that it was always bound to grab the attention of those bored with yoga or the treadmill. Suspending yourself above the ground on a circus trapeze, learning acrobatically graceful moves, is fast becoming the most sought-after route to fitness and adrenaline-boosted self-esteem - so much so that many UK classes have waiting lists of several months.
It is an unlikely exercise craze, but those who try it might find themselves hanging around (literally) with the likes of Sadie Frost, who credits it with giving her a new-found self-confidence and the muscle tone of an Olympian; the supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who is also a devotee; or Joely Richardson, the star of Nip/Tuck. "I am a real fan of trapeze skills, having been given classes as a gift," says Richardson. "The trapeze has been a blast, terrifying for the first time you let go and truly exciting when you do a catch for the first time."
Classes in Manhattan include Club Cirque at the fashionable Crunch gym chain, which teaches trapeze technique alongside juggling and tightrope walking skills. And, of course, the trapeze is already being "fused" - to use a fitness-industry term - with more mundane activities for those who view the real thing as too great a leap from regular gym classes. Michelle Dortignac's Aerial Yoga studio in Brooklyn combines Cirque du Soleil-like movements on a static trapeze with plain old yoga. When you practise mat-based yoga asanas, she says, "the body is worked by pressing down, but aerial yoga is a complementary workout by targeting different muscles as you pull on them". Shoulders are stabilised while being stretched, stomach muscles can be strengthened more easily, and spinal flexibility becomes comfortable to explore, Dortignac explains.
While yoga classes in the UK have not yet reached these dizzying heights, the static (no swinging involved) and flying trapezes are attracting hordes of newcomers. They initially try it for the novelty value, says Moira Campbell, a trapeze artist who teaches at the Hangar in Stratford, east London. "People don't realise when they start that the trapeze is akin to weight training. They are weak when they start, but you have to lift your entire body weight with every move and that is incredibly tough." Contrary to popular belief, it is not the arms that are worked the hardest, but the core muscles in the abdominal area. "To get in and out of moves, even just to swing on the flying trapeze, you need to engage your core muscles and really work them," Campbell says.
Most beginners need six lessons to master the basics and reach the point where they can link moves together on the apparatus. "Ideally they will be doing some other conditioning work alongside to make sure the core area is getting stronger," Campbell adds. "But the muscles in the arms will develop of their own accord. You are virtually guaranteed to be stronger in the upper body within a matter of weeks." Strength in the legs develops, too, says Daisy Drury of Circus Space, the UK's biggest circus school, as you are beating them (kicking to gain the momentum for a swing) or performing lunges and other moves.
Remarkably, injuries at trapeze school are rare. Campbell insists on thorough warm-up and cool-down sessions for her pupils to limit the possibility of muscle strains and pulls. "It is more like a sport in the respect that you need muscles to be fully prepared for action," she says. "Perhaps the most common injuries are those that occur as a result of twisting something in particular, such as the rotator cuff muscles [which support the shoulder joint]. But not too many people hurt themselves falling off because there are crash mats and supporters there to protect them."
It is, however, far more than just the fitness element that keeps enthusiasts swinging on a trapeze bar. Devotees say it is a supreme stress-buster, requiring such focus that other worries are forgotten. "What you quickly realise is that the trapeze involves skill and creativity," Drury says. "It is far more rewarding than your run-of-the-mill gym session. Each lesson you learn something new and that results in a huge sense of achievement." In the early days, "there is a lot of heaving and grunting as people struggle to master the moves, but as that is eliminated it becomes an elegant movement that is incredible to perform and to watch".
'I've never experienced a high like it' Sadie Frost's story
I started learning the trapeze about 10 months ago. I just fancied trying something different, wanted a bit of a challenge. The daughter of a friend had taken it up and I thought it sounded fun, so I enrolled for a lesson at Circus Space in London. I tried static trapeze first, then flying. What I didn't expect was being thrown in at the deep end the first time you have a go at it - you hold on and swing and the adrenaline rush is huge. But it is also incredibly hard work.
When you watch a trapeze artist, their moves are very technical. I could manage only two swings when I started, as the strain of holding your entire body weight while clinging on to a bar requires a lot of strength. Now, though, I can do 20, and the difference in the muscles on my arms and upper body is amazing. Holding on to the bar really works the underarm muscles, and the more moves you do, the better your stomach, legs and arm strength becomes.
Even running up and down the ladder before each swing on the trapeze gets you fitter. But it is not just for fitness reasons that I have carried on with the trapeze lessons. I now go once a week and would go more if I had the time. As I have become more proficient, the momentum of movement I experience doing somersaults and other moves leaves me on a high like I have never experienced. Sometimes my hands are bleeding, but I don't feel the pain until I stop - it is just so exhilarating.
It has given me far more than I could ever have expected from the gym. I get a real sense of having done something special when I finish. It has changed everything. I even find I dress more casually since taking it up as I feel more comfortable just being myself. The great thing about it is that anyone can try it. I have taken friends and my children, Iris and Rafferty, along on Saturdays, and they love it. My sister does it and is super-competitive at it. I do some Pilates and general body conditioning as well as rock climbing. But trapeze is the most beautiful and graceful movement when you master it. I am completely hooked on its effects.