I’M SHAKING. There are muscles in my belly that I never knew I had, writes TOM SEAWARD.

“Push your back to the ground,” a lightly accented voice shouts.

I’m trying. But after 60 minutes in this airy West Swindon gym, my body seems to be giving up.

It’s a bright morning in Shaw and working out beside me is a wall of Russian muscle who until recently performed on some of the world’s biggest stages with the renowned Cirque du Soleil.

Nikita Sukhanov, 30, toured the world and met his circus-performer wife, Rebecca. The couple settled in the United States to raise their first-born, Oskar.

They lived and worked in Portland, Oregon, for three years before Swindon-born Rebecca found that the pull to return to her home town became too great. The couple, who have two children, moved to West Swindon last December.

Nikita already teaches gymnastics in the town – but this month is also opening a new venture: the Academy of Balance.

It’ll teach fit Swindon residents some of the tricks of the circus hand-balancing act. And I’m lucky enough to be one of the first to try it out.

Or at least that’s the theory.

I’d always thought that doing a handstand or the splits would be a piece of cake. I mean, if children can do it surely a 25-year-old reporter should have no problems. Right?

Over a gruelling 90 minutes I get test how wrong this theory is.

Nikita is a brilliant tutor – calm, supportive and helpful. It’s just me and him in a graffiti-covered upstairs room, so he’s able to go at my preferred pace: slow.

We start with over 30 minutes of stretching. It feels like a long time, but as a circus performer Nikita sometimes spent entire days on stretches.

He’s methodical, working each muscle group in turn. We roll our necks, wrists, shoulders, hips – and other muscle groups it feels like nature failed to gift to me.

“You need to warm up,” he says. “If you don’t and you try a handstand you’ll get injured.”

Finally, we get to the pike fold. Starting with your back flat against the ground and arms outstretched beside you, your legs flick above your head until it feels like you’ve folded yourself in two.

According to Nikita it’s a good stretch after a long night.

“I find that it’s used in yoga progressions. It stretches the hamstrings,” he says.

Part way through these stretches our photographer arrives. And I get to see just how good Nikita is.

The muscles in his arms bulge as, standing on his wrists, he contorts his body into scorpion-like shapes.

Then again, I sigh, he’s been doing this for a long time. I’ve only been at it for half an hour.

The hand-balancing acrobat grew up in a town 250km north-east of Moscow. His childhood was enjoyable – but hard work.

He started gymnastics at nine. He would take his sister to her classes and then hang around, watching the others.

“There was a door with a window,” he says. “I would look through it.

“The tutor saw me, and said: ‘come and join in’.

“At that point everybody was training in something. I chose acrobatics.”

The Russian work ethic is tough. The country has trained generations of Olympic medal winning gymnasts.

“We take things seriously. When I was in sport we still enjoyed what we were doing, but our enjoyment was going to competition and winning," he says.

“If you didn’t work hard, you were out.”

He made the switch from gymnastics to circus performance in his teens, joining the Russian Circus. He spent time performing in China, before being invited to join the world-famous Cirque du Soleil.

Nikita travelled the world with the renowned Canadian circus, performing for presidents and pop stars.

“We performed twice at the Albert Hall,” he says. “Madonna was there both times.”

After leaving the circus, he taught in America for three years. There, he met bodybuilder Steve Atlas.

“It changed everything,” says Nikita. The pair worked on fusing bodybuilding and hand balancing. And I suspect Steve influenced Nikita’s theory of “balance” – acting, eating and exercising in balanced way.

Hand balancers have a reputation for being skinny. They need to be light to perform their extraordinary moves in front of the audience. But Nikita could see the benefits that hand balancing could bring bodybuilders – and vice-versa.

And despite fearing that beefing up would spell the end of his hand balancing career, it hasn’t worked out that way.

“I thought that was going to be the end of all my tricks. But slowly I was growing stronger,” he says.

Now, he’s hoping to attract bodybuilders and other athletes to his Academy of Balance classes at the 24 Hour gym.

“Body builders do a lot of work on bigger muscle groups. When those muscles get damaged, sometimes the attachments between them rip more easily,” he says.

Hand balancing helps strengthen the smaller muscle groups that your body relies on when you’re lifting weights, he says.

As a weedy reporter, I think it’s unlikely that I’ll be lifting weights any time soon. But I’m keen for another snippet of wisdom, so I ask 'what’s the secret to what you do?'

He laughs. “There is no secret.” He’s no fan of get-fit-quick schemes. “It’s your body; you need to work.”

For more about the Academy of Balance, visit: www.academy-of-balance.com.