I think I know how it went… before finding pole, you’d tried all the usual group exercise classes… Body Pump, Step Aerobics, Zumba… but somehow they just weren’t cutting it.
You’d done the whole gym membership thing too and lost interest after a week, proclaiming that “treadmills are for hamsters”—and you’re a unicorn, goddam it!
Where’s the fitness class for unicorns at?
Aha! Pole class – here it is!
Like you (and I), most people arrive at their first pole class looking for something different. In fact, I think that attraction to quirky is one of the things that make the pole community such a supportive and close-knit bunch of nut jobs. We finally found our people – the people with the same kinda weird as us! Hello fellow weirdos, thank you for shining your weird light so bright so I knew where to find you.
Pole was finally the thing – your thing – the one fitness thing that caught your imagination and kept your attention long enough for you to actually be able to legitimately say ‘yeah, I do fitness now’.
But after the initial joy of being able to get upside down and hang off a knee pit, you hit a point where your progress started to stall.
No longer is every pole class filled with exciting new moves, followed immediately afterwards by a deluge of photos to your ‘Pole Progress’ Facebook album.
Instead, something is holding you back from that move you’ve been pestering for months now. You see your pole idols all over Instagram looking badass as hell and you realise you want, nay, neeeed, to be strong. Like, right now!
Suddenly, those weights lined up in neat rows on the dumbbell rack back in that gym you quit, they are starting to hold a new appeal. No longer do they equate to a boring evening spent picking up and putting down cold metal objects in a sweaty weight room, but instead they are the promising key to being able to build the strength you need for that Ayesha / Shoulder Mount / Handspring / Deadlift.
So now you’re at that point where you know you probably need to do some training outside of pole class if you want to get better on the pole, but how exactly do you go about organising your training so that it compliments and helps your pole progress and doesn’t end up hindering it?
Designing strength and conditioning programmes for polers
Designing training programmes for polers is what I do, so I wanted to share a few key pointers with you about what kind of things a functional training programme for pole might include.
All sport-specific programme design begins with one thing. This is true whatever the sport is—the same thing applies to literally any sport-specific programming at all, whether it’s for a football player, a golfer or, in this case, a pole dancer. It begins with an analysis of the skills and attributes needed to excel at that sport.
By looking closely at the specific demands of the sport and the attributes that the best performing athletes in that sport possess, a personal trainer like me can create a programme that will help athletes to improve those qualities in order to kick ass at their sport.
So, if you’re trying to create your own programme, this same thought process should help you narrow down what kind of things to include. So, let’s take a quick look at what makes a really great pole dancer and how this might influence a pole-specific training programme.
I’ve broken these down into the 5 key areas which I think are the most important for pole.
Look at any successful pole dancer and one of the first things you’ll notice is their incredible strength.
Clearly, like any athlete training for any sport, strength training should form a big part of any training programme for pole.
Although I’m going to be talking a lot about “sport-specific” programing in this article, the truth is that basic strength training doesn’t change dramatically from sport to sport. We all have the same muscles and strengthening them using a combination of pushing, pulling, rotating, squatting and lunging exercises follows a very similar pattern for all athletes.
Having said this, there is a spectrum. At one end, you have general strength building which should form the foundation of any strength building programme (this might include things like core training and more traditional compound strength-building movements in the gym, like squats and barbell deadlifts). At the other end, you have pole-move specific strength training (this might be as specific as performing shoulder mount dismounts on the pole to help build strength, very specifically, for your shoulder mount).
In between, you have things like grip strength and isometric core strength training, which are somewhere in between general and very specific to pole.
The mistake many polers make is going balls-out on the specific strength training (which, to be honest, usually just entails trying a pole move over and over again to beat it into submission), without making sure they have the general strength foundations laid first, which is a pretty quick route to injury.
Making general strength training more functional for pole
A general strength training programme can also be tweaked to make it a little bit more specific to what we do on the pole by looking more closely at the way our bodies need to work on the pole.
For example, when we’re dancing or doing tricks on the pole, our arms and legs are usually not working together doing the same thing – we tend to have one arm pulling whilst the other pushes or one arm squeezing an arm pit grip for dear life while the other floats gracefully in the air.
So can you see how incorporating more unilateral arm and leg movements into your strength programme (for example, Turkish Get Ups as a core exercise as opposed to say, a plank, or even just doing single arm dumbbell rows rather than using a cable machine) is going to translate much better to your strength and ability on the pole?
2. Speed and power
Assuming that the ultimate end game for polers is the performance of a routine that takes around 4 minutes, pole is a ‘speed and power’ sport, not an ‘endurance’ sport.
I want you to think about how that might influence the conditioning (more cardio based) training that you do off the pole.
Because pole is a speed and power sport, being good at long distance endurance won’t help you to be a good poler. You don’t need the stamina to be able to run a 1 hour 10k or perform long hours of steady state cardio to perform a pole routine.
Instead, a poler needs to be able to perform short bursts of explosive power and speed for all those power spins, dramatic drops and dynamic movements over a very short timeframe.
So an off the pole speed and power conditioning session might be in an interval training format that intersperses high impact power moves like box jumps and plyometric press ups (to reflect the strength tricks and power moves on the pole) with lower intensity movement (to reflect the flowy bits of a routine) over a very short, 4-minute period.
That kind of conditioning more accurately replicates the energy demands of performing a pole routine than running on a treadmill or pedalling away on a bike for 40 minutes. In other words, this is exactly what your muscles, heart and lungs need to be prepared for if you want to get through those 4 minute routines without having to tell the audience to wait while you catch your breath mid-Marion Amber.
3. Grace and flow
If your poling style is more contemporary or exotic, then you gon need a whole heap of grace and style. If you’re more of a tricks kinda poler, then whilst you may not need the grace of a ballet dancer, you’ll notice that all the best polers, even the ones who major in tricks, all have a high level of body awareness. They know what ‘lines’ look good and they can put those tricks into combos that flow visually.
Some people seem to have a natural ability to ‘flow’ (not jealous at all ;)) and for others, it might take a little more work (I hear ya!).
This aspect of functional training for pole might include learning dance styles away from the pole, doing yoga or mobility drills to improve balance and proprioception (body awareness) and working on flexibility to improve those ‘lines’. Which seamlessly leads me to…
4. Mobility and flexibility
I’m not just talking about what we traditionally view as ‘flexibility’ – being able to get a beautifully flat Jade split or a stonking awesome Bird of Paradise. Yes, great pole dancers need great flexibility, and flexibility training should definitely form part of a poler’s training programme.
But I’m also including just basic, healthy postural stability and mobility in this category, which again is an important foundation of being a really awesome pole dancer. Everyone is different, so the flexibility and mobility aspects of a training programme would look different depending on the unique needs of the athlete and the unique quirks of their postural alignment.
In my programmes, I always include traditional passive stretching as well as muscle balancing strength work, foam rolling and active stretching in this category. The aim here is to mobilise and strengthen the parts that need to be able to stabilise when we pole dance (I’m thinking mostly the shoulders, here) whilst simultaneously mobilising and stretching the parts that need to have more movement.
A quick note on muscle balancing and planes of motion
When we’re thinking about muscle balancing and looking at posture and creating a healthy framework on which to build up to all those awesome pole moves, it’s again important to look at how we actually move on the pole and how this is going to impact on our joints, muscles and ligaments.
For example, on the pole, a lot of the time, we are working in what’s called the ‘sagittal plane’ – where are arms are extended in front of us. It’s important for general strength and injury prevention to work in all planes of movement – so a training programme for pole might include more lateral movements in the frontal plane and rotational movements in the transverse plane in order to prevent overuse injury and create a more well-balanced, stronger pole athlete.
This is the most sport-specific of all the elements in my list. You can’t get this one in the gym and even if you nail all of the other 4 elements, you won’t be good at pole without this.
This is where you learn and refine the actual moves, combos and tricks ON the pole through proper instruction, learning the movement patterns and practice (on both sides, please!).
When we take all the other elements of our training—our strength, speed, grace and mobility— and bring them together to the pole, this is where the magic happens.
I want to know: how does what you are currently doing in your training fit in with the above categories? Do you have a good balance of all elements in your training programme? Or are you missing one or two that you know you need to work on? I could write about this topic all day so if there are any aspects you want more details on – let me know and I’ll do a follow up blog.
If you want a personalised training programme to help you get stronger on the pole, I can write one for you! My fully customised online training programmes include postural and movement assessments, nutritional guidance and all the 1-to-1 coaching and support you need to kick ass in the gym and on the pole!