One of my old pole instructors used to Cellotape pound coins to the studio ceiling.
It was an incentive for her students to reach the top of the pole! Ah, she knew us so well! Never underestimating the lengths we’d go to for the promise of a shiny quid coin.
Even if you’re lucky enough to have motivational cash waiting for you at the top of your pole, it still takes a butt-load of determination, skill and strength to actually get your erm… butt… up there!
In this post, I’m gonna breakdown the key elements of the pole climb and show you which muscles we’re using when we climb.
If you caught my last post about leg day for pole climbs, you’ll have a good idea how we can use our lower body strength to help us make it to the top, but there’s a lot more going on with the humble old pole climb than just leg grip! So let’s breakdown the full movement from the floor!
Before we begin, let me quickly clarify that there are many (and I mean MANY) different ways to climb the pole. The pole climb I’m breaking down here is the forearm climb as demoed by myself and my friend Skelly (pole dancing skelington extraordinaire) in the video clips above.
There are also MANY variations, even just with this one particular type of climb. On top of that, there are also a whole multitude of reasons why one person might use different cues, different techniques and different muscle engagement to achieve what essentially is the same movement. For example, one pole dancer might use more leg strength to achieve the climb, while another might rely more on their upper body strength.
Those reasons include: limb length and differences, strengths and weaknesses, disability, mobility, aesthetic goals, creative choice… the list goes on! Our bodies and our intentions are unique to us, so how I climb, and the muscles I use to achieve that movement may look totally different to yours – and that’s OKAY! It doesn’t mean one way is ‘right’ and another is ‘wrong’.
I’m not the pole climb form-police. I’m just having a lot of nerdy fun analysing the climb pattern, and explaining which muscles work to achieve each element of it. Understanding the movements of pole in this detailed way helps me to programme strength and conditioning for pole dancers. My hope is that if you’re struggling with your climb, or if you’re an instructor and helping someone else who is struggling with theirs, or if you want to make your pole climb more efficient… this breakdown might help you piece together the parts of that puzzle you might be missing.
Or, you know, if you just love to read about pole because you’re a pole nerd like me (hello friend), that’s totally cool too!
Pole climb #Step 1: Lifting the feet off the ground
To start the forearm climb, we place one forearm on the pole and one hand above our head. Before we can even think about lifting our feet off the ground, we need to engage in a PULL with our top arm (key muscles working here will be our lats and triceps) and a PUSH with our bottom arm (key muscles for that push being our serratus anterior, pec major and minor, triceps and anterior deltoid).
Our muscles in this push/pull combo are working isometrically (in other words, they are holding the position still). With some core stabilisation thrown into the mix, we can then lift our feet off the floor.
Just like with our invert, our core muscles (including our transversus abdominis, obliques, erector spinae and quadratus lumborum) work to stabilize our spinal and pelvis position.
Notice that, because the shoulders are at different heights, when we take our feet off the ground, we call on our lateral stabilisers particularly to help stabilize against that asymmetry!
Pole climb #Step 2: Lifting the knees up
While our core and upper body work isometrically to hold the position, it’s mainly our hip flexors (iliopsoas) which contract to lift our knees up. Our hamstrings bend our knees.
The push with the bottom arm is particularly important in this step as it gives us leverage to keep our hips and torso away from the pole, giving us plenty of room to bring our knees up in front of us so we can place the legs on the pole closer to our knees than our pelvis.
As we lift our knees up and reach the end of our hip flexion range of motion, we usually tilt the pelvis posteriorly (i.e. tuck our hips under), using our rectus abdominis, rounding our back slightly, which allows us to place our knees nice and high on the pole.
Pole climb #Step 3: Wrapping the legs
We then wrap our legs around the pole, with the quads of the back leg working to press the back leg into the pole, and the hamstrings of the front leg working to pull the front leg into the pole.
The hip adductors (inner thigh muscles) on both legs work to squeeze the pole between our thighs.
*Psssst! For a closer look at the importance of the leg grip in the pole climb, check out my last post: Leg Day for Pole Climbs?*
Note again the asymmetry of the position from behind. We are in some lateral spinal flexion in this position.
Pole climb #Step 4: Standing up
To lift, we maintain that isometric leg grip from Step 3 – those muscle contractions create friction around the pole, holding our grip in place while we use our quads to straighten our legs and our glute max and hamstrings to extend our hips. It’s essentially a squat movement pattern (again, see my earlier post for more leggy details about pole climbing!).
I’d love to see some muscle activation testing on this, but my guess is that the back leg is probably working harder than the front leg in the climb, as it’s the back leg that has the most leverage against the pole as we lift!
Any hooo, at the same time as we stand up out of that pole squat position, our latissimus dorsi on the side of the top arm works, with assistance from the triceps, to help pull our torso up, while our scapular stabilisers (particularly the mid/lower trapezius) work to stabilise the scapula.
At this point, we then re-grip higher on the pole and essentially begin the whole movement again from Step 1. Rinse and repeat!
Asymmetry in the pole climb
Note that because our front and back legs and bottom and top arms are engaging differently in the climb, and because of that lateral spinal flexion element, there is perhaps more muscular asymmetry in the climb movement than you might first imagine.
Because the climb is such a fundamental building block in our pole skill repertoire, IMO it’s one of the reasons why training both sides in this skill is a good idea if you can, or at least including some form of climb progressions on that “dork” side, even if you can’t do the full movement on that side. This can help avoid building significant imbalance in those muscles long-term, as well as giving you greater creative freedom when it comes to including climbs (and climb-based transitions) in your choreography. That ideally means not only switching up which hand you have on top, but also which leg you have in front!
Wrists and grip in the pole climb
One final thing I want to mention!
Someone asked me a question on Instagram about wrist pain in the pole climb… Now, obviously, there could be a whole host of reasons for that and it’s beyond my scope of practice to comment, but for what it’s worth, here’s something to note about the pole climb that might be relevant…
When we forearm climb, the wrist of the bottom hand is in a position of “ulna deviation”. That means the wrist is bending laterally towards the pinky finger side, like this:
It’s a position we don’t use much in everyday life, so our wrists aren’t usually used to being there (especially under load). With more novel, end-range positions like this, it’s even more important than ever to consider:
- Progressive overload to make sure we’re building up strength here gradually. For example using sensible ‘off’ and ‘on the pole’ progressions, layering and building that up over time.
- Managing training volume to make sure we’re not overdoing it. For example, by keeping the number of pole climbs we’re doing in a single session, or over the course of a week, low – and building that up gradually, too.
- Making sure we’re able to properly stabilise through our shoulders and our core to ensure we are supporting the position and not placing more strain than is necessary on our wrists and our gripping muscles.
These kinds of strategies can help us reduce the risk of injury, especially in these kinds of positions that we don’t use much in our muggle lives!
Love nerding about pole anatomy with me? You’re the best! I think you’ll enjoy my book, Pole Anatomy, too!
Wanna know how to apply all this nerdy knowledge into your training? You’re a pole dancer after my own heart! Check out my book, Strength and Conditioning for Pole and let’s get to work!
Content on this website is provided for educational/informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should consult your Doctor or Health Care Professional before doing any exercises or fitness programs to determine if they are right for your needs.
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