I often see pole dancing touted as a complete full-body workout. While this is kind of true, it’s also kind of a misleading statement. Generally speaking, pole is an upper-body and core-centric, strength-based workout. It typically requires elements of flexibility (primarily “active flexibility”). If you’re planning to perform or compete, high-intensity cardiovascular fitness is also a requirement. While pole is an amazing form of training, it is also an extreme sport. It’s moderately risky, particularly for your shoulders, and carries a high risk of causing a range of imbalances in your body. If you are only pole-dancing say, once per week, combined with other activities, you’re probably OK. If you’re pole dancing multiple times per week, and pole is your primary or only form of exercise, you should probably consider incorporating some cross-training into your schedule.

Reasons to cross-train:

Injury prevention and a balanced body

When you begin training for any sport in earnest, you run a risk of injuring yourself or creating imbalances in your body. This occurs simply by repeating the same or similar movements over and over again. Pole is no exception.

Injury prehab

Pole is HARD on your shoulders, and not just when you’re training at an advanced level. When trying pole for the first time, many new polers lack the strength to support their shoulders fully. In fact, it’s easy to underestimate the strength required for even beginner moves like a chair spin or a pole climb. While there’s no real way to get around this, this lack of strength in the very earliest stages of learning to pole can cause movement compensations that can build up for years before they ever start to cause problems. It’s quite common to find intermediate polers who have very dominant chest and upper trapezius muscles. These tend to “take over” for other muscles that have not developed at the same rate. Over time this can lead to massive shoulder problems including impingement (I’ve experienced this multiple times, and trust me, it’s not fun). Incorporating cross-training into your training schedule can help to combat these issues before they arise. You just need to make sure you are choosing activities that are synergistic and complementary to pole. If you are already injured, I highly recommend you seek the advice of a qualified sports physiotherapist before beginning any training routine. My personal preference for prehab cross-training is centred around the traditional gym environment – but I’m secretly a bit of a gym bro. I follow a hybrid powerlifting/bodybuilding/functional strength training style routine 3 days per week. Some of the most effective exercises that have helped with my personal shoulder rehab and ongoing prehab are deadlifts, turkish getups, scapular pull-ups and triceps pullovers.

Other excellent forms of cross-training to help ensure that you don’t develop movement compensations are rock-climbing and bouldering, aerial arts, traditional callisthenics, or CrossFit.

Balanced training

Pole is an inherently unbalanced form of training. First of all, most polers are not scrupulous about training both sides of their body equally. You know it’s true: most polers have a “strong side” and a “less strong side”. Second of all, there’s a high chance of any pole dancer developing the sort of muscular imbalances/movement compensations I mentioned above when talking about prehab. Thirdly, pole is a very upper-body centric activity, potentially leading to an upper body that is disproportionately strong when compared to the lower body. Again, my personal preference for correcting and balancing my training is a gym-based resistance training program. I recommend that your training program includes:

  • squats to help balance all the upper body work,
  • unilateral training (a fancy term for training one side of the body at a time) like single arm bent over rows, kettlebell clean and press and single arm dumbbell chest press to balance any lop-sidedness, and
  • the exercises I mentioned above in injury prehab to help prevent movement compensations.

If lifting weights isn’t your thing, you could also consider running, cycling or plyometric training for your legs. Rock-climbing, callisthenics, CrossFit or even swimming can help manage any lop-sidedness in your body.

The triangle of fitness

Many, many years ago when I studied fitness for the first time, one of the concepts that we covered was called the “triangle of fitness”. While it is rather an outdated modality, there is some merit in the triangle of fitness concept when looking at the needs of a pole athlete. It states that there are three main types of “fitness” – cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility, making up the three sides of the triangle. The triangle is strongest and the athlete performs at their best when the three sides are in balance.

Improved strength

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No matter how long you’ve been lifting, I highly recommend filming yourself and analysing your technique on a regular basis. Particularly on your heaviest sets, because that’s when your movement compensations are going to become the most evident. This is my fourth and last set of front squats for the day, at my heaviest weight. I can see that as I get tired, I slightly lose my rack position. What I was very happy to see, is that I am fighting my right-leg dominance, and I’m more balanced than I have been in the past. I’m also fighting my knee valgus issues (knees dropping inwards as I push out of the squat) and that particular problem is barely visible. While it’s not a perfect front squat, I’m happy with the progress I’m making.

A post shared by Sara-May | Train for Pole (@trainforpole) on

Pole is, without a doubt, a strength based sport. The stronger you are, the easier you will find it to hoist yourself up the pole into whatever new move is taking Instagram by storm this week. As such, strength training is an important complement to any pole dancers training schedule. By consciously working to improve your strength, you’ll find moves that once felt unachievable on the pole are within your grasp! I hate to be predictable, but once again, the type of training that has had the biggest impact on my strength on the pole is gym-based resistance training (weight training) and regular pilates practice. If this training doesn’t appeal to you, incorporating other circus arts like lyra, silks and trapeze into your training, or callisthenics and bodyweight training will make a noticeable difference to your strength.

Improved flexibility

I have never in my life met a pole dancer who doesn’t want to be more flexible. Pole is a sport that takes definitely advantage of any flexibility you possess, but participating in pole will not inherently improve your flexibility. Most of the pole studios I have visited offer flexibility training classes on their schedule, and this is an excellent place to start. These classes are typically designed to meet the flexibility needs of pole dancers. If you don’t have access to a studio, your studio doesn’t offer specific flexibility training, or the time of the flex training doesn’t work for you, there are always other options available to you. Easily the most accessible type of training to improve your flexibility is yoga, particularly the more active, dynamic styles of yoga. If you prefer to find a program you can do at home, and you have a budget to pay for this, I recommend StretchIt (no affiliation, I just like the program). The flexibility instructor for this program is a classically trained ballerina, master flexibility trainer and I believe she was previously head of flexibility training at Body & Pole (arguably the most famous pole studio in the world). While StretchIt’s programs are not pole specific, they have a strong focus on quality of movement and improving both active an passive flexibility. These are all important considerations for training flexibility for pole.

Improved stamina

If your goal is to either perform or compete on pole, then your stamina is an important factor in your overall training. A typical pole routine runs for 3-4 minutes, and they can be 3-4 INTENSE minutes. This is a fairly specific type of cardiovascular fitness. It is not the type of fitness that will be improved by participating in a standard pole dance class. If competing or performing is a goal of yours, I highly recommend incorporating some HIIT (high intensity interval training) into your training schedule. Any HIIT or circuit training offered by your local gym or boot camp will benefit your performance specific fitness. One type of HIIT that has excellent carry over for pole performances or competitions is the classic Tabata protocol (read more here). Tabata training only takes 4 minutes! While the original study used an assault bike, you can replicate this style of training with any cardiovascular exercise (so running, cycling, rowing etc.).  Tabata training consists of 8 working rounds of 20 seconds of maximal (and I DO mean maximal) effort, followed by 10 seconds of recovery, for a total of 4 minutes. Make no mistake, HIIT (and Tabata in particular) is horribly hard work, and you’ll probably feel like dying while you’re doing it. Incorporating this style of training into your routine 2-4 times per week will make a marked difference in your on-stage energy levels throughout your whole performance.

How much cross-training do I need?

Chances are, if you’re passionate about pole, then you want to train as much as possible ON THE POLE. And the best way to improve on the pole, is to be on the pole. Having said that, if you are serious about improving as well as preventing injury, I recommend the following at a minimum:

  • ONE full body strength training session of around an hour,
  • ONE flexibility session of at least 30 minutes, and
  • TWO Tabata sessions of 4 minutes each.

Where should I start?

To begin with, you could pick a few exercises I’ve recommended in this article and try incorporating them into your weekly schedule.

If you’d like to receive the occasional email with training and programming ideas from me, completely free of charge, you can drop your email address below.

If you’re looking for a more customised approach to help you to meet specific pole goals, I recommend enlisting the help of a certified personal trainer. Someone who understands the unique training needs of pole dancers, and can help you to design a training program that can get you to your goals both safely and effectively.

Be selective when choosing a personal trainer. I recommend trying to find someone who is:

  • Registered as a personal trainer (with EREPS in Europe, REPS in the UK, Fitness Australia in Australia and a respected certifying body like NASM in the US.)
  • Who ideally teaches pole or aerials. If not, they at least should pole dance themselves, or have significant experience working with pole dancers.

If you’re based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, or you’re looking for an online trainer, I’ll be taking clients from March 2019. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can work together, drop me an email below.

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