Pole Fitness, Self-Massage and Learning to “Pull Up”

Pole dancing has always appealed to me–it’s acrobatic, a little taboo and also a very New York way to workout (read: over-the-top).

A friend mentioned she was taking aerial dance classes and it was rocking her world. She raved about pole dancing benefits like the strength, stretch, sensuality and positive community in pole fitness. So on a whim, I decided to try it and the appeal was immediate.

With pole, you are creating a shape, and if that shape doesn’t work for your body, you create an illusion of the shape by changing your angle to the audience. Pole requires technical proficiency and strength. Yet it also requires rhythm and a willingness to embody sensuality (yoga asks for vulnerability, but not sensuality).

Furthermore, pole helped me overcome a huge “body blind spot” that my yoga practice couldn’t touch… my latissimus dorsi.

Learning I Had No Lats!

For years I was satisfied with yoga as a structured discipline. Yoga is touted for its mind/body benefits, and I assumed that it was all I needed to be healthy and active.

Then two years ago, feeling stale and rigid in my own practice, and in an effort to diversify my yoga offerings, I participated in the Yoga Tune Up® Level One Teacher Training.

One of my teachers (Elizabeth Wipff) demonstrated a pose called Bodysurfing where you lay prone with your body on a blanket, palms on the floor, arms overhead. The core and buttocks are engaged. As you exhale, the shoulder blades depress and retract, the spine extends and the body slides forward from the pull of the back body.

In layman’s terms, this is a pull-up, with a different relationship to gravity. I was surprised to find out that I couldn’t do this exercise. As I looked around the room, no other yogis could either. Except for my Tune Up teacher Elizabeth–she flew across the floor.

See what Bodysurfing looks like here:

While I grumbled about her just being “a more seasoned yogi,” Elizabeth explained that the main muscle used in the Tune Up exercise is the latissimus dorsi–a muscle rarely targeted and strengthened in yoga. The lats are the “pull-up muscle” that encompass most of our back.

Elizabeth then went on to explain that a single movement practice (no matter what it is) is not varied enough to target every muscle. Cross-training and recovery are essential to any movement diet.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, as I was longing for variety in my movement practice. Then someone in our group stated matter-of-factly that her sister is a stripper, and regularly pulled herself up her home pole.

So Yoga Tune Up® introduced me to my latissimus dorsi, and this muscle is the shining star in many of the moves in pole dancing.

Pole Play to Wake Up the Lats

People often shy away from pole fitness because it requires you to wear clothing that covers only the surface area that a bathing suit would. I’m in my mid-thirties and am not into public nudity for the sake of nudity. But in pole we are all in our (almost) birthday suit because skin is required to help grip the pole. Slippery clothing is dangerous.

The rigor of pole dancing is intense, and I must be focused, strong, body aware, and dedicated. Some pole classes (geared towards tricks) have specific technical requirements. Conditioning, practice and safety are required to excel.

As I got more into pole, I finally got to strengthen my latissimus dorsi in a whole new way.

An approximation of the latissiumus dorsi on Rie Katagiri, Yoga Tune Up®️ Teacher and Erotic Movement Arts studio owner

The latissimus dorsi attaches the humerus (upper arm bone) to the trunk of the body, spanning the spinous processes of thoracic T7–T12, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, and inferior 3 or 4 ribs. The lats extend, adduct and medially (internally) rotate the shoulder.

In a pull up (as in, pulling yourself up a pole) the latissimus dorsi tugs on the upper arm bone, drawing it into the body. As a result, the body rises up the pole. (FYI for you anatomy nerds: Because our bodies recruit numerous muscles for this type of movement, many muscles work together as synergists including the teres major and minor, infraspinatus, posterior deltoids, levator scapulae, brachialis, brachioradialis, biceps, rhomboids, and middle and lower trapezius).

I found pole dancing extra difficult due to the fact that the arms are not in identical positions like a traditional pull-up where the arms are both level with an overhead bar. When climbing a vertical pole, usually one hand is above the other.

Practice for Priming, and Relieving Your Back

Roll Model® Method therapy balls are effective for both “waking up” certain muscle tissues: they enhance proprioception and force production. They are also great for recovery after heavy usage.

To soothe and awaken your own sleepy or fatigued back muscles, try the below sequence I do to condition my spinal muscles and lats for pole fitness.

I encourage you to take on the spirit of play during your self-massage that I learned from a favorite class Finding Your Freestyle, created by Tracee Kafer. She encourages spontaneous, creative movement.

When free-styling, you are carried or directed by your mood, an object, a body part or a theme. It allows for both freedom and adherence, technique and artistry. You decide what flavor you want today.

Ideally, do this sequence on bare skin. The grip and grab of the therapy balls on the bare surface of your skin will light up nerve endings and enhance your mind/body connection. It will also increase sheer between layers of skin and fascia as you move.

Author and Tune Up Fitness® instructor Sierra Alea rolling along the spine

Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls (Classic or Plus)

  • Stand at an open wall surface.
  • Place a therapy ball against one side of your spine.
  • Fold your arms (like you are giving yourself a hug)
  • Rock back and forth (rib rock), allowing the therapy ball to roll from just next to the spine all the way to the side seam of your body.
  • From here, experiment by pushing your feet into the ground and rocking up and down. Or, just let the therapy balls sink into your back and use your breath to help release fascial tension.
  • Use this time to explore and find out what soothes your body.

To target the lats, reference the above anatomy image of pole fitness pro Rie, then try to trace the therapy balls down the lateral (outer) edge of this broad back muscle. Experiment with arm positions and body motions.

Rolling out the lats

Make sure you get all the way down to the lower back where the lats feed into your thoracolumbar aponeurosis (a broad sheet of connective tissue in your lower back).

Still rolling the lats (they cover a lot of territory!)

Free Yourself of Tension and Stigma!

There is a stigma attached to pole dancing because of its origins in sex work. I have met sex workers at pole class along with therapists, financial advisors, lawyers, pre-school teachers, and artists.

It feels good to dance with women and men who are both strong and bold, and soft and supportive. I’ve never been seen for my body in a way that celebrates strength and accomplishment so much.

My pole family roots for me when I unlock a new trick just as much as when I freestyle or am lazy in class. I am grateful to have found a group of badass men and women who share in my movement desires.


Feature Image: Rie Katagiri, Erotic Movement Arts Studio Owner and Yoga Tune Up® Teacher. Check out Ms. Katagiri’s website and Instagram.

Photos of Sierra Alea by Ariel Kiley


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