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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Related Article: Where Surfing Meets Yoga: Getting Your Feet Wet
Learn more about our Therapy Ball Products and Programs
Interested in video and blog content targeted to your interests?
Article intéressant qui met en lumière les limites du yoga classique. Ce qui emmènera les gens a trouver de nouveau mouvement ou discipline sportive pour nourrir leur corps.
le pole dance est une belle discipline sportive exigeante qui mérite d’être connue. Merci pour le partage d’expérience sur le mouvement.
Wow, reading this really made me feel ready to start pole. It’s been a practice that I’ve been interested in, but maybe didn’t have the courage to try. Reading about the body benefits has got me feeling ready. Thank you!
Cross training with traditional yoga is essential. this is a new way of thinking for me and I’m open to finding ways to bring in the cross training. I’m inspired by the pole dancing leap.
yessss to all of this! yes to you for exploring movement and finding something that really resonates with you! I’ve tried pole dancing and loved it too. It was challenging and highlighted an array of muscles i was under using. I love the YTU balls against the wall. Not only will it help after pole dancing classes, but it will help after silks classes as well. Thank you for sharing and keep on moving!
I can not imagine pulling myself up a pole. I had such a hard time with the bodysurfing exercice today. Luckily body’s can be transform. Latissimus Dorsi, here i come.
Yoga feels like such a full-body workout and is often touted by instructors as targeting every part of the body, it’s shocking to realize there is such a blind spot. Time for every yogi to start “Bodysurfing!”
Its awesome to find movement outlets that mirror some skills while filling in the gaps with others and contributes to our emotional wellbeing…dance is one of the beautiful modalities that can have such personal direction, provides the opportunity for all kinds of movement AND lets us embody whatever emotion we may need to release.
I am a dancer, mostly latin and brazilian dance.
Your article helps me in my quest to link both world, yoga and dance.
What a great article! I was taking classes for weeks and loved it! Pulling oneself up on the pole is definitely challenging, especially if your hands are slippery!! You’ve inspired me to get back into class. It is so freeing and playful.
I was drawn to this article because I’ve always been curious about pole dancing classes. After your description about finding strength, creativity and fun through the class, I’ll be sure to try one for sure! I’m just about to complete YTU Level I training, and although every day has been eye opening as to how weak or under-used some of my muscles have been, I’ve also never felt so strong in my life!
I appreciate the mention that not one single modality provides enough movement nutrients to be balanced. We really should be moving in all different ways both inside a studio and outside.
I really love the connection of noticing what body blind spots we have in yoga and how that translates into other modalities of training and perhaps where we could fill-in the gaps. I’m a big fan of cross-training and believe that it is essential in order to have a healthy, sustainable, balanced practice in whatever modality. For those students who maybe stick to only one modality, I also think that is a wonderful challenge for us as teachers to provide ways of noticing various body blind spots that our everyday practices may leave us with. Thanks for the tips!
Every type of workout wakes up some blend spot on our body, we overuse some muscles by petition of one type of exercise, but cross training really helps us become stronger by strength different body part and giving a nice break for those muscles we have been always using. My teacher Dinneen said: ask yourself, training for what? Know the reason why first, then expand or deepen from there.
What a brilliant illustration of cross training. And what a delicious marriage of artistic expression and athleticism.
For me, sensuality walks hand in hand with vulnerability. While yoga might not explicitly ask for sensuality in its philosophical treatises or physical practice, I think that it allows me to bring my whole self to the mat. It makes space for me to be vulnerable with myself and thus honest with myself about myself. Discovering more about who I am lets me bring more of me into the rest of my life – sensual or otherwise.
I believe that I do not have strong lats after reading this article. I practice yoga quite often and it is always mentioned that there are no “pulling” movements in yoga. I’ve always felt that my body is not meant to be able to do pull ups. After knowing this, I will incorporate exercises to my daily routine to strengthen my latissimus dorsi and see what happens. I will try out the body surfing exercise!
Ah the latissimus dorsi. I recently also experienced the body surfing technique while in YTU certification training and quickly realized that, oh man, I need to work on my strength. A very humbling exercise indeed but one that feels so empowering. Don’t know if I’ll ever make it up a pole but gaining strength rocks!
I am able to do a couple of chin ups but have not gotten there with pull ups. I can’t even imagine I could do any kind of pole dancing but it sounds amazing. Going to try some of the rolling exercises you mentioned to wake up lats. And might just investigate pole classes in Ottawa!
Some sort of practice that involves pulling is so essential to stay balanced if you practice more traditional styles of yoga…
Pole fitness sounds super cool !
what i like about this yogatuneup bñog is the deversety and creative ideas and advices in how to enhance your practice, i would like to fall in love with my Latissimus dorsi muscle and hey yeah if pull up can help me get there i will try it.
Certainly yoga doesnt claim to strengthen or enhance every muscle in the body and cross training, whether it be pole dancing or any other work out ( snow skiing) is advisable to stimulate the body and mind.
I was interested in reading this blog because pole dancing has always appealed to me, too (more so recently). I see a lot of amazing Instagram accounts including a friend of mine who uses the pole to move their body in a different way and it’s beautiful! There’s a lot of strength involved along with empowerment, femininity, and the ability to withstand the grip of the pole on the skin. I love how you spoke about the body blind spot you find in your Latissimus dorsi. This is something I would have to consider if I ever took a pole class. I just tried Body Surfing today in my YTU day one training and it was so hard!! I gained a new sense of body awareness. Thanks for the great sequence.
This was a great article to give respect and admiration to pole fitness and take away the stigma. I appreciated the identification of latissimus dorsi requirements, as I recently discovered that I have almost zero strength there. I attempted my first body surfing activity today with a new found awareness and I will be adding this into my regular fitness, along with your suggested therapy ball usage. Thank you
I really like this idea of pole fitness. It seems like adding different types of exercise works different parts of the body. I also think that the muscles used for pole dancing are not necessarily used in many different types of group exercise. This can only assist in adding strength to the lats and many other back muscles.
I did 8 courses on the air tissue, which looks like the pole but with a little more clothes on the other hand.
I developed a very fast pulling force. I have never been so strong. Thanks to your advice, I will integrate them to prepare myself to climb again. Thank you