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Demystifying Pole Fitness: One of the Most Effective Ways to Exercise

pole fitness: woman smiling while pole dancing

What comes to mind when you think about pole dance? Right. It has a certain "image" — more on this in a minute. But today, we’ll take a detailed look under the hood, and I will convince you that pole fitness (a specific category within pole dance) is one of the most effective ways to train multiple skills simultaneously. 

Pole fitness is gaining a lot of popularity (just check your social media feeds) and that's for a very good reason. It's one of the most effective ways to exercise, and at the same time, it’s a lot of fun. 

Pole Fitness vs. Pole Dance

So, let's first address the elephant in the room: society often sees pole dance with a certain stigma attached. It's from strip clubs, and it's about sensual dancing. 

Or is it? 

You will be surprised when I tell you later about the 800-year-old sports tradition that today's pole dance is based on. 

Pole dancing can broadly be classified into three different categories: acrobatic, dance-oriented, and sensual. They all have their purpose. The first two fall under the umbrella of pole fitness — these are the ones most interesting to me from a fitness and athletics perspective. 

Pole fitness is a comprehensive way of training your body that involves strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, body knowledge, and a sense of timing and rhythm. It’s also very taxing for our cardiovascular system. 

A study from 2019 analyzed pole dancing for fitness and compared a 60 minute pole fitness class to other types of sports. In one hour, the athletes burned 281.6 kcal and confirmed a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 6.3 (on a scale from 1 to 10), which is significant and comparable to sports like swimming or tennis. I can fully understand this high RPE. Pole fitness is a full-body workout that involves all sorts of climbs, spins, drops, inversions, and acrobatic figures on the pole, as well as floor work

Pole fitness is also considered part of aerial gymnastics, which along with spinning or static poles, also includes silk, trapeze, and hoops. Pole fitness is also currently one of the sports being considered for inclusion in the Olympic program in the near future.  

The Origins of Pole Fitness

pole fitness: woman participating at a pole dancing competition

The first time a sport similar to today's pole fitness was pursued dates back over 800 years. It's the Indian sport of Mallakhamb. Acrobats climb a wooden pole that has a larger diameter than today's poles and a sphere on top. The movements themselves are very similar. Check out this video and you'll be amazed by what these guys are doing on that pole. 

Later this evolved into "Chinese pole" acrobatics, which is very similar to today's pole sports. It’s assumed that these early types came from Asia to the American continent where it was first popular in exotic traveling shows. 

Only starting in the 1950s did it gain mainstream popularity, partly through rock and roll concerts and music shows, and later through videos. It was still the more sexual variation of pole dance. In the 1980s, the first pole studios were established and pole became the sport we know today. Lots more challenging gymnastics moves were also added at that time. 

Which Skills Will You Develop With Pole Fitness?

Pole fitness is a sport that perfectly fits into the model of the principle of generality and specificity. I have covered it several times on my blog, including in my articles about what we can learn about life from ice climbing, Thai boxing, or gymnastics

Like these sports, for pole fitness, you will need a solid base of health and fitness, developed via the principle of generality. That is all the things that I cover with my model of the 4 Legs of Fitness. In addition, to become really good at pole fitness, you need to learn and practice pole-specific techniques and skills.

In the following sections, I cover some of the key skills that you will develop by practicing pole fitness.

Strength

Without a doubt, practicing pole fitness will improve your core strength. A lot of the moves are similar to gymnastics exercises that engage the whole body. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that you are doing all of this on a vertical pole. 

Good upper body strength is certainly helpful. You'll need (or develop over time) excellent grip strength and a strong posterior chain. Inversions are a very typical pole exercise, which basically requires you to tilt your pelvis and lift your feet over your head — all while hanging onto a pole. You will be able to do this very quickly, even if you are a beginner.

Flexibility and Mobility

pole fitness: woman pole dancing outdoors

There is a difference between flexibility and mobility, which I describe in my article about static versus dynamic stretching. Two-time Spanish pole fitness Champion Luciana Fayet confirms that a good pole fitness athlete requires both, and both are developed in a pole fitness program. Top athletes perform splits while inverted in the air. 

The sport also involves elements of floor work, which is not unsimilar to classic dance or even ballet. A typical pole fitness class will start with flexibility elements as part of a warm-up routine and often finish with some strength exercises. Many pole studios also offer dedicated stretch classes.

Body Awareness

Body awareness (also referred to as kinesthesia) is consciously recognizing how you move your body through space. An important part of body awareness is balance. People with low body awareness may sometimes appear clumsy. 

This is a very important concept, especially for dancers who are often required to activate certain body parts in certain positions in a certain sequence, which non-dancers may struggle with. It can be trained and improved upon through yoga, meditation, or balancing exercises. 

Economy of Motion

Like I mentioned at the beginning, pole fitness has a fairly high rate of perceived exertion. So, it's hard. The more an athlete develops the ability to use energy efficiently the more difficult combinations they can deliver for a longer time. 

This is very similar to other high-intensity sports like sprinting, gymnastics, or boxing. You need to develop the necessary body awareness to understand how your cardiovascular system reacts to certain stimuli. Over time, this will improve, leading to a positive effect on the elegance of your movements, which leads to my next point. 

Rhythm and Elegance

two women pole dancing

Acrobatics in general and pole dance in particular are very elegant activities. Different figures, moves and combinations flow from one to the other in a certain sequence. The better the sense of rhythm of an athlete the more elegant the flow. A dance background will certainly help, but it’s not necessary. Rhythm and elegance is something that you will develop over time with consistent practice. 

Work Ethic

Pole fitness is very demanding. It requires hard work, dedication, and consistency to improve. It will help you develop a strong work ethic, which is a transferable skill to other areas of life. It requires following the same key principles that I outlined in my article A Revolution In The Fitness Industry

In addition, you will leave your comfort zone, endure soreness, pole burns, and bruises referred to as "pole kisses," but this is exactly what will make you grow and develop a solid work ethic: Keep working — even if it's hard — until you achieve your goal.  

Self-Confidence

Related to work ethic is the benefit of developing more confidence and self-esteem. The first time you attend a pole class is probably going to feel weird and uncomfortable. I tried it myself, so I know how it feels to be totally out of place and looking like you have the elegance of a potato sack. 

But then, you’ll master the art of giving a shit and just working through that. This is also a valuable life lesson. Nothing valuable comes easy, but it pays off eventually. The fact that you tone your body will support your growing self-confidence. If you don't believe me, check out this TED talk by Dr Maggie Rostron. A great side bonus is that you'll make new friends in the pole fitness society.

How to Get Started

Although there are online classes and tons of information about pole fitness available on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, it is generally best to learn pole dance at in-person pole classes. The quality is different, your progress will be faster, and you'll have more fun. Qualified instructors will be able to train you in a structured way and coach you to your first pole success. 

Pole classes are offered by dedicated pole dance studios but some fitness studios also offer classes. For beginners or if you just want to test a studio, most typically offer drop-in classes or taster sessions

That's it! Then you just go and do it. For your first time, you don't need much more than this. Just bear in mind that you should bring comfortable clothes, which should ideally be skin tight so that they are not in the way. Also, in order to have enough friction to hold onto the pole, your skin should touch the pole. That means long leggings or using lotion won't work. Also, don't bring any jewelry because it may increase the risk of injuring yourself.

Later on, you may consider pole fitness-specific clothing, which has features purpose-made for pole dance. There are also liquids and lotions available to help improve your grip on the pole, which is very useful when you get sweaty from all the exercise. 

Top Accessory Activities to Improve Your Pole Fitness

woman pole dancing in a dark studio

Generally, you will become a better pole fitness athlete and a better member of the pole family if you follow a healthy and positive lifestyle. This includes emotional and psychological well-being, such as creating a positive environment around yourself with great people and opportunities to grow and do exciting stuff. 

On the physiological side — no big surprise, this is in line with the principles of generality and specificity — you will be a better athlete if you have the basics down correctly. That's what I encourage by following the four principles of my 4 Legs of Fitness model and habits related to it. 

The types of training you get from pole fitness fall into the same four categories:

  1. Strength training: A strong core and posterior chain are essential in pole fitness. I strongly recommend compound exercises like deadlifts and planks in all sorts of variations. It's also advisable to mix in lots of isometric exercises because holds are very common in pole too.
  2. Cardio training: One hour of pole is tough. If you engage in competitions, you'd have to deliver several performances a day. A strong cardiovascular system is the engine to deliver this. I recommend a combination of low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio (ie, walk a lot) with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with emphasis on the latter as it's more related to fast-twitch pole moves. 
  3. Nutrition: Follow the basic principles of healthy eating (consume according to your caloric need, no unnecessary sugar or alcohol, no trans fats, a balanced macro split, lots of greens etc., and coffee — well that’s probably my personal thing). Since pole fitness requires a lot of strength, make sure you get enough protein. Here are some tips on nutrition to help with injuries and never forget the benefits of kiwis
  4. Recovery: All the classic recovery methods I have discussed in my health and fitness articles also apply to pole fitness. However, I'd emphasize the importance of massages and yoga as they also support general mobility. Pole dance studios also often offer dedicated flexibility classes which can help up your pole game.

Finally, there are lots of sports that have similar characteristics to pole fitness, like climbing, gymnastics, calisthenics, dancing, or martial arts. Pursuing a combination of these sports will have beneficial crossover effects. 

Pole Fitness: Getting Fit and Having Fun 

The best exercise is the one that's intense but fun so it doesn’t feel like work. Pole fitness definitely fits that bill. With the combination of different skills that you develop doing pole fitness — including strength, flexibility, body awareness, economy of motion, rhythm, work ethic, and self-confidence — I firmly believe that this is one of the most effective ways to exercise. Apart from that, the movements and combos are extremely elegant and impressive.

As with every specific sport, in order to get really good at it, a solid health and fitness foundation is mandatory. I share my experience building these foundations in my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. In the Super Coach version of it, I work with you very specifically on your individual goals.

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