Getting Through Pole Plateaus

The narrative is classic. You start a fitness regimen, you’re motivated, you’re consistent and you begin to see some changes, and then, nothing. In terms of a weight loss journey in which a low calorie diet was followed this can be due to the loss of muscle which often come along with a weight loss journey. Considering that muscle burns more calories than fat, the more muscle you loose, the more your metabolism will slow down. Busting past this plateau requires you to increase your activity level, building more muscle which may even require you to eat more. While there is a relatively straight forward prescription to follow in terms of a weight loss or fitness journey (and I in no way mean to diminish the challenges presented by each) when it comes to pole, the situation is a bit more complex as it may require focus on many different aspects of fitness such as strength and flexibility training in order to get through perceived moments of stagnation. 

I want to preface this article by emphasizing that there is no single pole journey, meaning there is no end goal to pole or single criteria which determines what qualities or at what moment a person becomes a good pole dancer. This is important to think about at all stages of your own personal pole journey because so many factors come into play. I remember when I first started pole, it was important to deemphasized “dance” to prioritize the fitness aspect of pole, mainly because the sport was for a long time trying to legitimize itself or rid itself of certain taboos. Pole was also gaining more visibility and trying to carve out a space within the mainstream fitness industry. In my opinion, this was to its detriment and demonstrated a certain internalized misogyny which has contributed to pole, as a privileged hobby, disengaging from or showing little support for sex workers who dance for a living. But I digress (and I’ll address this in a future blog post). In terms of how this emphasis on pole “fitness” manifested itself in the space of pole studios, there was increased pressure to learn the biggest baddest pole tricks and strength moves. On the one had this was terrific for polers who perhaps were not blessed with Felix Cane or Tammy Morris’ level of flexibility. Polers such as Tantra’s own Veronica Solimano really carved out a space for really innovative and dynamic pole styles that didn’t require a person to do a spatchcock in order to win a pole competition. On the other hand, competitions became increasingly a bar which one ought to attain to be validated as an instructor or as a good poler.  This also meant the exclusion of many polers whose style didn’t conform to those prescribed by competitions, a problem now remedied with the addition of Exotic dance and pole theatre categories. In short, and returning to the subject of this article, in order not to feel physically or emotionally stuck along your ‘pole’ way, it is important to continuously check in with yourself as you progress and to not feel pressured to conform to any perceived standard of pole proficiency except for the one you set for yourself. Maybe you are not interested in inverting and want to focus on basework. Perhaps you have no interest in dance and simply want to spend as much time with your feet off the floor as possible. Perhaps you just want to strap on heel and grind it out. Regardless, sticking to your own individual preferences will ensure that your pole journey continues to be rewarding and empowering, instead of an activity that feels defeating. For my part, early on I decided that exotic dance, sensual expression and teaching women to embrace a part of themselves from which history, society and culture has forced an alienation, was going to be the road map to my pole ride.

By Sonja Sloane

So, getting back to the brass tacks of pole plateaus, especially when you are within the first year of starting pole, most can expect a slow down in pole progress. This usually happens after you reach a certain level and have begun to invert. All of a sudden, you can’t master moves as quickly as you could when you first started and you don’t feel that you are getting any stronger. Inverting doesn’t seem to be getting easier or more elegant. The reason is because pole is a sport where your skill level increases at a faster pace than your strength and, to a certain extent, your flexibility. Strength and range of motion are both important factors in making the sport look and feel more effortless.  Unfortunately, conditioning is often not given the same amount of attention as learning new tricks. It is therefore crucial to implement your own pole specific conditioning routine at least once a week on top of your pole classes and not simply rely on the five minutes set aside for strength exercises at the beginning of a technique class. Furthermore, it is important to gradually increase the weight load very time you invert. That is, just like a body builder will gradually increase the weight used when bench pressing in order to get stronger (If you want to bench press 150lbs and can only press 50lbs, you don’t simply say “I can’t” and give up. You gradually increase the weight until you can), you have to, somewhat, implement the same approach when learning to lift your own bodyweight. So, when inverting, instead of simply trying to hook your knee or ankle onto the pole and then thrusting your hips up, try to engage your upper body first by holding your bodyweight up off your feet before pulling your knees to your chest. Then try to tilt your weight backwards without letting your arms extend (a common mistake which results in you hips lowering and your hand often getting stuck under a leg). Crucially, apply this method every time you invert! Remember, an inversion is first and foremost, a pull up. So rushing past the pull up bit to go straight to inverting will never improve your strength or the ability to get upside down with ease or elegance. The same goes with all other strength moves. Gradually increase the load and you will gradually get stronger. Simply make sure that you are practicing strength moves that are sport specific, or that imitate the pole moves you are working on.

The next stumbling block is flexibility. By this I don’t mean the ability to do a split or extreme back bend, but rather improving limited range of motion especially in the shoulders and hips. This one is important not to rush. Weekly attention paid to gradually increasing range of motion with active and passive flexibility exercises will help you with staple moves such as the ballerina, the allegra and the superman. Additionally this will prevent injury in the long run. Try to implement 30 minutes of stretching three times per week, making sure that you warm up adequately and focus less on attaining more ambitious flexibility goals which can take years to attain but rather opening up areas of your body where you can readily identify restricted movement. The benefits will extend well beyond pole!

Lastly and most importantly, be patient and resist the impulse to be competitive with yourself. It will spare you both injury and discouragement. The wonderful thing about pole is there will always be new challenges no matter the level you attain. As a fitness activity, it removes the focus from what your body “looks like” in terms of adhering to a socially constructed ideal of the perfect physique, to what your body can do! Each new trick, spin and dance step is another feather in your cap. In that way, pole helps you focus on what you are gaining instead of what you are loosing.  So make sure you celebrate yourself for how far you’ve come and appreciate your body for what it can accomplish at every winding turn of you pole journey. Plateaus will then look more like achievements than obstacles.

By Sonja Sloane