Efficiency Gains for Competitive Pole Dancers

This is my post about getting the most efficient training for strength, flexibility and balance in pole dancing. Original post here: 

It’s mid-February and the West Coast pole dance community is just one month away from PPAC, the Pacific Northwest’s largest pole dance competition. I signed up for PPAC’s pro division back in December, giving me 3 and a half months to train. In general, event-driven goals help me stay scheduled and rigorous with training, in a way that chasing viral Instagram tricks just don’t.

During past competition-prep seasons, I’d been so singularly focused on putting the hardest tricks in my routines, that I spent entirely too much time just training hard tricks. This led to injury (chronic tendonitis through my forearms from too many handsprings per training session, heel pain from hard landings during explosive movements, and shoulder pain — the #1 most common injury for pole dancers), fatigue, and burnout.

When I signed up for PPAC, I decided to become more purposeful with my training in order to avoid overuse injuries. This time around I’ve learned a lot about how to train more efficiently instead of just putting in more hours. The following are the sessions that have given me the most gains for my time spent:

1. Crossfit

Crossfit has affected my pole dancing by making my movement more controlled. I attend two classes per week, on Mondays and Thursdays, and these sessions have helped me build dynamic movement into my pole dancing in a way that pilates, yoga, and pure weightlifting haven’t. I’ve experimented with the timing a bit; two days in a row vs. T/Th vs. M/Th. The M/Th schedule keeps the classes as far apart from each other as possible and I’ve found this to be the most optimal schedule, likely because my muscles have recovered by the time I hit the second session.

An important stylistic note: I usually do not lift as quickly as most crossfitters. There are plenty of weight-bearing and cardio exercises in crossfit to move really fast with, but because it is SO easy to lift incorrectly, I do the actual weight lifting portions of the workout very slowly. I recently heard a physical therapist say “Crossfit is the best thing that ever happened for [his] business” because so many people get injured from lifting too fast with poor form. Going slowly and focusing on form is essential to preventing injury, especially when you’re just starting out with lifting.

2. Contortion

It doesn’t necessarily go without saying; only train contortion with someone who is trained to teach contortion. Here in San Francisco, I train at Circus Center in Lower Haight once per week with Catie Brier, a mongolian contortionist. Training long is key. Our sessions are 2 hours, which gives us time to spend the first hour on legs and splits and the second hour on back/shoulder flexibility. The focus on square splits, strength in form, and dynamic flexbility movements helped me overcome a year-long flexibility plateau, in just 6 weeks. Surprisingly, the hip and lower back strength exercises that Catie incorporates into our sessions have helped me deepen my stretch into those muscles. This has made my needle scale and side scale more stable — both in eagle pose on the pole, and while standing on the ground.

3. Dedicated routine building time

Since the beginning of January, I’ve dedicated no more than 2 hours per week specifically to routine building. These sessions are marked on my calendar as “Routine Building Sessions” as a not-so-subtle reminder to myself that the routine building is the only thing I’m going to the studio to train.

While I still spend about 10–15 hours per week either teaching, tricks training, building other people’s routines, and conditioning, I keep the routine-building time distinctly separate from the rest of the time I spend at the studio and it helps me focus wholly on the routine that I’m drafting.

Call it competition feng shui but distinguishing the routine building time from other time spent in the studio has been essential for helping me overcome distraction and writer’s (dancer’s?) block. Note that if the routine is performative and/or character driven, running moves, combos, or choreography without the music is essentially worthless. I wish I had known this sooner!

Personally, I always want to put more tricks and gazes and poses and combos into my routines than are physically possible to do without looking like I’m on a 2x speed and that makes it hard, if not impossible, for the audience to get to know my character.

Building the routine to my music helps me define the time limits versus sitting back and envisioning how the moves will fit into the song and then being disappointed when all the things I had planned don’t fit after all. For instance, for my L4 Dramatic piece at NWAAC last November, I had originally planned on 12 different tricks in my spin pass. Once I ran my routine with music, I was only able to fit in 5 different poses. That translated to 4 weeks of lost time.

Of course, what works for me now may not be what works for everyone else. As my movement changes, what is most effective for me now may translate to different training in a year. However, putting thoughtful time into defining my process has been the most useful time I’ve spent during this entire competition season.

We never know what is going to happen on the stage. The only thing we can control is how we prepare for it. This is the preparation that has worked for me. If you have feedback on efficient training that has worked for you, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.