The short answer to this question is: all of them! Arms, shoulders, upper back, lower back, core, abdominals, obliques, glutes, quads, calves, ankles, wrists, forearms – you name it! Pole dancing is one of those incredible activities, like kick boxing, that literally targets your entire body. Of course the specific muscles that are worked, and how hard, will depend on what moves you’re doing, and how serious you are about using pole dance as a total body workout.
At a Beginner Level
In your first few weeks of pole you can expect the follows areas to get a serious workout:
One of the first moves most studios teach is a pole climb. There are many variations on the ‘basic pole climb’, but all of them are guaranteed to work your shoulders, biceps, triceps, pectorals and upper back. You will be working with your own body weight as you pull yourself up the pole. Toning your triceps will get rid of those ‘tuckshop arms’ or ‘bingo wings’ – a much hated area for many women – which is something very few other forms of dance (or exercise) can claim to do, least of all at a beginner level!
Legs and Butt
If your pole class also includes routine-building and/or floor work, you will also be working out your glutes and thighs intensely, especially if you do lots of squats, body rolls and transitional dance moves that require bent knees! Any dance movements that involve you being on your tiptoes will work out your calves. Several beginner level spins such as the pinwheel or attitude spin challenge you to hold your legs at angles that work out your upper thighs, butt and lower back all at once.
Coordination and Balance
Pole dancing requires an incredible amount of balance and coordination! For beginners, balance training starts with learning pivots and other transitions around the pole. These are harder than they look, especially ones that require you to spin around on one foot. Learning to control the speed of your spins and how to link them into others turns and pivots will strengthen the muscles in your foot and around your ankles, as well as building your core, which is the centre for your balance.
Abdominals and Core
The REAL workout for your abs comes a little down the track, but rest assured you will be laying the all-important foundations during the beginner moves! Remember, it’s no use at all to have chiselled outer abs if your inner (or transverse) abs are weak! This is because your transverse abdomnials are your stabilising muscles, and they will be essential for the upside down tricks.
Your transverse abs wrap around your lower torso, joining the muscles in your lower back to the abs along the front of your stomach. Provided you practice the beginner moves correctly (that is, you are engaging the required muscles, and always thinking of standing tall and sucking your belly button towards your spine, for example), you will be gently conditioning your inner core with every move, even stationary hip and body rolls!
Your ‘grip strength’ comes from your hands and your forearms. These are muscles that most people are not used to using at all, so many beginners will notice tight or sore forearm flexors after a pole lesson. Climbing and holding onto to the pole will draw strength from many muscles in your arms, shoulders and chest. (More on this later!)
Once You Start Going Upside Down
When you start moving into more complex spins, inverted moves and longer combinations of tricks you will continue working all the muscles mentioned above, plus the following:
Legs – even more so!
When you are holding your body weight inverted on the pole, you will usually be engaging your inner thighs (hip adductors), hamstrings, glutes, calves and quadriceps. So this is another common ‘problem area’ that pole dancing is superb for – wobbly inner thighs! All of your leg muscles will be squeezing into the pole to hold you in place!
The caterpillar, for example, is glutes and hamstring intensive, not to mention also a serious upper body workout (it’s practically a push-up – backwards, up a vertical pole!) Moves that require you to grip on with the backs of your knees will improve your knee and hamstring strength dramatically.
Biceps and Triceps
Your biceps contract when you pull yourself up the pole, so they will be getting a good workout for the entire session! Triceps are mostly enagaged during downward pushing motions. Because many pole moves require a simultaneous push/pull action with each arm, you will usually be targeting the bicep of one arm, and the tricep of the other. So don’t forget to practice your moves in the other direction or on the other side!
Abdominals and Core
Provided you were engaging your muscles and holding correct posture during the beginner phase, your inner core muscles will be ready for heftier work now! Remember – ‘core’ does not simply mean your stomach! Your core is comprised of many muscles running the length of your torso and trunk, and includes the deep internal TA muscles, your hip flexors and obliques.
Practically every pole move from now on will be working your abs and your core, as you lift your body and extend it gracefully into various positions. In particular, your tranverse abdominals, the very top section of your stomach (Superior Rectus Abdominus) will play a major role tipping your body upside down in a controlled manner.
Moves like the inverted thigh hold, death lay and superman to figurehead require you to lift the weight of your torso and head up, using mostly (or sometimes only!) your back muscles. Pole dancing will have you working out most of your muscles equally, but don’t forget that it is important to build your back muscles in proportion to your front muscles (abs and hip flexors) to avoid postural problems.
Your rhomboids, latissimus and deltoids are not only responsible for lifting you into position, when you climb or invert, but also for stablising you. This is especially true when you are upside down with one or more limbs extended away from the pole! Combinations of inverted tricks will require a great deal of control that comes from the entire upper body, front and back, and of course your core.
Shoulders and Chest
Any pole move in which you use your arms to press your body weight away from the pole (for example – the butterfly or the aysha) will be strengthening and toning the deltoid muscles in your shoulders, as well as the pectorals in your chest.
The reverse handstand and caterpillar climb work your muscles in the same way a traditional shoulder press would. Your arms are stretched above your head, in these moves, either on the floor or the pole, and you are pushing your body upwards. Pulling yourself up the pole, in a controlled manner is comparable to a chin up. Chin ups work your deltoids, trapezius, upper arms and your rhomboids, among other muscles.
Internal and External Obliques
Your ‘side muscles’ are used in many moves, but get a particularly good workout during ones that involve you leaning or lifting your body out to the side of the pole, such as the princess, cupid and the flag. As you strengthen your obliques, they will gradually contract and pull your waist line in – woohoo!
Lifting your legs in a controlled manner is not ALL up to your core. Any leg raising move, such as the boomerang or shoulder mount will rely on your transverse abs, hip flexors (or psoas) and quads, among other muscles. Hip flexor strength is important for impressive kicks and controlled inverts.
At an Advanced Level
Pole dancing at a professional level is comparable to gymnastics and figure skating in terms of the way moves are physically executed by your muscles. Most world champion pole dancers are absolutely ripped, with incredibly defined muscles. Pole dancing at this level is extremely taxing on the body and takes years of specialised training to master.
There are of course many other muscles used while dancing or working out on a vertical pole that haven’t been listed here. This article is intended as an overview of the muscle groups that will benefit from training in pole dancing.
Have you noticed an improvement in your own muscle tone, or strength since starting pole? Let us know about it in the comments section below!