10 Essential Shoulder Strengthening Exercises for Pole

I can’t say enough about how crucial it as a pole dancer to recognize how much stress the body goes through, particularly the shoulders, to execute most tricks. As mentioned in a previous post, I wish I’d known the importance of starting a regimen of shoulder strengthening exercises early on to help prevent future injury. Of course, you never really know what you’re getting yourself into with pole until you’re already deeply involved. As many of you might know, I’ve been struggling with a partial rotator cuff injury for quite some time. In my quest to prevent worsening the injury and continue doing the crazy pole moves I want to do, I’ve had to get myself to physical therapy and be disciplined enough to continue my exercises outside of PT sessions. One thing I’ve realized is that many people struggle to get the specialized care they need due to insurance/financial/time restrictions, so I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve acquired from my experiences. Full stop, I’m by no means a medical expert and I recommend consulting your physician prior to any exercise regimen you pursue. However, I want to share a few shoulder exercises introduced to me by my physical therapist that I feel have really helped my stability and overall strength.

(I know this is a long post, but hopefully you'll find it helpful and worthwhile!)

Exercise Equipment Needed:

  • Large Stability Ball
  • Light Weights (I recommend 1-2lbs to start, then work up to 5lbs – your rotator cuffs will be weaker than you think!)
  • Resistance Bands (Get a set of 3 resistance levels so you can start with the lowest and build up to the highest over time.)

1) Stability Ball Forearm Planks

Start with the stability ball up against a wall (or pole) and place your forearms shoulder distance apart on the ball. Make sure they’re not too far apart or too close. Walk your feet out behind you to enter a plank position. Your body should create a straight line from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, as in keep the booty out of the air and the arch out of your back, and close up the rib cage to stabilize your core. In this position, focus on pressing your forearms into the ball while squeezing your shoulder blades. Also pay attention to the alignment of your shoulders; they should stay stacked over your elbows (hold that core steady!).

Start with 3 sets at 30 seconds each and work up to 3 sets at 1 minute each over time.

 2) Stability Ball Push Ups

Standing up, hold the stability ball against a wall and one by one place your hands on the ball (like you’re holding a basketball) pushing it into the wall, preventing it from falling to the floor. Your arms should be straight and hands in line with your shoulders. With your arms straight step both feet back slightly to create an incline with your body. Slowly begin bending your arms like you would with a normal push up, pulling your chest toward the ball but not touching it and squeezing the shoulder blades. Press the arms and body back away from the ball to your starting position.

Pay attention to your alignment: rib cage closed, core tight, no arch in the low back, pelvis tucked under. Do 3 sets of 10.

3) Shoulder Fly with Stability Ball

Lay your stomach on the stability ball so your upper body is coming off the front and your feet are touching a wall behind you (legs should be straight). Keep your body in a straight line throughout this exercise – it will be normal to start feeling your back working as you increase your reps. You can start this exercise with or without weights in your hands but I recommend keeping the weight really low, only 1 or 2 pounds, if you opt to use them (fair warning, your shoulders will tire out easily with this one!). Extend your arms overhead in a V shape with thumbs facing up, pulling your shoulders down your back away from your ears. Raise the arms up as high as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades and keeping the shoulders down. Lower the arms back down. 

Extend your arms horizontally out to the sides and repeat the same lifting motion, squeezing the shoulder blades together. Lower them down.

Extend the arms straight back and leading with the pinky (so your elbows are facing the ceiling), raise the arms squeezing the shoulder blades, then lower down.

Repeat in each direction 10 times.

4) Shoulder Fly with Weights

I do this one just overhead, though you can do them out to the side as well. Start with your hands at your sides holding weights, knuckles forward. Keeping your shoulders back and down, blades squeezing together and arms straight, begin raising the arms until they’re overhead in a V. Squeeze the blades at the top and slowly lower down with control. It’s really important to keep your core nice and stable in this one, avoiding any low-back arching. Take 3 sets of 10.

5) Shoulder (Scap) Pushups

Come to a plank position on the floor, arms straight with the shoulders stacked directly over the hands. Keep your body in a straight line, no back arching or butt lifting. Keeping the arms straight, begin pulling the chest toward the floor (think nipples to thumbs) and squeezing the shoulder blades. You won’t go very far since you won’t be bending your arms, but that’s the point! Once your chest is as far forward as it can go without bending the arms, press back up to your starting position. Take 3 sets of 10.

The next iteration of this exercise is to do the sets with the tops of your feet on top of and pressing down into a stability ball. You’ll need to work harder with your core keeping your midsection tight so your body stays steady. And if you want even more of a challenge, in between each pushup lift one leg just slightly off the ball for 2 seconds, then place it back on the ball and go for your next pushup. Switch feet in between pushups.

6) Bird Dogs

Come to all fours on the floor, shoulders stacked over hands and hips stacked over knees. Simultaneously extend your right arm forward and kick your left leg back. Press the hand that’s down into the floor and find the stability in this position, maintaining a straight line from the fingers to the toes; keep your head in line and back flat (no arch!) – pulling the tummy in will help. Slowly bring the hand and knee back down to all fours. Switch to the left arm and right leg.

Continue alternating, 10 on each side for 3 sets. Make sure you’re staying centered as much as possible not letting your body sway from side to side. And no bent arms!

7) Seat Belt Bucklers (not sure of the proper name but that’s what the motion reminds me of…)

Start with a weight in your right hand at your left hip; your forearm will fall across your waist. Begin pulling the weight away from your body and then up, leading with the back of your hand, until your right arm is in a 90 degree angle, elbow shooting straight out from the shoulder (like you’re making a muscle but with your knuckles facing forward).

Squeeze the shoulder blades together and drop the shoulder away from the ear activating the rotator cuff when your arm hits that angle. Try to feel yourself holding the weight with the shoulder rather than your bicep. Make sure you’re not letting the hand fall back behind you. Without letting the shoulder roll forward bring the hand back down the way it came, returning it to its starting position. Again, focus on the alignment of your core (no arched back!). Do 3 sets of 10 on each arm.

8) Double Arm External Rotation

Grip the resistance band in both hands shoulder distance apart with palms/forearms facing up. Your elbows should be pulled in toward your rib cage with the hands shooting straight out in front. Don’t let your shoulders roll forward, keep them pulling back. Begin pulling the resistance band apart with your hands until you’ve reached your maximum pull. Once you hit that point, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for two seconds, then release back to your starting point. Keep the arch out of your back and rib cage closed. As with the other exercises, 3 sets of 10.

9) Single Arm External Rotation

Loop the resistance band around your pole, or a doorknob if you don’t have a pole (just make sure the door is closed to avoid a whack in the face), with one long end extending out. Grab the end of the band with your outside arm and position the arm so it’s bent at a 90-degree angle with the elbow against the waist and forearm falling across your stomach. Make sure there’s resistance in the band to start (step away from the pole or door so the band isn’t loose). Keeping your shoulder blades squeezing together, shoulders down, and elbow against the waist, pull the forearm out and away from the stomach so the fist is shooting straight out in front of you from the elbow. Return to starting position. Repeat for 3 sets of 10.

10) Single Arm Internal Rotation

Loop the resistance band as in the previous exercise. Grab the end of the strap, and have your forearm shooting straight out in front of you, touching your elbow to your waist. Make sure there’s tension in the strap by stepping away from the pole or door as needed. Pull the band in and across your stomach until the fist is touching the opposite side of your waist. Return to the starting position slowly keeping your elbow against your waist. Keep your shoulders pulled back throughout the exercise. Repeat for 3 sets of 10.

Anyone engaging in pole fitness regularly should make shoulder strengthening a regular part of his or her repertoire. I recommend doing your exercises 2-3 times a week to maintain the stability needed to execute shoulder-heavy tricks (particularly handsprings). As a side note, I’d also advise avoiding excessive repetition of these types of tricks on both a daily and weekly basis – give those shoulders an opportunity to recover and rest. Be good to your body and it will pay you back nicely!