Friday, July 13, 2012


Part of teaching pole means working with and talking to a lot of women. Most people I deal with have a decent understanding of the way exercise and the body work. They might come from another kind of fitness background (dancers and gymnasts make fabulous aerialists!), or maybe they just remember stuff from high school science or health class.

But there's no escaping the occasional whine of, "But I don't want to bulk up!"

Or, its more prevalent sister remark of, "I just want to tone!"

<sigh.> Ladies, for the love of god, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BULK UP!

If you're grossed out by pictures of female body builders, that's fine. It's a matter of taste. I mean, I'm kinda grossed out by extreme flexibility, even though some of my students go ape for contortionists. But what you need to understand is that those women didn't become so hulking by going to pole class, or even by hitting the gym. They had to work really, really hard to get that way. Part of that has to do with a specifically-targeted weightlifting regimen, and an often larger part has to do with cramming as much protein down your face as possible. Either way, it was not a side effect of poling, or of trying to get stronger.

And I'm sorry, but toning is fake. It is not a thing. It was made up by the fitness industry to assuage the fears of those of you who are afraid of bulking up. "Toning" is just losing a little fat and gaining a little muscle so you can see the definition a bit. It still involves making your muscles bigger, whatever you call it.

(And this is off-topic, but since we're on the subject of exercise myths pedaled to women: you can't lose weight off one part of your body by exercising that particular part. Build muscle yes, lose weight no.)

Still concerned? There are some reasons you might gain an above average amount of muscle:

Easy gainers
It is with muscle as with fat: some people gain it easily, some people don't. Your muscles might get bigger faster than other people's. You're just a mesomorph. Unless you're a legitimate freak of nature, though, you're not going to turn into She-Hulk by working out for strength or general fitness. Although for aerialists, you might not want to work out too hard on muscles that you don't need for your apparatus. Balance is essential, of course, but muscle weighs a lot, and you don't want to make yourself harder to lift. I'm an easy gainer, and I don't do a ton of lower body workouts. I did when I was a runner, but as an aerialist, I just don't need as much leg strength as I used to, and as long as my tush looks good, I'm happy.

Some people have disproportionately-sized feet or hips. Others have disproportionately-sized delts or quads. Chances are, this will be somewhat apparent before you start gaining. I have large biceps. But even when I was a high schooler and not doing any exercise, I could flex and put on a pretty impressive gun show. My arms are much bigger when I am exercising, but they were kinda big to begin with. My shoulders and pecs don't get nearly as enlarged. There's not a lot you can do about this--if it's not a muscle you need for your apparatus, you can exercise it a little less, but if it is, I wouldn't sacrifice strength because you feel self-conscious about your muscles.

OK, now that I've hopefully convinced you you're not going to turn into The Tic, I'll concede that you are going to gain muscle. If you work hard, you might even gain enough muscle that people say, "Wow! You're in really good shape. What do you do to work out?"

Please don't let this make you feel unfeminine! I have muscles, and I'm pretty much a girlie-girl. I like make-up and dresses and kittens and hearts. And if you were going to call me attractive (to which I'd say, "Why thank you!" unless you were a creep, in which case I would probably reject you in a way that did not involve letting you down easy), you'd call me conventionally so. Not a supermodel, but not a fetish model, either.

Tell ya what--go ahead and do your darndest at your craft. If you feel you've gained too much muscle, you can back off your training and go back to how you used to look.

But you won't. I have yet to see it happen. I don't know a single aerialist who has said, "Hmm, I look too athletic. I liked myself better before." Sure, we complain about not being able to zip up dresses, or short sleeves being too tight on our arms. But it's a bragging kind of complaining.

A few final tips:

Your workout regimen
Actually delving into detail about how to train for strength vs. bulk is beyond the scope of this post--plus, most of your exercise will likely come from your aerial workouts and conditioning, and less from hitting the gym. But I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention that the general guideline that most people agree upon is if you want to build just strength, without hypertrophy, do just a few reps at a very high weight. Ironically, this is the opposite of advice that's peddled to women who "don't want to bulk up," which is the whole 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps thing.

Hang out with other strong women
I never appreciated my muscles, or even my strength, before I became an aerialist. Suddenly it went from a party trick to something that people around me admired and wanted to emulate. If you want to appreciate your muscles, hang out with other women who appreciate them--theirs and yours.

Don't get carried away
Maybe I convinced you a little too well. Seeing these changes in your body can get addictive, and you might be tempted to start hitting the gym harder so you can see even more results. That's fine if that's what you want for yourself. But if your primary goal is to become the best aerialist you can be, you'll want to avoid bulk just for appearance's sake. Stay light, so you can fly.

So stop worrying and get on that pole (and in that gym). Be strong and love it.

Image from

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