A Year of Bridges

So about a year ago I took my first private with my contortion instructor Samantha Hall. She opened my eyes about two things:

  1. It’s not about the straight legs. I thought I needed to get to the point where my legs are straight before walking them closer to my hands. I kept working on pushing with my legs and eventually managed to straighten them, but my progress was not very fast overall. Sam told me right away that the legs are not important here, and walking them closer is essential for progress.
  2. It is about the shoulders over hands. Being able to lock out my legs in my very wide initial stance is all fine and dandy, but the whole point of pushing the weight toward the hands is to get the shoulders over them. It brings more bend to the upper back and shoulder and evens out the pressure throughout the spine. She introduced me to the chest to wall bridge which felt impossible that that time.

During the last year my back have been though quite a lot. I gained understanding in how to mobilize my upper back, started to actively put in work to open my shoulders, stretched my hip flexors while strengthening my glutes, dubbed into chest stands, and got serious about my bridges and getting more comfortable in them.

I addressed the two points I listed above by working on compacting my bridge and working on the chest to wall bridge. This, along with better shoulders and the ability to tap into my upper back more, are probably the biggest contributors to my progress.

I remember thinking that that’s as good as my bridge is going to be, and I now I feel the same way about my current picture. Silly, I know. Especially since I’m not planning to stop any time soon. I’ll get that chest on the wall, heels down, this year for sure.

Actually, I can’t imagine how is it going to look a year from now.

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Mental Blocks in Training

When I was a kid I was told that when a man beats up a puppy, no matter how big and powerful of dog it will grow to be, it would still fear that man. Although I’m not certain about the truthfulness of this statement, I’m pretty sure the same happens to us too. If we have negative experiences with something, it might shape our notion of it for a long time.

When I first started poling, I discovered my hands and feet were abnormally sweaty, more than regular grip aids can handle. I had Mighty Grip gloves so I could grip with my hands, but my feet were still bare. It didn’t bother me until we started learning The Cupid. That foot on pole point of contact made sure I stood no chance in sporting a beautiful floating Cupid.

I avoided it as much as I could. The closest I got to working on the Cupid was when I revisited the ankle on pole variation. I nailed that bad boy down with the less usable grip, long after I nailed much more advanced things, and kept on avoiding Cupids.

A lot have changed since than, but in my head Cupid was still the big scary man that would beat me up.

Fear is the mind killer.

Last week I trained with a lovely instructor named Julie. Julie, as I heard before had a sweaty hands and feet problem as well, and I have seen her compete Pole Expo’s Pole Classic competition. I’ve also seen her online tutorial on a cool transition from Cupid to De Janeiro, and was happy she chose to teach it that day.

When she spotted me, the Cupid was the hurdle I couldn’t get over. I asked her how did she do it, and she said that I didn’t had to stay in the Cupid, just enter it and bend back to catch the pole. I realized that more than my actual ability to do it, it was a mental block I had in my head which prevented me from getting it. I was perfectly able to put my foot on the pole, and catch it behind me as my foot was sliding off. My brain was the one that’s preventing my from going there, because once upon a time when I was a clueless little beginner, I couldn’t do it.

I’m all about figuring out fears and actively working on them to be able to succeed in my training. Fear is a big part of many moves on pole, and rationally addressing it can be very effective. What dawned on me is that there is another type of fear, the one that you don’t know exists, the one that hold you back without you being aware of it so you don’t even know you need to fix it.

On Saturday, in the contortion workshop I take, we were warming up our backs with simple backbends, working our way up towards the mighty chest stand. We did assisted drop to bridge, which I felt awful about and I was doing my best to contain my frustration in. I was almost holding back tears, yet I refused to understand why.

Back bending is, or at least used to be, a hard uphill battle for me. My back was never flexible, my shoulders got even tighter because I haven’t stretched them for the first year and a half of my pole training. Everything about it was hard and frustrating, and I failed to enjoyed it like some flexy people say they so. I was still too stubborn, so I never gave up. I wanted that Cocoon, and that Crescent Moon and many other pretty things.

But when we moved on to the chest stand, I was at the grown ups’ mat, holding it and calmly working on deepening it. No frustration, no pain, no tears held back, just doing it. Chest stand was one of the things I thought were too advanced for my stiff back so I haven’t touched on it before much. Until this workshop.

Until I practiced a new back bend which was free of my biases.

Until this one instance with the Cupid where I realized mental blocks were a thing.

Until I realized I wasn’t a beat up puppy anymore, I’m a huge ferocious hound now.

These back bends got nothing on me. This is not a problem I can’t train through. Once I can free my mind from this notion, my body will be capable to go there. This makes me feel pumped to get back to my backbend training. Feel empowered.

I’ll keep looking for more mental blockers in my training, and undo them one by one.

2016 going to be amazing.

Private Session with Kristina Nekyia

I had the biggest honor to do a private with my flexibility guru, and it was so insightful for me. Unlike many stretching classes where all I had to do is endure the pain, in her private I actually had to work hard and it wasn’t painful to the least.

Hamstrings

After a short warmup we started with a little bit of hamstring stretches. Since hamstrings are (only) the area I had no trouble with, we went over it pretty fast. She did corrected my back rounding and told me to keep my waist small. This cue kept coming up during all my leg stretches.

Hip Flexors

Now, hip flexors are entirely a different story. I let her know I’m having trouble with gaining flexibility in my hip flexors and we focused on that area a lot.

Lunge

First we over the kneeling lunge and how to do it properly with a hip tuck. She told me that my left side, which I consider my bed side, was actually my better one. “There’s no such thing as bad side”, she told me, “only good and better sides”.

This came as a totally surprise to me because I genuinely believed my right side was more flexible, and how could I miss something so obvious? She explained that it tends to open up more, giving the illusion of being more flexible. When she made me poke the muscle in my hip it was bone solid, and I asked her jokingly “what, it’s not my hip bone there?”.

I’m still not 100% sure that my other side is better, in terms of flexibility at least. It is better aligned and stays more square, but maybe it does that because it’s more inflexible in that aspect too?

Glute bridge with a leg crossed over

The next exercise she suggested had to be done with a yoga block which we didn’t have.  The exercise is to go into a glute bridge position and place a block at the small of the back. Place the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other and engage the outer hip muscle to open the knee to the side.

Butterfly

Next we did the butterfly pose, when I had to engage the outer hip muscles again to get the knees to the floor. First facing forward, then towards each side while still trying to create space away from the hips and not crunch into them.

I didn’t get a chance to ask her, but these two exercises she gave me do not seem to target the hip flexors directly. I’m vaguely aware there’s a connection between hip flexor and external hip rotation flexibility, but I’m still not 100% understand what’s going on.

Middle Split

Kristina had a prepped talk on this topic. She explained to me that when we go into middle splits, our inner thigh muscles feel responsible to keep our legs from falling off so they tighten up. If I wanted to do a middle split, I need to have someone else to do that for them, so that they can relax and lengthen. That someone else is the outer thigh muscles, and gaining flexibility for middles is directly related to strength in the outer thighs.

Straddle

First stretch on the topic of middle splits was sitting straddle. The most important (and hard to execute) cue was to engage the outer thigh muscles the entire time. It was hard to pin point and engage that exact muscles even when Kristina was poking at my butt.

First we did side bends to each leg, shoulder to floor and keeping the chest open toward the ceiling while reaching the top arm towards the foot. After bending towards each side, I lowered down into the pancake, where the out thigh engagement is most critical, and experienced my first painless pancake even. My inner thighs stop resisting and it was glorious.

Middle split

Next came the actual middle split. She had me lowering down in the middle of the room, from a wide straddle with hands on the floor in front of me. The outer thigh engagement was critical here, and she advised me to back up as soon as I lose it. If you go so low that your outer thighs can’t support you, your inner thighs kick in, which is counter productive.

Shoulders

I’ve done the shoulder rehab workshop with Kristina in PoleExpo, so there wasn’t a whole lot to add. She did break down the internal/external shoulder rotation by tracing two lines: The inner line runs from the thumb up to the pecs while the outer line runs from the pinky up to the lats. Slouching and lack of proper shoulder alignment comes from relaying on/overusing/misusing the inner line, while actively engaging the outer line opens up the chest and engages the back for better flexibility and more strength.

Pec stretch

“How do you stretch after a pole workout?” She asked me. I obediently went to the nearest wall, and leaned my arm behind me, admitting I don’t feel much of a stretch.

She moved me away from the wall and instructed me to bend me knees slightly, put my arm up and turn away with my head, other shoulder and chest. After a while, I move the arm to a 45 degree angle and then horizontally. She instructed me to push into the wall then try to relax the inner line and engage the outer line. My pecs never a better stretch.

Back

Although shoulders are instrumental for many backbends, hips are quite important as well. I wanted to think I was mindful of my hips, and trying to extend them when doing backbends, but in reality Kristina kept correcting my posture over and over again, made me engage my lower abs and downstairs butt to actually achieve that desirable hip extension. I actually have a photo evidence of how hip extension helps you get a better backbend, but I’ll save it for a separate post.

Cobra

After a short warm up of cats, cows and rolls I started easing into back bending with some Cobras. Instead of pushing right up, Kristina made me start the arch by tucking the pelvis, lifting the head up, sliding the shoulders down, then the chest with hands off the floor and only then push up little by little while maintaining that initial upper back engagement through the outer shoulder line.

I did all this while she kept reminding me to use my downstairs butt and teased me how my belly still touches the finger she stuck under it. I was amazed at the amount of muscle engagement I was missing in my cobras, and the resulting invigorating back and chest opening that happened.

Bridge

My back felt fairly ready so jump straight into bridges. I complained about feeling restricted in my shoulders and arms, especially when doing the chest to wall bridge. Kristina made me align my shoulder before pushing up, by pushing up to the crown of my head, making sure my shoulders are parallel and engage the outer line. Keeping that engagement allowed me to open my chest more and push more comfortably forward (and up) when I was up.

Kristina also made me do the first steps towards standing back up to bridge. She said to get the arms towards the feet and not the other way. I was able to walk my hands a little bit, but I’m not too close to actually standing up yet.

Drop to Bridge

Last but not least came dropping back to bridge. I’m no where near it, but Kristina said it would be a great exercise for upper back articulation and control. Starting with the hands on the pelvic triangle, suck in belly and push ribs forward. Drop the head back, shoulders down. Engage outer line to open the chest and start bending upper back backwards. To come out, use the abs and bring the head up last.

 

 

 

2016 Goals

Pole

  • Aerial Twisted Grip Handspring
  • Twisted Grip Deadlift
  • Full Cocoon
  • Splits on the pole

Weak Areas

  • Spin pole
  • Floorwork
  • Routines
  • Freestyle
  • Dork side

Flexibility

  • Flexible shoulders!
  • Flat front splits on both sides
  • Flatter middle split
  • Flat Pancake
  • Comfortable chest to wall Bridge
  • Chest stand
  • Superman bridge pole hold
  • Scorpion Pose
  • Standing splits

Acro

  • Handstand Deadlift
  • Freestanding Handstands
  • Getting into Elbow stand without a wall

Milestones

  • Compete
  • Do instructor training

In more words

I feel a little stumped with my pole training. Every trick I didn’t nail requires either requires a great deal of strength or flexibility. So I feel that in the meantime I need to revisit the things that I already know, smooth them out, connect them together in longer combos and use them on spin pole.

I feel like I need more dancing, playing with the tricks I know, coming up with routines or parts of routines to the growing collection of songs that I have. I want to do a floorwork of the day, and work an easy floor move\transition at home every day, expand my transitionary and explore movement in general.

I also need to be more pro-active with my flexibility training. I’m not sure how my back is going to love an additional training each week, but surely I can do more with my leg flexibility, not to mention my shoulders .

So bubble butt routine should be back, along with outer hip work and hip flexors flexibility, plus some shoulder work from Fit & Bendy’s new Shoulder School DVD. More home pole and adding home handstand practice.

Cleo the Hurricane : Rocking Legs and Abs review

Rocking Legs and Abs, or RLNA, is a workout DVD that aims towards getting front, middle and pancake splits, as well as other standing splits. It is an hour long and contains a whole body warmup and 8 chapters which can be done all at once or selectively.

At first glance, it looks like a 80’s hard rock themed production with a matching soundtrack. Cleo’s passion towards her music is subtly pronounced in the original song selection and how some exercises perfectly time to it. I’m not too big on this genre, yet the soundtrack never got old or annoying, even after hearing it dozens of times. It’s not distracting and cues are heard clearly over it.

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Although this workout doesn’t require a pole, it was produced by a pole dancer and geared towards pole dancers. I can imagine how some things may look odd to someone from a completely different discipline trying to use this DVD. Also, I can’t say it is very gender neutral either, and I’m not sure how an average guy would feel about it.

I purchased RLNA after my progress with the traditional (that is, passive) stretching was not satisfactory. I knew all the stretches there was to know and did them consistently, yet my splits barely got better. I kept seeing testimonials from RLNAers and decided on it over other DVDs.

The routine Cleo put together surprised me with how little stretching (or what I considered back then as stretching) it actually contained. Out of all 8 chapters, only the last one is all stretches and splits. The rest are set of dynamic movements and strengthening drills.

Despite that, my progress was very noticeable. I lowered to my first (somewhat cheaty and open) split within two months and made visible progress on the other two.

 

 

It uses a range of different techniques, from dynamic stretches, active flexibility, PNF, pure strengthening drills to actual passive stretches. It sure gets your muscles tired and too weak to resist your stretching in the short term, and strong in the long term which is even more valuable for persistent flexibility gains.

The more I learn about flexibility, the more impressed I am with this workout. Whenever I discover another piece of the puzzle I was missing in my training, I find that RLNA already has it covered. I’m most certain that even exercises that I don’t understand why they are included, serve a purpose I’m not aware of yet.

There is, though, a lack of instructions on proper alignment or cues in the drills. It kind of takes away from the impression that this is intelligently put together well thought through routine, which it totally is.

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I took progress pictures almost every session and kept seeing small improvements every time. The progress really got me hooked up and excited towards my next session. I was too curious to see where will it take me next time.

It would have been almost impossible to convince yourself to do RLNA all the time without this excitement. It’s a hard workout and I often found talking myself through it (“You’ve already done the warmup and the Rocking Legs chapter, the worst is already behind you”) and in need to keep a strong character not succumb to the temptation of skipping chapters (Yes, I too have gone months without doing the Lunges and High Kicks).

Once you fall off the wagon, it’s much harder to get back to regularly do RLNA. It’s already hard, and all the strength you lost while you slacked off will make it even harder and you just don’t like subjecting yourself to it again.

So if it so good, why ain’t I one of Cleo’s success girls? It worked for me, but I just wasn’t consistent enough with it. I was off RLNA probably longer than I was on. At the beginning I tried really hard to do it consistently, but now I only do it when I need a surge of strength and I keep up with it until I don’t.

Although I’m not a success story, I still heartily recommend this routine to any poler seeking to get their splits (I dragged two of my IRL poler friends to do it with me). Most people don’t know they need strengthening in their stretching and most polers lack lower body strength training, so this routine has a high chance of giving them ballistic results as it did for me.

Interested? Check out the DVD or digital download page for more info.

Back on track November

I slacked off big time. I haven’t train my splits in a long time and didn’t do backbends due to an angry back muscle. It’s time to challenge myself to get back into the habit and get addicted!

Goals:

  • Front splits
  • Middle Split
  • Pancake split
  • Shoulder flexibility
  • Handstands
  • Pointe work
  • Bubble butt
  • Foam rolling

Yes it sounds like a lot to do for just a quick daily practice, so I instead to break it up and work each day on a subgroup of these goals. I also want to incorporate strengthening into my flexibility work as much as possible.

I’ll keep track of what I did, share my drills.

Eliminating a Triple Threat – Anterior Pelvic Tilt, Tight Hip Flexors and a Flat Butt

I had three intertwined issues with my hips which I decided to address.

Tight hip flexors: these are haunting me for a long time now. I have tried to get my front splits for over a year now, and my hip flexors hinder me from getting them flat. It took me a long while to figure out I don’t do lunges properly, and a longer while to figure out I need strength in my opposing muscles to stretch properly.

Anterior pelvic tilt: I have a some degree of APT, not too bad but noticeable. APT is a result of a muscle imbalance, where the glutes and lower abs slack off their duty to stabilize the pelvis, and the hip flexors pick up that slack by tightening up. Usually I wouldn’t fret over it, but after reading about it I realized that it could be why it is hard for me to stretch my hip flexors.

Flat Butt: it’s not really an issue as such, but who wouldn’t prefer a rounder and bigger bum. The glutes, which are the muscles that make your butt defy gravity, also serve as the opposite muscle group that needs to contract to make the hip flexors expand. Considering the fact that it can be both pretty and useful I’m definitely putting it up as one of my goals.

What is the cause? The most common explanation is sitting all day, rounded forward with short hip flexors at constant static tension, glutes stretched out and lower abs flopping instead of supporting the spine. The answer to my vows seems to be address the root cause and get a standing desk. But while I wait for that one to happen, I’m doing this small challenge.

The challenge consists of doing a small daily practice that aims to strengthen and utilize lower abs, strengthen and utilize the glutes, and stretch the hip flexors.

For the lower abs I took my cue from this excellent post. The instructions were clear, and I felt sore the day after. They work, so I’m content.

  • Deadbugs with exhale at the end. Lowering the leg and arm in a controlled manner and holding them low with the lower back flat on the floor is not much of a challenge to me. But that exhale really puts my core to work.
  • Plank. The breathing into the stomach and constantly checking my form really brings the most from this otherwise underwhelming exercise.

For the glutes I tried to find exercises that not just work on the regular range of motion, but also strengthening in the ranges where the hip is extended and where it will turn useful for aerial split one very beautiful day.

  • Squats. Starting off with 20 reps with intention to add more and use a weight.
  • Glute Bridges. My chiro suggested this one for me as the best glute activating exercise out there. I make a point of engaging my butt and abs, posteriorly tilting my hips, and lowering the back from the top down (instead of touch butt first = anterior tilt = no good) which makes this much harder.
  • Glute Bridge with a bent leg. Also from my chiro. In this variation you bend one knee to chest and either hold it with the hands or squeeze a ball between the thigh and the belly. It makes it harder to tilt hips forward and puts more load on the other glute.
  • Glute Bridge movements. Got it from Cleo’s Rocking Legs and Abs. In a glute bridge, move knees in and out while maintaining a good form. Do hip circles to both sides.
  • Donkey Kicks. With bent knee or straight leg, abs engaged. Bonus points for Fit&Bendy variation where you do a serious posterior tilt and only small pulses with the leg.
  • Three Legged Downward Facing Dog. Lowering and rising the leg with control and trying to get it as high as possible.
  • Sideways Legs holds. Not sure of the actual name. Standing on all four, extend a leg to the side, internally and externally the leg, move up and down, circles and other controlled slow movements.
After doing that strengthening for you abs and glutes, you’d be warmed up enough for some hip flexor and inner thigh stretching.
  • Foam rolling. Always nice to start off stretching by foam rolling. For this challenge I foam roll the quads and the inner thighs.
  • Very poteriorly tilted lunge. Start with a regular lunge, tuck the tailbone in, engage abs and glutes, put hands on your hips and push with the thumbs on the back of your hips to tilt them even further back. Push forward until hip flexors are stretching without compromising the form. Pushing more will not mean stretching more with this one, because you need to engage a lot of different areas hard and the more forward you go the harder is to not compromise the form.
  • Couch Stretch. The infamous couch stretch.
  • Lunge with a bent back leg. Stretches out the quads, which are the secondary tightness contributor in our hips.
  • Elevated back leg lunge. With a yoga block or chair, this will put the back leg in a different angle in relation to your torso. Increasing height does not mean increasing intensity level, it’s just different.
  • Pigeon Pose. The front leg inflexibility may prevent this stretch to be effective on hip flexors, but it’s a good one for learning to remain upright with one leg extended back.
  • Butterfly Pose. With proper foot placement, this pose is going to stretch the inner thighs, which seem to be linked to hip flexors tightness.
  • Frog Pose. Another inner thigh stretch.
  • Wall facing middle split. Sit in a straddle facing the wall, push your feet into it and let them slide to the sides, keep knees engaged and locked. This variation allows to control completely the intensity of the stretch, and works well on inner thigh flexibility.

Obviously, I’m not going to do all of these exercises each day. I’ll take a handful from each section depending how I feel that day. I’ll also have RLNA a few times a week, which contains a lot of the above in one form or another.

Let’s see how this plays out!