Welcome to the Superman!! (or as some polers like to call it Superwoman). But genders and pole trick names aside, we would like to introduce you to one of the most painful moves you’ll ever learn as an intermediate poler. It’s a fun time they say… (it was not a fun time).
In all honesty, the Superman is actually now one of my favourite moves to perform and a go to move. Yes, my legs are now completely desensitised to the pain. And yes, I’m now over my fear of letting go of the pole and dropping to my death (or a broken wrist). So I can truly wholeheartedly now say that I love Superman. But as you can tell, it was a JOURNEY! Phew. Yes child, it was.
As I’m writing this blog, I’m recalling with a few giggles the frustrations I had with this particular move all those years ago and that is for many reasons the inspiration for this anatomy series – my own pain. I remember so many students in class around me at the time getting their Superman with relative ease, whereas it took me at least 8 months to finally feel comfortable in it! And a lot of tears. And a lot of help from instructors and friends (thank you to those – you know who you are!). So, for those people in the back struggling with their Superman – I see you and this one’s for you!
Let’s break this bad boy down!
Your first Superman – Oh the pain!
As alluded to earlier, the main issue people experience with getting into their Superman is overcoming the pole burn of the entry or maintaining the hold. Let’s first talk about the science behind this.
Our skin has thousands of light and deep touch nerve receptors that send messages to our brain for it to interpret. To keep it simple, the brain will decide whether the stimulus is pleasant or unpleasant and has a potential to cause damage. If it suspects it will cause damage it will make our body do two things:
Create a sensation of pain. And the stronger the perceived threat, the greater the pain. So, any time the pole touches an area skin that hasn’t been conditioned to its touch, you will experience pain to protect you! Why? Because pain forces our body to stop the movement. It is our body’s way from stopping or removing the threat.
Not commit to the Superman entry. Ever found yourself trying to Superman but next minute you find yourself falling back into a leg hang at the slightest sensation of discomfort? Yes? That’s your brain’s pain fear response kicking in to protect you. I tell you – our brain is pretty damn smart.
The bad news? Our inner thighs have a LOT of nerve endings which means things are likely going to hurt. The good news? Our body has this incredible ability to adapt and desensitise to stimulus. This is referred to as peripheral desensitisation.
You’ve probably heard many experienced polers including your teachers say that the pain does go away eventually. And that’s mostly true. For some the pain won’t ever fully go away, but it won’t feel quite so painful. It becomes more of a light discomfort. To be fair, we are gripping a pole between our thighs to stop ourselves falling down, so most of us are happy to tolerate a light discomfort.
How can we speed up this process of desensitisation or skin conditioning so we can overcome our Superman quicker? Well for most it takes time, but working on movements like your back crucifix may help and working on your Superman or pole plank from the floor will help to gradually expose your inner thighs to this new sensation.
Effectively, we need to apply smaller amounts of a painful stimulus to our skin to desensitise the nervous system. Eventually the brain will become so used to the stimulus it won’t send out the danger or pain messages to our thighs. If you want to learn more about pain science you should check out our blog on ‘Hurt vs Harm’. It really is fascinating stuff!
Ok, now that we’ve explained the pain science behind our Superman, let’s talk anatomy!
Key requirements for our Superman:
In simple terms to perform a Superman, we require:
Forearm/grip strength to keep us on the pole
Shoulder extension and spinal rotation and extension to to reach the pole behind us
Hip adduction strength to keep our thigh squeeze
Hip extension, hip rotation, quad and calf strength to create our lovely long lines
But in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than this. So let’s break it down:
The upper body
Whilst pain is sometimes a limiting factor for entry into our Superman, the next common reason why polers often don’t make it into their Superman is due to a lack of shoulder and spinal mobility as well as strength from the surrounding muscles. Let’s talk through the individual requirements.
The inside (top) arm pull
As we enter our Superman (from our inside leg hand), our top arm is required to pull our body/hips up and over the pole, whilst the shoulder rotates from a combined position of flexion/abduction to a position of shoulder extension/horizontal extension.
The arm position we end up in during a Superman is not a common movement required in our everyday lives. Sure, we may reach over our shoulders a couple of times a day (i.e to reach for a seatbelt or to put a backpack on), but we don’t usually sustain this hold for long periods of time like we need to in a Superman. And we can almost guarantee that unless you’ve done gymnastics/street calisthenics, you’ve probably never put your body weight through your arm in this odd position before.
In our end Superman pose, our shoulder is performing an isometric pull to ensure we aren’t falling from the downward force of gravity. This isn’t quite the pull that we are used to thinking about (i.e not a bend in the elbow), but more so a pull through our stabilisation muscles of the rotator cuff and upper back discussed later. This pull, or engagement for better word, ensures we are not hanging out of our top shoulder.
There are a few key muscles that help to extend our arm as we enter into our Superman hold. Specifically, we are looking at our latissimus dorsi, teres major, the long head of triceps brachii, and the posterior portion of our deltoid. Once we are in position, all these muscles work hard alongside the flexors of our forearm (gripping muscles) to keep us on the pole. Without their strength and shoulder extension mobility, we may find ourselves feeling stuck as we enter into our Superman.
When discussing shoulder stability, we are referring to two primary areas of the shoulder:
The glenohumeral or shoulder joint
The scapulothoracic joint or shoulder blade
When it comes to a Superman, the rotation of our shoulder on entry and the shoulder extension required places our shoulder (glenohumeral) joint into a vulnerable position of subluxation/dislocation. So, it’s imperative we have good shoulder control, range of motion and active stability before entering our Superman. The glenohumeral joint is actively stabilised by the muscles of our rotator cuff to reduce risk of injury.
When it comes to our scapula position during a Superman, this will depend on the degree of rotation of our torso and how much extension our arm is placed in. As a general rule for our Superman though, our scapula will be retracted, anteriorly tilted and downwardly rotated whilst our arm is in extension. These scapula movements are controlled by our rhomboids, trapezius, pectoralis minor and levator scapulae.
The outside (bottom arm)
This arm is really only used when transitioning in and out of this move. It’s used to stabilise us through the transition and to provide an active push away from the pole once our hips have found their way over the pole. This push will help our hips slide down into place.
As we are moving into our Superman, our trunk will remain rotated with the chest facing slightly side on. This allows our arm to reach the pole behind us. This rotation will primarily occur through the upper back (thoracic spine) but the lower back (lumbar spine) may assist too.
If our shoulder doesn’t enjoy being placed in extension/horizontal extension or if you have a shorter arm-to-torso length, you may find the lumbar spine assists by placing our trunk into more rotation. This reduces the amount of shoulder horizontal extension required and can feel more comfortable on the shoulder for some polers.
For those of us where the trunk is less rotated and the chest is facing more towards the floor, the shoulder is placed in greater amounts of extension to compensate. This may be seen in individuals who have reduced upper back flexibility or hypermobile shoulders.
Rotation of the trunk is controlled primarily by our external oblique (eccentrically on the ipsilateral/same side of the pole), the internal oblique (concentrically on the ipsilateral/same side of the pole), our erector spinae muscles and our quadratus lumborum.
In addition to back rotation, our trunk is required to perform a small amount of extension too. Most of our spinal extension arises from our lumbar spine with a small amount of assistance occurring from our thoracic spine.
Our erector spinae and gluteal muscles are primarily responsible for this movement and this movement is stabilised by the abdominals at the front of our torso, particularly the rectus abdominus.
The Lower Body
When it comes to our Superman, there is a very clear role for our legs to provide a gripping point for this move. Initially our body is required to slide down into our Superman so we don’t want too tight of a grip, but once we’re in position our adductors need to work to keep those legs together and our body up the pole.
In addition to our adductor squeeze, our glutes and hamstrings work to lower the pelvis down the pole whilst keeping the legs lifted towards the roof. Our calves and quads help to create long lines of illusion here too by keeping our feet pointed and knees straight.
The other thing to note in our Superman is that the rotation from our spine carries over towards our hips/pelvis. On close inspection you may notice the outer leg sits slightly lower than the inside leg. This is for multiple reasons including ease of sliding into the Superman, reduced extension required of our lumbar spine and a more comfortable, easier leg grip. Our hip rotation muscles and abdominal rotators (obliques) help to stabilise this position.
Like other tricks out there we can do some pretty fun grip variations for our Superman including (but not limited to):
Armpit/upper arm grip
Double arm true grip
Twisted grip (in a figurehead position)
Helix (funky) grip
The list could go on…
Each of these variations will place slightly differently mobility and strength loads on the body, particularly in regard to shoulder extension and thoracic rotation mobility. We won’t go into each of these today, but we encourage you to be aware of these different loads if working in different grips. This blog is purely discussing the demands in relation to your true/straight grip.
Whilst there are so many stunning variations of Superman out there, our figurehead is one variation that we need to talk about. When first learning, this can be a move that we somewhat transition through to get down from the pole safely by sliding our legs further down the pole.
But when you’re in advanced levels, this move and what comes after, is a skill set on its own. From our figurehead position we can transition to our next move in so many ways, but the most common seen is an aerial straddle or shoulder mount. The reason why we are talking through this move, is that our figurehead requires a great deal more lumbar extension than a Superman. And this can be uncomfortable if you don’t have the range of motion and/or abdominal control. We encourage to work with your instructor on modifying the movement if you don’t have the range of motion required, avoid positions that cause lumbar pain and working with our online team if pain persists.
Screening for our Superman:
Did you know that screening for moves helps us nail our moves quicker and reduces our risk of injury! Now you know what our Superman entails, let’s see if your body is ready to handle the demands of this move!
Passive horizontal extension > 70 degrees
Trunk rotation > 45 degrees
Trunk extension > 20 degrees (cobra)
Anti-rotation strength: Plank hold 30 seconds
Active back extension strength: plank hold + arm lift x 10 each side
Modified (knee) Copenhagen plank 30 seconds
Elevated straight leg bridge
Instructors: We encourage a Superman to be taught from an outside leg hang when first learning, so ensure your students are comfortable in this trick before teaching this entry. If that’s not possible for your student but they are pole smart and ready for the challenge, then a standing floor Superman entry can be taught.
Have you been struggling to nail your Superman but not sure why? Or are you noticing you lack the thoracic rotation and shoulder flexibility required to Superman?
Online telehealth appointments can be booked with the Pole Physio via our ‘Book Online’ page that can be found here. Assessment and tailored rehabilitation are provided in accordance with best practice and evidence-based treatment to help you unleash your 'poletential'.
Until next time, train safe.
The Pole Physio
A Superman is an intermediate level trick and conditioning should ONLY be undertaken if your instructor has deemed you ready to work on this trick. This information is general advice only and we are not liable for any injuries that may occur during training.
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