Hands up if you’ve found your forearms doing a Popeye impersonation mid pole sesh? The pain of forearm pump can be real with pole dancers, so it’s time to take a look at what makes those forearms bulge (hint: it’s not spinach! 😂)
Disclaimer- we are looking at basic forearm fatigue and pump, commonly seen in training. If your symptoms are severe, last well after training, or include nerve symptoms (pins and needles, tingling, numbness) please seek personalised medical advice.
What is forearm pump?
So, you’ve been working at some tough tricks. Your hands might be a bit sweaty. You might have been doing some static work. Maybe working on a one handed move or some split
grip... Mid class, your forearms start to feel 10x their size. They’re heavy, and you feel like a cave man dragging them along the ground.
Your forearms say “I’m DONE!” Pretty rude of them, right?
Yep! And this is known as forearm pump. Forearm pump is a condition in which an individual develops intermittent and considerable pain in the forearms after a period of exercise or exertion.
So instead of getting mad at those forearms, let’s talk about the hows and the whys of forearm pump, so we can help them out.
How does it work (for the nerds)?
Day to day our body pumps oxygen around the body so we can function and survive. The amount of oxygen required depends on a few factors including the demands of the activity being done. So when we pole dance the need for that oxygen increases. This means our body needs to start working overtime!
Most of us would know that oxygen enters our system through the lungs and is pumped to the forearms via our arteries. Once the oxygen reaches the muscle, it helps the muscle metabolise energy which then in turn allows us to grip the pole. The process of creating energy also creates some waste products. Our veins are the clean-up crew, clearing the oxygen-depleted blood and waste back out of the muscles for the heart and lunges to deal with.
Our blood vessels are very small tubes and are quite squishy (technical term haha). What’s important to note for today’s blog though is that veins are more easily squished than arteries. When our muscles contract and relax when exercise we experience an ideal pumping effect of our veins that helps to return the blood to the heart.
And when the muscles in our forearm contract too hard and for too long, our veins can become completely squashed down by the muscle, making it a pretty tough time to remove blood and waste products.
This is all happening whilst you’re still up the pole, holding on for dear life. Your heart rate is probably up, which means the heart is working hard to push more blood out to the extremities, and your forearm muscles are using up all the energy being sent their way and producing more waste products.
Basically, if our forearms were Sydney Harbour Tunnel, we’ve just put up a big road block. All those cars are still motoring on in, with no exits in sight! Now we have a traffic jam. But did any of the drivers turn their cars off? Of course not- they’re still trying desperately to keep moving- which means now the tunnel is filling up with car fumes as well.
With all that blood still being pumped in to the forearms, and exits closing down, our forearms start to feel swollen and full. There is no room left for fresh blood flow, so oxygen and fuel needed by the muscles runs low. Our forearms start to fatigue, they become weaker, less coordinated and the rate of contraction slows down. The cherry on top is that all of those waste products have no way out either, and can start to cause a burning or aching feeling (hello lactic acid!). Not to mention the waste products will then cause swelling of that area!
How can we reduce it?
Basically, we want to open up those road blocks and improve traffic flow through the forearms. Here are some tips to help!
Tailor your warmup: Be sure to include your forearms and hands in your warmup. This increases the blood flow through them before giving them too much hard work- a bit like adding an extra lane to a freeway. Bonus- warming up your shoulders and core is important to help the forearms out too!
Improve pole technique to reduce over-gripping: Toning down how hard and how long we grip on for allows more relaxation and blood flow to the forearms. Pole technique is key here and we all know that means lots of practice. Here are a few areas of technique that are important for our forearms:
Confidence- having confidence in our grip points and the moves we are doing allows us to reduce how hard we hold on. As beginners and when we learn a new move, we often hold on much harder than we really need to.
Flow- moving through different positions means that we are regularly changing which parts of our body is working. This prevents us overloading any one area.
Other grip points and muscles to help- climbing is a great example of this. Most of us probably remember learning to climb, and our teacher telling us to squeeze with our knees and use our quads to push up, not our arms to pull.
Work on proximal muscle strength: Proximal muscles are the larger muscles, which tend to be closer to our torso. They have much greater power to control our body, so let’s make use of them! Greater use of our core and shoulders in particular can really off-load the forearms. Imagine holding an extended butterfly without using the strength in your shoulders or core- your hand grip would be the only thing holding you up the pole.
Take forearm/grip breaks:
When planning your session, try to plan a variety of grip types to train. Don’t go for all split grip tricks in one session, for example.
Take breaks in training sessions to shake it out. Make sure you get your hands above the level of the heart to help drain the blood back down.
If planning a routine, plan spots in each combo where your forearms don’t have to work as hard, such as a sit or a leg hang move. Even a brief relaxation of grip can allow fresh blood flow through the forearm.
Reduce sweat: This is a tough one for some of our Sweaty Bettys out there, but sweaty hands means gripping much harder to stay on the pole. Make sure you towel down as needed, try some grip aids or pole at a cooler time of day if possible. Check out our blog on how to manage excessive sweating here!
Breathe: Breathing while poling is obviously important for many reasons, but it can help reduce the forearm pump as well. Breathing helps us relax any excess muscle tension, allowing better blood flow. It also helps improve oxygen levels in our blood, so whatever blood does make it to the forearms is better equipped to feed them.
Strengthen the forearms: Strength training helps us out with forearm pump in several ways:
Improving the strength of our forearms means that we don’t have to use the muscles at 100% capacity when poling, causing less blood vessel “squish”
Strength training actually increases the size and amount of vessels going to and from the forearms, making them harder to block off
Improved endurance (hold on for longer with less effort)
Recover: Yep, that pesky cool-down again! Helping your forearms, as with all your muscles, to recover helps them get ready for your next session. Using exercises and self-release techniques can help drain out excess blood, remove waste products and relax over-contracted muscles.
Plan your training load: As with our other muscle groups, timing of sessions throughout the week has a big impact on our forearms. Doing a 3h pole session once per week is likely to result in overloading the forearms, causing pain and swelling, which then takes several days to recover from. It would be much better to spread the 3 hours through the week so the muscles can start to strengthen and adapt to the load in a healthy way.
Consider the apparatus you’re working with: If you have the choice, selecting a pole width and finish that suits your hands can reduce grip fatigue quite a lot! For example, I have tiny hands, so trying to hold on to a 50mm pole is almost impossible. Depending on how sweaty or dry you are, it may be easier to use either brass or stainless steel finishes. Keep this in mind if you are visiting another studio, as you may get more forearm pump and be working harder on a pole you aren’t used to.
Phew! That’s a lot of tips for such a small area of the body! Believe us, they can add up to make a huge difference to your training.
Next time you find yourself with forearms like rocks, pick out a couple of these ideas and give them a go. Let us know what you think and be sure to check our socials for the week for exercise and conditioning tips for those forearms.
Can't get on top of that forearm pump or experiencing neurological symptoms?
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