Updated: Feb 24, 2019
Pole and aerial are sports in their infancy, but have movement patterns related to mature sports such as gymnastics and dance. Yet the injuries and imbalances of pole and aerial are still collectively undocumented. Around the studio most of us know from observation that there are common injuries and imbalances amongst polers and aerialists.
One of the principal issues is overdeveloped muscle groups versus underdeveloped muscle groups. This usually appears from improper technique and engagement during movement, but can also be from overtraining. The prime overdeveloped muscles in aerial and pole tend to be the pectorals, latissimus dorsi and upper traps. These muscles are sizeable and designed to handle a substantial workload. The rhomboids, middle and lower traps, rotator cuff muscles and serratus anterior are critical muscle groups in aerial and pole but are smaller, often harder to engage and more at risk for underdevelopment.
First, larger muscles are always going to try to take over the workload unless trained otherwise. Second, the body and mind repeatedly require practice firing the smaller muscles in unison with the bigger muscle groups to create balance. The entire muscular system works together, and if one muscle group is not in balance the potential to affect other muscle groups is intensified. Overdeveloped muscles will get tight and strain underdeveloped, underdeveloped will stop firing, lose range of motion or force another muscle to overwork. It’s a cycle of imbalance that can cause serious pain and injury.
Here are few common imbalances found in the shoulders of polers and aerialists.
Impinged Shoulder Blades
The infamous knot under the shoulder blade is often the first sign of trouble. Generally overdeveloped lats and pecs pull on the underdeveloped rhomboids and middle and lower traps causing the shoulder blades to lock up. Now this doesn’t just stop here, tight pectorals can also contribute by pulling the shoulders forward and causing fatigue and strain on the SITS (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) muscles. The SITS are responsible for rotator cuff movement and are synergists with the blades. The out of balance muscle pattern can impede full range of motion in the shoulder blade and cause grim pain.
One more thing to mention in this complex stew of shoulder blade movement is the serratus anterior (SA). The SA originates on the outside of the ribs and wraps inward toward the medial area of the spine. This muscle lies under the shoulder blade and is also responsible for scapular stability and motion. If the SA is weak the blade can have a reduced range of motion and also get out of position. This problem not only contributes to shoulder blade impingement but to the overactive trap situation.
A related shoulder imbalance is a strained teres minor. When the lats and pecs are overdeveloped and the rhomboids and middle and lower traps are weak, the teres minor can get caught in the middle and strained if not trained properly. When the range of motion in the shoulder blades becomes limited, learning correct engagement when performing upper body intense movement in aerial arts and pole can save hours of pain.
The Overactive Trap
Impingement of the upper trapezius does have a correlation with people who work with the arms over the head, basically innumerable movements in pole and aerial. The upper traps have a higher likelihood of overactivating and the middle and lower trap are more likely to end up in an underactivating. The shortened trap can pull the rest of the shoulder girdle out of balance. When the upper trap is elevated and overworking it becomes harder to engage the lower and middle traps correctly and unfortunately the work remains on the upper trap. This imbalance can lead to neck and shoulder pain, headaches and impingement. It’s double impact for a poler or aerialist if daily work is at a desk and computer where a hunched over position is taken. The mix of a hunched posture, overhead activities and tight traps equals an explosive mix of pain.
One of the first things to do to fix these issues is to check in with posture, by simply rolling the shoulders down the back and pulling the blades together. This exercise can be held for short pulses or for longer lengths of time. Try rolling and pulsing into this position ten times, three times a day to strengthen and stabilize the middle and lower traps and rhomboids. Obviously if you are experiencing a lot of imbalance and pain go see a physical therapist and start a regiment of corrective exercises.
There are a heap of different strength exercises that can alleviate the pain and imbalances of the upper back and begin to set the underdeveloped muscles up for stability. Rows are one of the most effective strength exercises for working the rhomboids and middle and lower traps.