Source Of Strength: Arms Or Shoulders?

I’ve been pole dancing for years now and like to think that I have built up my strength quite a bit. I can hold my own body weight for a long time in many different ways, so I’m quite proud of myself!

I have always wondered why I have all this strength yet when it comes to holding actual weights or doing press-ups I fail miserably every time.

Just the other day after all these years of working out, I have finally found my answer. I have been using my shoulders to help me lift everything and when I say everything I mean…


I was sitting drinking a cup of tea when I was told that every time I lifted my tea cup I also lifted my shoulders too. Apparently this isn’t normal! As the day went on I found myself lifting up my shoulders every time I picked anything up, regardless of how large or small. I didn’t even realise I was doing it, but it turns out that some how I’ve managed to get in to the habit of using my shoulders to help me lift everything.

Looking back, there has been so many heavy things that I’ve had to lift daily and must have used my shoulders to help lift without realising. Having had years of working in bars lifting glasses, bins, boxes of stock and even pouring pints daily must have really taken its toll of my shoulders.

The Real Problem

I don’t really mind how I lift things as long as the lifting gets done. I figure that I’m strong enough to do the pole moves that I want to do so that can’t really be a bad thing… can it?

I’ve been having slight back problems for a few years now. Nothing particularly bad – just the odd back ache here and there but usually a massage sorts me out. I can feel that I’ve got a lot of knots in my back but again massage is the key. I really like a good massage – you can feel the exact spot that gives you pain and it’s such a relief to work it out. I also get headaches quite a lot. I thought all of these things were just ‘one of those things’. I didn’t really realise that I was bringing any of this on myself. I thought it was all just how my body was.

Over the last few months I’ve gone from a part time office job mixed in with dance teaching to working in a bar with dance teaching. I’m now on my feet a lot more than before which is great for the mobility of my back. The downside is that I’ve been coming home most nights with a really bad headache, which I now understand is from lifting things in the wrong way.

The Solution

It sounds so silly but just being aware of the problem is a massive help. I do have to go out of my way to make sure that I’m lifting things in the right way now. I’m really trying to use my arms rather than using my shoulders to lift things – whether they are small or big. When I have time to think about this it’s fine, but as with most things, when I’m busy this idea just goes out the window.

The main thing for me is to think about having a long neck. This really helps to keep my shoulders down and focus on the arms. I’ve also being doing resistance exercises to build up strength in my arms but I always take my time to do this and make sure that I look in the mirror and keep my shoulders down as I do it. I’m also adding press-ups into my work outs. I figure this will really help build up strength so that I don’t need to rely on my shoulders any more.

I can’t really afford the amount of sports massage that I need but very luckily my boyfriend happens to be qualified in Sports Massage and comes fully equipped with a massage bed and everything! I’ve not asked for his help until I realised how bad my shoulders were. The picture above, as bad as it looks can’t really show that build up of tension and knots. My shoulders have morphed into a triangle shape made of knots and muscle. I’ve been having almost daily massages in my upper back and shoulder. Unbelievably painful. If you ever wanted to know where I keep my piggy back, give me a massage and I’ll cave and tell you everything I know!

I can feel that the massage is really helping. During them I can feel the exact places that cause blinding headaches and uncomfortable back ache. So I feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and with a lot of exercise and massage I might be able to get my shoulders back to normal.

Is This Normal?

I wonder how many of us do this? Is it just me that uses my shoulders to help lift things or is it a way of our bodies trying to cope with lifting things? It’d be great to know… 🙂


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Comments From the PoleFreaks Community:

  1. It is correct that you’re supposed to have your shoulders back and down, but this is not to use your arms, but to use you BACK muscles (latissimus dorsi) :).. This is a big muscle and helps you out a lot in pole, stopping you from getting problems.

  2. Hi! I think it may stem from how we are taught also. I was taught to not fully rely on my arms , as this can cause pulls and strains (plus its bad on the shoulders if your not engaging them) and always pull your shoulders back so they are engaged. I was taught to lift through my lats in your back, this has helped me equally keep all my muscles, shoulders, arms and back engaged when I lift and working together 🙂 hope this gives you some more insight! LATS!!

  3. Hi.

    Interesting to read this article as I have a similar problem, which was bought to my attention through pole dancing.
    Somehow throughout my growing up I have leant to lift things incorrectly as well.
    I seem to also use my shoulders (but the front shoulder muscles) and my Trapezoids, neck muscles.
    I apparently have no strength in my back shoulder muscle groups and no scapula control what so ever.
    So when I pull myself up on the pole I rely on shoulder/neck muscles, chest and biceps. my back, scapula, lats and triceps to nothing 🙁
    Ended up with an injury where they thought I had torn a Bicep- through over use and strain (as with no support form the other muscles it was doing all the work and just gave out)
    Luckily it turned out to not be as serious as originally thought – was Sub Deltoid Bursitis and just needed about to months rest and rehab exercises. It is no longer sore and am back at pole class, but can feel my arm is not as strong as it was.
    I now also have to try and constantly remind myself to drop my shoulders, try lengthen my neck, and engage the correct muscles when doing things.
    I’m so bad that the Physio says I probably use my shoulders to point my toes….lol
    I am also constantly tense and have neck spasms and headaches – so I know exactly what you are talking about!
    I have been naughty and not done my exercises for a while – but must I know, otherwise it will happen again.

    So no, you are not the only one!
    Good Luck with letting those shoulders go 🙂

  4. This is so true for me! My shoulders/back (specifically Trapezius and rhomboid muscles) are always sore and I have so many knots. Mostly all from dancing and pulling myself up the pole.
    I think the only ways to help are (short-term) deep sports massaging and (long-term) lifting weights to build up the opposite-motion muscles and supporting ones, meaning deltoids (arm raises), lower back, chest and arms. Thanks for sharing!

  5. So raising shoulders instead of using back muscles are a huge issue for me it’s something i have to constantly think “shoulders down and back” not only is it bad for those back muscles but it also put so much stress on your shoulder and puts you at risk for dislocation depending on the pole move. Your shoulders move with your body so naturally if you’re lifting up your shoulders will follow suite which unfortunately doesn’t activate those muscles that really have the strength (back muscles). Engaging your bcd by keeping your shoulders down and back is something that simply has to be drilled into your body by training consciously. It is the epic battle. lol

  6. I’m so relieved to hear I’m not the only one suffering this problem! I’ve done gymnastics, dancing, Zumba instructing over the last 27 years and it’s only since I’ve started pole training that I realised I have this problem and found this article.
    I went to see a physio as my shoulders are now curved forwards and have been given exercises to try and build up the correct muscles and stretch out the front of my shoulders.
    I’ve also suffered back pain and headaches for years and it now I can see why! My shoulders and top of my back (sorry don’t know which muscles are which!!!) look so defined and similar to yours holly. I even hunch my shoulders in my sleep subconsciously so it’s really difficult not to do it! I Wish I could Botox the muscles for a while so there was no choice but to use the right muscles!!
    Anyway, I will persevere with the exercises (when I can fit them in!) and pains as I want to get my body right and carry on with my pole training, as I love it and totally addicted!!!
    Good luck to you others too, I hope this is something can can be reversed 🙂 I look forward to any updates 🙂

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