Katja Makynen is a mother and aspiring personal trainer who specializes in the little known sport of pole fitness. As soon as most people hear pole sport, they think of adult oriented entertainment but in reality, pole sport dates back to Indian wrestlers and Chinese male athletes. I reached out to Katja Makynen after discovering her while searching the hashtag#garagegymlife. I was impressed by how difficult some of her moves looked and reached out to her for an interview and I’m glad I did! This turned out to be a really interesting discussion even though there was a slight language barrier to overcome. Check it out below!
Katja, you’re the first person I’ve ever talked to about pole fitness so I’m glad you agreed to share your story with us! I researched pole fitness and I was surprised to discover that it dates back to China in the 12th century and that Indian wrestlers used to do it also. Have you researched the history of pole fitness at all?
Yes, it’s cool. The history is indeed in China and India and it used to be men’s sports. Pole fitness was a good form of exercise that developed strength and body control. Acrobatics skills and suppleness come to the circus. Move an attempt to get an aesthetically beautiful performance, it will become a striptease, which happened in the 1920’s in America.
How did you get into fitness and pole fitness in particular?
My child’s dance school had a Christmas show and the guest performer was a successful pole dancer. I was surprised and fascinated because I had thought that pole dancing was easy exercise. I said to my husband that I also want to learn those tricks and moves. It was a very strength and skill demanding show.
Wow! At a Christmas show? That probably wouldn’t happen here in America, where do you live?
I’m Scandinavian, I live in Finland.
Is Finland more accepting of pole sport then?
The dance school has a wide range of different acrobatics and dance sports and pole fitness is one of them. In Finland pole training is divided into two: sensual and sport. They are two different things. For sensual pole dancing the age limit is often 18 years. But that we don’t need to discuss more. Sport Pole is all about the acrobatics and strength. In Finnish championships they have very strict rules about the clothing, movements, and for example the hair must be properly tightened up. In Finland, people often confuse the two sides of pole fitness, as many likes to practice both sensual and sport pole. But of course in the children’s Christmas show it was an athletic and acrobatic pole show. Pole sport is not so well known in Finland either. But we have Oona Kivelä who has been successful in the sport pole world. Her success has made the sport more known in Finland.
Does it bother you that pole fitness is often confused with the pole dancing that exotic dancers do? What do you say to people who say ignorant things to you on social media or anywhere else about it?
Yes, I can understand that there are many who have not heard about pole sports. So they associate pole fitness to pole dancing. I think it’s just ignorance so I don’t care. Pole dance studios usually have a wide variety of lessons like for example Power, Exotic, flow, stretching, and so on.
What was your husband’s reaction to you saying you wanted to learn pole fitness?
He wasn’t surprised. I’ve always liked action and extreme things, like bungee-jumping, wall climbing and so on.
So have you ever participated in another sport? Any CrossFit competitions or did you have a gymnastics background before you started pole fitness?
I have done different sports before starting pole fitness, for example as a child I did cross country skiing and ballet. And as an adult cycling, running, weight-lifting, climbing etc.
You have an impressive level of upper body strength, did you develop that strictly from pole work or do you include other exercises in your training regimen? I know that you mention Pilates and BodyPump in your Instagram bio. What role do they play in your fitness routine?
The power of the upper body comes from the rest of the exercise as well. I like basic CrossFit moves and also climbing, lifting, jumps etc. But I do not do extra arm, shoulder and back workout systematically because they get enough power from pole fitness. I work 3-5 hours on the pole per week. In BodyPump and Power Pilates I focus more on butt and legs because they will get less exercise in pole training. Stretching is important in pole fitness, I like for example to use yoga positions. I think that a varied exercise is important and it helps muscles to grow. And it also helps to keep the muscle balance, you know, if for example the muscles in your left leg are weaker than the right, it may cause problems.
I know that you said that pole fitness has strengthened your upper body but have you noticed any changes in how you look since you started and have you lost or gained body weight since you started doing pole fitness?
I did exercise regularly before the pole hobby. I ran three times a week and lifted weights more often than now. So I was already quite strong. That’s why I was able to make progress so fast. But yes, my body has changed, I’ve got more muscles now. I need to eat quite a lot, because the sport takes a lot of energy.
Here in America, there seem to be a lot of pole fitness studios popping up. I don’t know if it’s like that in Finland so what influenced you to practice your pole fitness at home?
I have three children and the nearest pole studio is 20 km away. I wanted to start the real training as soon as I had finished the beginners’ course. It was August 2015. I needed to practice at least three hours a week, but could not be at the studio three evenings a week because of the kids and everything else. So I bought a pole for my house. I go to the pole studio 3-6 times per month and the rest of the workouts I do at home.
Do you compete in International Pole Dancing Fitness Association competitions?
No, I haven’t competed. Now I find my workout challenges, and I haven’t yet reached the level I want to be on. But because I want to challenge the sport as much as I can I will possibly compete in the future. Maybe in two years I’ll participate in 40-year old Finnish championships.
How are points scored in Pole Sport? Is it based on how close you are to the ideal position like in gymnastics and swimming?
Judges will share the score 1-10, technique 1/3, choreography 1/3, performance 1/3
What do you think of the possibility of pole fitness being recognized by the IOC for the Olympics?
It would sound good.
How do you structure a training session? Is it by skills, like do you take a day to practice twisted grip pencils or is it according to body parts that need training?
My training often goes like this: I’m practicing a few new movements or tricks. The movements that I have already learned in the past, I will make a series of movements, combos. Power, as well as stretching workout I do at the pole, the muscle group that needs it.
Do you need special equipment to practice pole sport? I notice that you tend to wear clothes that are tight and hug your body is this to keep from getting tangled up in your clothes while on the pole?
It’s easier when the clothes don’t droop when you’re upside down on the pole.It’s important that the skin is in contact with the pole because if the fabric goes between your skin and the pole you might fall. There is also a certain substance which you can rub on your hands if for example your hands tend to be sweaty.
As a personal trainer, do you plan to program other exercises in addition to pole for your clients?
After I’ve finished my personal trainer studies, I would like to work with construction companies. I’d like to advice how the construction workers could take advantage of the heavy physical work and to avoid injuries and so on. Of course I would be happy to work with the pole fitness activities, too.
Getting Started In Pole Sport
When you’re setting up a pole in your house what are some things you need to consider?
After completing the beginner lessons I bought the X-Pole, it has both static and spinning options. My children and their friends always like to play with the spinning pole, they often make the condition of the circuit on my sports equipment, which are in the living room.
Are there any things to watch out for?
When the pole is at home, usually the height is not sufficient for all tricks. Securing and tightening must be done carefully and one must check regularly that the pole has not loosened.
How much space do you need to set up a pole training area in the house?
It would be good to have at least 2 meters all around the pole. I have a fireplace too close to the pole in one direction so I’m not be able to do spins that requires space at home.
When you began practicing did you have a mat at the bottom of the pole in case you fall?
The more demanding the movements get, the more important it is to have a carpet underneath, or someone there to secure or help. I’ve fallen down a few times and it hurts and gives you bruises. But the risk is there almost in any sports and of course the risk is always bigger than for the one who only sits on the couch.
Where’s the best place to buy a pole and get training on how to use it if you’re a beginner?
Before you buy your own pole, take beginner lessons in a place where they have poles of different thicknesses, a variety of brands, and material. I did that. I tried all of them, so it was easy to choose which one to buy. But I ordered mine online.
Where did you go to get your beginner lessons?
The place is called Gilda Gallery. (http://www.gildagalleria.fi/)
Tell me the best pole moves to build upper back strength.
V-invert is a good move to start with; it strengthens the upper back, shoulders and arms. The move is easier with bent legs and harder with straight legs.
How about if I would like to be able to do a dragon flag one day?
After that you can begin to practice Shoulder Mount and Shoulder Dismount. And when you get your legs straight in Shoulder Dismount, that’s a dragon flag.
Thank you so much for this interview Katja! You can follow Katja on Instagram @itstrainingdaytoday.