How to choose a vaulting pole
My father Alan Neuff had sweatshirts printed for his vault squad with the slogan “Speed, Strength, Courage”, but when he was chatting with his athletes he preferred “Speed, Strength, Stupidity”! He absolutely loved the particular attitude needed by athletes who throw themselves in the air on the end of a bendy glass pole. He also loved the science behind both the pole technology and athletic technique, but he was very clear that choosing a pole is more of an art than a science, as it depends on so many different factors.
Choosing a pole depends on bodyweight, handhold, takeoff speed, the direction of takeoff of the vaulter and even weather conditions. The best guidance will always come from a good experienced coach, but as many clubs and athletes don’t have access to pole vault coaches, this guide is intended as a useful introduction to the topic.
How are vaulting poles rated?
Vaulting poles are rated by how much bodyweight they can bear (loading) and the height of the handhold. For example, a 4m pole is available in a range of body weights from 100-180 lbs. (Different pole manufacturers use imperial and metric systems, so see our conversion guide).
The general rule is to use a pole loaded to your bodyweight or a little higher, but inexperienced vaulters may have difficulty in using, and gaining a reasonable bend, on a pole this strength. Female athletes may also need a pole slightly below their bodyweight if they use a standard pole, as the energy levels achieved by women tend to be lower (ref Journal of Sports Sciences).
Poles are designed to be held with the top hand about 25cm from the top of the pole, with a grip range of about 15-45 cm (6-18”). They will bend through 90’ (i.e. bottom of pole vertical and the top horizontal when viewed from the side). If it bends more than this, the pole is being overloaded and may break. The effect of overloading on the pole is that the vaulter will find themselves too far in the landing area and under the bar before the pole begins to recoil (assuming it has not broken). That means the vaulter will come up under the crossbar even with the stands back to the fullest extent.
Poles can be overloaded either by holding the pole higher than the max. grip, by an athlete using a pole rated below their bodyweight, or by a very powerful run/take-off.
European and US poles use different measurement systems, so see our metric/imperial conversion chart to check your weight and pole length.
What is the best vaulting pole for a beginner?
Beginner athletes should start with a straight, stiff pole which is greater than their bodyweight. This is because the first drills a vaulter masters are swinging into a sandpit without bending the pole. The ‘Conquest’ is an ideal first pole for young beginners, as it has been designed specifically for clubs or schools to teach athletes to take off and drive without a bend. It is a thinner walled pole, but does not have a high compression glass cloth construction, which means that it is not as durable.
Once the athlete is able to safely handle the pole in a pit and is moving onto the landing area, they will generally start on a soft pole. A soft pole means that it is easier to move it to vertical from bent, and the athlete will still be moving forward onto the landing bed when the pole recoils – making for a much safer landing. However, once the beginner athlete’s technique develops, they should generally use a pole which is at their body weight or slightly higher, as although this makes it harder to bend the pole, it substantially reduces the risk accidents and injury from missing the landing area, or overloading and breaking the pole. There are no rules governing this in the UK, but US rules require High School athletes to use a pole over their body weight – the number of accidents reduced substantially after this rule was introduced.
How long should a vaulting pole be?
This depends on the height of the vaulter, but also their experience and technique. As a rough guide:
2.95 - 3.05m
3.05 - 3.20m
3.30 - 3.45m
3.45 - 3.75m
3.75 - 4.00m
4.20 - 4.40m
Handgrip is measured standing holding the pole upright, measuring from the floor to the top hand of the vaulter.
The beginner reach grip is as high as they can reach plus 2 hand-widths (approx. 15cm).
What difference does handgrip make to vaulting pole selection?
Poles have a grip range of about 30cm, around 15cm from the top (some poles have this clearly marked, others do not!). Do not hold the pole above the max grip range, as it may break. The weight of the pole is measured from the top of the grip range and every 2.5cm down the grip range will make the pole feel 1lb stiffer, so a 130lb pole will feel like a 130lb pole at the top of the grip range, but a 140lb pole at the bottom.
Moving the grip up slightly makes the pole easier to bend and slows down the rate at which it unbends. A longer pole (or higher grip) increases the length of pole in front of the athlete, so requires more effort to bring the pole to vertical.
Lowering the grip speeds it up and gives a stiffer recoil. If the athlete is finding it hard to bring the pole to vertical, lowering the grip reduces the among of power needed to get the pole to vertical. This makes it more likely for the athlete to land on the landing area and makes it much safer. The grip can be raised again once they have improved their technique and power (which is much easier to do if they are confident of landing safely in the right place!).
When moving the handgrip, do so in small increments of one hand-width at a time.
When moving to a longer pole, hold it only one handhold higher than the previous pole to allow time to ‘learn’ the feeling of the new pole.
When do I need to change my vaulting pole?
If the athlete’s handhold is at the top of the grip range and they are landing deep on the landing area, coming up under the cross bar, they need either a stiffer or longer pole.
How do I know if I need a longer pole or a stiffer pole?
If a vaulter has a powerful run or takeoff, they may well overload a pole rated at their bodyweight and should move up the range. They will experience recoil delay if the pole is too soft. Also bear in mind that poles soften with age, some more than others!
As a rough guide a vaulter weighing 140lbs holding at 4m should use a 4.25/140 pole or slightly stiffer. Also as a rough guide the handhold may be moved up or down 25cm with the effect of changing the loading by 10lbs. Thus a 4.25/140 pole will usually take a 150lb athlete at 3.75m grip but the vaulter should be careful not to drive in too hard, especially at heavier loads.
Generally an athlete should use a pole no more than 15lbs (7kg) over their body weight, so once the 140lb vaulter on the 4.25/140 is holding at the top of the hand grip and landing at the back of the bed, they have the following options:
- Move to a 4.25/145 or 4.25/150, then after they have outgrown that pole:
- Move to a 4.50/140
Moving to a stiffer pole is usually recommended first. Once you are on a pole which is 7kg/15lbs more than your body weight, then move to a longer pole. Changing lengths of poles can cause problems but roughly 4.25m/150+5lbs = 4.40/150
Will a longer pole help me to vault higher?
Yes and no. The correct pole for an athlete is based on their performance, not their goals. The best athlete will not clear their PB on a too-short pole, but moving to a longer pole before the athlete is ready will result in them missing the landing area. A longer pole needs more energy to get it to vertical.
It is risky trying to save money by making one big jump at a time. The stronger pole can often cause a vaulter (who has needed to restrict their take-off power on a soft pole) to finish up in a heap in the box and to lose confidence! But bear in mind a young growing vaulter who is progressing well may well move through poles at a fast rate!
Do vaulting poles have a right-way-round, a front and back?
Yes, one should find the soft side of the pole (the back) and the flex side (front). The pole will naturally favour the flex when bending, so holding it the right way round will make a truer bend during plant.
To find the soft side, place the pole in your hand with the other end resting on the floor. It will gravitate to one side to sag in the middle. Hold the pole with the flex side at around 11 o’clock for a right-handed handed vaulter, or at 1 o’clock for left-handed almost at 1 and mark it with a pen. This will help the vaulter to bend such that it moves away from the vaulter, allowing them to swing under the bending pole. It is important not to hold the flex side straight at 12 o’clock, as you cannot move forward with a pole in front of you when it bends.
Which pole vault accessories do I really need?
Bungs are the most important. You must never use a pole without a protective bung, as it will seriously damage the pole and the pole will slip when planted and can cause serious injury. It is worth always having a spare bung, as your competition will be over without it and each pole needs a different size so you cannot rely on being able to borrow one from another athlete.
Poles are fragile and easily damaged, so a carry bag is also essential. It must protect the pole, so either a hard case or a soft bag with a hard tube inside.
Cloth tape is used to wrap the pole both for the hand grip and the base of the pole to protect it against the back of the box.
You will also want a grip product for your hands. We stock a range from dry chalk to our secret recipe ‘Venice Turps’, which is the ultimate tacky designed specifically for vaulters and has been used by vaulters and other athletes for decades.
How do I store vaulting poles.
Keep in the plastic sleeve and hard tube that they come in. The hard tube can be put in a soft carry bag for ease. If poles are not in a hard tube, they must be kept upright or on a solid flat surface. They should not be laid on shelving that only has rests at intervals as the pole will sag and the natural bend of the pole will be spoilt. If the poles are kept in hard cases, the case acts as a solid surface, so the poles will not sag and can be either laid flat or upright. If poles are laid flat, never place anything on top of them.
Vaulting poles are made of various layers of glass fibre, sometimes with a carbon layer. They are easy to damage and must be cared for carefully. Avoid hitting the pole into the back of the planting box and wrap the base of the pole to provide protection if this occurs accidentally. Be careful not to scratch the pole, e.g. by knocking it with spikes or by scraping it on the inside of a hard carry case when inserting or removing the pole. This is why the plastic sleeve should always be used. If the pole is scratched, this can over time develop into a weak spot and break.
What are vaulting pole flex ratings?
The flex rating is measured by resting each end of the pole on a bench and suspending a weight from the middle of pole. Each manufacturer uses a slightly different method, so flex ratings are not comparable between pole types, only between different poles in the same range. Some makers of poles do not publish them and actively discourage their use.
Flex ratings for poles are fine-tuning to body weight. They roughly correspond to soft (-2lb), medium, stiff (+2lb). So a soft 150 is approximately 148.
Really, only skilled vaulters need to consider flex ratings when changing pole. If you do want to specify a flex, it is likely to delay the supply whilst a pole is obtained from the makers (up to 3 months).
How many vaulting poles do I need?
A beginner vaulter should start with just one, but move to the next pole before that one breaks, then they can build a series of poles.
The beginner pole can then become their warm up and training pole, or a pole to use in sub-optimal conditions, whilst they buy a new pole to be the ideal competition pole. This will also keep your competition pole in good condition for longer, which is very important with such important kit. Eventually an intermediate athlete may also want a ‘best’ or ‘next’ pole, for when they are really flying or ready to move up to the next level.
Because the amount of power you can put into a vault changes in different conditions, an experienced vaulter may build up to around 5 or 6 poles, keeping the older and softer poles for warm up and practice, and having a selection of ‘competition’ poles for different conditions, such as head-wind, tail-wind, rain, sun and that absolutely perfect day when everything comes together.
Click here to see our range of vaulting poles.
How many vaulting poles should a club have?
Clubs and schools with vaulters should really budget to obtain a bank of poles over a period of time. Progress of the vaulters will be better and breakage of the poles less likely if a vaulter is able to change to a stronger pole before they break the only pole the club possess! Use Jan Johnson’s pole resistance chart to optimise your range of poles over time that will meet the needs of most athletes without too much overlap.
Jan Johnson, 1972 Olympic Bronze Medalist and top pole vault coach, originally developed this chart, which is now used as the standard across all brands and manufacturers. Click to download a pdf
For more information, including on how poles are made and training drills for vaulters, visit Bruce Caldwell's excellent website at http://www.therightpole.com/