RUNNERS’ LEGS AND DANCERS’ LEGS: THE DEFINING DIFFERENCE

RUNNERS’ LEGS AND DANCERS’ LEGS: THE DEFINING DIFFERENCE

Dancer's LegsIf you were shown two pairs of legs, one belonging to a runner and the other to a dancer, would you be able to tell which was which? You’ll probably say “no problem.” The runner would have the lean, straight legs with angular quads, lean hips but little definition in their outer glutes, and tight rears but not especially lifted ones. The dancer would have the curvier legs, the defined, lifted glutes, and the more compact, firmer looking muscles.

As straightforward as these differences might seem to us, there isn’t much scientific validation for them. Fitness experts have written that the two types of legs are equally strong, and a Swedish study has added its weight to this speculation by discovering that the legs of dancers and runners have the same amount of “slow-twitch” (stamina enhancing) muscle fibers.

What’s missing in this discussion is the question of how and to what extent the legs of dancers and runners differ from each other. In my view, which is based on 20 years as an exercise teacher, running and dancing do produce legs that look and behave differently from each other, and I’d like to suggest some reasons why.

Runner's LegsFirst of all, I’ve observed that the legs of beginning Bar Method students who are runners usually shake uncontrollably during the thigh-work section, causing them to have a hard time getting through the exercise. I think the reason this happens lies in the mechanics of running. Each step by one leg gives a brief rest to the other. Additionally, the front and back of each leg get a second tiny rest due to each side’s firing separately, first the quads, then the hamstrings. Running is thereby highly efficient at conserving energy, affording leg muscles built-in instants of regenerative rest so that they are never completely exhausted. Put a runner’s quads or hamstrings in a situation that calls for sustained muscle tension – or strength work — and they experience quick fatigue. Dancers on the other hand train to hold sustained positions such as plies, extensions, and balances. Bar Method exercises go a step farther and increase the time spent holding such positions from seconds to minutes. This strengthening technique forces every possible muscle fiber to fire, thereby exhausting the muscles through and through.

Second, running favors some leg muscles over others. When runners use their legs to propel themselves forwards, two muscle groups, their quads and the hamstrings, do most of the work. Their glutes kick in only when they are sprinting full out or jumping, motions that demand a large range of motion through the hips. Serious runners do practice laps composed of wide leaps for this very reason. Those who stick to jogging-sized steps end up not providing their glutes with enough challenge to change their shape.

Tensor Fasciae LataeThird, running tightens the muscles around their hips. This loss of mobility restricts runners’ ability to recruit the muscles that connect their legs to their torsos, causing these muscles to atrophy and their legs to appear less toned. One muscle that can get especially tight on runners is a hip-flexor called the “tensor fasciae latae.” Any gait faster than a walk, if performed frequently, can cause the “tensor fasciae latae” to tighten and restrict the function of other muscles such as the outer glutes. (A tight tensor fasciae latae can also cause a painful condition called IT band syndrome.) Dancers on the other hand develop every muscle at their disposal by extending their legs outwards and upwards in every direction.

Fourth, every step runners take impacts their joints and muscles with a force of 1 ½ to 5 times their body weight. These steps add up (Runners take around 35,000 steps on one 10-mile run.) and eventually shake the muscles and skin a bit loose from their bodies. Dancing rarely involves repetitive pounding, and the Bar Method uses no impact at all. This way, as the leg muscles of Bar Method students develop strength, they wrap tightly around their underlying bones.

Finally, intense running without sufficient fuel sometimes forces runners’ bodies to burn its own muscle. This loss of muscle mass can cause runners’ legs to lose tone and appear flabby. Dancers and Bar Method students share the objective of building dense muscle, though for slightly different reasons — dancers to gain the power to jump, Bar Method students to develop firm, sculpted legs.

Jenni Finley

Don’t get me wrong. Running creates nice looking legs. Dancing and the Bar Method however can take them into the realm of beauty beyond the scope of what running by itself can achieve. Jenni Finley (shown above), currently a Bar Method teacher in Southern California,  noticeably slimmed down her legs during her first year of doing the Bar Method. The shape of her legs — slim, smooth thighs, defined hamstrings and a high, round seat – gives Jenni an appearance that is less like that of a runner and clearly more like that of a dancer.

23 replies
  1. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    Awesome post! I’d danced my whole life, but as an adult there aren’t always great options for the anything but Black-Swan-like commitment, and with a full time job and a bopping social life, hauling it out to the Mission (SF!) 3 times a week just wasn’t sustainable.

    Bar Method has given me back my dancer’s legs! And..all these classes have added on another little treat that years of dancing didn’t dish out…BICEPS!

    Reply
  2. Stella
    Stella says:

    I have been a runner (competitive and non competitive) for over 25 years. I also took the Bar Method class for 2 years straight. I enjoyed what the bar method did for my abs, but it was actually bar method that tightened my tensor fasciae latae to the point of knotted pain, and made my running less enjoyable. Exercises like “seated pretzel” might help with abductors and outer glutes, but they also tighten the IT band sometimes excessively. I find the running vs. bar method claims from Burr misguided. I do not have loose skin, quite the contrary. I have also had 4 kids and running is a far better mental release than bar method. I would think a better route to approach running vs bar method would be from the “balance” perspective. Runners can benefit from incorporating 2 days of bar method into their training as opposed to a one vs. the other approach that Burr takes.

    BTW, I also sustained a shoulder injury from bar method that cost a lot of money in treatment and still bothers me 2 years later.

    Reply
  3. MARLENE MOORE-GORDON
    MARLENE MOORE-GORDON says:

    I loved reading this article… I began doing the bar method 4 days a week in July of 2010 and have noticed amazing results…. I feel stronger, more limber and my body is much more toned. I have never found a routine that works for me that I actually look forward to doing. Thank YOU for creating this fabulous way for a workout that really provides results to those willing to do the work….
    Sincerely, Marlene

    Reply
  4. Lucy
    Lucy says:

    Hi! I have a question. I have read most of Burrs articles (which are great!) and still have a question. Can someone tell me which way would be faster to lose weight… 1) do Bar Method everyday and also do about 45 minutes of high intensity interval training on the treadmill 5 days a week. OR 2) just Bar Method 5 days a week and no extra cardio. Both ways eating very clean vegan. I need to lose my last 10-15 pounds. Do you think doing both is to much… I’m finding that both makes me so tired that I seems to skip workouts. But I am not sure if just doing Bar everyday would be enough to lose fat. I know it will be enough to shape the muscle underneath. Thanks for your help!

    Lucy.

    Reply
  5. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:

    Hi Stella:

    Thanks so much for your input, and we are deeply sorry to hear of your injury. In answer to your comment, The Bar Method does work the IT band during flat-back. Much of the class, however, stretches it, including the stance held during free-weights, thigh-work, seat-work, back-dancing and many of the stretches.

    We wish you the best of luck and health with your fitness goals.

    Best Regards,
    The Bar Method Headquarters

    Reply
  6. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:

    Hi Kristen:

    Your dancer’s legs and new biceps sound wonderful. We can’t wait to see you show them off during the warmer months in SF.

    See in you at the bar.
    The Bar Method Headquarters

    Reply
  7. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:

    Hi Lucy:

    Thank you for sharing your dedication and inspiration. Losing weight is a different challenge for each person. There is no formula that fits all body types and goals and part of the challenge of pursuing better health and fitness is finding your own balance and pushing past your personal plateaus. We encourage you to browse our blog archives for more articles on this and related subjects, Burr thinks this will be most helpful in your research.

    Best Regards,
    The Bar Method Headquarters

    Reply
  8. Cea
    Cea says:

    I love doing the Bar Method exercises. However, I did the pretzel last night (seems to give me pain…..I herniated a disc two years ago. I was fine when I woke up and now…..I can hardly move because of the pain on the herniated side. Is this move contraindicated for people with disc issues? It’s not sore….very painful instead…..

    Reply
  9. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:

    Try leaning more away from your working leg and maintaining a slight forward bend in your waist by pulling in your abs. Feel free to place your supporting elbow on the floor if doing so feels more comfortable. Most importantly double-check that your hips aren’t moving as your leg does. The most common reason for back discomfort during pretzel is inadvertent swinging of the hips as the leg moves up and back. So make sure your hips aren’t moving with your leg.

    Reply
  10. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Hello! I am an avid marathon runner who just started taking bar method classes at my local studio. I am officially addicted, I am a little confused by this blog entry. Can you please tell me if all the running I am doing will hurt or hinder my results with the Bar Method? Or will it help with my body become leaner and more sculpted? As I said, I love the Bar workout, but am an avid runner, as this satisfies the social and competitive edge of exercising for me. Is it bad to do both? Thanks for any input you can give.

    Reply
  11. perfit personal training
    perfit personal training says:

    Wow I didn’t know there was such differences. Thanks for the info. I have one question-What is the difference between just dancing and the bar method?

    Reply
  12. John
    John says:

    I just read an article about a race called the Urbanathon that is run in Chicago and is more like a very intense Spartan Run than a race. It’s 9 miles long and has obstacles throughout the race that include sprinting on top of concrete highway dividers, running in and out of giant tires, climbing over cars (parked of course), and running the steps of Soldier Field. Has any heard of, or run in this race? And does anyone have any advice about how to train for this or similar types of races? I’d like to run it next year and I’m trying to put together a training program. Thanks for any advice you can provide.

    John

    Reply
  13. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:

    @john @sarah The Bar Method is a great way to condition for your runs/races. Good luck with your fitness goals!
    @Dance is an art involving movement and The Bar Method is a strengthening, muscle elongating and body alignment technique. They are both qualitatively different. Dancers who are also Bar Method students love all the bar work in the class. They especially enjoy the exercises that most resemble dance such as the “stretch at the bar,” “second position” and “arabesque.” Come check out a class and find out the differences yourself!

    Reply
  14. Ann Korach
    Ann Korach says:

    I am a former professional ballet dancer. I stopped performing when I was in my late twenties, I am now 58, I took classes from Lotte Berk in England in the seventies. While I continued to teach ballet and take class well into my forties, I always did my Berk exercises. I took Callanetics, a weak off shoot of Berk, four days a week for several years.
    I can say that Bar Method is the singularly most effective, as well as safe form of exercise there is to achieve a long lean figure. Yes, injuries can arise from some of the upper body weight work. This generally happens when the body has not been warmed up properly either incorrect warm ups or not doing them long enough. It is also imperative that the proper stretch is performed after each set of exercises. Stretches post exercise should be held for fifteen seconds. If one wishes to increase range of motion the stretches should be performed in these fifteen second increments gradually increasing range. If one experiences pain with the weights , simply put the waits down and work without and see if that helps.
    I still teach exercise classes and I draw on Berk and Bar Method for my inspiration and watch the videos to constantly check myself, even teachers need correction from time to time.

    Reply
  15. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I had the exact same question as Lucy. I am new to The Bar Method- only one month in and have been going five times a week. I am getting stronger and am becoming more flexible. I read all of Burr’s blog, and understand that it will take several months for my muscles to strengthen and for my weight to go down, after a possible bulk up. I am excited to persevere and see eventual changes. However, I have quite a bit of weight to lose- 40 lbs. I wonder if I should be doing light cardio, such as walking on the treadmill at a fast pace an hour daily, to help with the weight loss. I did see where a suggestion of bike riding was complimentary to the Bar Method. After reading the blog entries, I am still unclear (perhaps because there is no one answer to fit all, due to individual body differences), I am not sure I understand if supplemental cardio is recommended for weight loss in addition to Bar Method and correct diet. I do understand The Bar Method alone will yield results, I was not sure however if it would be in my best interests to add supplemental cardio to help with the process. Perhaps some links to those discussions could be posted here, to assist my research?

    Reply
  16. ThoughtsBecomeThings
    ThoughtsBecomeThings says:

    Great post! However, I couldn’t agree about runners having “loose skin”. I think that’s more because of lack of hydration than actually running. Runners who take care of their skin (just like non-runners) look beautiful!

    Reply
  17. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Interesting post. I danced for 13 years, then I started running in college to stay in shape. My leg muscles haven’t changed much, that I’ve noticed anyway. My quads are a little beefier from cycling though.

    Reply
  18. Marie
    Marie says:

    Hmmm, former professional ballet dancer here, who now is an age grouper triathlete. I will acknowledge that any “Barre” type of class will definitely work the muscles of the thighs, quads, and feet in a different manner, but if you are truly looking for the best definition, one should simply consider a classical ballet class. I think the barre portion of ballet is the most thorough workout any athlete could aspire to, and the associated stretches are not only beautiful to behold, but they are very effective at creating the oppositional resistance necessary to maintain tone in the legs. Sorry, but I still think of ballet as the superior “sport” amongst the three alternatives of running, bar method, ballet.

    Reply
  19. Jillian
    Jillian says:

    I was coming from an exercise regime of only running – about 5 miles at a time, 3 to 4 times a week.

    I agree that Bar Method is really hard for runners. I do shake more during thigh, and seat work is excruciating. I’ve actually lost weight (the last 5 lbs) since starting 5 months ago without any change to my diet.

    And now, when the weather’s nice, I’ll go for a run, and I find that running is easier. My pace seems to have gotten faster, too. Go figure. 🙂

    I’m converted. Though I legitimately did zero strength work before Bar Method. Just running.

    Reply
  20. Dee
    Dee says:

    I just ordered my first Bar Method DVD today and I cannot wait to try it. I try to fit in as much exercise in as possible and try to eat healthy as much as possible (although this has the tendency to go out the door on weekends). I am in good healthy and recently have had issues with my thighs. I did a lot of resistance training on a stationary bike to train for biking events and my legs are out of control huge but still have a lot of fat. Will doing the Bar Method help me slim out my thighs a bit? I’m all for strong legs, but I’d like to fit into my jeans again!

    Reply

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