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WHY THE BAR METHOD WORKS SO WELL

Leandra Rouse and Burr Joyus“You use light weights, so I don’t understand why Bar Method students have such sculpted arms.” Leandra Rouse, a fitness expert and trainer, made this remark to me last month when we were working together on a video shoot to promote the Bar Method DVDs.

I got a similar comment a few days later from a Bar Method student named Robin. “I’m curious about why Bar Method classes all follow the same routine,” she said. “I’m not complaining because I’m getting great results. Can you just explain to me why the class is so structured?” In asking her question, Robin had unknowingly hit on the answer, namely that the secret of the Bar Method’s effectiveness lies precisely in its structured design.

If you’ve ever taken a Bar Method class, you might have noticed as Robin did that the order of the exercises is mostly the same. To illustrate how this structure works, I’d like to take you on a virtual tour of the workout and explain along the way.

First, it’s important to mention that the safety of exercises allows you to work deep “in the muscle” long enough to change your muscles without risk to your joints. Your teachers give you extra help staying in this intense “zone” by providing you with clear-cut counting and interesting choreography. Just when an exercise becomes too intense to bear, your teacher introduces a new tempo or move that revitalizes your spirit and energy.

alternating sides of legsAbout halfway through the class, you notice that you’re alternating between working the front and the back sides of your body. This pattern stretches and elongates the muscles you just worked in the previous exercise while you’re sculpting the muscles on the opposite side. Early in the class you work the front of your arms, then the back of them while you stretch the front of them. Then you work the front of your legs during thigh-work, the back of your legs during seat-work, the front of your legs again during “round-back,” and finally the back of your legs again during “curl” and “back-dancing.” In effect, you’re usually doing two exercises rolled into one: toning one side while elongating the other side, which has been primed for stretching by having just been worked to exhaustion.

Burning off fatLater in the class you hit what feels like an aerobic section. Your teacher explains that you’re maximizing fat burn-off by performing aerobic-style exercises just when you’re beginning to burn a high portion of fat as fuel. Your lungs pump oxygen as you perform “flat-back” and do more pushups, both quick-moving sections that spike your heart rate. These exercises are a key to the Bar Method’s special ability to create sculpted arms. They burn the fat off from around the arm muscles, plus they give the arms two additional intense sculpting intervals.

Another feature to bring to your attention about the structure of the class is that it’s working each major muscle multiple times. You thought you’d gotten thigh-work over with after the thigh section. Then you find yourself working your thighs all over again during “round-back” and “flat-back.” Every bout of challenge digs deeper into these muscles, and by the time you walk out of class, you tingle with a thoroughly “worked-out” feeling.

And as you probably already know, the Bar Method ensures that you get into the right muscles, those “muscles that I didn’t know I had.” This is an important ingredient in its recipe for quick body change. Some muscles when left to themselves become habitually lazy over time, and others get overused. Bar Method instructors teach you how to find these lost muscles and they have time to give you clear, easy-to-follow instructions on how to work in good form.

Finally during this virtual class, it’s become clear that the Bar Method requires you to lift not just light weights but a very heavy weight: your own body! During pushups you lowered and lifted your body with your arms. During “thigh-work” you lowered and lifted your body with your thighs. During “seat-work” you lowered and lifted your body with your glutes and hamstrings. During “flat-back,” an ab and leg exercise performed under the bar, you raised your legs with the power of your thighs, hips, pecs and shoulders. This was not in any sense a “light weight” workout!

The Bar Method gets surprising results, in sum, because it arranges its exercises strategically; then it targets muscles with precision, multiplying the benefits you get from each exercise.

THE BAR METHOD OR AEROBICS: WHY YOU DON’T HAVE TO DECIDE

Chelsea pushupsWhich is more important to do, aerobics or strength-work?

Bar Method studio owners, myself included, get asked this question by new students who are in the process of fitting the Bar Method into their lives. A recent email from a student at the new Montclair, New Jersey studio is a case in point. “We know that everyone who starts the Bar Method LOVES the Bar Method. A lot,” the student wrote, “But they still need to do cardio, and they’re having a hard time paying for you AND for spin, or a gym. I hear a lot of ‘Well I STILL have to go to New York Sports, the Y, or Spin.’’

Undoubtedly, both kinds of workouts these students are trying to decide between give benefits. A rigorous aerobics workout like a spinning class helps make your heart stronger and more efficient, burns calories, and increases stamina. It does not build muscle and sometimes burns muscle for fuel, resulting in a decreased resting metabolic rate. A rigorous strengthening workout on the other hand prevents the loss of muscle mass, one of the major side affect of aging, and guards against the weight gain that can result from muscle loss. It strengthens your bones and heart, and it makes you look toned and sexy. Most importantly in my view, it extends the life of your joints and rehabilitates any you might have previously injured. Because we’re a relatively delicate species in terms of our physical structure, our joints wobble when our muscles get weak, wearing down their cartilage. The resulting arthritis causes us pain, inflammation, more weakness, and more pain in a downward spiral of dysfunction. School age soccer and basketball players who aren’t pre-conditioned, for example, are prone to injuring their knees and ankles and starting down this road at a young age unless they build strong, balanced muscle to re-track their strained joints and lock them into proper alignment. In my 20 years of teaching the Bar Method, the largest portion of emails I’ve received are from students thanking the Bar Method for helping them heal their backs, hips and knees.

CHELSEA 3 3-12 B&W smaller1So if you have to choose between aerobic and strengthening, decide on the merits. By this measure strength-work would come in first because it offers a greater bang for your buck in terms of overall health and extended quality of life. Conventional aerobics classes such as spinning, for most fit people, would rank second.

This said, I can now give the Montclair students good news: You don’t really HAVE to choose between one or the other. There’s a third kind of workout out there that offers most of the benefits of both aerobics and strengthening. It uses more reps than conventional weight lifting (which can total a little as eight) but far fewer reps than aerobics (which can add up to the tens of thousands). Its weight exercises last for somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 reps each, so it builds stamina, burns away fat, and strengthens your cardiovascular system while it’s toning and elongating your muscles. It’s called interval training, and the Bar Method is one form of it. So don’t feel guilty about not making it to the spin gym! Your Bar Method classes are building stamina – and burning calories – more than you might have been thinking. Aerobics is a plus when you can fit it in.  But if you just have time for one workout, listen to what your body is telling you about how much you love the Bar Method, and enjoy!

WHY TRIATHLETE BEN WINSLOW IS HOOKED ON THE BAR METHOD

Ben Performing Thigh WorkAt the Bar Method, we are dedicated to the proposition that some of our students will be men. We supply our studio rooms with larger weights than women would use and in most facilities provide men’s changing rooms and lockers. We make sure our exercises and stretches are designed to be entirely doable for students with tight hamstrings, and we train our teachers to use instructional cues that are “gender-neutral ( no “ponytail,” “high heels,” “bra-line,” and “ladies” for example) to make sure guys don’t feel as it they’re in a chick flick. Even so – and this is no secret – the overwhelming majority of Bar Method students are women. When you do see a man at the Bar Method, he’s usually the only member of the opposite sex in the class. I was curious to get some insights from a man’s perspective on why more men don’t come, so I asked Ben Winslow, one of our most regular male students, to shed some light on this issue.

Ben is one of the fittest people I know. A graduate of the infantry officer school and a lieutenant in the army, he put himself through college and became a successful litigator. For the past 38 years, he has run his law firm in the San Francisco Marina while pursuing the sporting activities that he loves: biking, swimming, running, golfing, endurance training, and competing in amazingly challenging triathlons. Ben, who turns 68 next month, has completed many “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlons, (a harrowing 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz, followed by an 18-mile bike ride and an 8-mile run), bike races and other competitive events. .

You’d think these activities would be enough to satisfy the most hard-core athlete, but Ben is unusual and not just in his love of physical challenge. He also has an uncommonly open mind. About a year and a half ago when two female lawyers in his firm told him about the Bar Method and asked him, “Why don’t you come with us?” Ben didn’t hesitate. He liked the workout so much that he got his wife to go to the Bar Method studio in Marin County where they live. Over the past year he has made a habit of walking from his office to the studio three-to-five times a week between business appointments to take class.

Here’s what Ben told me about what it’s like to be a male student at the Bar Method:

Ben Performing Armwith with Sharon DemkoWhat first attracted you to the Bar Method?

As you get older, you’re stooped over. Old guys get stiff. I don’t want to be a person who can’t tie my own shoes.

What do you like about the workout?

I like the discipline. I like the routine of knowing what’s going to follow what. I like knowing what we’re going to do next and how many reps so I can do my maximum effort. And the instructors are great, well trained, friendly. They greet you by name. It may help I’m the only guy.

What results have you gotten from the class?

I’ve become a much better golfer. My golfing friends say ‘Wow, you’re really turning your body when you swing!’ I’ve strengthened my core, gotten more limber. Bike riding I don’t have back pain anymore. I used to get an achy low back. In general I have no more low back issues.

I think my body’s changed. I’ve always been very thin and lean. I’m now more muscular with more developed abs and biceps. I like the look you promote which is long and lean, not chunky and muscular. I have more spring in my step. More energy. I always go to guys (touching his toes) and go ‘hey, can you do that?’

Ben Peroforming Round BackDo you ever feel intimidated by what the women in class can do?

It all evens out. I can do more pushups. They can do other things.

Why don’t other guys want to come?

I tell a lot of guys to come and run into the same thing all the time: ‘It’s a chick thing.’ ‘Let me get this right: you get a fabulous workout. You’re around 30 beautiful women. I don’t get it.’ If guys come and try it once or twice, they’d see that it takes a lot of muscular ability, strength, and coordination. If you apply yourself, it’s hard. You’re sore after you do this. These days with more enlightened men, I think they’re missing out on something.

What could guys get out of the Bar Method that they can’t get elsewhere?

Guys will go down to Gorilla Gym and work with a personal trainer, do that. Personal trainers charge a hundred an hour. I look at them and think they’d get much more out of the Bar Method. If you really want to change your life, you go to a class like this.

MY MOST POPULAR BLOG OF 2009

As the year comes to a close, I would like to republish the most popular blog I’ve written in 2009. At the bottom of the article, I have also included links to my other blogs which make up this year’s five most read.

See you in 2010!   Have a very Happy New Year!

HOW THE BAR METHOD SLIMS YOU DOWN AND KEEPS YOU AEROBICALLY FIT

Since the 70s, millions of active Americans have been led to believe that aerobics slims you down and strength work tones your muscles.  The truth is not so simple. 

In fact most kinds of exercise that keep us moving continuously for more than a few moments, strength work included, are aerobic.  Stored fat is our most convenient energy source, so our bodies use it as soon as possible, that is, after you’ve finished the warm-up stage of your workout.  Walking, running, vacuuming, anything that raises your heart rate above resting level, burns both carbs and fat.

The question we should really be asking is: how do we maximize the number of fat calories burned from exercise?  To find this out, experts now rely less on how aerobic a particular type of exercise is, and more on how intense it is.  Want to know which exercise routine to choose when you’re trying to drop a few dress sizes?  Experts now suggest you rank them by level of intensity.   Pretty straight forward: work harder; use more fuel.

So how do you determine intensity?  Think back to that old adage: “feel the burn.”  The burn in your muscles is a good clue that your workout is getting intense.  To find out just how intense, try clocking the amount of time you spend during your workout while experiencing a muscle burn.  If it’s zero, you’re not using a lot of calories.  If it’s a good part of your workout, you’re cooking with fire.  Want to up your caloric expenditure?  Increase your level of muscle burn until you can barely continue.  Now you’re cooking with dynamite!

Using intensity as a gauge, you can now see through the old adage that walking’s a better fat burner than running.  Truth be known, walking does not burn a lot of calories per minute of exercise.   Go for a two-hour run and you’ll burn about a half a pound of fat.  You’d need to walk for five hours to match that result.  Yes, compared with running, walking can burn a somewhat higher proportion of fat calories than it does carbs, but compared with running, it simply does not do a good job when it comes to burning total calories.  Intense aerobic activity burn calories like crazy and so is doing away with a lot more fat calories per minute of exercise, even if its fat-to-carb ratio is lower than that of walking.   Bottom line: walking is not an efficient calorie burner because it’s not intense exercise.

For the same reason, yoga and pilates use relatively little energy.  Kick up the intensity with running, biking and other aerobic sports, and you get a much better result: more calories consumed and a gain in aerobic stamina to up your caloric burn during your next workout.

Granted: Running, biking, rowing and other high-energy exercise all do an okay job on the “calories out” side of the fuel equation.   To do better – to burn even more calories during exercise and to drop even more jean sizes – you’d need to up the level of intensity you experience during aerobics.  But how?

Recently a new student walked into a Bar Method studio to sign up for classes.  “I’m going to take the Bar Method once a week, because I love it,” she told the front desk manager.  “But I’m trying to lose some weight, so I’m going to run on the other days.”  If this student had chosen instead to take the Bar Method four days a week, she probably would have ended up a dress size or two smaller.  Like this student, most fitness consumers believe the best remedy for extra pounds is running.  It’s only when Bar Method students see their bodies shrink beyond what they were able to accomplish by running do they begin to understand that there’s something more you can do to shrink your body besides run. To read how Bar Method shapes muscles as well, read How To Sculpt a Dancer’s Body. 

The problem with running is that by its very nature it’s limited in the degree of intensity it can produce.  Unless you’re planning a brief sprint, running leaves you no choice but to proceed at less than top speed, simply in order to keep going.  If you did attempt to run at top speed, your body would give out after a few moments.  This is running’s catch 22:  It challenges you, but there’s a kind of glass ceiling of intensity beyond which it won’t let you go.

Here are four other blogs that with the one above make up 2009’s most popular.

GETTING IN SHAPE: A BODY SCULPTING TRANSFORMATION STORY

THREE BODY SCULPTING SECRETS USED BY THE BAR METHOD

FITNESS TIPS: WHY YOU MIGHT JUST BULK UP BEFORE YOU SLIM DOWN 

HOW TO SCULPT A DANCER’S BODY 

FITNESS TRENDS VS. MASTERY

fitness bar trendsThe upside of fitness trends is that they help motivate people to exercise.  Our thirst for variety hooks us into the next new hot twist on fitness.  The downside is that trendy workouts by their nature are incapable of giving their students good results. Reshaping your body involves sticking with a routine for months into years, and this fact makes it inevitable that trend followers never get that far into any one system.  Worse, they risk injury from repeatedly submitting their less-than-fit bodies to untried exercise systems taught by newly-trained instructors – a lethal combination of accidents waiting to happen.

Exercise trends themselves, even when students do embrace them, often turn out to be hastily conceived, over-promoted and under-performing products.  Take, for example, the three succeeding eras of step-aerobics, yoga and Pilates.  Step’s ascent in the 80s was fueled by reports of knee problems from high-impact aerobics classes.  Half a decade later, step-aerobics turned out not only to cause more knee problem but also to leave its students with unshaped bodies and tight muscles.  Yoga, with its graceful stretches, saw an opening and quickly became the next “it” girl of exercise.  It wasn’t long before yoga students noticed their weak bellies and Pilates picked up the baton as the next trend.  It’s about time we had a form of exercise that’s not solely a counter-trend but one that comes fully equipped to deliver all the goods.

stretching tipsThis is where the Bar Method comes in.  Compare it to other exercise brands such as step, spinning and pilates, and its difference in approach becomes clear.   The Bar Method, rather than following or bouncing off exercise trends has based its technique on exercise physiology, guidance from physical therapists, and results gained by its students.  This ongoing investigation aims to leave no stone unturned.  Over the years exercises have been added or subtracted based solely on their safety and effectiveness.   In its nearly two decades of development, the Bar Method has developed an amazingly safe, simple, effective way to challenge and enhance the human body.  To read how consistent exercise can transform your life, go to Top Ten Tips.

Find out where you can take Bar Method exercises classes.
Sample the Bar Method exercise dvds.

INTERVAL TRAINING NEWS: Intensity a Major Factor in Fitness Benefits

Last month, The New York Times reported on the surprising results of two recent studies in exercise physiology, one using rats, the other humans.  Both arrived at the same conclusion, namely that a few minutes of intense interval training produces the same fitness benefits as hours of aerobics.

In one conducted by the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan, two groups of rats underwent contrasting workouts.  One group paddled around in a pool for six hours.  The other group swam furiously for 20 seconds while carrying weights, then rested for 10 seconds for a total of 14 sets of swimming and resting.   At the end both groups showed equal increases in endurance.

Intense exercise thighIn the human experiment conducted at McMaster University in Ontario, one group road stationary bikes at a normal pace for about two hours, and the other group biked to exhaustion in 20 – 30 second sets interspersed with four-minute rest periods for a total of two to three minutes.  Again, both groups showed the same fitness improvements.

intense ab workSo can we simply cut our exercise to a few minutes a day and look like David Beckham?  We can look forward to a heated debate on this subject at some point.  What these studies do shed light on right now is why workouts based on interval training such as The Bar Method produce results so fast.  Students at the Bar Method are routinely dumbfounded at the results they get from an hour-long, non-impact class performed sock feet: “I am still amazed at how sculpted my arms are,” one emailed recently.  “I was surprised to see my biceps pop so quickly,” wrote another, and from a third: “I cannot believe the change of shape in my legs.  It is amazing!”

core strengthening exercisesThe mechanism that caused these changes is the same one tested by the physiologists: interval training.  Strength intervals within a Bar Method class are, like the sets in the experiments, brief and extremely intense.  “Triceps push-ups” for example, a 30-second exercise that occurs about 10 minutes into class, induces such an intense muscle burn (if done Bar Method-style with the shoulders directly above the wrists) that students’ faces and chests can flush deep red.  Thigh-work is similarly brief and intense.

The burning question remains: Why do bodies – human or otherwise – change just as much after short sets of intense exercise as they do after long laps of moderate exercise?  One possible answer is that our muscles are not designed to do long aerobic workouts.  What we humans were actually doing when our muscles completed their evolution about 50,000 years ago were “a multitude of tasks involving rigorous physical exertion and then rest,” (according to a paper called   “Physical Activity, Energy Expenditure and Fitness: An Evolutionary Perspective”).   The authors pointed out that, “…the activities of our ancestors, while demanding, lacked the efficiency of physical exercise conducted according to the tenets of modern exercise physiology.”  And they speculated that, “It might be possible to attain similar physiological effects with less time expenditure;” and suggested that, “investigations designed to explore this possibility are needed.”  It’s good news that these investigations are now underway.

Read more about our evolution and the human being’s special need for core strengthening exercises.

Click here to find Bar Method exercise classes near you.
Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EXERCISE Part I

Exercise as a dedicated activity has gained such a prominent place in society that it’s easy to forget how young it is relative to other facets of our lives. Remarkably it has risen from near non-existence to tremendous success in less than 60 years.  Here in a nutshell is its story.

The modern fitness movement started with a problem, namely our steadily declining level of activity as new technologies gave us unprecedented freedom from physical labor.  This decline began in the late 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution moved millions of people out of the country and off their farms into cities and factories.  The quality of life improved, but at a price.  By World War One, one third of Army draftees who showed up to fight tested as unfit.

In the 20s, debauchery came into style, and the resulting decline in health was exacerbated by poor nutrition during the Great Depression.  By the 50s, TVs, automobiles and the growth of suburbia threatened to bring daily physical activity to a near standstill.  By this time, our American bodies were not getting away with it.  During this era, diabetes and heart disease became leading causes of death.  Americans had effectively innovated themselves into the most slothful life-style ever known to man.

Jack La Lanne

Just when the situation looked bleakest, help arrived, American style, in the form of a powerful-looking TV action figure.  This figure was not named Superman, but he could have been.  In 1951, decades before health clubs became commonplace, Jack LaLanne began teaching strength training routines for both men and women on his TV show.  Today his routines still hold up as sound and effective.  “They said I was a crackpot and a charlatan,” he is quoted as saying.  Even so, by the 80s there were more than 200 Jack LaLanne health clubs across the country.

The sixties, a decade famous for its innovative spirit, spawned the next two huge fitness crazes.  First, the Beatles made yoga and meditation cool worldwide.  Then, in 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper coined the word “aerobics,” ushering in 20 years dominated by aerobic dance.

The modern American fitness movement was off and running.  By 1970 three out of the five basic elements of fitness: strength, cardiovascular health, and stretching had established themselves as as exercise choices.  The two elements still missing, body alignment and coordination, had a tougher sell within a nation that valued weight loss above all other fitness outcomes.

From this point forward, the industry stumbled into a protracted search for its identity.  Was it macho or mind-body, muscle-bound or lycra-bound?  Were men supposed to dance or grunt, stretch or sweat?  Were women supposed to be slender or buff, spiritual or spa-ed up?  Were health clubs all about racquetball or recreation, family or fitness?

Lacking a sure path, the industry succumbed to trends and counter-trends.  Next week, we’ll look at the 90’s and the resurgence of aerobics in the form of step-classes followed by the popularization of yoga.

yoga

HOW THE BAR METHOD SLIMS YOU DOWN AND KEEPS YOU AEROBICALLY FIT

Since the 70s, millions of active Americans have been led to believe that aerobics slims you down and strength work tones your muscles.  The truth is not so simple. 

In fact most kinds of exercise that keep us moving continuously for more than a few moments, strength work included, are aerobic.  Stored fat is our most convenient energy source, so our bodies use it as soon as possible, that is, after you’ve finished the warm-up stage of your workout.  Walking, running, vacuuming, anything that raises your heart rate above resting level, burns both carbs and fat.

The question we should really be asking is: how do we maximize the number of fat calories burned from exercise?  To find this out, experts now rely less on how aerobic a particular type of exercise is, and more on how intense it is.  Want to know which exercise routine to choose when you’re trying to drop a few dress sizes?  Experts now suggest you rank them by level of intensity.   Pretty straight forward: work harder; use more fuel.

So how do you determine intensity?  Think back to that old adage: “feel the burn.”  The burn in your muscles is a good clue that your workout is getting intense.  To find out just how intense, try clocking the amount of time you spend during your workout while experiencing a muscle burn.  If it’s zero, you’re not using a lot of calories.  If it’s a good part of your workout, you’re cooking with fire.  Want to up your caloric expenditure?  Increase your level of muscle burn until you can barely continue.  Now you’re cooking with dynamite!

Using intensity as a gauge, you can now see through the old adage that walking’s a better fat burner than running.  Truth be known, walking does not burn a lot of calories per minute of exercise.   Go for a two-hour run and you’ll burn about a half a pound of fat.  You’d need to walk for five hours to match that result.  Yes, compared with running, walking can burn a somewhat higher proportion of fat calories than it does carbs, but compared with running, it simply does not do a good job when it comes to burning total calories.  Intense aerobic activity burn calories like crazy and so is doing away with a lot more fat calories per minute of exercise, even if its fat-to-carb ratio is lower than that of walking.   Bottom line: walking is not an efficient calorie burner because it’s not intense exercise.

For the same reason, yoga and pilates use relatively little energy.  Kick up the intensity with running, biking and other aerobic sports, and you get a much better result: more calories consumed and a gain in aerobic stamina to up your caloric burn during your next workout.

Granted: Running, biking, rowing and other high-energy exercise all do an okay job on the “calories out” side of the fuel equation.   To do better – to burn even more calories during exercise and to drop even more jean sizes – you’d need to up the level of intensity you experience during aerobics.  But how?

Recently a new student walked into a Bar Method studio to sign up for classes.  “I’m going to take the Bar Method once a week, because I love it,” she told the front desk manager.  “But I’m trying to lose some weight, so I’m going to run on the other days.”  If this student had chosen instead to take the Bar Method four days a week, she probably would have ended up a dress size or two smaller.  Like this student, most fitness consumers believe the best remedy for extra pounds is running.  It’s only when Bar Method students see their bodies shrink beyond what they were able to accomplish by running do they begin to understand that there’s something more you can do to shrink your body besides run. To read how Bar Method shapes muscles as well, read How To Sculpt a Dancer’s Body. 

The problem with running is that by its very nature it’s limited in the degree of intensity it can produce.  Unless you’re planning a brief sprint, running leaves you no choice but to proceed at less than top speed, simply in order to keep going.  If you did attempt to run at top speed, your body would give out after a few moments.  This is running’s catch 22:  It challenges you, but there’s a kind of glass ceiling of intensity beyond which it won’t let you go.

Click here to find Bar Method exercise classes near you.

Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.