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THE MOST NEGLECTED MUSCLE DURING EXERCISE: THE SERRATUS ANTERIOR

Bad form pushups edit flipped

Not engaging the serratus anterior

If you take exercise classes, you’ve probably heard teachers say, “retract your rhomboids” and “engage your lower traps” when you’re doing weight-work. Rarely however do they prompt you to “contract your ‘serratus anterior,’” another set of muscles that are essential to good shoulder positioning. Why don’t teachers pay more attention to the serratus anterior? It’s not that students don’t need help with this set of muscles. They do! In my 24 years of teaching exercise, I’ve seen students struggle with recruiting their serratus anteriors more than they do any other hard-to-reach muscles, particularly during pushups.

One reason the serratus anterior may go missing in exercise instruction is that the darned name is simply a mouthful to say. The “Latissimus Dorsi” and the “Trapezius” abbreviate into friendly sounding nicknames: the “lats” and the “traps.” Not so for the seven-syllable, difficult-to-shorten “serratus anterior.” Then there’s the scary image conjured up by to the fact that this muscle was named after the sharp teeth of a saw!

Denise pushups straight arms 1 edit arrow smallWhatever the cause, it’s too bad! You really do need to pay attention to your serratus anterior. Without a well-functioning set of them, you will have a hard time moving your arms in certain directions, you will have an increased likelihood of neck and back pain, you could be on your way to an injury, and (if it’s relevant) you will have an abysmal right hook.

Now that I’ve got you worried (at least a little bit), I want to give you a basic rundown on where this muscle is on your body and how it works.serratus-side-view edit small The serratus anterior is a large muscle that wraps around the outsides of your rib cage like long-taloned claws and attaches underneath your shoulder blades at their inner rims. When your serratus anteriors are doing their job, they help your arms move in the following ways:

  1. They “protract” your shoulder blades. That is, they draw your shoulder blades away from each other towards the front of your ribcage and lock them there. Your arms are thereby rolled forward like a canon and locked into action mode. If your serratus anteriors fail to do this, your shoulder blades will ricochet right back into your body after you punch or push, greatly decreasing the power and effectiveness of your effort – and possibly tweaking your shoulders. rhomboids and serratus anterior text 2 smallThis is the situation during pushups if you don’t engage these muscles!
  2. They work as a team with your rhomboids to keep your shoulder blades in place, one kicking in when your arms are being pulled forward and the other taking over when your arms are being pushed back. For example, when you hold weights out in front of you, your rhomboids engage to keep your shoulder blades from flying apart. When you’re pushing against something, the floor for example, your serratus anterior takes over to keep your shoulder blades from collapsing inwards. Finally, when you want to keep your shoulder blades down, the two muscles join forces, for example, during reverse pushups.
  3. They play a major role in your basic ability to raise your arms above shoulder height. When you want to raise your arms, your serratus anteriors on each side tilt your shoulder blades upwards at their outer edges. This maneuver effectively points your shoulder joints more upwards so that your arms can move around freely at a higher range. Your lower trapezius helps with this process as well.
    Misty Copeland's back muscles

    Misty Copeland

    If your serratus anteriors don’t turn on to perform this rotation, you will have to raise your shoulder blades towards your ears, possibly resulting in impingement and a rotator cuff tear. Dancers have fantastic serratus anteriors as evidenced by the graceful lift of their elbows and long necks when their arms rise overhead.

  4. The serratus anterior has many other protective features.
    1. It prevents “winging” of your shoulders blades, which result in a less stable shoulder.
    2. It protects against neck pain by enabling your arms to move in a large range without compressing your neck.
  5. Last but not least, the serratus anterior helps you hold good posture! “When firing properly,” says physical therapist and Bar Method teacher Kerissa Smith, “the serratus anterior anchors and stabilizes the shoulder blade/scapula, aiding in an open chest and lifted posture.”
Anita protractions 2 July 2015 small crop

Protractions

Are there ways to fix a lazy serratus anterior? Yes! First, you can do a few simple exercises at home that can get your serratus anterior into gear.

  1. Do shoulder blade protractions. Lean against a wall and press the backs of your palms and your elbows against it. Then slide your shoulder blades forward (away from each other) – keep them down as well – and hold.  This exercise is a great way to rev up for the added weight your serratus anterior will be dealing with during pushups.
  2. Serratus anterior exercises in pushup position

    Scapular pushups

    Do scapular pushups. Assume a pushup position. Keep your arms straight and carefully slide your shoulder blades inward towards each other, then outwards away from each other. Repeat this action at least ten times. As the website “anabolic minds” explains: “Scapular push ups will isolate the serratus anterior. Make sure that your scapula just protracts, don’t let it ELEVATE.”

  3. Serratus anterior exercises

    Wall exercises for the serratus anterior

    Stand with your back against a wall and inch your arms upward against it in stages, shoulders down. Start with your thumbs touching the wall, and graduate to your elbows pressed as far back as you can manage.

Meanwhile, there are your Bar Method classes: Pushups, plank, rhomboid pulls, arm dancing and oblique punches (a curl exercise) all work your serratus anterior. Dedicate some of your mental focus during class on engaging your serratus properly — that is, keep them down and wide against your ribs — during all these exercises.

See you in pushups.

Burr Pi pushups 2 July 2015 edit 2 small

BAR METHOD MYTHS

As a former business reporter, I have tremendous respect and admiration for journalists. Their stories help guide our life decisions. At the same time, journalists have a responsibility to report the truth since their stories can impact the subjects themselves for the better or worse. Journalists realize this and for the most part do their best to get their stories right.

In the case of The Bar Method, the press has mostly gotten it right, for which I am grateful. Occasionally they don’t, despite their good intentions. Reporters may have come at the story with pre-conceived notions, put style over substance in an effort to entertain, or downplayed the facts to make a personal point. The following three articles are examples of these journalistic pitfalls. All three were recently published and cover a subject I’m especially familiar with, The Bar Method.

Pitfall #1. The Whirlwind Tour

Rozalynn FrazierThe quick tour of many different workouts is a popular story format for exercise reporters. In this scenario, the writer takes one class each at different studios or gyms, then reports on her or his personal impressions. The drawback of this approach is that these reporters usually aren’t fans of the workouts themselves, making it unlikely that they’ll gain any insight on their potential value to their readers.

This is the case with an article written by Huffington Post’s Rozalynn Frazier called “Are Barre Classes Worth The Buzz?” Rozalynn, a long-distance runner, took one class each at five different barre-based workouts. I applaud Frazier’s spirit in taking on this challenging assignment. However, taking a single class at five barre studios is about as useful as attending orientation day at a five colleges to determine the calibre of knowledge their graduates will acquire. Barre fitness classes in particular do not lend themselves to casual “toe in the water” testing. The moves are subtle, the techniques demand some dedication, and the results are huge. A beginner such as Frazier could not possibly have learned from a single class how greatly that class changes its students’ bodies, posture and well being. Nor could Frazier have noticed whether or not each studio she visited keeps track of its students’ progress and supports them over time. What’s more, Frazier is unlikely to have nailed the proper form of the exercises herself on her first try and so probably didn’t feel much happening to her own body.

In the end, Frazier could only come up with one random comment about the Bar Method (beyond what she’d already read on our website). “I was surprised,” she wrote, “given the name, at how little time we spent at the bar.” Frazier completely missed The Bar Method’s most distinctive features: the efficiency of its workout, its exceptional focus on posture and athleticism, and its unique interactive learning environment in which teachers give their students in-class coaching and support. Nothing in Frazier’s investigation touched on these benefits because she could not have discovered them within a “whirlwind tour” format.

Pitfall #2. The Personal Axe to Grind

The New Journalism became popular in the 60s when authors such as Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer shifted to a more personalized style of reporting. Today, exercise reporters are using this subjective writing style to better connect with their readers’ feelings of vulnerability when it comes to working out. The downside of this strategy is that the writers can allow their emotions to dictate the content of the story, to the detriment of the truth.

Why I quit the Bar MethodThis is what happened with Sadie Chanlett-Avery, author of an article called, “Why I Quit The Bar Method.” Chanlett-Avery has a masters degree in holistic health. At the start of her article she stated that she would use her barre-fitness experience as “my personal study of fitness and female body image.” This author’s effort to turn her workout story into a statement on women’s self-image was probably what led her to bend the truth to fit her arguments.

Sadie chanlett-avery photoFirst of all, Chanlett-Avery did not quit The Bar Method, because the workout she attended was not The Bar Method, which does not, as she describes, use “pink dumbbells,” lift weights with palms facing down as illustrated in the photo, use lots of Katy Perry tunes, or use the term “trouble-zones.” I’m sorry to say that Chanlett-Avery’s misstatement of the name of the workout that she “quit” was the first of a number of fallacious statements, for example:

  • “Relying on mirrors actually detracts from our awareness of how we move.” In fact, mirrors are an invaluable tool for improving posture, alignment, coordination, for developing good patterns of motion, keeping joints safe and well-aligned, and for teaching the body how to recruit muscles quickly and accurately.
  • “Isolating muscle groups for ‘toning’ perpetuates the debunked idea of spot reduction.” The truth is that millions of people around the world, including dancers, body builders, gym goers, physical therapy patients, and barre fitness students isolate their muscles to tone them, not to “spot reduce” them.
  • Stretching “is another activity that isn’t supported by current exercise science – muscles have fixed origins and insertions, so their lengths don’t change.” This statement is simply untrue. Regular stretching increases muscle length and range of motion. My own physiology textbook confirms that stretching does indeed “elongate” muscles.

What’s most telling about the underlying bias throughout Chanlett-Avery’s story is her evident distain for the very idea of body toning classes and for the students who take them. In the article she complains that the students of these classes wear “diamond rings” and are “chasing an elusive idea of perfection.” Chanlett-Avery might come to terms with the fact that wearing diamond rings is a common custom among married women everywhere, not a sign of vanity as she implies. She should also know that The Bar Method (perhaps not the class she took) is known for its diversity of students and its supportiveness of individual goals.

At the end of the article, Chanlett-Avery said that she is now a satisfied student at Cross-Fit. I’m glad she found the right exercise class for her.

Pitfall #3. Reliance on fake experts

Amy Rushlow headline with yahoo headerWorst among the fallacious articles on exercise I’ve recently come across is one that uses fake experts to distort the truth, possibly for their own self-interest. This article appeared on “Yahoo Health” and was written by Amy Rushlow, a “certified strength and conditioning specialist.”

Rushlow gets it wrong from the beginning in her title, “Barre Method: What’s True, What’s Hype & How To Stay Injury Free,” Rushlow did not fact-check the name of exercise genre she was writing about. In fact, The Bar Method owns the trademark “Barre Method.” It is a registered spelling of our brand name, not a generic term for barre-based workouts.

Nick Tumminello photoIn her article Rushlow calls on three “experts,” personal trainers Marc Santa Maria, Nick Tumminello, and Eric Beard. Using this threesome of obvious non-experts on barre fitness to back her up, Rushlow explains “the facts behind the hype” about barre fitness, most of which are completely false. Here are four of her most egregious misstatements:

  • “There is absolutely no way to increase a muscle’s length through exercise.” Again, this author’s experts need to consult their physiology textbooks.
  • “Doing these isolated, small-muscle-type movements is not very metabolically demanding.” It’s obvious that Rushlow’s experts have never taken the Bar Method, which is a form of intense interval training that has been proved to burn away plenty of fat.
  • “Many of the repetitive movements found in barre can possibly lead to overuse injuries.” Seriously? Barre classes keep students in one position for one or two minutes at a time. Athletes get repetitive use injuries from highly repetitive activities like running and working in poor form over time. Contrary to these “experts’” warnings, The Bar Method is therapeutic and healthy for the knees and lower back, a benefit that has been confirmed by many doctors and certified physical therapists with whom we’ve worked throughout the years. I am 67 years old, have regularly taken barre fitness for 34 years, and have never had a repetitive use injury from the class. Conversely, many of our students come to us from personal trainers or Cross Fit after having injured their shoulders and backs. True fitness experts know that no workout genre is in itself dangerous unless is it is carelessly taught.
  • Last, and most serious of Rushlow’s misguided statements was her advice to her readers to “Limit yourself to one barre workout per week.” No way would that work, as any Bar Method student will tell you. To achieve results, Bar Method students quickly discover that three-to-five classes a week give them the best results, and tens of thousands of our students take this number of classes a week and feel fantastic, many of them in their 50s, 60s and 70s. This age group discovers that our workout is the only one they’ve found that feels good on their joints and at the same time gives them the challenge, support, results and fulfilling class experience that they want.

Regrettably, when Rushlow’s article came out, it caused anxiety among many Bar Method students. Some of them approached their teachers asking if it was okay to take more than one class a week. Rushlow could have spared our students this unnecessary concern by consulting true experts on her subject, among them sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, and barre fitness teachers themselves.

THE LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND MUSCLE TONE

I love to make New Year’s resolutions, and most years, one of my promises to myself is to get better results from my workouts.  If you’re like me and this goal is high on your resolution list, here’s a tip that can get you on your way: Whenever you work out to music, make it a project to sync your moves to its beat. Research studies have discovered that following a musical beat when you exercise improves your brain-muscle connection, not only making you look hotter on the dance floor but enabling your muscles to work harder during exercise, resulting in more tone and strength from your workouts. This is why Bar Method music mixes use exclusively tracks with a clear, strong beat for its strength exercises.

In this video Hoddy Potter, owner of the two Kansas City Bar Method studios, and I show you how it works.

Hoddy and Burr blog on music and muscle tone Jan 2015 small

UNSAFE BARRE FITNESS MOVES FROM THE PAST

Welcome to my blog. In this video I show you four unsafe exercises from past barre fitness workouts and the current safe versions of these moves that barre fitness classes teach today.

Straight leg reverse pushups Hanna Dec 2014 edit 2 smaller

Let me know if you’ve run across any of these exercises and what your experience was with them.

Thanks for watching.  Burr

HOW TO MAKE A GREAT WORKOUT MUSIC MIX

Now that Bar Method classes are online, you can get your workouts in just about anywhere – almost. The exception is when you’re outside, at the beach, camping or traveling where there’s no internet connection, and you really want to maintain your Bar Method muscles by doing some moves on your own. It’s handy at these times to have a music mix on your phone that’s awesome enough to keep you going for up to an hour, preferably a mix made up of your favorite songs. But what if your best-loved songs are too mellow and laid back for working out? How do you identify the ones that will really get your heart-pumping?  Fortunately, there are now some easy-to-use apps that help you put together a reliably energizing mix worthy of a professional DJ. If you’ve ever thought about doing this with the music in your iTunes library, I’d like to share with you an amazing, easy-to-use app that can help you, plus some tricks I’ve learned from decades of making mixes for the Bar Method.

Body Shots mixes for blog textFirst, find any available extended “club” mixes of the songs you love. You might be pleasantly surprised at how often DJs have already done some groundwork for you by creating “danceable” versions of popular songs. If you discover one, download it!

Cadence BPM Tapper

You’re half way there. Next, find out your songs’ “BPM” (beats per minute). According to research studies, the ideal tempo for working out is around 130 BPM, give or take about five BPMs. Most people can’t tell if a song is a suitable tempo for working out, so determining the BPM of your songs will save you from the disappointing experience of trying to exercise to a beat that sounds okay on your computer but that turns out to be too slow or too fast to move your body to. Fortunately, there’s now an amazing app that can easily, almost magically, provide you with this information.  It’s called “Cadence BPM Tapper.” Here’s how to get it and use it:

Go to the Apple store and download Cadence BPM Tapper for $2.99.  Open it and drag it onto your dock at the bottom of your desktop screen (the line of icons representing applications).

Go back to your playlist. At the top of your screen click on “View” on the menu bar. In the “View” drop down, click on the first item, “Show View Options.”  In that window uncheck stuff you don’t need (I always uncheck “rating” and “plays”). Then check “BPM.”

Go back to your playlist and if you need to, drag the remaining columns closer to each other by grabbing the tops of their columns so that you can see the BPM column. You’re ready!

Play one of your songs. As the song is playing, open the BPM Tapper. Put your cursor on the center of the white circle and tap your mouse or space bar to the beat.  Tap on every beat (tap tap tap tap tap) not every other beat. Tap about 10-15 times without pausing. The BPM will appear in the squarish white box next to the white circle. Stop tapping, and click on the white box. Magically, the BPM will appear on your iTunes playlist.

Do this to all your songs. Now you can see if any of your songs are too slow or too fast for you to use for working out. Delete the songs that are slower than about 125 BPM and faster than 140 BPM. Sorry, but in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

Finally, put your songs in ascending order of BPM.  That way, the gradual rise in BPM throughout the class will help spike your energy.

Burr's Playlist

Here’s a workout playlist featuring top artists that I put together today using the BPM tapper. You can recreate it from iTunes, or make your own.  Enjoy! 

 

 

HOW MUSIC CAN SCULPT YOUR BODY

Pitbull singing "Sexy People"

Pitbull singing “Sexy People”

I have a deep appreciation for power of a great song to energize a workout. When I’m in class about to go into “thigh-work” and I hear the century-old Italian ballad “Torna a Surriento” start to play,  I know that Pitbull is about to jump in and stomp all over this old song with a high energy, joyful rap about “sexy people all around the world.” Blood flows into my thighs and I’m propelled through the reps by the pounding beat of “Sex-y Peo-ple.”

There’s a definite advantage to being able to exercise in this day and time when you can download onto easy-to-use portable music devices a multitude of great dance songs by artists like Pitbull, David Guetta, Flo Rida, Nelly Furtado, Ludacris, Kaci Battaglia or who anyone who inspires you 🙂 ♫

David Guetta

David Guetta

In addition to keeping you motivated and energized, music can optimize your results from working out in a number of other ways. If you exercise to a musical beat, that beat can spur you to move faster. Dance aerobics and some strength workouts such as the Bar Method tap into the power of rhythm this way to intensify their workouts. Pushups in a Bar Method class are more challenging than they otherwise would be because you do them to an up-tempo beat, making each rep more explosive, precise and effective than reps you would perform if you were left alone to determine your own pace.

You can also harness the power of music during exercise to help you change the shape of your muscles. A small number of targeted sculpting workouts, including the Bar Method, put music to work to this end. The Bar Method, for example, teaches students to “find muscles I never knew I had,” as they put it, by training those muscles first to follow a simple beat, then to contract to that beat with more and more precision and power. This technique has enabled thousands of students to tone certain muscles for the first time, an outcome that has been duplicated by research. University studies on movement and music have found that when subjects focused on performing moves to a beat, they significantly increased their strength and coordination. At the Bar Method new  students often initially aren’t aware that training their muscles is a key component of the sculpting process. Many of them start out with a normal level of mind-body awareness but not as much as they need to recruit “hard-to-reach” muscles well enough to change them. So the first few times they try to work these “difficult-to-reach muscles” (the glutes for example), their initial effort is inaccurate and weak. They can’t yet fully engage the muscles and might not engage them at all.

These students can sweat and burn some calories, but they won’t change the shape of muscles as long as they can’t fully engage them. I’ve taught many new students who are just starting out on this learning curve. During, “seat-work,” for instance, their movements are disorganized. They might aim their working leg in a different direction than the one the teacher instructed, or move it slower or faster than the beat, or miss their glutes entirely and bend at their waist, shoulders or ankles. These students simply haven’t yet laid down the neural circuitry they need to execute certain moves with precision and power.

Portland seatwork smallThis ability to locate and fire a muscle quickly and accurately is called “synchronous activation” (see my blog FUN FACTS ABOUT HOW EXERCISE CHANGES YOUR MUSCLES). Bar Method teachers use a number of techniques to help students develop “synchronous activation,”  including adjusting individual students’ form and encouraging them when they improve. Among their techniques is system of training muscles by means of music. Teachers start by playing songs with a simple, clear beat that all their students can follow. Then they make sure to count clearly, accurately and on the beat. Finally, they prompt individual students to “accent the rep,” “make the motion sharper and more powerful,” “make your motion a little larger/smaller,” “hold on the top of each rep where you’re most deeply in the muscle,” and so on. This way, students are able to heighten and fine-tune the quality of their movements. After a few months of this work, students develop the neural connections to their muscles that enable them to fire those muscles deeply, thereby effectively strengthening and toning them. One popular result is a noticeably lifted seat, (for which we can thank Pitbull and Ludacris, in part 🙂

Next week: How to make a great music set with the music you love!

NUMBNESS: WHY SOME STUDENTS HAVE THIS ISSUE DURING EXERCISE

Amanda Cortis small edit little itty bittyLast month, a student named Amanda Cortis emailed me with a problem.  Amanda lives in Massachusetts and has been doing the Bar Method DVD workouts for about three years.  “My arms go numb when I come down to my elbows for lower ab work,” she said. “My forearms and hands get extremely numb.  This happens within 30 seconds and it makes it hard for me to get the best workout on that section.”

It turns out that Amanda is not alone! After receiving her email, I sent out a query to the Bar Method teachers at our flagship studio in San Francisco asking if anyone got numb during class. Seven of them emailed me back that, yes, they experience numbness in their arms or legs during certain exercises.

Jen lat pulls 2 small

Jen doing “lat pulls”

Sharon with fox ears edit small

Sharon in “fox ears”

Christine and Allyson both have Amanda’s issue: Their arms tend to get numb during kickstand curl (see below). Jen, a master teacher,trainer and evaluator, gets numb in her left arm when she does “lat pulls.” Sharon, our company’s Director of Training and Evaluations, has had several shoulder surgeries and gets “numbness and tingling,” when she lifts her arm above her shoulders, for example during the “high curl fox ears” position.

Melissa in arabesque edit small

Melissa doing “arabesque”

Christine pretzel modification small

Christine doing “pretzel”

As for numbness in the lower body, Melissa loses feeling in her standing leg during “fold-over” and “arabesque,” Rubyanne has to shake out her stand foot during “standing seat”  when it goes to sleep (below), and Christine’s front leg tends to fall asleep during “pretzel.”

Kerissa text somewhat smallerWhat’s behind all this numbness? As luck would have it, one of the teachers who responded to me, Kerissa Smith, is a physical therapist. Kerissa herself occasionally experiences exercise numbness during “fold-over,” and she provided me with a brief explanation for why this annoying problem can happen:

“Unlike muscles,” she explained, “nerves do not like to be stretched. Numbness generally occurs after a nerve has been over stretched, is inflamed, or ulnar nerve and arm photo smallwhen pressure has been applied to it. The ulnar nerve runs superficially below the elbow. When too much pressure is placed on the elbow, numbness occurs (think of hitting your elbow on something, and hurting your “funny bone” – aka your ulnar nerve).” Kerissa added that students like Amanda “may experience numbness during kickstand curl if there was too much pressure placed on the elbows in an over-stretched position.”

Cayce text smallerOur consulting physical therapist Cayce Hurley, who co-owns the Bar Method studio in Dr. Phillips, Florida, agrees. “Numbness during a weight bearing exercise is actually common,” Cayce says. “It could be from a few factors during ‘kickstand curl.’ I would say that the ulnar nerve is stretched or even the nerves in the brachial plexus (see illustration below) due to the position of the shoulders and then the elbows also bent.”

The lower-body nerve most often to blame for leg and foot numbness is the sciatic nerve. In some people, this nerve runs close to or Sciatic-Nerve-Pain-TreatmentThe nervous systemthrough muscles in the rear like the “piriformis” muscle. During exercise this muscle grips and presses on the sciatic nerve, causing the leg or foot below to go to sleep.

Gentle stretching can actually help nerves adjust to treating ranges of motion. Bar Method teacher/physical therapist Tera Roth (she’s pictured on our home page doing “pretzel”) says that her she and her fellow PT’s prescribe what they call “nerve glides” to patients to lengthen and free nerves. “The idea,” she says, “is that nerves can get shortened or they can get stuck in the surrounding soft tissue that they pass through. The exercises are a sequence of movements that stretch the nerves and get them gliding through the tissue. We generally tell people to stop the stretch before they feel the numbness or tingling in the extremity.”

Round-back (me)

Round-back (me)

Tera

Tera

Since round back is a position that really winds up the nervous system, I’ve told clients to lessen the flex in their foot to avoid the numbness but to try to push it a little further everyday and the numbness could resolve.

Kerissa and Cayce offered some recommendations for how Bar Method students can avoid getting numb when they work out. Before I share their advice with you, it’s important for me to mention that numbness might occur for reasons other than temporary pressure on a nerve. If your numbness consistently lasts longer than just a few moments and doesn’t go away shortly after you come out of the position, or if the numbness becomes painful, it could be a symptom of sciatica, spinal stenosis, diabetes, exertional compartment syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome or clogged arteries, all of which call for you to be under a doctor’s care. Besides these potentially serious conditions, experts have attributed numbness to vitamin deficiencies, poor blood flow, dehydration or muscle fatigue.  Long-distance running has its own set of numbness issues caused by loss of blood flow in the hands, fluid leakage into tissue, and pressure on the bottoms of the feet.

Cayce and Kerissa assured me that the kind of numbness most students run into in a strength/stretch class like the Bar Method is not likely to be a sign of these problems.  Here are their suggestions for how to avoid this annoying issue:

Sharon foldover at stallbar 2014 small

Sharon doing “fold-over” holding a lower rung at the “stall-bar”

Arms over the head with elbows bent, from Kerissa:

  • “I would avoid “fox ear” position (arms crossed behind the head) if the numbness occurs all the time. The ulnar nerve is at its end range in this position, and the shoulders are also internally rotated.”  In our teacher Sharon’s case, “given [her] history of surgeries, nerves are most likely being impinged at the shoulder in this position.”
  • Sharon herself has solved her shoulder numbness during “fold-over” by working at the “stall-bar” where she can rest her hands on a low rung.

“Lat pulls,” from Kerissa:

  • “Try lowering weights/ wrists below elbows to decrease pressure. Increase shoulder retraction/ external rotation of shoulder to take pressure off of shoulder joint.”  Our teacher Jen solves her problem by not using weights and not squeeze so intensely.
Rubyanne standing seat 2014 edit small

Rubyanne doing “standing seat”

“Standing seat,” from Kerissa:

  • “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.” “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.”“Fold-over/arabesque”
  • Kerissa herself (being a PT :-)) has resolved her own numbness issue during fold-over by shifting her weight differently. “When the numbness occurs it is usually because my weight is shifted too far posterior over my standing leg/ heel, if I soften the bend in my standing leg.”
Christine kickstand curl modification edit small

Christine doing “kickstand curl” with hands on the mat

“Kickstand curl,” from Cayce:

  • Try to avoid sinking your head down ‘into’ your shoulders.
  • Correct the placement of your elbows to directly under your shoulders.
  • Relax your forearms to avoid the over-stretch at the elbow.
  • As a last resort, place a mini-mat under your elbows to decrease the pressure on them.
  • And fire your abdominals rather than holding yourself up solely with your elbows!
Allyson kickstand curl modification small

Allyson doing “kickstand curl” with extra mat support

A few more suggestions for how to deal with numb arms during kickstand curl from Kerissa:

  • Rest on a black riser mat and mini-mat, a remedy our teacher Allyson (who has low blood pressure) has discovered on her own. “I have ‘solved’ this issue recently,” Allyson told me, “by using 2-3 mats behind me to enable me to lift my elbows.”

“Pretzel:”

  • Our teacher Christine is a scientist by profession and applied her own deductive reasoning to address the problem of her front leg becoming numb during pretzel: “I just have to keep my body a little more upright rather than leaning forward to relieve pressure on the front of my hip.”

If you’ve ever experienced exercise numbness, I hope this blog will help you find a way to avoid it. Remember, you can always consult your teachers, who may experience exercise numbness themselves.

STREAMING 2 COLLAGE

Update on our streaming videos:  Last weekend, we shot five more fun, butt-blasting, Bar Method workouts that will be available to students later this month.  Look on our home page for our Bar Online launch!

 

FUN FACTS ABOUT HOW MUSCLES HEAL

One benefit you get from doing the Bar Method and other exercise routines that are both intense and safe is that you fortify your body against injury. The strength, flexibility, joint stability and enhanced coordination you gain all reduce the likelihood that you’ll tweak, strain, sprain or break something. Even so, injuries can happen to anybody no matter their level of fitness.  The good news is that your body is equipped with its own EMS service, which rushes to the scene after you’re injured to start putting you back together. You can speed your recovery by knowing something about this healing system, which is the subject of this blog.

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Hoddy team text 6 not as smallFirst though, I want to tell you some exciting news. Last weekend, a group of wonderful Bar Method teachers from around the country taught classes in front of a camera, and these classes will soon be online for you to take wherever you are. With master teacher Kate Grove producing, the teachers rocked! They were challenging, easy to follow and hilarious. Thank you, Bar Method teachers, for helping us take the Bar Method online!

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Returning to how your muscles heal, here are five fun facts about what happens inside you during the healing process that are good to know if you ever find yourself working through a recovery:

First, your body heals in two basic ways, by means of “regeneration” or “repair.”

1: You can actually regenerate parts of yourself to a certain extent.

The Wolverine transformation 2In the movie The Wolverine, Huge Jackman develops mutant super-human healing powers after being doused by radiation from an atomic bomb. His regenerative powers are actually less science fiction than you might think. Our bodies can really do what his did, only not nearly so quickly or on such a large scale. We also share the Wolverine’s reason for being able to regenerate live tissue: Survival! To meet this primordial need, our bodies evolved our two complementary healing systems.

The first healing system, “regeneration,” is in essence the same re-growth technique as the Wolverine’s, namely, by means of tissue regeneration, which works with small injuries (Scientists are working on some day giving us a way for us to regenerate major body parts, but they’re not there yet). One instance of “regeneration” is when you’re sore after exercise and your body knits together the micro-tears in your muscles you sustained by working out intensely. In this case of regeneration, the muscle heals stronger than before (see last month’s blog).

2: Your body’s healing kit also has its own “cement filler.”

Regeneration and repair text smallRepair” is our body’s other healing system. The “repair” system doesn’t generate new tissue. Instead it grows scar tissue to patch up injuries that are too large for us to fix with new cells of the original type. During “repair,” your body sends collagen to the wound and, long story short, your injury fills with scar tissue. (To be accurate, some degree of regeneration happens during most healing, even in “repair” cases.)

3: Scar tissue needs exercise!

Once scar tissue has formed, you’ve Brett Sears text small 2got one more step to take to be thoroughly healed, and it’s called “remodeling.” The reason you need to “remodel” your healing injury is that scar tissue first forms in a disorganized tangle. As physical therapist Brett Sears explains, “Unfortunately, the body does not know exactly how to arrange the collagen cells so that they become healthy tissue” and for that reason, “remodeling scar tissue is a must.”

4. Don’t stay in bed for too long after an injury.

Scar Tissue unremodeled text edit smallSo how do you “remodel” scar tissue? Here’s how you don’t do it: Go to bed for six weeks. The result will be a knot of scar tissue that feels tight, limits your mobility, and puts the injured area at risk for re-injury. If you follow a wiser course and rest only during the acute phase of the injury, then start to regularly move and stretch the area when it begins to feel better, your scar tissue will stretch out and align itself with the neighboring tissue fibers, thereby gaining strength and suppleness.

Physical Therapist Sears gives an example of how you’d heal a hamstring strain:

“Follow the R.I.C.E protocol [Rest Ice Hamstring remodeling text smallCompression Elevation] for a few days,” he says. “After some healing has taken place, gentle stretching of the hamstring muscle is indicated to help ensure that the scar tissue is remodeled properly.”

Physical therapists like Sears are your first responders when it comes to getting started remodeling scar tissue. Down the line however, you’ll need exercise. Wound healing can last a year or longer, and, barring a major recovery, you usually don’t Blakeley text small need to be in physical therapy for as long as a year. Once you’re on the mend and your PT gives you the okay, you can optimize your recovery with a safe and intense exercise program. The Bar Method, for example, has helped countless students rehab after getting hurt. Among them is Seattle Bar Method Blakely, who had gotten injured in college sports and was happy to find an exercise system, she says, “to help strengthen my back and help heal my injuries.”

5. Muscles heal three to five times faster than tendons or ligaments.

Muscles heal fast because they’re rich in blood flow. They’re also rich in nerves, so when you hurt a muscle, it hurts! You may feel bruised, but muscle tissue bounces back well. It’s the tough guy of the group.

Ligaments ACL-Torn2 smallerare the opposite of muscles in these ways. They have much less blood flow and relatively few nerves (the reason they’re colored white in drawings). Ligaments attach bone to bone and help stabilize your joints, if you haven’t injured them too much. People can pop an ACL (“anterior cruciate ligament,” which stabilizes the knee) and they may not even feel it due to the lack of nerves. Then they try to walk! If someone’s badly injured an ACL, it may not come back at all. You can often resolve an ACL injury by strengthening the muscles that extend across your knee so that they replace the stability you lost. In some cases, you may need an operation to fix your ligament tear.

Tendons are another story. In my work as an exercise teacher, I’ve found them to be the problem child of the group. They’re at the ends of your muscles, usually around your joints. They attach muscles to bones, and act kind of like pulleys, moving your bones when the muscle contracts. The problem with tendons is that they have little blood flow and a moderate amount of nerves (like ligaments, they’re also colored white in anatomy illustrations). So they don’t heal well, and when they’re hurt, they really hurt!

Hamstrings text 3This fact may come in handy if you ever find yourself with a case of tendonitis. Consider that it would take you, let’s say, six weeks to heal from a muscle injury of a certain magnitude. That could be up to 30 weeks for a tendon strain! At the Bar Method, some of my students come to class with hamstring tendonitis, and they resist modifying the stretches because they believe their injury will get better by itself. The reality is that these kinds of stubborn tendon issues characteristically need medical intervention. A good doctor or physical therapist can get a student started on a regime of rest, medication and gentle stretching. Then the student needs to modify in class for a while. Modifying basically means not stretching full out but very gently just before the point of pain. If you ever need to do this in class, don’t be shy about it!  Be proud that you know how to enable your muscles to heal.

I hope you found this information as fascinating and fun as I do.  

Regards to all, Burr

 

FUN FACTS ABOUT HOW EXERCISE CHANGES YOUR MUSCLES

Exercise makes us stronger. This we know. But how exactly does exercise make us stronger? It turns out to be a interesting story and not all of it involving dense cellular biology. I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite fun facts about what goes on in your muscles after you exercise. Keep them in mind the next time you’re in the midst of a tough workout, and you may find they give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the experience.

Star Wars action figures smallFirst, I want to tell you about “dark muscle” and “white muscle” fibers. People have both types of these fibers in their muscles in varying proportions according to each individual.

“Dark muscle” fibers are dedicated to keeping us moving indefinitely. They’re called “slow twitch” fiber. You use this endurance-oriented-type fiber when you walk and run long distances. Our neck muscles have a lot of slow twitch fibers so that we can easily hold our head erect all day. Our deep calf muscles also have a lot of them so that we can run around from dawn to dusk if we want to. Look at “slow twitch” fibers through a microscope and they will appear dark. That’s because slow twitch fibers are filled with capillaries, giving them a rich blood flow that is a source of continuing energy (Muscle cells also produce their own energy.)

White and dark muscle fibers smallerBy doing lots of aerobic exercise, and you’ll infuse your slow twitch fibers with even more capillaries. Slow twitch fibers burn lots of calories, but no matter how long you work them, these fibers stay pretty much the same size, so they don’t contribute significantly to sculpting you. Finally, as their name implies, slow twitch fibers have a relatively slow reaction time.

Studies have shown that elite marathoners tend to be genetically endowed with a higher-than-average percentage of slow twitch fibers, while Olympic sprinters have more fibers that give them strength and quickness.

tiffany in thigh 2013 edit lighter text crop small1…Which brings us to the other major type of fiber in your muscles, “fast twitch” or “white muscle.” “Fast twitch” fibers are designed for power and speed. They have has less blood flow, which makes them lighter in color. Fast twitch fibers are what most reshapes your muscles. Do strength training, and these fibers get firmer. Keep training and these fibers will undergo “hypertrophy,” that is, they will get larger. Women’s muscles (fortunately) don’t increase size easily, so women can use heavy weights and still not see a lot of hypertrophy. Whatever sex you are, the manner in which you work out will determine the body shape you achieve. If you use heavy weights with few reps for several months, your “fast twitch” muscle fibers will increase in size. If your routine employs light weights with lots of reps, the result will be muscles that are firm and shapely but not significantly larger. The Bar Method’s practice of performing many reps with light weights produces just enough hypertrophy to sculpt muscles but not bulk them up.

One last note on dark and white fibers: Each of our muscles has a different proportion of “slow twitch” and “fast twitch” cells according to what that muscle does. For example, your hamstrings and arm muscles have a high percentage of fast twitch fibers for power and speed. Your glutes have a lot of both types (one reason they’re so large!)

hypertrophy text edited smallerHere’s how both types of fibers get stronger from exercise: First, working out causes “micro-tears” in your muscle fiber. The torn muscle fibers then heal themselves, building new fiber that is stronger than the old. The more intensely you exercise and the heavier the weights you use, the more micro-tears you’ll create, and the larger your healed “fast twitch” fibers will become (see “hypertrophy” above).

You know you’ve had a good workout when you get “delayed-onset soreness” (DOMS) 24 to 48 hours afterwards. This soreness is caused by your fibers’ healing process, not from lactic acid as has previously been believed.

Cindy ChuThere is a second type of strengthening that happens after exercise. It is less well known but has been found to give women most of the results they get from working out. Exercise physiologists called it “synchronous activation.” What this means is, in effect, improved mind/body coordination. Here’s how it works: An untrained muscle is weak in part because the message it gets from the brain and nerves is disorganized. A student literally does not have the neural connection between her brain and her muscle to perform the action she wants to. She may intend to fire a muscle to move a part of her body, but she can’t recruit enough of that muscle to make it behave. Mark A. W. Andrews, an associate professor of physiology, explains it this way: Exercise, especially when it focuses on form and precision, gives you “the ability to recruit more muscle cells – and thus more power strokes – in a simultaneous manner.” Andrews adds, “This neural adaptation generates significant strength gains with minimal hypertrophy and is responsible for much of the strength gains seen in women and adolescents who exercise.”

The Bar Method workout is especially focused on this fitness component. So the next time you’re doing a Bar Method workout and struggling with your form, take satisfaction in knowing that improving your form is increasing your strength and fitness as well.

best back exercise chartFinal fun fact: Most of your largest and most powerful muscles are on your back side. When you’re working out, pay attention to your back! That side of you houses most of the largest muscles in your body. They include the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in your torso; the triceps, the largest muscle in your arm; and the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle that moves your legs and the most massive muscle in your entire body.

So don’t assume your back has to be “out of sight out of mind.” During exercise try imaging your back in your mind’s eye and feel what’s happening back there. By doing so you’ll use more muscle and burn more calories, not to mention benefit your posture awareness as well.

TEN WAYS THE BAR METHOD MAKES YOU MORE BEAUTIFUL, PART 1

Keri RussellWhen I was a little girl in Georgia in the 50s, women wanted to have a small waist, lots of curves, or both. It wasn’t desirable to be toned or athletic, rather to appear soft, fragile and mysterious.

Our standard of beauty has changed dramatically since then. We now admire women who are lean, strong, athletic, confident and more diverse in their features. Why this shift happened is not the subject of this blog (the women’s liberation movement, etc.), but I’d like to talk about one driving force behind this change that has directly influenced our idea of what is beautiful: science’s growing knowledge of how we can look our best. Since my childhood, scientific discoveries about health have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that strong, athletic bodies enjoy longer lasting youthfulness, not to mention a winning edge in the game of life.

Don’t get me wrong! Our obsession for being as beautiful as possible by any means natural or artificial is not going away any time soon. What’s different about our current pursuit is that, unlike the old days we got our beauty tips handed down to us from an archive of old wives tales, and now we get advice that has a solid foundation in science.

What is the top beauty tip that we keep hearing from this source? Exercise! As one researcher, Tim Church M.D., put it, “Every cell in the human body benefits from physical activity.” Spa treatments, facials and makeup tricks can’t hold a candle to exercise when it comes to beautifying you in multiple ways. Here are ten of my favorite beauty benefits of exercise and how you can boost these results with efficient full-body workouts like the Bar Method.

1. More collagen

basic anatomy of the skin epidermis dermis stratum corneum fibroblastsFibroblasts are skin cells that produce collagen, a factor in youthful-looking elastic skin. “As we age, fibroblasts .. get lazier and fewer in number,” says dermatologist Audrey Kunin in an article by Catherine Guthrie for Experience L!fe. “But the nutrients delivered to the skin during exercise help fibroblasts work more efficiently, so your skin looks younger.” Bar Method exercises work large muscle group repeatedly until they are thoroughly exhausted, facilitating this cellular process.

2. Better functioning lymph nodes

lymph nodesWhy is this important to your looks? The hundreds of lymph nodes in your body “take out metabolic trash,” says Guthrie. “But the nodes can’t haul garbage to the curb without the help of nearby muscles. When muscles contract during exercise, they squeeze the lymph nodes, helping them pump waste out of your system.” So when you’re working your way through all the intense muscle contracting and stretching during a Bar Method class, you’re not only shaping your muscles but also fueling your body’s natural waste removal system. The results, in Guthrie’s words: “You look less puffy and polluted.”

stress-diagram-and-cortisol small2Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. It increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and decreases bone formation, all for the purpose of devoting your full energy to handling the source of that stress. When you suffer from chronic stress, excess cortisol production can cause collagen loss and inhibit protein synthesis, impacting your skin and health! Exercise enables your body to turn on cortisol when you need it, then turn it off when you don’t. The Bar Method’s strength-stretch sequence gets cortisol out of your system without beating you up in the process, so that afterwards your body can turn its attention to repairing and regenerating your muscles and skin.

4. Better sleep

Almost 20 percent of Americans suffer from stress leading to poor sleep, according to the National Institute of Health. Studies have found that moderate-to-intense exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. The Bar Method workout provides the intense exercise that facilitates sleep, while its focus on stretching and breathing makes for a relaxed body and a good night’s rest so that you look fresh the next day.

5. Enhanced sexiness

andrea-davis text smallWe know by now that the Bar Method makes you look sexier. It also happens to literally make you sexier. Huffington Post blogger David Katz, M.D., reports that exercise can “Increase blood flow in a way that has a direct affect on sexual function.” Not only that! Researchers have learned that exercise increases levels of testosterone, the hormone most responsible for making us feel sexy, and HGH (human growth hormone), also found to boost libido. A British study found that a group of middle aged men who exercised had 25% more testosterone and 4 times more HGH than sedentary men. When it comes to workouts that optimize your sexiness, the Bar Method, with its targeted strengthening and stretching exercises for the muscles around the hips, tops the list! “We all know the obvious effects of the Bar Method…” says teacher and studio owner Andrea Davis, “an enhanced sex life.”

RhondaRhonda Vassello, a 32 year old Bar Method student in Carlsbad, California, agrees. “I have done almost EVERY type of workout out there, Boot camps, Circuit Training, Cycling and even the dreaded task of running,” she wrote me in a recent email. “Each time my body reached a plateau that I just could not overcome… THIS WORKOUT has done it… and let’s be honest ladies when you feel good your confidence peeks and that is the sexiest feature any woman can have!

Next month: TEN WAYS THE BAR METHOD MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL, PART 2