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HOW TO USE “ACTIVE STRETCHING” TO BECOME MORE FLEXIBLE

flexible dancer smallDancers and elite athletes use special stretching techniques to achieve their amazing flexibility. Rarely do exercise routines designed for the rest of us include these kinds of stretches. Most workouts rely on a common stretching technique called “passive stretching,” which works only to a point. You stretch “passively” when you hold the stretch position in place with a force such as your hand, a strap, a ledge or gravity, something other than the actual body part you’re stretching. Common passive stretches include: grasping a foot behind you to stretch your quads, placing one leg up on a ledge, and sitting in a “straddle.”

sylvie2 small2Passive stretches definitely play a role in making you more flexible, and all good workouts include some version of them. Experts agree however that passive stretching by itself is not enough to significantly increase range of motion. Passive stretches don’t warm muscles up enough for them to relax deeply, and, just as important, don’t give muscles sufficient control over any increased range of motion you manage to achieve by doing it. That’s why a workout that includes only passive stretches can leave you feeling “loosey-goosey” or not much more flexible at all.

This is where “active stretching” comes in. When you stretch “actively,” you contract the muscles on the opposite side of the body part you’re stretching to hold the stretch in place. An active stretch is 50% stretch and 50% strength, so it’s actually a workout for the entire body part you’re stretching. Its distinctive difference from other moves is that it compels you to hold a part of your body at or near the edge of its current range of motion the whole time. Be advised that this kind of stretching is intense! Dancers do it when they extend one leg upwards and hold, a move that helps give their legs astounding strength and control, as well as their famously elongated, sculpted muscles.

Incorporating active stretching into your workout, just as dancers do, gives you benefits that are worth the effort, including increased agility and grace in your movements, improved performance at sports, reduced likelihood of injuring yourself since short muscles make you more vulnerable to strains, and (last but not least), a slimmer-looking, more streamlined body!

Another training technique that’s becoming popular among elite athletes is called “functional stretching,” which is different from the more risky “dynamic stretching” (using momentum to force a limb or body part beyond its normal range of motion) or “ballistic stretching” (moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach and speed). Functional stretching consists of active stretches with some added motion performed at the edge a limb’s range of motion. A good functional stretching exercise immediately changes the way your muscles coordinate with each other. It readies your shoulders, hips, core and limbs for action in all directions, and it protects your joints against injury from a sudden, uncontrolled move. It works so well in part because the sheer physical effort it requires warms the muscles you’re stretching so that they can relax more deeply.

In recent years, the sports world has discovered that functional stretching techniques give muscles not only more strength but increased kinesthetic adeptness as well. For this reason, according to exercise physiologist Anoop T. Balachandran, “Most of the strength coaches now lean towards functional stretching to improve flexibility.”

Burr lunge and arabesque no text smallerThe Bar Method has been doing its own version of “functional stretching” for more than a decade, a variety I’d like to call “energetic stretching” (commonly known as “those little moves that can make a huge difference!”). Most Bar Method students think the controlled isolations they perform during class is a strength technique, but those same little moves constitute a form of stretch as well. In fact, the deliciously centered, energized feeling students get after a Bar Method class is partially the result of all the energetic stretching sequences they’ve just performed, even without realizing it!

Next month: How Bar Method exercises increase flexibility

TEN TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR RESULTS FROM THE BAR METHOD, PART 3

My tips last month on how to get the most out of the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise brought in a large number of comments and questions about this challenging exercise. Two of these emails brought up some interesting points that I’ll share with you later in this blog.

But first, here are tips #9 and #10 for boosting your results from the Bar Method, which are for the workout’s last two exercises, “back-dancing” and “final stretch.” Both of these sections are considerably less intense than those you do earlier in class, and might burn fewer calories than for example “thigh-work,” but they both have the power to make a major contribution to the way you look, move and feel.

tango dancersTip #9: Find your inner dancer during “back-dancing.”

Back-dancing teaches your body to move like a dancer. The next time you watch a ballroom dancing competition, notice how the dancers swing their lower torsos all over the place while keeping their upper torsos elegantly aligned with their partners’. Back-dancing gives you a head start on developing this same graceful fluidity in your torso by allowing you to rest your back on the floor. You can then focus on relaxing your lower back muscles, freeing your glutes and hamstrings to move your hips like a salsa dancer’s. Imagine you’re dancing, and stay with the tempo even when the song is fast. You’ll develop not only more tone in your rear, but also a more expressive and youthful spirit in way you move in general.

Tip #10: Go for the “stretch burn” during the final stretches.

butterfly textDuring the final section of class, give the stretches just enough energy to create a slight burning sensation in the muscles you’re stretching. When you assume the “butterfly stretch” for example, align your shins directly opposite your knees in a “T shape” so that you feel a “stretch burn” in the outsides of your upper legs (the location of your “IT band”). During the “strap stretch,” completely straighten the knee of the leg you’re stretching to fully extend your hamstrings, which reach across final stretch burr crop edit text smallthe back of your knee. The burn you feel when you do find the “edge” of your range of motion for these stretches is a sign that you’re now going beyond simply stretching a muscle. You’re also strengthening it and enhancing its fine motor skills (see my blog: “Stretching Makes You Stronger, And More”). Be mindful, patient and gentle with your body when you stretch. At the same time, supply enough power to the stretches to tap into these additional benefits that stretching can give you. By keeping your focus on gaining benefits from your workout, even in this last part of class, you’ll gain a leaner shape, a more graceful bearing, and control over a greater range of motion. Your back will feel better, you’ll feel more youthful, and you’ll move more effortlessly. Don’t miss out on this last chance to change your body!

diaphragm and taThe first noteworthy comment on last month’s tips was from Lizzie, a knowledgeable reader who pointed out several inaccuracies in my explanations about how flat-back works. “Just to clarify,” she wrote, “the diaphragm contracts on an inhale, not an exhale.” I double-checked this correction with the Bar Method’s medical consultants, Physical Therapists Cayce and Wendy, and they confirmed that Lizzie is right. Our diaphragm relaxes rather than contracts when we exhale. If we exhale forcefully however, our abdominals kick in to press the air out of our lungs by sharply pulling in our belly. The specific ab muscle that is most responsible for this pulling-in is our deepest one, our “transversus abdominis.” When you exhale sharply during flat-back — as well as during round-back and curl — you’re working and toning this deep ab muscle. You can make the contraction even more effective by consciously pulling in your abs with each exhalation.

Lizzie also set me right about which muscle is responsible for students’ abs “pooching” during flat-back. If your abs pop out when you attempt to lift both legs, the weakness, she said, is in that same deep ab muscle, the “TA.”

Both Lizzie and my PT consults agree with me however on the best strategy for achieving flatter abs during flat-back: Exhale sharply and pull in as much as you can on every rep, even if your abs pooch out a little. You will incrementally strengthen your “TA” until it becomes able to hold your stomach in when you raise your legs.

roundback holding onto strapThe second of the two emails I received was from Maria, who wanted advice on an exercise she struggles with called “round-back,” which students do right before flat-back in the studio-based workout. “Hoping you’ll have some suggestions for round back and how to improve form,” she wrote me. “I’m finding even after two years of practice that I feel this more in my hip flexors than in my quads.” 

Round-back is one of my favorite exercises because it gives students’ back muscles a needed stretch after they’ve held their spines straight for most of the first half of class. Round-back also stretches the glutes and hamstrings after the preceding “seat-work.” As for strengthening, round-back tones the quads and flattens the abs. That’s a lot of benefits from one exercise, but good positioning is key to reaping those benefits. To help Maria and students like her to do round-back comfortably and to best effect, I’d like to offer a few tips on comfortably and effectively performing this multi-faceted exercise.

First, lean on the wall so that your torso is at a 45 degree angle, or diagonal, to the floor. If you sit too high, you will over-flex your hips and be unable to contract your abs. If you sit too low, you’ll overly round your back.

Second, lift your chest so that your back is almost straight (the “round” in “round-back” is slight). Then press your navel downwards. Think of the shape of your back as similar to how you position it for “high curl,” except that during round-back you’re stretching your glutes rather than gripping them.

Third, pull in your abs with every rep! Like “flat-back,” this exercise requires you to forcefully exhale in order to recruit and flatten your deep abs.

Last but not least, if you have sensitive hip-flexors, hold onto your working leg the whole time! If it’s difficult for you to reach your leg, loop a strap over your arch, as illustrated above. Don’t worry about missing out on the results by taking these options. Challenge yourself to completely straighten your working knee during the straight-leg moves while maintaining good form, and you may even begin to enjoy round-back as much as I do.

How The Bar Method Enhances Sex, Part 1

Sex and the CityI was putting away my mat after taking class a few months ago and a student approached me. She was pretty and looked like she might have been a lawyer or worked in the corporate world. “Have you or anyone ever written about how great the Bar Method is for sex?” she asked me. Out of habit I gave her my usual answer: Yes, it’s great for sex, but we’ve always played down that feature. “Thanks for your answer,” she said, “but it really is.”

As the student walked away, it hit me that for 20 years I’ve been giving that same stock response to questions about the Bar Method’s connection to sex. My habit of side-stepping this issue started with my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990. That year I was studying in New York City to become a Lotte Berk Method studio owner, and my trainers wanted me to keep my approach to this subject consistent with theirs. “People might ask you about sex,” they told me. “Focus on other benefits.”

I went with their advice during my ten-year term as a Lotte Berk Method licensee.  Now that license has been expired for ten years, and it’s about time that I formulate by own policy on this subject.  So here it is: The Bar Method-type workout is absolutely great for one’s sex life, and let me tell you why:

First, exercise itself has been proven to increase sexual potency. According to researcher Mark Stibich “Studies have shown that women who frequently exercise become aroused more quickly and are able to reach an orgasm faster and more intensely.” Exercise gives you an especially powerful boost if you do workouts that focus on stamina, muscular endurance, strength and flexibility. Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise credits exercise with “physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function (specifically, enhanced peripheral blood flow),” which he says says “can all enhance sexual functioning.” Why? Paige Waehner ACE explains.  “Sex also requires you to hold…er…occasionally unusual positions for short periods of time,” she says, plus, “Being limber can enhance anyone’s sex life by making it a bit easier to get into your favorite position with a minimum amount of fuss.”

Lotte Berk dancingDo The Lotte Berk Method/Bar Method techniques have any advantages over other exercise forms in this arena? Most definitely! They build a fantastic degree of stamina; they make you more flexible; and most distinctively, they focus on strengthening and stretching the muscles around your pelvis pretty much during the whole class. The Bar Method’s “narrow V” thigh exercise, for example, strengthens the “pelvic floor” muscles, according to Physical Therapist Heidi Morton. Then of course there are all the glute and abdominal exercises such as “water-ski thigh,” and “water-ski seat,” and the other “seat” exercises, plus the curl work, which students perform with their pelvis locked in place by means of all its surrounding muscles. Finally we come to “back-dancing,” an exercise that looks almost embarrassingly sexual, but more about that later.

Considering that sex is probably our greatest natural high, you’d think these benefits would be worth mentioning. Even so, over the past 20 years, the hundreds of press articles written about my Lotte Berk or Bar Method studios have pointed out only the Method’s ability to make you look sexy. Nowhere in my memory has there been anything written or said about its effect on sex itself. The most direct reference to sex in connection to the Bar Method that I could find appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July of 2002. The writer speculated on what would happen if the “Sex and the City” characters moved to San Francisco. “Samantha,” the article said, “would be in to various trendy California pursuits like… the Bar fitness method.” Nothing, however, on how much more fun Samantha, um, might have had later…

This reticence hasn’t always been the case. In the early 70s, the press was all over the news that an exercise technique was improving people’s sex lives. Why then did my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990 tell me to zip my lips on this subject? The answer goes back a half a century to the workout’s inventor, Lotte Berk, who expressly and unapologetically designed the workout to enhance sex.

Next week: The rise and fall of Lotte’s sexual revolution (and why we can finally start talking about it again 🙂

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.

MAKING THE SUPER SCULPTING II EXERCISE DVD, PART TWO

describe the imageMAKING THE SUPER SCULPTING II EXERCISE DVD, PART TWO

Last week I told you what I enjoyed most, and what was hardest, about making the new Bar Method “Super Sculpting II” DVD. This week my three intrepid fellow “Super Sculpting II” performers, Sharon, Kiesha and Juan, weigh in about their toughest, funniest and most fun moments during the shoot:

What did you find most difficult about performing in the Super Sculpting II DVD shoot?

describe the imageKiesha: Maintaining perfect form throughout the shoot. You don’t realize when you take class how many times you come out of form, simply by tucking your hair behind your ear, scratching your nose, or adjusting your stance.

Juan: Honestly, finding pants. It’s surprising how few examples of yoga clothing actually exist for men.

Sharon: Finding a blue tank top that [Burr] liked!

What did you find most fun?

Juan: The fact that we were going to be watched really brought out a drive in me that I didn’t know was there…at least not to that degree.

Sharon: Shopping for blue tank tops.

What was the funniest moment?

Kiesha: Watching Sharon unload her suitcase of a dozen different blue tops.

describe the imageJuan: My favorite line ever said by Burr during the curl portion of the video: ‘I’ve never heard anyone say their abs were so sore they couldn’t eat.’

What do you think of the workout?

Kiesha: I LOVE it. It’s intense, but within reach for someone to work up to. The choreography is really fun.

Sharon: It was awesome. I still might be a little sore.Hairline SeparatorNote to my readers:

Starting this month, I will be posting my blog on the first Tuesday of every month rather than weekly. This change in schedule has become necessary to an increasing number of new Bar Method ventures that are requiring my time. Among what’s happening are upcoming studios in Boston, Washington, DC, Austin and Houston plus several future Bar Method media projects, the details of which are yet to be made public.

Thank you for your support during this change.

Burr Leonard

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.

WOOING THE GUYS WITH VALENTINE’S DAY “MAN” CLASSES

Valentine's Day HeartWOOING THE GUYS WITH VALENTINE’S DAY “MAN” CLASSES

It’s February, and Valentine’s Day is two weeks away. In keeping with the spirit of the day, many Bar Method studios hold special “man” classes to which men can come free either by themselves or with their girlfriends or spouses. My home studio in the San Francisco Marina is holding three of these “man” classes on Saturday, February 12th, and I’m teaching the last one. I love teaching these special men-oriented classes. The Bar Method has the power to “up” a guy’s fitness level above and beyond what he gets from his usual gym routine of weights, abs and cardio, and it’s fun to talk about these benefits as the men make their way through the exercises. Two things I definitely don’t say are that they’re lifting their seats and ripping their arms. Men already have lifted seats, and many have ripped arms. What guys do get from the workout is stronger legs, tighter abs, more flexibility, relief from back pain, stability in their knees, a better functioning core, and – if they’re athletes – amazing sports conditioning.

Bar Method Seattle Owner Luke CurreirWith all these fitness benefits to be had by men, why aren’t Bar Method classes full of guys? One reason, in my estimation is that the classes are full of girls, beautiful ones at that. You’d think this would be a big draw, but no. Guys don’t like thinking they’re being shown up by more flexible, dance-y females. What’s more, they don’t like the idea of standing at a ballet bar wearing socks. The problem with this rational is that, one, we female students are actually in awe of guys who brave the class (but most of them never get this), and, two, the ballet bar and the socks are non-material details that don’t reflect the true machismo-like essence of the workout.

In spite of this general male mind-set, a small group of men do come regularly across the spectrum of Bar Method studios. Who are these unusual male students? Some are athletes who’ve found that the class makes them more competitive at their sport. Others are husbands whose back problems disappeared from the workout. A handful are runners who use it to strengthen, stabilize and increase flexibility their knees and hips, ultimately adding longevity to their running careers. My boyfriend Michael is among the atypical guys who come regularly simply because he likes the workout (see my blog “GUYS AT THE BAR” about his experience.) We studio owners are proud that these men are among our students, but the truth is, most of us could count the number of men who come regularly to each studio on the fingers of one hand.

Luke - Low Curl

But there’s always hope. Every Valentine’s Day lots of men come to our “man” classes; they work hard, they seem to get it, and every year I think excitedly to myself, “this is the year!” Then these guys don’t come back. One student from a “man” class I taught a few years back gave me an insight as to why. “I’d love this, “he said, “if I knew there’d be at least a few other guys in class.” Alas, it seems a chicken and egg type situation. The guys won’t come because their buddies aren’t there.

Maybe on the 12th, things will change…… 🙂

Happy Valentine’s Day
Burr Leonard

HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM THE BAR METHOD: BEST OF 2010

2010 was a seminal year for The Bar Method. Twelve new studios opened in the U.S. including locations in Manhattan, St. Louis, Dallas and Miami. In October Vancouver became the first international city to have a Bar Method studio, and in that same month The Bar Method released three new exercise DVDs. To celebrate all this growth, I’d like to honor the blog that received the most views and comments over the past 12 months. By a long shot (almost 9000 views more than the runner up) that blog was MAKING THE DANCER’S BODY DVD, the story of how lead performer Marnie Alton and her amazing team of teachers rose to my challenge and delivered a truly advanced Bar Method home workout.

Happy New Year!
Burr Leonard

MAKING THE DANCER’S BODY EXERCISE DVD

marnie altonMarnie Alton not only teaches exercise. She teaches her students to be joyful, to remember that life is magnificent, and to believe wholeheartedly in their own strength and beauty, both outer and inner. This might sound like hyperbole, but it is exactly how she teaches. I can confidently say that — until Marnie moved to England this summer – she was one of the most popular and charismatic teachers not only within the Bar Method but just about anywhere.

Marnie radiates a joyful, no-holds-barred approach to life in her teaching and in everything she does. As an actress, singer, dancer and songwriter, she has lived her dreams. She has acted in around 30 TV shows and movies, played continuing characters in several TV series, and starred in one of them — detective Karen Yamamoto in “Hot Hot Los Angeles.” She has danced professionally, written, published and performed her own songs, and she is happily married to an executive in the entertainment industry. I was thrilled when she accepted my invitation to lead one of the advanced DVD workouts we taped in last month.

When I designed the two new advanced DVD routines, I intended to create “killer” workouts that resembled Bar Method “level 2” studio classes and that were also safe for home users. Leave it to Marnie to out-do my wildest expectations. Since the routine I led, “Super-Sculpting,” featured body-sculpting moves you can do with a ball, the more flowing, dance-like Bar Method variations such as arabesque and second position fell to Marnie. I actually hadn’t noticed how beautiful and athletic her routine was when I first designed it, but Marnie did. By the time I named it “Dancer’s Body,” she had already seized on the concept and made it the theme of her workout.

Dancer Body Performers

Marnie’s team of performers were perfectly cast for an advanced workout with “dance” in the title. All of them have long, lean, graceful bodies and are exceptionally focused, accomplished individuals. Katelin Chesna, shown next to Marnie, is a professional actress, acting coach, comedienne and master Bar Method teacher. Marin Van Vleck, to the left of Katelin, in addition to being an actress and singer, is the owner of a new, soon-to-be-built Bar Method studio in Dallas. Michael Lowery is an absolutely gorgeous, dynamic and sweet master Bar Method teacher who has just transferred to Bar Method New York/Soho so that he can attend graduate school at NYU, and Denise Burchard, shown below, is the talented, brainy and beautiful founding owner of the Portland Bar Method studio.

smallDenise full shot 1 resized 600The shoot schedule slotted Marnie’s workout as third in line to be taped. When her team was on stage and ready to go, I sat behind the row of production TV screens with the crew thinking, “just wait til you see this!” and I wasn’t disappointed. From the first words Marnie spoke, it was obvious that she was completely comfortable in front of a camera. She connected to her virtual students casually and cheerfully with a twinkle in her eye. I was particularly amazed that she was able to simultaneously do the workout and continually reel off gracefully phrased pointers on inner resolve such as, “Our muscles are like clay. They’ll sculpt into any shape you choose. Choose long.”

What most blew our minds was that the workout was so HARD. The production crew had already watched two pretty tough routines, but you could have picked everyone’s jaw up off the floor by Marnie’s second set of thigh-work. Then I remembered, “OMG, the last thigh set is the hardest in this workout!,” and the performers launched into the last amazing moments of the toughest thigh-work routine ever put on tape, all the time with Marnie never breaking her relentlessly joyful connection with the camera.

Adding to the overall dramatic effect were the flexible, balletic grace of the performers, their sweat-soaked, shiny, cut muscles, and their brute determination to hang in there.

“I just had to get into this mental zone,” Marin told me. “It was like a ‘do-or-die’ mindset.”
Denise had a similar experience, “The pressure of two back-to-back, challenging classes with a group of exceptional talent really made me push myself that much further. I surprised myself. My body could do more than my mind thought it could.”

Marnie’s “Dancer’s Body” DVD is just what Bar Method students have been lobbying for: a superlatively challenging workout that will continue to inspire them for years to come.

Thank you Marnie!

Click here to find out more why challenging workouts are so important to make you fit.

STRENGTH EXERCISES AND FLEXIBILITY

This past year, many of you wrote in with thought-provoking questions that got me thinking. Here’s one of my favorites from 2009:

On December 29th, Lucy wrote in that:
“I was doing the Barre Method every day for about 4 weeks and my hips started bothering me. They are now really tight….”

What gave me pause when I read this question was that Lucy’s experience is pretty much in sync with how muscles respond to strength exercise. On a cellular level, strength-work causes microscopic tears in muscle fibers. Our muscles then repair themselves by generating more fibers than the original number. These new and more numerous fibers then knit themselves more tightly around our bones in an effort to stabilize the stressed area.

This muscle-tightening phenomenon will cause people who do only strength-work and no stretching to develop shorter and shorter muscles until they’re muscle bound, an unpleasant condition you probably want to avoid.

stretchingThe good news is that stretching not only counteracts this tightening process. It can make you more flexible than you were in the first place. The reason is that your joints can detect how supported – or not – they are by the muscles around them. The stronger your muscles, the more stability they give to their underlying joints. (Just ask your physical therapist if you have one). Joints will allow muscles to elongate when those muscles can adequately maintain control over an increased range of motion. Conversely, joints will not allow weak muscles to elongate because those muscles would lose control if allowed an increased range. Strengthening your muscles, therefore, gives you a chance to also increase your flexibility.

How does all this, you ask, relate to Lucy’s experience? The answer is that muscles take longer to become flexible than they do to get strong. Bar Method students typically take class for several months before they feel more flexible. Many students actually get temporarily tighter before the stretching kicks in. Lucy therefore is likely to begin to feel more flexible in her hip-flexors after around three months of classes.

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HOW TO SCULPT A DANCER’S BODY

There’s no doubt that a Bar Method class feels like it’s mostly intense strengthening exercises.  When your muscles are on fire, they get the bulk of your attention over any stretching squeezed in between the tough parts.

Detach yourself from the burn for a moment, and look more closely at how you’re stretching your muscles during each exercise.  You already know that you stretch after each strength section.  These stretches fall into the category of “passive stretching” and are easy to recognize as such.  You perform them, according to physiologists, when you hold a part of your body in a stretch position with the help of some other part of your body, or by using a stable support such as a bar or the floor.   A split position is a passive stretch because you use gravity and the floor rather than your own power. Now look at a few sections of the workouts you thought were solely dedicated to muscle carving. You might notice that there are additional stretches embedded in many of the strength exercises. One muscle-elongating technique, which physiologists call “active stretching” actually plays a greater role in giving you a dancer-like body than the passive ones. To create an “active stretch” you enlist your own muscles on the opposite side of your body, your “agonist” muscles.   The active stretches in a Bar Method class are less noticeable because they’re piggybacking on some of the most intense strength moves. Click here for more on stretching exercises.

seat sculptingConsider what’s happening to your thighs and hips during seat-work.   All “seat” exercises in the Bar Method require you to draw your thighs back from your hips and hold them there for up to five minutes per leg as you work your back-of-the-leg muscles.

By maintaining this position the muscle contractions that you’re using to sculpt your seat are simultaneously pinning your thighs and hips back into their utmost extension — and deepening that extension with every little “pull-back” and “pulse” that you do.  The double-benefit of this two-pronged-action is both tighter, higher buns and longer, narrower thighs. Click on this link to read more on Bar Method’s core strengthening exercises.

ab sculptingAnother example of an “active stretch” is “round-back,” which comes right after seat-work.  Round-back obliges you to hold your legs at a range of motion that is the polar opposite of the way you held them during the seat section.  Now you are flexing one thigh at a time inwards towards your abdominals, and now it’s your thigh that’s the “agonist” for your glutes and hamstrings, which are being held in a continual stretch by the power on the other side of your legs.

Add up all the moments during a Bar Method that elongate your muscles with either active or passive of stretching, and you come up with 35 minutes of exercises that include stretches.  That’s more than half the workout.  So what’s happening during the other 25 minutes?  You’re targeting your arms, abs and other areas where you want extra definition.

The result of this blend of strength-work and stretches is a body that features the legs of a dancer plus the carved arms and abs of an athlete, a unique look that is both graceful and sculpted. To read more about how Bar Method carves and elongates muscles, read THREE BODY SCULPTING SECRETS USED BY BAR METHOD.

Find Bar Method Exercise Classes near you.
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