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THREE BODY-CHANGING ACTIVE STRETCHES THAT YOU CAN DO AT HOME

Last month, I described active stretching and other stretch techniques that dancers and athletes use to develop their amazing bodies. You stretch actively when you hold a stretch position in place by using the muscles on the opposite side of your body rather than with a strap, your hand, or some other “passive” force. Now, I’d like to share with you a great active stretching sequence from the Bar Method workout. These exercises sculpt and elongate your muscles at the same time, so they’re give you results beyond what you’d get with intense exercise alone.

Leg lifts passive active1. Begin with “Leg Lifts.” For most people, kicking one leg upwards is not especially challenging. In this exercise  you’ll be drawing it up and keeping it up there, an altogether different endeavor! Our legs don’t do this normally, so leg lifts generate immediate intensity while they elongate the muscles in the backs of your legs with active stretching. Follow these steps to do leg lifts at home:

  • Stand next to a stable piece of furniture that’s about hip or waist height, hold onto it with one hand.
  • Place the foot that’s opposite your stable support on the floor in front of you.
  • Slightly bend both of your knees.
  • Hold onto to the back of your thigh with your free hand, and draw your leg upwards as high as you can.
  • Pull in your abs and lift your chest.
  • Hold your leg where it, let go of your leg, and place your hand on your waist.
  • Keep your leg to the height at which you initially raised it for a few moments.
  • Finish by lifting it up an inch and down an inch at a moderate tempo (preferrably to music) 20 times.

Sharon thigh str into standing seat text2. Proceed to “Standing Seat.” This exercise, one of my personal favorites, takes place after leg lifts and reverses the hinge in your hips from being continually flexed, (see above) to being continually extended. Standing seat takes advantage of the fact that your quads and hips thoroughly warmed and exhausted. Now it’s your glutes’ and hamstrings’ turn to do the active stretching. Their assignment is to actively stretch your hips by extending them to their utmost point and holding them there for up to five minutes. During that time, you perform small movements back while never allowing your leg to swing more than an inch forward. The devil is in the small size of the movements, which both keep your back-of-leg muscles “on” and your front-of-leg muscles extended. Somewhere in the heat of this battle, old patterns of motion start to give way in favor of new more graceful ones. The result is a shift in your hip-leg connection towards greater mobility. Visually, you gain longer muscles in your hips and more lifted ones in your rear. Here’s how to do “Standing Seat” at home:

  • Immediately after you finish leg lifts, do the “standing thigh stretch” to passively stretch your quads and hips that you just worked (see photo above).
  • Turn the passive quad stretch into an active one by letting go of your foot and holding your leg in place with your glutes and hamstrings.  Now it’s time to concentrate on the position of your body.
  • Upright your torso and draw in your abs.
  • Slightly bend your standing knee.
  • Grip your glutes tightly and align them directly under your spine, not jutting out behind you.
  • Also align your working-side thigh directly under your spine, not slanted behind you.
  • Hold this pose for about 30 seconds.  Feel the active stretch for your quads and hips.
  • Keeping your pose in place, draw your leg back an inch and forward an inch at a moderate tempo while keeping your hips still and your glute and hamstring muscles continually engaged. Do 30 reps.
  • Stretch your glutes and hamstrings by bending forward at your hips while you hold on to your piece of furniture.

Hanna in arm walks3. Put the finishing touch on your realigned body with “Arm Walks.” Human shoulders are especially flexible, so you might imagine that increasing flexibility is less of an issue for than it is for your quads and hamstrings. Not so! Shoulder muscles, pecs and lats can get tight. The result is rounded posture and out-of-kilter patterns of motion when you move your arms, which can lead to a variety of shoulder conditions. The Bar Method’s “Arm walks” exercise is designed to reset your shoulder and chest muscles into good alignment, as well as to tone your deltoids.

Hanna in arm walks backArm walks calls for students to draw their shoulder blades inward and downward, and hold them there while they flex their shoulder joints to 90 degree angles. 90 degrees is not the greatest flexion the human arm can achieve, so arm walks isn’t technically an active stretching exercise. All the same, students must keep their rhomboids (the muscles between their shoulders blades) contracted and their shoulder blades in place as they move their arms forward and upwards, training them to stay square during sports and everyday activities. To perform arm walks:

  • Pick up a set of free weights.  Two or three pounds works best for most students. Be aware that arm walks are different from weight lifting you’d do in a gym, so trust me that the lighter weights will soon feel heavy!
  • Stand with good posture with one weight in each hand.
  • Open your feet to hip width apart, and slightly bend your knees.
  • Relax your lower back, grip your glutes, and bend slightly forward at your waist to engage your abs and upright your spine.
  • Turn your weights so that they’re parallel to each other and place them lightly on the fronts of your thighs.
  • Straighten your arms.
  • Draw your shoulder blades inward and downward, and hold them firmly in place.  It’s important that you keep your attention on these muscles throughout the exercise.
  • Raise one weight up in front of you to shoulder height.
  • Lower it smoothly back down to where it began as you raise your other weight up to shoulder height. Keep both arms moving the whole time.
  • Perform these alternating lifts at a pace that is on the slow side, not following a music beat and moving both arms continually.
  • Do about 30 walks.  Release and roll your shoulders a few times.

hanna at squat and gobble oct 2013 edit smallerThis effort pays off not only in more toned arms but better shoulder alignment and improved posture. Hanna, who’s been taking the Bar Method for two years, says that as a result of doing arm walks, “I’ve definitely been able to keep myself more upright and lifted in everything I do.”

If you do these exercises regularly, you’ll notice that the active stretches give you an echelon of results beyond what you’d get from intensely working out without them: longer more sculpted muscles, a realigned body, and soreness in the right places the next day 🙂

TEN TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR RESULTS FROM THE BAR METHOD, PART 2

Last month I gave you the first five of ten tips for boosting your results from the Bar Method. The manager of my home studio in San Francisco, Kate Grove, and I first shared these tips with our students during a student workshop at my home studio in San Francisco. The next three tips are the ones we gave our students for the exercises they do midway through the Bar Method workout.

keryun standing seatTip #6: During “standing seat,” find vertical on your body.

Standing seat can transform your body, if you do it in the right form. Here’s how you can be sure yours is correct: Imagine a vertical line stretching from your ears, through your shoulders, hips and working thigh, and keep these body parts centered on the line. Staying vertical during this exercise is easier said than done. Your mind gets the idea, but your body instinctively craves a more comfortable stance. Lose focus for a moment, and when you snap back to attention you might discover that your head has dropped forward, your seat as arched back, your torso has leaned one way or the other, or your working thigh has wandered off the line. How do you avoid falling out of vertical? First use the mirror to check that your torso is upright. Next, keep re-gripping both sides of your glutes, and remind your lower back to relax. Maintain a vertical spine, and finally, keep your working knee unwaveringly under your hip (give or take an inch). This level of good form requires self-honesty and determination, but it’s worth the effort. When you succeed, standing seat will give you gorgeous posture and could become your favorite killer exercise.

Tip #7: During “flat-back,” don’t worry about a little “pooching out.”

Core Abdominal MusclesIf you’re like many students, you’re hesitant to take the option of lifting both legs during flat-back because whenever you try to raise them, your abs push out. In fact, a little pooching during flat-back is a natural stage your abs go through on their way to getting flatter. Pooching out usually happens when your two deepest abdominal muscles are weak. They are your transversus abdominis (“TA”) and your internal oblique. When you exhale sharply, these muscles pull in your belly. If they’re weak, they don’t pull in effectively, which allows your ab muscles that are on top, including your powerful six-pack muscle (the rectus abdominis) to contract outwards. The good news is that simply by vigorously exhaling, you engage your deep abs. When you vigorously exhale and add the weight of your legs to the effort, you strengthen these muscles. So even if you start with a little pooching out, you’ll end up with flatter abs by challenging your deepest ones during every class.

chelseaThere’s another reason your abs might be misbehaving during flat-back. Your four ab muscles tend to store fat in between their layers, and that fat can bunch up when you contract them. In either case, raising both legs during flat-back, even if your abs pooch out a few inches, is harmless and will ultimately help you achieve flatter abs. Simply put, the more you work your deep abs during flat-back, the stronger and flatter they’ll get in relation to your other abs muscles, and the more “belly fat” you’ll burn.

One caveat: if you’re very over-weight or have very weak abs, they may pop forward more than three inches when you raise your legs. In that case, hold back on the lifting both at the same time until you lose some weight or get stronger.

Finally, if you just can’t lift your legs no matter how hard you try, sit on one-to-three “risers,” which are firm cushions designed to raise you up a few inches from the floor. If you’re tall and need to use risers, go to a stall-bar, lay a riser against it, and place three of them under you. By sitting up higher, you’ll be able to get your legs airborne and derive the full benefits of doing flat-back.

matthew mcconaugheyTip #8: During curl, imagine your favorite super-cut celebrities doing ab work.

Students have been known to say that Bar Method ab work is “worse than childbirth.” Maybe so, but this thought is not the most motivating one to have in mind when getting through the last reps during “curl” section! Switch it out with mental picture of a hunky super star working his way through is own ab-sculpting routine. david beckhamryan reynoldsStars grunt through hundreds of crunches a workout just as you do, so picture the abs of celebrities like David Beckham, Matthew McConaughey or Ryan Reynolds doing ab exercises such as the Bar Method’s “high curl” or “clam.” Your “inspiration” hunk will get you into the spirit of embracing a macho zeal for the burn!

If you just plain have trouble staying in the burn, try this approach: Devote just as much energy to the “back” part of each crunch as you do to the “forward” of it. This techique keeps you tightly in the muscle as you proceed through the reps, and doubles your benefits along the way.

Next month: Tips for finding your inner dancer during the last part of class.

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

EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: HOW THE BAR METHOD STRENGTHENS YOUR KNEES

Four million years ago, our ancestors stood up and walked on two legs. Now our two knees, which are the body’s largest joints, do the job that four knees used to do and they help keep us in balance, which is an issue when you’re more vertical than horizontal. Our knees need all the muscles around them to be as strong and balanced as possible.

By systematically strengthening all three muscles groups that run through the knees – the calf muscle, the quads, and the hamstrings – Bar Method students keep them strong and pain free, which may be especially important for runners or participants in other high impact sports. Here’s part of a blog that I happened to run across:

JaMarcus Russell“My current fitness obsession is The Bar Method.  Check out Burr Leonard’s Exercise blog at  http://blog.barmethod.com/.  I have Burr’s two CDs and do the workouts at home.  At one point I plan to sign up for classes too – the studio is comfortably close to the Embarcadero Bart station in San Francisco.  The effect on my abs and lower back is astonishing, and my genetically weak knees do not bother me anymore.” (Click here to read the entire blog.)

Even if you are not an athlete, the health of your knees is important. Knees carry the weight of most of the body with every step we take. Keeping them strong and youthful requires a pretty simple formula: strengthen and balance the muscle groups that extend across the knee joint.

strong kneesThe long calf muscle (the “gastrocnemius”)is the first of three that intersect in the knee.  You can see them toward the bottom of the picture to the right. This muscle enables us to come up onto the balls of our feet in what could be thought of as a “high heels” position. The great thing when it comes to knee stabilization is that the calf muscles extend across the back of our knees, thereby helping to hold them aligned and straight.

If you have an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury, the gastrocnemius can stabilize the back of the knee in its place. This is why physical therapists give calf strengthening exercises to their patients with ACL injuries. The Bar Method’s starts its leg-exercises with heel lifts for this reason.

Above the knee on the back of the body are the hamstrings. The picture above shows this group of muscles (the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus.) The Bar Method is know for it’s “seat-work,” which is really a series of exercises for the backs of your upper legs including the glutes. These exercises target your hamstrings, the third major muscle group that extends across our knees. Feel those kinds of sharp cords that run across the backs of your knees. Those are your hamstring tendons. When your hamstrings are strong, they help hold your knees in place. When these muscles aren’t toned, our knees get less support. A side benefit of strong hamstrings is the beautiful slightly rounded shape of the back of fit thighs.

The quads are the muscles in the fronts of our thigh and happen to be our bodies’ largest muscle group. The quads extend across the front of our knee. The intense, non-impact plies, little knee bends where the muscles stay engaged that we do in a Bar Method class, are tremendously effective to strengthen and balance the quads. The Bar Method’s knee bends are safe because students do them while bringing their heels up off the floor, thereby engaging the calf muscles to lock the knee in place.

healthy kneesEvery Bar Method class includes at least three different sets of these plies with the quads at slightly different angles. These multiple positions assure that the quads get worked evenly. The four muscles in the quads include the vastus muscles and the rectus femoris as you can see in the picture to the left. Runners, tennis players and athletes in other sports tend to use their outer quad muscles (vastus lateralis) more than their inner one (vastus medialis). That can ultimately pull their patellas to the side with flexion, causing pain. The Bar Method emphasizes inner quad work to help address this issue.

This blog is the fourth in a series on special challenges we humans face due to our evolutionary journey from four legged creatures to bipeds. Shoulders, backs, and knees changed radically as we stood up, walked, and used our arms to reach over our heads. We can stay supple and healthy by producing and toning muscle around these especially vulnerable areas. Click on any of the links below to read other sections of the series.

EVOLUTION, WORK, AND WORKING OUT OR WHY PEOPLE NEED MUSCLES 

EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: THE COMPLEX, MOBILE, AND BEAUTIFUL SHOULDER

EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISE TARGETS BACK MUSCLES

THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION, BEAUTY AND THE BAR METHOD

“My tuck is VERY OFF!” a Bar Method student named Katie wrote me yesterday. “I know that if I could really get the tuck down, it would help keep me completely safe and strong…” The “tuck” that Katie is talking about is a Bar Method position that engages students’ core muscles – namely the glutes, abs and upper back – while it allows their lower backs to relax. To “get the tuck”, students like Katie must first get out of the habit of inadvertently contracting their back muscles when they engage their glutes.

Katie is right about the importance of learning good coordination. The way you move, like good posture, plays a big role in how good you look as well as how you feel. Carry yourself gracefully, and you will come across as more confident and attractive. The Bar Method helps you to attain this feature in two ways. First it trains your core muscles to turn on when you need them. (Read CORE STRENGTHENING – FACT AND FUNCTION for more about the core.)  Second – and less common among exercise techniques – it teaches you good coordination, which is your mind/body connection’s ability to choose the best possible muscles to use for each movement, and to relax those you don’t need.

Why do people use unnecessary muscles in the first place? They might do this because the muscle group that is supposed to do the work is weak, so the muscles around it have gotten into the habit of trying to help. Other reasons might be bad movement patterns picked up during childhood, or storing emotional tension in certain muscles.

core strengthening exercisesWhatever the cause, if you haven’t had serious athletic training, you probably unnecessarily use too many muscles at least on occasion. What are the hardest muscles for most Bar Method students to turn off? They’re the ones in the lower back, which is why Katie and so many other students find the tuck position so elusive at first. The reason lower back muscles have so much trouble letting go in general is that our glutes unavoidably spend much of their time resting in chairs and so become weak and, yes, lazy. This reduced strength on the part of our glutes causes our lower back muscles to compensate, but they can’t perform the work our glutes are supposed to do. So students end up arching their backs instead of contracting their seats.  To counteract this phenomenon, Bar Method teachers use an arsenal of training techniques, including visual imagery, gentle hands-on adjustments, frequent reminders, and breathing exercises.

Retraining your muscles to work more efficiently takes patience. You have to actually rewire your brain circuits in some cases so that the your brain doesn’t send the message “contract your lower back and glutes” when you really wanted to simply contract your glutes. The brain’s aptitude to fire specifically called upon muscle groups is what they call good mind/body connection.  This connection is learnable and the results are transformative. Some students take weeks or months; others take years to get the tuck or learn to keep their shoulders down. Here are four tips on how to improve your coordination during class:

1. Look at your form in the mirror. Try to look at yourself without pre-assumptions on what you see.  Try to notice whether or not your back is vertical or on an angle and whether or not your back is arched or straight.

2. Exhale deeply and sharply with each rep. Your diaphragm can get you in better touch with your core muscles if you let it help you. Try puffing out softly through your lips as you work on your form, and you’ll find that your back muscles will tend to release and your ab muscles will start to take over.

3. Ask your teacher for help. She or he will be happy to guide your body into the correct positions.

4. Stay alert during class. Avoid letting your mind wander. When it does, return to your breathing. Your added mental focus can work wonders on your form.

Most of all, be proud that you’ve set out to develop a trained and graceful body. It’s an enormous undertaking that, with patience and persistence, will transform your body.

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TRAIN YOUR CORE AND POSTURAL MUSCLES WITH THE BAR METHOD TUCK

core strengthening exerciseThe position that the Bar Method calls “the tuck” is very different from Lotte Berk’s original “tuck.” Lotte invented the exercises the Bar Method is based on in the 1960s. She was a Martha Graham-style dancer, so her “tuck” was taken from modern dance and looked kind of like a sexy slump. One of Lotte’s seat exercises was actually called “the prostitute.” To do “the prostitute,” Lotte’s students held onto the bar with one hand, rounded their shoulders, and raised one leg out to the side. Conversely, the Bar Method tuck position is very close to a “spine-neutral” stance. It’s one of the secrets behind the Bar Method’s signature long, lean look.

More important than making our bodies look better, the Bar Method tuck addresses common posture problems that our cars, couches, computers, TVs and cell phones subject us to.  These gadgets are great, but they free us from the heavy work our bodies are designed for. Without strong back muscles we tend to slump. Without strong ab and glute muscles we tend to let our stomachs tilt forward and our rears tilt back, none of which is not good for our spines.  The Bar Method tuck position recruits all three of these core muscle areas in order to both strengthen and elongate them.

core strengthenerSo how do you do “The Bar Method tuck”? First, you draw your shoulder blades downwards. This action forces two sets of core muscles to turn on, namely your upper back muscles, which protect your shoulders, and your abdominal muscles, which protect your back. You are now holding your upper back a bit straighter than usual, a stance that strengthens your postural muscles.

Next, you relax your lower back. Releasing your lower back muscles is easy once you’ve done the first two steps described above, namely, lifting your chest and engaging your abs. Try this on your own: Stand up and then pull your shoulders down and your abs in. You’ll find that the weight of your rib cage is no longer pressing on your lower back.

The last step in assuming the Bar Method tuck is to grip your glutes, which are also a core muscle group. Your glutes qualify as core muscles because they keep your hips level when you walk and run. Now you’re in the Bar Method tuck, which means you’ve recruited all three core muscle groups: your upper back muscles, your abs and your glutes. Now you’re ready to exercise in a position that:
–protects your spine;
–improves coordination;
–trains and tones your core muscles; and
–gives you great posture.
As a bonus, using the Bar Method tuck will make you a better athlete, since the best athletes really know how to use their core to optimize power and precision.

The Bar Method tuck position has several additional therapeutic benefits. It stretches your hip-flexors (your “psoas/iliacus” muscles), which are connected to your lower spine and upper legs.  When your psoas is tight, so is your lower back. Our chair-oriented life-styles give us a tendency towards tight hip-flexors, and the Bar Method’s tuck position helps to lengthen them. Not to mention that the Bar Method tuck stretches your lower back, which has the same propensity for tightness. Finally, the tuck is great for strengthening your glutes. Because they’re located right under your spines, your glutes play an important role in supporting your lower back.

To be clear, the Bar Method tuck position is a great stance which strengthens lazy core and posture muscles and stretches tight ones when you exercise. It’s not supposed to become your permanent posture. Once you’re done exercising and out into the world, your body will assume its natural stance, only it will now be straighter, leaner looking and more graceful.

Click here to find Bar Method Exercise Classes near you.

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EXERCISE CLASSES AND FITNESS CLUBS

This morning my boyfriend Michael and I went to a 24-Hour Fitness club in our area spent about an hour working out. Four days ago, he had a hip-replacement and he wanted to get his new hip moving by taking some steps on an elliptical. I’d never been to a 24-Hour Fitness Health Club, so I was interested to try it out.

Exercise Classes ConstrastWe checked in with the friendly, laid-back guy at the front desk. Behind him, packed 15-wide, were rows of cardio equipment – stationary bikes, ellipticals, treadmills and stair climbers. The far side of the space held the weight training devices and free-weights. At 8:30 am when we arrived, virtually all of the cardio machines were in use. While Michael did some stretching, I found an free stationary bike and got on it. As soon as I started peddling, the dashboard on my bike lit up to let me know, among other things, the amount of time since I started, my speed and/or “distance” covered, the number of calories I was burning and the degree of resistance I’d chosen.

EXERCISE CLASS INTENSITYHigh up in front of me hung five big TVs that gave me a choice of watching sports, news, traffic, weather or politics as I peddled. I let my attention bounce back and forth between the read-outs on the bike and the tidbits of information that trickled down from above. “The recession has caused Botox sales to plummet,” a morning show anchorwoman said at one point, to which her male counterpart added, “I hate women who frown. You don’t see my brow furrowing…” In a Bar Method class, I wouldn’t be catching random conversations on TV. My attention would be fully employed dealing with the intensity of the moment. (Bar Method classes have recently been getting especially challenging in adherence to the Bar Method’s principle that the more rigorous the workout can get while remaining safe, the better.) So the thought of fighting my way through the last set of thigh-work while following some chit-chat about Botox is laughable.

Are the people using all this equipment getting benefits? Of course. 24-Hour Fitness and other health clubs that feature machines are making their members more fit. Are these facilities significantly changing their members’ bodies? Looking around the room, I wondered if a lot of real body change was going on here. Two fitness components, as far as I could tell, were missing from the workouts that happened to be in progress.

First, there was an over-all lack of intensity in the routines I observed. The cardio equipment users were reading magazines, talking on cell phones or watching their controls. Across the floor in the weight area, a studious quiet prevailed. People adjusted each piece of equipment to suite them. Next, they positioned their bodies on the machine, did some reps, then moved to another device, where they would again take some time to adjust the various components and do a some reps. Experts in exercise physiology agree that intensity, that is, the act of making an all-out effort when working out, is by far the most effective way to increase both strength and endurance. (Read about some scientific studies in my blog Interval Training News.)

Second, there seemed to be very little focus on the exercisers’ back-side muscles. When I was there at least, people used free weights mostly to do biceps curls. Others used the weight machines for their thighs, abs and pecs. One girl did do some triceps lifts with free weights. Even so, all the men focused on their front sides. That may be why slim, fit-looking guy overseeing the weight area was walking around with a pronounced slump. (Read more about the glutes in my blog Secrets Behind Sculpting the Bar Butt.)

Michael used an elliptical machine for about a half an hour. Then he found his crutches, and we left, both of us feeling refreshed. I enjoyed my visit to 24-Hour Fitness. It made me sweat without a great deal of effort. It also left me with a deeper appreciation of the killer, body-changing workout I know I’ll always get at the Bar Method.

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SECRETS BEHIND SCULPTING THE BAR BUTT

Gorgeous high, tight “butts” don’t come easy.   Bar Method students and dancers are among the few who achieve this sculpted feature, and it’s no wonder when you look at the struggle many exercise students have just recruiting their glute muscles, let alone changing their shape.  Glutes are among our largest and strongest muscles, so why do they behave like our laziest ones? To begin with, glutes are specialized muscles designed for intense activity.  Unless we intensely challenge them they tend to let our hamstrings do the work.  How, then, do we get to these muscles?

For the answers, let’s take a quick look back at how our glutes grew to be so large compared to those on other primates.  Our ancestors’ glutes made their leap in size around the time pre-humans wandered onto savannahs. (Click to read more about our evolution and how Bar Method sculpts our backsides.) This new environment called them up to become quick enough both to escape fast predators and to be predators themselves.  To meet this challenge, their legs developed the ability to push the ground behind them with considerable force, enabling them to leap forward in a series of powerful jumps, a gait we call running. Jogging, a slower form of moving forward, doesn’t work the same way, since joggers’ legs are still relying largely on their hamstrings and quads, the muscles that are designed for walking.  Today you have to be a dedicated sprinter, professional dancer or competitive athlete to lift your seat the old-fashioned way.

Butt SculptingMost of us don’t fall into these categories, so we’re lucky that the Bar Method offers an accessible technique for sculpting a gorgeous butt that is compatible with the original purpose of our glutes.  The Bar Method’s “seat” exercises simulate the powerful backward thrust of the runner’s leg by locking it tightly against its glute muscles – the same position a leg reaches just as its glutes work hardest during a sprint – and keeping it there for minutes at a time.  When you’re in a Bar Method class, you’re not running or jumping.  Just the same, you’re making your glutes work just as intensely as if you were.  New students say doing this exercise is “using muscles I never knew I had.”  Actually they always had these muscles.   What they’re using that’s new is a workout that their glutes can finally relate to.

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EXERCISE CLASSES AS PREVENTATIVE PHYSICAL THERAPY

Bad habits come in many varieties.   Some have straightforward consequences such as eating too much, exercising too little, being on time only occasionally, and habitually letting parking meters expire.  Other bad habits are sneakier.  They fuse themselves onto you and become invisible until years later when you’re hit with their adverse effect.

The habit of moving your body in deviant patterns – that is, out of alignment with your joints – is one of those sneaky bad habits that can inhabit you for years before you figure out it’s there.  You might acquire these physical “ticks” in childhood, later on as a reaction to stress, or simply by letting your muscles get weak and lazy.  Once these habits latch onto you, they become an invisible facet of your physical personality until for some reason unbeknownst to you, you find yourself with shoulder pain, lower back pain or arthritis in your knees.  Finally the physical therapist you might visit opens your eyes to the fact that your every move is throwing your body off-kilter.

exercise classes as physical therapyThe beauty of The Bar Method as a corrective to these problems is that it is methodical enough to catch many quirky movement patterns before they become injuries. (To read about The Bar Method and specific special conditions, go to Exercise Tips.) An example of such a problem is the “forward head,” an off-kilter stance I often come across while teaching the “seat-work” section of a Bar Method class. This upright seat-work exercise calls for students to stand at the ballet bar with their bodies as vertical and straight as possible.  In this position they lift one leg and press it back against the locked stance held by the rest of the body.   As soon as students begin to feel their muscles working, some typically drop their heads forward and down.

In a scientific study of the hazards of a “forward head posture”, 11 men and 10 women were made to raise their shoulders up and down, some with their heads properly over their shoulders and some with their heads held forward.    The scientists found that moving the shoulders up and down when the subjects were also keeping their heads forward both put stress on the “trapezius” muscle (a major shoulder muscle) and turned off the “serratus anterior” muscle (an important shoulder stabilizer).

This is where Bar Method technique can help.  Because its bar-work exercises last for minutes at a time, the teacher of the class has a chance to gently coach the students whose heads have dropped forward to focus on keeping their heads over their spines. As these bar exercises grow in intensity, students with an especially stubborn tendency to drop their heads forward get additional reminders from the teacher.  The challenging nature of the exercises themselves contributes to the students’ kinetic re-learning process, since once they learn to keep their heads up during excruciating exercise sets, doing so in daily life becomes relatively easy.

The most common movement mistake I run across while teaching involves students’ inability to connect to their gluteal muscles.  In the same Bar Method’s “seat-work” exercise I described earlier, many students not only drop their heads forward but also routinely arch their lower backs when the exercise calls for pressing back with their glutes.  A number of scientific studies have looked at this phenomenon and reported the same tendency among the subjects they observed. Three studies of lower back pain (Nadler et al., Kankaapaa et al, and Leinonen et al.) pointed to weak gluteal muscles, especially in women, as a major cause of their pain.   One of the studies discovered that the subjects who suffered from lower back pain were the same ones who tended not to use their glutes when swinging their legs behind them.  Instead they arched their lower backs.

The Bar Method puts considerable emphasis on correcting this movement error in the students who display it.  Teachers cue their students to “relax your lower back, “keep your hips still and move only your leg,” “feel the contraction in your glutes,” and “pull with your glutes.”  Students then get about four minutes on each leg to mentally and physically work on re-wiring their connection to their lower backs and glutes.  This re-training not only helps many students’ backs feel better. It also goes a long way towards creating gorgeous “bar butt” shape that is distinct feature of Bar Method bodies. To read more about the Bar’s glute work, read Three Secrets Behind Shaping a Bar Butt.

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CORE STRENGTHENING AND SCULPTING EXERCISES

The Bar Method, by virtue of its ballet bar, is uniquely equipped for core work. When students hold challenging muscle-building poses at the bar, their bodies have no choice but to call their core muscles into action.

Take glute work, an essential component of core strengthening:
The bar is the Bar Method’s secret “butt kicking” weapon.  Not only are the glutes extremely tough, as I mentioned last week.   There’s also not much range of motion back there, so once you contract your glutes, there’s pretty much nowhere else to go with them. (Contrast this situation with the ability of our thighs on the other side of our bodies to bend.)  Even so, our glutes work most effectively while they’re contracted.

This fact seems self-evident, until you look at how other systems’ design glute work.  Lunges, squats, nautilus machines all bend the body forward at the hips, letting glutes lose their contraction with every rep.  This same “on-off” repetition-oriented formula ends up emulating what our rears do when we walk – turn on and off with every step.  Bottom line, Pilates, nautilus machines, toning workouts, even “buns of steel” DVDs, rarely address the true nature of our glutes.  The result: lots of time spent at the gym without results.

The Bar Method avoids these two pitfalls of glute-strengthening: that is, 1. frequent bending forward at the hips and 2. releases between reps.  Instead, it uses the ballet bar to keep the glutes deeply contracted for minutes at a time.  With the bar’s support, students maintain a sustained double-side glute contraction while
body sculpting glues
 they lift one leg off the floor and hold it there for several minutes at a time.  The weight and power within the backs of both legs are in this way put into service as resistance against gravity and each other.  Looks easy but try it.  After several minutes of keeping the muscles “on” in this way, students often say they’ve discovered “muscles I never knew I had.”

While the glutes are on fire, the ballet bar is making multiple demands on students’ other core muscles.  Abs are hard at work holding students’ hips upright from the front.  Back muscles are stabilizing their spines as shoulders and arms use the bar to maintain balance.  Even upper torso muscles put their weight by helping grip the bar.  In contrast, seatwork in Pilates is often performed lying down, so that some posture muscles are not in play.

Finally, bar-work helps stabilize our bodies by strengthening an odd but important muscle located deep within our centers.  It’s called the iliopsoas, and while technically not a core muscle, it plays a key role in keeping us vertical.  When our iliopsoas, or more simply “psoas”, is strong and flexible, we stand straighter; our abs look flatter and our legs appear longer.  The reason many exercise routines miss the psoas is that it’s so deep inside us that you can’t really see, and you certainly can’t “shape” it visibly.  Not the Bar Method.  When students comment on how straight the Bar Method workout makes them feel, the reason is, in part, their stronger, longer and more functional “psoas”.

abs sculptTo the left you can see a Bar Method exercise that uses the bar to strengthen and stretch the psoas, while at the same time it tones the muscles directly above them, namely the abs. Again, because this exercise is performed at the bar, it’s simultaneously training your abdominal muscles to “turn on” when those in those in your hips, legs and torso need them.   Conversely, ab work in a lying down position, or on machines, is less effective for being less integrated with the rest of you.  So unless your workout gives you ample practice coordinating your limbs with your core, your abs could be strong, but you could still be missing out on the payoff during performance.

With its approach to bar-based exercise, The Bar Method restores core muscle function to its rightful place in bodily movement: a dynamic base from which the four limbs perform.  From beginning to end the Bar Method workout pits the chest against the abs, the legs against the abs, the arms against the abs again and again until the abs learn to turn themselves on for every motion the body makes.