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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

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

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

 

WHY INTERACTIVE EXERCISE CLASSES GIVE YOU BETTER RESULTS

Old lecture hallDo you get a better workout in a class that uses a “see and do” or “Simon says Simon does” format, or in a class that includes teacher-student interaction? Competitive athletes routinely get lots of feedback from their coaches during their practice sessions. But when you’re simply working out, do you get any extra value from your exercise instructors interacting with you about your form and focus?

I decided to get an educated answer to this question by researching what regular teachers think about interactive teaching. It turns out that the world of teaching is in the midst of a major tectonic shift in its approach to this issue. Overwhelming evidence that the old-style lecture format doesn’t work very well is inspiring teachers to switch en mass to “active learning.” “Active learning may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years,” declared a Harvard professor last year. “Thousands of studies indicate that active learning,” explained another Harvard expert, ‘is the most effect thing,” One of these these studies took place at the University of British Columbia in 2011. A research team held two week-long classes on identical subject matter that were attended by two groups of students as closely matched as possible. The only difference was that one of the classes was in a lecture format, and the other in an interactive format, which engaged students in discussions and active problem solving. The results? After the course, the interactive class participants scored twice as high as those in the lecture-style class.

Eric MazurWhat’s more, women are turning out to benefit more from the interactive teaching style than men. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physiology professor, noticed this when he switched to an “active learning” technique, and his women students quickly closed the gap between themselves and their male counterparts. “The verbal and collaborative/collegial nature of peer interactions,” Mazur speculates, “may enhance the learning environment for women students.”

Can these discoveries about interactive learning be applied to exercise, especially to exercise favored by women? In my experience, absolutely! I give you that simple aerobics workouts, during which you just want to keep your heart rate elevated for a time can pay off without much focused concentration. Getting good results from a strength-work however depends on your level of mental alertness; how attentive you are to your form, how precise your movements are, and how well you gauge your exhaustion point. Without coaching, it’s hard not to lose focus on the challenge and allow your body to take the easy route and shift away from the effort. Competitive athletes for this reason use coaches to maximize their focus, and the Bar Method gives its students the same caliber of feedback and guidance. Teachers verbally coach individual students on their form, alignment, mental focus and individually acknowledge them when they improve. By means of this guidance, students continue to advance their skills and get the results they want.

The experience of being in a class where interacting teaching is going on is, at least for me, fun, exhilarating and collegial. My body reflexively responds to the verbal adjustments I hear my teacher give my fellow students. For example, when I hear “Sally, lengthen your back.” My back lengthens. “Gina, square your shoulders.” My shoulders square. “Nicole, come up less.” I come up less. These cues thereby become a conversation among all of us. The teacher talks to a student. The student responds by adjusting how she’s working. The rest of us get in on the tips by adjusting our own bodies accordingly. This back-and-forth not only gets me involved and “in the moment.” It gives me a deeper connection to my body and to the athleticism and power of the exercises.

Active learning in Bar Method workouts doesn’t stop at verbal interaction. Students are of course learning with their bodies, so Bar Method teachers are trained to interact with them on a physical level too. This “hands-on” guidance is essential in order for most students to get good workout, without which, try as they might, they would be unable to recruit difficult-to-reach muscles or to work safely. Here are a few examples of how students learn better form with interactive teaching.

blog matrix

The students in these photos are, from top to bottom:

1. Slumping due to habitual posture,

2. Leaning weight into the joints of shoulders and wrists instead of the triceps muscles, and

3. Bending at the lower back and neck rather than engaging the glutes.

By receiving this ongoing supportive feedback from their teachers, students develop better body awareness and alignment, as well as learn to target muscles instead of joints.

There’s simply no turning back the clock once innovations like “acting learning” demonstrate their power to enhance our lives. It’s left up to each of us to take full advantage of the benefits.

WHY BAR WORKOUTS NEED TO PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO ALIGNMENT

One-weight liftsI started teaching bar fitness in Greenwich, Connecticut in May of 1992 when my husband and I became licensees of the Lotte Berk Method, the bar fitness pioneer based in nearby New York City. During my first few weeks as a studio owner, my students told me they loved the workout, but some of them mentioned that they were feeling some pain in their knees, backs and shoulders.

I consulted a physical therapist, Rick Stebbins, about these complaints. Rick watched a few classes. Then he gave me the good news and the bad news: The workout was generally terrific. As a physical therapist, he believed everyone should do strength-work to keep their joints healthy, and the Lotte Berk Method did that well. But, he added, some of the positions I was teaching could tweak joints.

reverse pushupsI enlisted Rick to help me find safer ways to teach the exercises, and over the next months, we worked together to rethink them. “One-weight lifts,” for example, an exercise for the back of the shoulder, was taught by the Lotte Berk Method with a rounded back. We repositioned the spine so that it was neutral. Reverse pushups were trickier. The Lotte Berk classes extended students’ bodies forward away from their arms, which Rick said put the shoulder and wrist joints at risk. We almost eliminated reverse pushups entirely, but both of us really loved how it quickly strengthened the triceps. Finally, we agreed that if students pressed their ribcages and upper arms together and maintained vertical arms, the exercise became sufficiently safe, as Amy illustrates at right.

reverse pushupsThe result of our efforts turned out to be better than either of us expected. The workout became safe enough to be rehabilitative for students with pre-existing injuries. What’s more, the class got harder and more targeted, and it was changing students’ bodies faster. One reason is that I could now give more reps with confidence that my students were in good alignment. By 2001, the workout had diverged so much from Lotte Berk’s that our two companies mutually agreed to part ways. We became the Bar Method.

Today, 20 years later, bar fitness is exploding. You can take a bar class at hundreds of studios around the country as well as at gyms and yoga studios. All I can say is, what took them so long to get here? Bar-based routines are fantastic at making bodies beautiful. They use weight loads (students’ own bodies), so they shape students’ muscles, and their strength intervals can last for enough reps to build stamina and burn fat.

These benefits, however, come with a caveat: bar workouts to be safe need to pay special attention to alignment. Take a closer look at what happens in a bar fitness workout, and you’ll see why:

From Strength Training AnatomyBar exercise is strength-work. Unlike purely aerobic exercise it loads a muscle with more weight than it’s comfortable supporting. Unlike classical strength technique however, bar routines require loaded muscles to perform up to 100 reps at a time. Strength training limits its sets to eight to ten reps that are performed with focus and under the guidance of spotters.

Bar classes give their students less weight than strength work does and fewer reps than cardio. But the fact remains: bar classes load muscles for minutes at a time, so they need to bear in mind the alignment of the underlying joints. bernadetteSpeaking for the Bar Method, I can say we do our best to make our bar exercises safe.

Bar Method students tell us that they appreciate this effort. “Bar has been invaluable to me over the past few years,” a student named Bernadette Collins wrote me. “I tore my hamstring a few years ago and it has helped tremendously with rehab and strengthening… I believe there are other ‘similar’ classes out there. However, having tried one or two, they aren’t as well conceived or safe as the Bar Method, in my opinion.”

WHY ONE HOME-WORKOUT BUFF SWITCHED TO THE BAR METHOD

Linda before classThere are clear advantages to working out at home. You pay nothing, you get fit your way, and you save travel time. Most of all, you enjoy the unbeatable convenience of exercising at home. At the same time there are some downsides associated with home-workouts that are worth talking about. First, there’s the well-known fact that most people find it a struggle to stay challenged day in and day out without being egged on by a teacher. DVD workouts can help by providing someone on video who can motivate you.

“DIY” workouts can also subject you to some less commonly known risks, especially if they’re your chief means of staying fit and even if you use DVDs. At home, you can be tempted to pick and choose among an infinity of vaguely-recalled routines or pieces of DVD workouts, and these choices might not always be the safest and most results-oriented ones you could make for your body. In any case, there’s no one at home to check your form.

Linda Greenberg, a recent Bar Method convert, is a good person to ask about what happens when you work out at home over the long term, something she did regularly for 40 years. Staying motivated certainly wasn’t one of her problems. At an early age, Linda came to understand that she possessed an abundance of determination. “If I believed in something,” she realized, “I could do it well.” Linda, 57, was born and grew up in San Francisco and always loved to work out. When she was a teenager, she spent her monthly $25 allowance on training sessions at her local Jack LaLanne, and during college at UCLA and Wharton School of Business, she biked, ran and lifted weights. By her mid-20s, she’d become a five-mile-a-day runner, and that’s when she ran into her first setback: her knees started to bother her.  Not being one to give up easily, Linda pushed through the pain until age 30, when she finally gave up her long runs.

With a vengeance, Linda launched into a search for a perfect exercise routine that did not include running. She watched exercise channels and combed through fitness magazines for good exercise routines. She tried Pilates, but it was a little too mellow for her. She hired a personal trainer, but that turned out not to be the answer either. “He was this crazy muscle-bound macho guy,” she remembers. “We did a lot of squats and lunges, militaristic things like burpies. I expected him to take out a whip any minute. Why did I keep going back? To prove to myself how strong I was. I actually dreaded going, but I went for about a year. It was a kind of masochistic thing. I ended up putting on a bunch of weight and built bulk, the exact opposite of what my intention was.”

After that experience, Linda decided to forego assisted exercise and step up her home workouts, which she’d been doing all along, to two hours every other day. “I bought a Bowflex and committed myself to “hitting every hit every part of my body with 30-to-100 reps while wearing 5-pound ankle weights,” Linda says. Therein, for the next two decades as she built a successful career in the home loan industry and raised twin daughters (now 16,) Linda exercised on her own.” “It’s just what I did for years and years. I’d get on some music. My dog would be there. My husband would come in and think I was crazy with the weights. He would call me ‘Lucy.’”

Linda in round-back 6-24-11 edit 1-5 200Finally last summer, Linda suffered a game-changing ill effect from her workouts. She developed bursitis in her hips, a painful injury that brought home to her the extent to which she’d been overdoing it. “I’d been doing massive reps with massive weights,” she admits, “pushing my body. It was so stupid. I had to go to the orthopedist. He said it was because I was working too hard on the weights.” Ironically, Linda’s extraordinary willpower, which had first enabled her to exercise by herself, had ended up derailing her. She resolved to find some guidance, and her search led her last September to the Bar Method.

Linda in kneedancingLinda now takes four to five Bar Method classes a week and uses the treadmill two days a week. She began to see changes after a few months. “My body is leaner now. My muscles have elongated for the first time ever instead of bulking up.” she says, “My kids say, ‘mom, you have no butt left.’ I’ve dropped some inches and feel better.” Another plus side to exercising at the Bar Method, Linda found, is its friendly environment. “I love all of the instructors,” she told me. “They’re enthusiastic, and they push you, but not in an offensive way, and I’ve made friends here. It’s a community.” Three months ago, Linda lost her mother, and her Bar Method classes became an unexpected source of support. “To be around cheerful people with upbeat music has helped me take care of me first while I’m taking care of all this other stuff.”

Does Linda have any plans to return to her home workouts? “I don’t miss anything,” she told me. “For the last 40 years I was bulking up when I wanted to be elongating. Finally I have the right combination of contractions and stretches.” As for the future, Linda declares with her usual hutzpah, “I’m going to do the Bar Method until the day I go.”

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.

HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH SHOULDER CONDITIONS

This month I’ve explained how you can safely take the Bar Method when you have issues with your joints in particular areas of your body. I started with foot and ankle issues and worked my way up to knees, hip and back problems. As you may have noticed, each of these body parts has it’s own “best practices” regarding how and how much to exercise if you’re nursing an injury to one of them.

Finally we come to shoulder conditions, which present their own set of issues due to the odd and unique history of this joint.

When our distant ancestors’ front legs evolved into arms, their shoulder joints gave up stability in order to gain more flexibility so that their arms could move in all directions. Today our shoulder is still a ball and socket joint like our hip, but while our hip socket fits snuggly around the ball of our thighbone, our shoulder socket has become so small and shallow, the better to allow our arms to swing freely, that it has become relatively ineffectual as a stabilizing force. To compensate for this lack of stability numerous ligaments and muscles developed around the joint, which now do much of the heavy work of holding it in place. The problem is that if any of these ligaments and muscles get weak, strained, sprained or just tired, the ball and socket can slip out of alignment. A number of very painful conditions can result including these common shoulder disorders as described by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

  • Instability: Sometimes, one of the shoulder joints moves or is forced out of its normal position. This condition is called instability, and can result in a dislocation of one of the joints in the shoulder. Individuals suffering from an instability problem will experience pain when raising their arm. They also may feel as if their shoulder is slipping out of place.
  • Impingement: Impingement is caused by excessive rubbing of the shoulder muscles against the top part of the shoulder blade, called the acromion. Medical care should be sought immediately for inflammation in the shoulder because it could eventually lead to a more serious injury.
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries: The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that hold the bones of the shoulder joint together. The rotator cuff muscles provide individuals with the ability to lift their arm and reach overhead. When the rotator cuff is injured, people sometimes do not recover the full shoulder function needed to properly participate in an athletic activity.

describe the imageFortunately physical therapy is highly effective at treating mis-aligned shoulders for the same reason that they are so often tweaked, namely that joint can be coaxed back into its correct position almost as easily as it can snap out of it. Here, for example, is a PT routine from a highly regarded book on sports therapy called “Peak Condition” by Dr. James Garrick. (Consult your doctor before you try doing these moves.) You can see that Garrick’s exercises involve simple repetitive motions that act to nudge the bones back into proper alignment.

Let’s say you have a shoulder condition and you’ve embarked on a course of physical therapy. Can you also do the Bar Method, and can it play a role in your recovery? Absolutely. The Bar Method’s arm exercises were designed by a physical therapist to be as safe and therapeutic for your shoulders as possible. In addition, both studio-based classes and DVD workouts offer you alternatives for doing the exercises without raising your arms higher than shoulder height, a motion that is usually painful to do if you’re nursing a shoulder injury.

Your best bet in this case is to modify the class in such a way that you avoid “bad” pain to a reasonable degree. Usually this strategy means keeping your arms as close to your sides as possible. Here are the basic modifications you would use:

  • describe the imageDuring shoulder walks, opt for raising your arms no higher than shoulder height.
  • Do push-ups against the bar and keep your elbows pointing downwards.
  • During the “fold-over” exercise (At right, top is Heather demonstrating the unmodified position; bottom is the modification) hold onto the bar with your elbows pointing downwards.
  • Use a strap to hold onto during the “under-the-bar” exercises.
  • You can place a few small mats under your back during the abdominal curl section to lessen the effort in your arms.
  • Feel free to keep your arms at or lower than shoulder height when raising the arms is simply a matter of choreography.
  • For “chair” and “water-ski seat” (exercises in studio classes only), substitute standing thigh and standing seat.

In the end you’ll be glad you stuck with exercising in spite of your condition. The strength you’ll gain will pay off in greater stability and less risk of injury going forward.

HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH BACK CONDITIONS

HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH BACK CONDITIONS

Yesterday, I met a Bar Method student named Emily Murgatroyd, a slender, athletic student there who owns a green, sustainable event planning company based in Vancouver. I was in that city to teach at the beautiful new Bar Method studio there, and Emily was one of my students. After class, Emily told me that she has two herniated disks. “The recovery process for my back was slow and frustrating,” she told me. “The challenging workouts I used to enjoy caused me pain and while I enjoyed the low impact exercises recommended to me (yoga, Pilates etc.) I really missed the feeling of accomplishment and the ‘high’ I got from strenuous activity. To me it felt like an ‘either/or situation’…In June I was introduced to The Bar Method by a friend and after my first class I knew that I’d be hooked. The combination of low impact yet highly challenging exercises meant that I could enjoy all of the physical and mental benefits of a high intensity workout without any impact whatsoever on my back – or entire body for that matter.”

stall barBy talking to students like Emily over the years, I’ve found that most back pain sufferers who take The Bar Method get relief from their condition, as Emily did. A great deal of back pain is due to strains, sprains and spasms in back muscles caused by stress and muscle tightness. Exercise, especially The Bar Method, helps tremendously with this problem by strengthening students’ cores, stretching the muscles in their backs and legs, and improving their alignment and body mechanics. One group that is especially vulnerable to back issues is made up of people with weak abs and glutes, which are not brought into service when they should be. The result is that the lower back muscles get overused, thereby putting themselves at risk for tweaks. I can pick these students out when they take their first Bar Method classes because they tend lean back during the “seat” exercises, trying to use their back muscles instead of their glutes and hamstrings to move their legs. Eventually these students learn to use their seat-muscles and abs to control the movements of their legs and torso, taking a load of stress off their backs.

I’d like to tell you that all Bar Method students with back pain get better just by taking the class, but when it comes to the back, the situation is not so simple. Our backs, like our knees, are complicated joints with many moving parts, and like knees, can misfire in multiple ways (see my blog on knees posted earlier this month). Depending on the underlying cause, back pain can either respond well to the Bar Method or require students to modify some of the exercises. Here are a few back problems that can fall into this second category:

  • Sciatica is actually a symptom, not a condition in itself. It refers to numbness or tingling in your leg from something pressing on your sciatic nerve. The culprit could be a vertebral disk, a tight muscle or, if you’re pregnant, a baby. Depending on what’s happening at the pressure point, you might need to limit the degree of movement in your back when you exercise.
  • Scoliosis refers to an abnormal curvature of the spine and can cause low back pain. Students with scoliosis might again find it more comfortable to modify some of Bar Method exercises that include back bending.
  • Arthritis, osteoarthritis and bone spurs in the back are caused by degenerated vertebrae. Students who are moderately effected by these conditions usually benefit from the Bar Method’s core work and stretches, but can feel so much sensitivity around the affected areas that they find doing modifications during some of the back stretches more comfortable.

describe the imageIf you suspect you have a back condition that calls for special attention when you take class or use one of the DVDs, you can do the following modifications and still get a great workout: During the stretch at the bar, you can go to a stall-bar and place your leg up on a lower rung. Doing so will lessen the degree of stretching in your upper leg and lower back. See photo at right.

  •  During the “fold-over” version of “seat-work” you can work with a more upright torso, again, so as to minimize the flexion in your hips.
  • During pretzel, a sitting seat exercise, do “standing seat.”
  • describe the image During “round-back,” (shown right) which is taught only in Bar Method studio classes and not on the DVDs, you are welcome to lie down, as illustrated.

Most important of all, if you have back pain, find a way to exercise. More than 80% of Americans will experience severe back pain in their lifetimes, so you are statistically unlikely to escape the experience. Medical research has found that consistent exercise keeps your muscles and joints moving and active in a way that counteracts continued tightening and strains. So if and when you do have an episode, finding a way to exercise is your best bet at a speedy recovery.

HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH HIP CONDITIONS

BURR FLATBACK“I will be 63 in December and have had two total hip replacements,” Mary Brauch, (shown right) a former marathon runner, emailed me this week. Mary is now training for a walking marathon and has discovered that The Bar Method, which she’s been doing at home in Chesterfield, MO with The Bar Method DVDs, is helping to get her in shape for the event. “It is very important to have strong legs with muscle (lean, strong) muscle,” she wrote me. “The Bar Method accomplishes that…I am addicted.”

Most Bar Method students like Mary with common hip conditions like hip replacements and arthritis find that the non-impact, controlled nature of the workout offers them an ideal way to get strong without jarring their joints. Other types of hip conditions aren’t as easily adapted to the Bar Method workout as Mary’s. Still, they won’t prevent students who have them from doing the workout provided they use a few simple modifications.

Hip Dysplasia and Labrum Tears:

One such disorder is hip dysplasia, a congenital deformity of the hip that causes the ball and socket not to fit together well, making it vulnerable to dislocation. Another condition is a tear in the “labrum”, a fibrous tissue deep in the hip socket. Students with either condition feel discomfort or instability when their leg moves inwards and upwards towards the center of their body. In order to take class in comfort, they should simply avoid exercises that move their legs in that way. In place of pretzel, which requires students to sit so that one hip is flexed and drawn inward, they can do standing seat. Instead of the “butterfly stretch,” a seat stretch at the end of class that requires students to cross one leg tightly over the other, they can do a “figure 4” stretch, thereby allowing their legs to remain slightly open

Tendonitis:

describe the imageInflamed muscles and tendons, usually due to overuse, are another source of hip problems. The hip muscles that are most likely to get tweaked in this way are the “rectus femoris,” a thigh muscle that helps elevate the leg, and the iliapsoas, which is actually comprised of two big muscles that join to flex the hip. Dancers as you can imagine are known for getting tendonitis in their hip muscles from repeatedly extending their graceful legs upwards. One such dancer, a beautiful Rockette named Jacey who is now a Bar Method teacher in New York City, developed sensitive hips from all the kicks she performed over the years.

describe the imageDuring “flat-back,” an intense Bar Method exercise that works the hip-flexors, Jacey has found that sitting on a “riser” mat eliminates the problem (shown left). This solution works for any student with easily irritated hips.

As I’ve said in more than one blog, I believe that the overwhelming majority of students with limitations due to joint issues benefit from intense exercise as long as they can do it safely. The reason the Bar Method is a great fit for such students is, to put it in Mary’s words, “because of the results…especially for people who should NOT do high impact but want a good, worthwhile workout.”