I 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.
I 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.
The 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:
Bar 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. Speaking 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.”