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WHY TRIATHLETE BEN WINSLOW IS HOOKED ON THE BAR METHOD

Ben Performing Thigh WorkAt the Bar Method, we are dedicated to the proposition that some of our students will be men. We supply our studio rooms with larger weights than women would use and in most facilities provide men’s changing rooms and lockers. We make sure our exercises and stretches are designed to be entirely doable for students with tight hamstrings, and we train our teachers to use instructional cues that are “gender-neutral ( no “ponytail,” “high heels,” “bra-line,” and “ladies” for example) to make sure guys don’t feel as it they’re in a chick flick. Even so – and this is no secret – the overwhelming majority of Bar Method students are women. When you do see a man at the Bar Method, he’s usually the only member of the opposite sex in the class. I was curious to get some insights from a man’s perspective on why more men don’t come, so I asked Ben Winslow, one of our most regular male students, to shed some light on this issue.

Ben is one of the fittest people I know. A graduate of the infantry officer school and a lieutenant in the army, he put himself through college and became a successful litigator. For the past 38 years, he has run his law firm in the San Francisco Marina while pursuing the sporting activities that he loves: biking, swimming, running, golfing, endurance training, and competing in amazingly challenging triathlons. Ben, who turns 68 next month, has completed many “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlons, (a harrowing 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz, followed by an 18-mile bike ride and an 8-mile run), bike races and other competitive events. .

You’d think these activities would be enough to satisfy the most hard-core athlete, but Ben is unusual and not just in his love of physical challenge. He also has an uncommonly open mind. About a year and a half ago when two female lawyers in his firm told him about the Bar Method and asked him, “Why don’t you come with us?” Ben didn’t hesitate. He liked the workout so much that he got his wife to go to the Bar Method studio in Marin County where they live. Over the past year he has made a habit of walking from his office to the studio three-to-five times a week between business appointments to take class.

Here’s what Ben told me about what it’s like to be a male student at the Bar Method:

Ben Performing Armwith with Sharon DemkoWhat first attracted you to the Bar Method?

As you get older, you’re stooped over. Old guys get stiff. I don’t want to be a person who can’t tie my own shoes.

What do you like about the workout?

I like the discipline. I like the routine of knowing what’s going to follow what. I like knowing what we’re going to do next and how many reps so I can do my maximum effort. And the instructors are great, well trained, friendly. They greet you by name. It may help I’m the only guy.

What results have you gotten from the class?

I’ve become a much better golfer. My golfing friends say ‘Wow, you’re really turning your body when you swing!’ I’ve strengthened my core, gotten more limber. Bike riding I don’t have back pain anymore. I used to get an achy low back. In general I have no more low back issues.

I think my body’s changed. I’ve always been very thin and lean. I’m now more muscular with more developed abs and biceps. I like the look you promote which is long and lean, not chunky and muscular. I have more spring in my step. More energy. I always go to guys (touching his toes) and go ‘hey, can you do that?’

Ben Peroforming Round BackDo you ever feel intimidated by what the women in class can do?

It all evens out. I can do more pushups. They can do other things.

Why don’t other guys want to come?

I tell a lot of guys to come and run into the same thing all the time: ‘It’s a chick thing.’ ‘Let me get this right: you get a fabulous workout. You’re around 30 beautiful women. I don’t get it.’ If guys come and try it once or twice, they’d see that it takes a lot of muscular ability, strength, and coordination. If you apply yourself, it’s hard. You’re sore after you do this. These days with more enlightened men, I think they’re missing out on something.

What could guys get out of the Bar Method that they can’t get elsewhere?

Guys will go down to Gorilla Gym and work with a personal trainer, do that. Personal trainers charge a hundred an hour. I look at them and think they’d get much more out of the Bar Method. If you really want to change your life, you go to a class like this.

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.

GROUP EXERCISE CLASSES GET YOU FIT FASTER

In the 80s I didn’t have a lot of money. I worked for public television, and my Lotte Berk Method exercise classes were expensive. So I thought I’d try doing the routine at home before work. I used CDs from the movies “Footloose” and “Beverly Hills Cop” again and again while holding onto a doorknob or chest.  My home workout lasted an hour and a half, whereas the class was an hour. I thought I was not only saving money but was also getting an edge over my fellow Lotte Berk students by making the workout longer.

The truth was I was getting less toned, not more. At the time, I couldn’t figure it out. Now, decades later I realize that I never really pushed myself as hard as the class did. My home workout was lasting so long because I was lollygagging between sets just long enough to avoid hitting those last few moments of intense burning that you get every time in a bar class. After a few months of sweating and panting to Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude,” I gave up and, with a great sense of relief, went back to my regular 7:45 am class workout.  Quickly my body reverted to the tight, carved shape it had been before my experiment with going it alone.

The advantage of exercising with other people was recently the subject of a New York Times article (9/17/09) on competitive runners.  The story starts in the 70s when U.S. distance runners trained in teams and were among the world’s fastest. Then in the early 80s, the U.S. trend became solitary training with a coach. Soon runners from other countries – all of which used group training — surged ahead. Lately individual U.S. runners who bucked the trend and started to train with other people noticed that their performances significantly improved.   Now the running world is embracing team training once more.

Why do both professional athletes and exercise students do better when working out in groups – aside from the obvious fact that exercise classes come with a teacher who pushes you? First, a class has timing. Running through a series of repetitions in 10 minutes is not the same as doing them in 15 minutes. Every rep depends on the little bit of muscle fatigue provided by the previous rep. Every time you let that fatigue dissipate, you’ve lost some value from the rep you’re doing. A class is going to move you along — or should if it’s doing its job – fast enough to be “kicking your butt” simply by allowing you not as much time between reps as you would allow yourself. Click here to read more about the importance of interval training.

Exercise ClassesSecond, a class contains other students. I didn’t happen to have any friends in the Lotte Berk Method classes I took. Nevertheless, something inside me was always competing with them and at the same time feeling supported by them. People are social. We lock into a social pattern when we’re working in a group, whether or not we know it. Bar Method students’ eyes, glazed though they may be at moments, move around the room at other eyes, facial expressions and bodies. When we see that fellow students are pushing themselves, we get confidence to do it too.

What about home dvd workouts? These do provide you with a kind of social setting, namely the group of performers in the dvds themselves. In the Bar Method dvds for example, you can follow the “modifier” who shows you the beginner moves, be inspired by the “advanced” student who goes for the most challenging positions, and notice when everyone’s legs start shaking.  Some Bar Method dvd students enhance their home workouts by doing them with friends on a regular schedule.  These are the users who report not only getting results but having fun along the way. (To sample the new Bar Method DVDs, click on exercise dvds.)

This fun-factor could be what ultimately makes group exercise work over the long term. People are party animals. Every class is on some level is a form of “happy hour” and its students are somewhat like teammates on “Survivor.” Few solitary workouts that are within our reach for everyday use can match the potential for drama and comedy that endlessly delight us when we’re with other people.

Click to find a Bar Method exercise class near you.

CORE STRENGTHENING, FACT AND FUNCTION

Simply put, “core muscles” lock down parts of our torsos to give us extra stability when our bodies need it, for example, when throwing a ball or picking up a toddler.  The three most important core muscle groups are:
1. those in our backs,
2. those under our spines, and
3. our abdominals.

michael back-resized-600The word “core” became popular in the 90s when aerobics and yoga turned out to have not much effect on students’ waists-lines.  Today Amazon.com sells hundreds of titles that include the word “core.”   Some of these core workouts do a nice job at integrating muscle function so that the body performs actions more efficiently.  Good core routines also work the body “functionally;” that is, while bearing its entire weight.  Other, less thoughtfully designed programs have ratcheted down the concept of “core” to only one of its components, namely abs.   Students of these systems miss out on neuro-muscular learning, since they use only small groups of muscles at a time.  Examples of imbalanced core workouts that over-emphasize the abdominals are Pilates and exercise ball routines.

Such over-emphasis on ab-work results in bodies that lack athletic power and have insufficient protection against episodes of back pain.  A strong balanced core requires support on both sides of our bodies.  So glute strengthening needs to be a big part of any core workout.  Glutes, however, are highly resistant to exercise.  The reason for their pig-headedness goes back to our evolution when glutes needed to work long and hard.  Now they’re our largest, deepest muscles and come laced with fat for extra endurance.  It follows that we need to work them long and hard before they sit up and take notice.  Any core workout worth its salt knows this and has something special cooked up to serve these particular core muscles.

core musclesLast but not least, for a strong core you need to work on upper back strength and alignment.  Good posture and control over your shoulders will result, free your lower back from lots of needless stress and strain and protect your shoulders from injury.

The beauty of core muscles is their versatility.  As I mentioned above, their principal job is to stiffen our torsos whenever our actions call for extra support around our spines.  Our well-braced torso also gives our arms and legs more power by providing them with a stable base from which to perform, when hitting a tennis ball for example.  What’s impressive is that core muscles can freeze our torsos into just about any bend or twist.  They can also stiffen only torso sections needed while leaving other parts free to maneuver.

With training, core muscles can become amazingly quick and deft at calculating the intersection of body-position and muscle power.  Experienced athletes know to focus on developing both these components of core performance: namely, strength and coordination.

Consider a pitcher’s throw of the ball.  The core muscles allow her spine to twist but then lock, exerting tremendous holding power around the shoulder-blades.  Without the support of these muscles a pitcher’s arm would be in grave danger of flying off, ball still in hand.

Core muscles’ last trick is their ability to let go when we need our torsos to become pliable, such as when we’re lounging in an easy chair or strutting our stuff on the dance floor.

Now let’s look at where the core muscles are in a tennis player’s body as someone prepares to hit the ball:

–First, her abdominals stiffen her torso, preventing it from falling back as she swings.

–Second, her back muscles solidify into a base for her shoulders.

–Third, deep muscles in her upper back lock her shoulder blades firmly down giving power and stability to the arm holding the racquet.

–Fourth, her glutes weld her torso and legs into an immovable structure long enough for her to drive the ball over the net.

This stiffening-loosening dance characterizes core muscles at their best.  Legs may allow us to run, arms to throw.  Core muscles enable us to run and throw with our entire bodies.

Good core workouts, therefore, includes strength exercises for the shoulder stabilizers and the glutes as well as for the abs and back.  Just as important, well-designed core training teaches muscles to interact with each other, and also with the rest of our bodies.  This education for the abs can make the difference between “throwing like a girl” and throwing like an athlete.

EXERCISE CHOICES: A WORD OF CAUTION ABOUT RUNNING

Now that summer’s upon us, many of us are putting on our running shoes.  Running is both revered and respected and has great aerobic benefits; however, running also has a considerable downside when it comes to wear and tear on the body and runners should take steps to guard themselves against its hazards.

Since the late 60s when Dr. Kenneth Cooper discovered that running produces a beneficial “training effect” – mainly it strengthens runners’ hearts — the popularity of the sport has exploded.  In 2003 almost 22 million Americans ran or jogged at least 6 days during the year.   Unfortunately once running and jogging became fashionable, more training effects turned up, these ones not so beneficial.  There are many positive results to be had from running.   I’d like also to list its considerable downsides:

• Impact on your joints: When you run, every step you take sends 1 ½ to 5 times your body weight into your joints.  This is why almost half of runners or joggers are injured due to their sport every year.  Knees are the most likely body part to suffer, followed by feet, hips, legs and lower backs.   Ligaments and tendons can also fray from overuse.

• Impact on your heart:   In 2001 Arthur Siegel, M.D. reported in The American Journal of Cardiology that marathon running “can…increase the risk for acute cardiac events.”  He and other researchers studied the hearts of marathoners who’d just run 26 miles and found irregularities that could lead to a heart attack.  This and other similar studies have generated debate among serious runners.  Even so, as august a group as the American Running Association took the findings seriously.   Running that is “coupled with poor or improper training,” said the Association’s president Charles Schulman, M.D., “could lead to consequences much more serious than just the usual running injury.”  Some studies have also pointed to an increased risk of cancer from unstable molecules known as free-radicals, which the intense, high-impact aerobic exercise tends to generate.  The causal link between aerobics and cancer, though, has not been proved.

• Impact on your skin: All high-impact/high-repetition exercise jars your skin and cause it to sag before its time.   This plus the damaging effect of the sun causes runners’ skin wrinkle, and worse.  Jogging eventually causes premature degeneration of the elastin in your skin as well as loss of subcutaneous fat in your face, giving you a haggard appearance.  What’s more, the November of 2006 Dermatology News reported that the skin of runners ran a higher than average risk of having moles, lesions and melanoma.  The skin in runners’ arms, legs and rears also gets pounded down over time, one reason not to jog if you’re going for a perkier backside.

• Impact on your strength and flexibility: In the mid-80s I took to running twice around a body of water in New York City’s Central Park called The Reservoir. After a few invigorating months of making this three-mile trek, I dropped into one of the many ballet studios on at city’s Upper West Side.  To my dismay, I found that my legs felt like led when I tried to lift them.  They seemed to have lost their ability to separate from one another.  I quickly made my choice and gave up running.  Un-airconditioned dance studios got me sweating enough anyway.  One reason my cross-training effort failed is that running and other purely aerobic activities reduce the portion of strength-type fibers in your muscles. Runners get great endurance, but they often lose power.  The other reason for my loss of grace, of course, is that running tightens your muscles, especially those around your hips.

DANCE WORKOUTNowadays most runners add strengthening and stretching to their exercise programs.  Still the idea of dedicating yourself to an exercise form that requires you to constantly correct the imbalances it inflicts on your body makes little since if you’re just doing it for the exercise alone.   On a cellular level, research studies have found that high-stress aerobic exercise reduces your body’s ability to synthesize protein.  Running, therefore is limited in how much it can spike up your level of fitness beyond a certain level of intensity.  As reverential as runners are about the virtues of their sport, are they – are all of us — really bred to be long-distance runners in the first place?

Our human ancestors probably used their newly evolved running skills to stalk their prey until they could sprint in at the last moment for the kill.  We certainly didn’t acquire our fleet-footedness to flee predators, most of whom could easily have run us down.   More probably our bodies adapted themselves to execute lightening-quick joint efforts that are remarkably similar to those we love to re-enact today in games like football, basketball and soccer.

Even with these facts before them, most serious runners will find the sport and all its glories worth the risks.  If, however, you’re running not because you love it but to lose five pounds before a wedding, I strongly urge you consider other, less problematic, exercise options.

ballet exercise

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EXERCISE Part I

Exercise as a dedicated activity has gained such a prominent place in society that it’s easy to forget how young it is relative to other facets of our lives. Remarkably it has risen from near non-existence to tremendous success in less than 60 years.  Here in a nutshell is its story.

The modern fitness movement started with a problem, namely our steadily declining level of activity as new technologies gave us unprecedented freedom from physical labor.  This decline began in the late 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution moved millions of people out of the country and off their farms into cities and factories.  The quality of life improved, but at a price.  By World War One, one third of Army draftees who showed up to fight tested as unfit.

In the 20s, debauchery came into style, and the resulting decline in health was exacerbated by poor nutrition during the Great Depression.  By the 50s, TVs, automobiles and the growth of suburbia threatened to bring daily physical activity to a near standstill.  By this time, our American bodies were not getting away with it.  During this era, diabetes and heart disease became leading causes of death.  Americans had effectively innovated themselves into the most slothful life-style ever known to man.

Jack La Lanne

Just when the situation looked bleakest, help arrived, American style, in the form of a powerful-looking TV action figure.  This figure was not named Superman, but he could have been.  In 1951, decades before health clubs became commonplace, Jack LaLanne began teaching strength training routines for both men and women on his TV show.  Today his routines still hold up as sound and effective.  “They said I was a crackpot and a charlatan,” he is quoted as saying.  Even so, by the 80s there were more than 200 Jack LaLanne health clubs across the country.

The sixties, a decade famous for its innovative spirit, spawned the next two huge fitness crazes.  First, the Beatles made yoga and meditation cool worldwide.  Then, in 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper coined the word “aerobics,” ushering in 20 years dominated by aerobic dance.

The modern American fitness movement was off and running.  By 1970 three out of the five basic elements of fitness: strength, cardiovascular health, and stretching had established themselves as as exercise choices.  The two elements still missing, body alignment and coordination, had a tougher sell within a nation that valued weight loss above all other fitness outcomes.

From this point forward, the industry stumbled into a protracted search for its identity.  Was it macho or mind-body, muscle-bound or lycra-bound?  Were men supposed to dance or grunt, stretch or sweat?  Were women supposed to be slender or buff, spiritual or spa-ed up?  Were health clubs all about racquetball or recreation, family or fitness?

Lacking a sure path, the industry succumbed to trends and counter-trends.  Next week, we’ll look at the 90’s and the resurgence of aerobics in the form of step-classes followed by the popularization of yoga.

yoga