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TEN WAYS THE BAR METHOD MAKES YOU MORE BEAUTIFUL, PART 1

Keri RussellWhen I was a little girl in Georgia in the 50s, women wanted to have a small waist, lots of curves, or both. It wasn’t desirable to be toned or athletic, rather to appear soft, fragile and mysterious.

Our standard of beauty has changed dramatically since then. We now admire women who are lean, strong, athletic, confident and more diverse in their features. Why this shift happened is not the subject of this blog (the women’s liberation movement, etc.), but I’d like to talk about one driving force behind this change that has directly influenced our idea of what is beautiful: science’s growing knowledge of how we can look our best. Since my childhood, scientific discoveries about health have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that strong, athletic bodies enjoy longer lasting youthfulness, not to mention a winning edge in the game of life.

Don’t get me wrong! Our obsession for being as beautiful as possible by any means natural or artificial is not going away any time soon. What’s different about our current pursuit is that, unlike the old days we got our beauty tips handed down to us from an archive of old wives tales, and now we get advice that has a solid foundation in science.

What is the top beauty tip that we keep hearing from this source? Exercise! As one researcher, Tim Church M.D., put it, “Every cell in the human body benefits from physical activity.” Spa treatments, facials and makeup tricks can’t hold a candle to exercise when it comes to beautifying you in multiple ways. Here are ten of my favorite beauty benefits of exercise and how you can boost these results with efficient full-body workouts like the Bar Method.

1. More collagen

basic anatomy of the skin epidermis dermis stratum corneum fibroblastsFibroblasts are skin cells that produce collagen, a factor in youthful-looking elastic skin. “As we age, fibroblasts .. get lazier and fewer in number,” says dermatologist Audrey Kunin in an article by Catherine Guthrie for Experience L!fe. “But the nutrients delivered to the skin during exercise help fibroblasts work more efficiently, so your skin looks younger.” Bar Method exercises work large muscle group repeatedly until they are thoroughly exhausted, facilitating this cellular process.

2. Better functioning lymph nodes

lymph nodesWhy is this important to your looks? The hundreds of lymph nodes in your body “take out metabolic trash,” says Guthrie. “But the nodes can’t haul garbage to the curb without the help of nearby muscles. When muscles contract during exercise, they squeeze the lymph nodes, helping them pump waste out of your system.” So when you’re working your way through all the intense muscle contracting and stretching during a Bar Method class, you’re not only shaping your muscles but also fueling your body’s natural waste removal system. The results, in Guthrie’s words: “You look less puffy and polluted.”

stress-diagram-and-cortisol small2Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. It increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and decreases bone formation, all for the purpose of devoting your full energy to handling the source of that stress. When you suffer from chronic stress, excess cortisol production can cause collagen loss and inhibit protein synthesis, impacting your skin and health! Exercise enables your body to turn on cortisol when you need it, then turn it off when you don’t. The Bar Method’s strength-stretch sequence gets cortisol out of your system without beating you up in the process, so that afterwards your body can turn its attention to repairing and regenerating your muscles and skin.

4. Better sleep

Almost 20 percent of Americans suffer from stress leading to poor sleep, according to the National Institute of Health. Studies have found that moderate-to-intense exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. The Bar Method workout provides the intense exercise that facilitates sleep, while its focus on stretching and breathing makes for a relaxed body and a good night’s rest so that you look fresh the next day.

5. Enhanced sexiness

andrea-davis text smallWe know by now that the Bar Method makes you look sexier. It also happens to literally make you sexier. Huffington Post blogger David Katz, M.D., reports that exercise can “Increase blood flow in a way that has a direct affect on sexual function.” Not only that! Researchers have learned that exercise increases levels of testosterone, the hormone most responsible for making us feel sexy, and HGH (human growth hormone), also found to boost libido. A British study found that a group of middle aged men who exercised had 25% more testosterone and 4 times more HGH than sedentary men. When it comes to workouts that optimize your sexiness, the Bar Method, with its targeted strengthening and stretching exercises for the muscles around the hips, tops the list! “We all know the obvious effects of the Bar Method…” says teacher and studio owner Andrea Davis, “an enhanced sex life.”

RhondaRhonda Vassello, a 32 year old Bar Method student in Carlsbad, California, agrees. “I have done almost EVERY type of workout out there, Boot camps, Circuit Training, Cycling and even the dreaded task of running,” she wrote me in a recent email. “Each time my body reached a plateau that I just could not overcome… THIS WORKOUT has done it… and let’s be honest ladies when you feel good your confidence peeks and that is the sexiest feature any woman can have!

Next month: TEN WAYS THE BAR METHOD MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL, PART 2

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 🙂

HOW TO USE “ACTIVE STRETCHING” TO BECOME MORE FLEXIBLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: How Bar Method exercises increase flexibility

THE BAR METHOD IS IN A CLASS BY ITSELF

joey and jenThe “Bar fitness” trend has become so popular in the past half decade that when you tell a friend, “I’m going to a barre fitness class,” she’s probably going to visualize you holding onto a ballet bar, not lifting some kind of detached bar or swinging yourself around a pole. It’s definitely time for these bar-based classes to have their own name, but grouping them together can also be misleading. Unlike Pilates, which grew from an established technique developed by Joseph Pilates, “bar fitness” can apply to any workout that happens to use a bar. You won’t necessarily get the same experience when you take different versions of it. Bar Method students who’ve gone to classes elsewhere, for example, often come and back tell us that, “they just weren’t the same as the Bar Method.”

Like these students I’ve taken bar classes at other studios, and I agree with them that the Bar Method is different. Here are 10 ways that, in my view, the Bar Method stands out.

1. Bar Method teachers know what they’re talking about.

The Bar Method rigorously trains its teachers. All Bar Method teachers learn anatomy and physiology and are tested on their knowledge of them. Then before being certified every Bar Method teacher-in-training must demonstrate that she knows and understands the technique and can teach it effectively.

2. The Bar Method is safe.

The Bar Method keeps students’ joints safe by following the recommendations of physical therapy and sports medicine. In a Bar Method class you will never do unapproved moves like lifting free weights to the side above the shoulders, doing pushups with the shoulder blades pressed together, doing “reverse pushups” with the shoulder blades and upper arms at different angles, dropping down to the heels during “thigh-work,” and over-flexing the spine by pressing the waist into the floor during “round-back.” You will exclusively perform exercises that are endorsed by our medical consultants.

3. The Bar Method custom-tailors its exercises to a variety of body types.

Bar Method teachers give options to students with different bodies-types and conditions. Students with short hamstrings, for example, have lower bars to stretch on available to them and straps to hold onto. Petite students get “risers” to sit on. Tall students have a “high bar.” Those with sensitive shoulders get options that allow them to keep their arms below shoulder height. In a Bar Method class you’ll see a wide variety of students, one reason being that the Bar Method accommodates all of them.

4. Bar Method studios rooms are equipped with inch-deep rubber padding under carpet:

This feature may seem like a detail, but in my view it’s one of the fundamental differences between the Bar Method and other workouts. A hard floor is an ideal surface on which to do aerobics, but bar fitness classes press students’ balls of feet, insteps, shins, knees, hips, spines, elbows and shoulder blades into the floor. The Bar Method enables its students to work comfortably and safely by equipping its studios with cushioned floors and thick floor mats.

5. The Bar Method keeps students “in the muscle” long enough to change their bodies.

The Bar Method changes students’ bodies quickly by using an interval training format. Each class leads them through eight rigorous strength intervals ending with a “grand finale” of 10, 20, or 30 reps that give students an exciting challenge to work through. Other bar classes give more but briefer intervals with final counts or only four or five, lessening the body-changing potential of each strength set.

6. The Bar Method then stretches muscles deeply:

The Bar Method intensely stretches muscles to make them look and feel longer and more graceful. Other bar techniques give fewer stretches, more like steady-state aerobics but a less body-elongating approach.

Checking in with a student in St Louis7. Bar Method teachers face their students.

A key component of the Bar Method teaching style is that teachers observe their students throughout the class. Teachers of other techniques lead their students in a “Simon says, Simon does” manner, consequently turning their backs to them. This practice harks back to the aerobics classes of the 80s that didn’t call for the attention to form that bar workouts require in order to keep their students safe and in the right muscles.

8. The Bar Method supports, connects with, and guides its students.

Bar Method teachers address their students by name to encourage and motivate them. Uniquely in the bar fitness world, teachers stop speaking at moments just to watch their students and “give them the stage.” The effect is a fun, interactive and social experience that’s distinctively Bar Method.

9. Bar Method teachers count accurately and on the beat!

How accurately teachers count may seem like a minor detail, but try getting through the last reps of a strength set when your muscles are on fire, and you’ll get a new appreciation of how important an accurate number sequence can become when you’re pushing through the last counts of a strength set.

10. Last but not least, the Bar Method is consistent in the high quality of its classes everywhere.

Becoming a Bar Method teacher involves passing an audition, a three-month training course, and a series of exams. Teachers then undergo yearly evaluations. This system has established more than 60 studios all over North America where students can be sure they will always get a great body-changing workout.

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.

VISITING THE NEW PALOS VERDES AND SANTA BARBARA STUDIOS

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting two brand new Bar Method studios, both in Southern California. I’d just finished shooting two new Bar Method DVD workouts, at a production studio just north of LA. The DVDs, “Super Sculpting 1 and 2,” will be released in April. We wrapped the shoot on Friday afternoon, and I walked out of the sound stage into a warm, sunny day and drove down the 405 to Palos Verdes, where the next morning I would teach three classes at the new studio located in that town. Afterwards I’d drive back up the 405 then 100 more miles up the coast to Santa Barbara where on Sunday I’d teach at the new studio there.

Santa Barbra Owners Jodi and QuinnThe two young owners of these studios, Millie Katic and Jodi Conroy, have much in common with each other. They are both pretty and petite. Millie, 33, is the mother of a year and a half year old daughter. Jodi, 28, is expecting her first child, a boy, in May. They opened their first studios in California towns where they lived or grew up – Millie in Hermosa Beach, Jodi in Agoura Hills. Both husbands (Darren Katic and Quinn Conroy) have pitched in to help oversee the build-outs and have even manned the front desk when needed. Last but not least, Millie and Jodi were both drawn to the charm and communal spirit of the two towns they chose for their second locations.

Burr with Palos Verdes owner Millie KaticPalos Verdes, my first destination, is a not-quite-peninsula on the Pacific Ocean about an hour south of Los Angeles. Its residents have a reputation for loving their town so much that they rarely leave. This “PV” predilection for staying put was one of the inspirations for Millie’s wanting to location a studio there. Her Hermosa Beach studio is 12 miles north of Palos Verdes. Her “PV” students would drive to take class there but attend sporadically citing their reluctance to leave home. They begged her to open a studio in their town.

Millie accommodated them and opened her Palos Verdes studio on December 18th of last year. Her “PV” students kept their word to her and started attending class regularly, some of them five or six times a week.

On Saturday morning I walked into Millie’s studio and was knocked out by how beautiful it is. Millie and Darren clearly have a knack for stunning design, and they’ve been technically innovative as well. Instead of being stumped by the seeming impossibility of constructing a load-bearing bar across a series of floor-to-ceiling windows, they got creative. “In this challenge,” Millie says, “was born our ‘glass railing,’ which we have used now in both studios. This railing is an original design and solves the problem of placing a bar on any wall with windows…” The Palos Verdes studio features one of these amazing and beautiful devices on which the bar seems to float in space but is strong enough to support a line of students going all out during water-ski thigh or flat-back.

The Bar Method Santa BarbaraAfter my classes, I drove up the coast to Santa Barbara past scenery that looked like something out a fairytale — green, rolling, sun-soaked hills on my right, the ocean on my left. I got to Santa Barbara after a few hours on the road and found it to be as pretty and quaint as its surrounding countryside.

On Sunday Jodi and Quinn greeted me and gave a tour of the studio. Theirs, just like the one in Palos Verdes, is beautiful, spacious and exquisitely designed. My favorite feature: the huge, ornate windows that let floods of light into its two high-ceilinged studio rooms.

For a moment I thought, are Bar Method studio owners trying to outdo each other? These locations just keep getting more and more beautiful. Then I realized with a smile, these new studios look so good in part due to our growing expertise at building them and in part to the amazing skills of my business partner, Carl Diehl, with whom I’ve been building studios for 20 years. In our partnership I’m the one in charge of the exercise and teaching methods. Carl designs the studios. He’s always had an amazing ability to walk into a raw or broken up site and envision how a studio would fit into it. Now, after doing this at hundreds of potential and eventual Bar Method locations, he’s become almost unbelievably good at it.Co-Founder Carl Diehl

Millie and Jodi both did animated impressions of Carl walking into potential spaces, laser measuring tape in hand, to deem whether or not a studio would fit there. “He goes zap, zap, zap with the laser” they both said almost in the same words. “’This goes here. That goes there. Gotta go.’ And off he flies to another space.” Millie’s studio had been a veterinary clinic that was broken up into 40 or so little cubicles. Carl seemed to see through the partitions and within moments had re-drawn the new walls. “How he can do that, I don’t know,” she said. Jodi’s space was originally three or four contiguous storefronts. “I had no idea it could work,” she said, “until Carl figured it out.” We had a good laugh, though mostly in appreciation for the collective expertise that we’ve acquired over the years and the beautiful results that have come from it.

My compliments, Millie, Darren, Jodi and Quinn, on your fantastic new studios!

CELEBRATING THE BAR METHOD 3|60 CHALLENGE WINNER: LIANNE ZHANG

Bar Method 3|60 Challenge Winner Lianne ZhangMy last two blogs featured testimonials by two of the three contestants in our San Francisco Marina studio’s annual 3|60 Challenge, Karen Dodge and Ryan Salma. To fill you in if you didn’t read last week’s post, the Challenge pits three beginning Bar Method students against each other for sixty days of class taking and testimonial writing. The contestant who turns out to be best overall new student in terms of attendance, enthusiasm and gains in health wins a month of free classes. The winner this time: the third contestant in the Challenge, Lianne Zhang. “The other two did well,” studio manager Mike Najjar told me. “Lianne won because she was here quite often, and she was so enthusiastic.”

Lianne, 26, is a brand promotion and event strategist who recently moved to San Francisco from New York City. She had worked 70-hour weeks during her four years in New York. Now that she was a San Francisco resident, she was determined to create a more livable pace for herself. “I wanted to embark on a new lifestyle,” she told us, “one ensuring me a good work/life balance – a concept foreign to New Yorkers.”

After a month of classes, Lianne noticed that the Bar Method was doing more than improving her appearance. It was also having a positive impact on the way she was experiencing her new, adventurous life in San Francisco. This is how she describes the differences she felt in her body during her travels around San Francisco week four into the Challenge:

SF MARINA 3|60 BLOG: LIANNE WEEK #4

Lianne ZhangI can’t believe four weeks have flown by. As I notice differences not only in my lifestyle choices but my body- I’m also noticing how useful Bar Method technique is to my everyday life.

Here’s a little guide to how Bar Method has improved this recent transplant’s daily life in SF:

1) It absolutely trains you for crowded places where hanging off various street fixtures is a necessity in order to gain full view of the event.

For example, I went to the Giants Parade and in the madness, the only available space that offered a decent view of the players’ float was to hang off of these metal gates. Because of the Bar Method, I was able to hang on for a full thirty minutes- it was all the Posey, Lincecum, Huff and Cain I needed to bring myself closer to being a San Franciscan!

2) It helps provide better balance on MUNI buses.

SF MUNIAs a former New Yorker, I tend to ride subways better than buses. In fact I am not a fan of buses. Since I live in lower Pac Heights, I’m forced to take buses anywhere that I can’t walk to. I tend to tumble all over the place as I’m not used to standing on lurching vehicles above ground. However, ever since I started doing Bar Method, I found myself able to use my core muscles to stable myself much better. It sounds silly but it’s been extremely helpful. As for the lady that likes to booty shake at the front aisle of the 22,…no amount of Bar Method will remedy.

3) It strengthens my muscles, allowing me to have the confidence and capabilities to try things I never could try before.

I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing but because I have an embarrassingly low amount of upper body strength, I always put it off for fear of making a fool of myself. However, since I started doing Bar Method, I’ve realized that my arm strength has increased significantly and tonight I am going for my first session! Wish me luck! (Especially after five straight days of Bar Method!)

Congratulations, Lianne, for being our 2010 3|60 Challenge winner!

Burr Leonard

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.

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

For the past couple of weeks, I ve been discussing the vulnerable areas in our human bodies and how The Bar Method strengthens them. Our back is certainly one of our most susceptible body parts. The origin of our back issues goes way back to when we stood up on two legs, losing the relative stability that comes with having four of them. Our back problems got worse when modern conveniences enabled most of us humans to lead very successful lives without doing much upper body work. Twenty-First Century Man could scarcely move all day and still make Forbes 100 Richest list at the end of the year.

It’s a fact that, as reported by the New York Times, people who do not exercise regularly face an increased risk for low back pain. Is it any wonder then that low back pain is the second most common cause of missed days of work (next to the common cold) in the United States? Close to 80% of all Americans experience it at some point and about 50% of us experience each year.

A common misconception about lower back pain is that we can eliminate it simply by doing abdominal exercises. The logic here is that a strong front of the body will give you a strong back. The truth is, to have a healthy back, you have to strengthen not only the front of your trunk but the back itself, and develop good posture and alignment.

back muscles

Look at the chart above. It shows the superficial layers of the muscles in our backs. I‘m struck by the beauty of these intertwined muscular groupings and impressed by the obvious importance of each of these muscles in keeping us upright and healthy. When I talk to new Bar Method students who tell me they have problematic backs, I rarely hear them ask me about how to strengthen their back muscles. Yet clearly our back muscles were meant to be used and strengthened, especially given that they have a unique role in holding us upright unlike our distant four legged ancestors.

How can we minimize our risk of suffering from back pain or injury? Jonathan Clutt, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and About.com writer, recommends “sustained use of back muscles performed two or three times a week at least.” Sports injury expert Owen Anderson of Sports Injury Bulletin reported on five different studies on lower back pain, which all lead to the same conclusion. In the article he urges us to: “consider one last study, a beauty carried out in Teheran, Iran, with a grand total of 600 subjects. These 600 individuals were subdivided into four groups: 150 asymptomatic men, 150 asymptomatic women, 150 men with low-back pain, and 150 women with the same….. As it turned out, among all of the physical characteristics measured, the endurance of the back-extensor (erector-spinae) muscles had the highest (negative) association with low-back pain. The Iranian researchers suggested that low-back-muscle endurance could be used as a screening tool to predict which individuals would be likely to develop low-back disorders.”  In other words, just as as Dr. Cluett said above, people should do exercises that employ sustained use of the back muscles and the erector-spinae muscle group is a particular important one to keep toned.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching Bar Method classes and hanging out in the waiting room with students before and after class is hearing from some of them how much The Bar Method has helped their backs.  The Method does that in a variety of ways. In addition to strengthening the abdominals, it strengthens, stretches and aligns students’ backs.  Stretching on the stall bars at the start and end of class lengthens the spine and reverses some of its constant compression from gravity. The first 15 minutes of classes specifically strengthens the shoulder, arms, and upper body muscles including the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and lats. Students use their upper backs consistently during this segment.

The Bar Method’s leg exercises also plays a role in stabilizing students’ backs. At the bar, Students’ back muscles get the very kind of sustained isometric work which strengthens the erector spinae to protect against lower back pain. Then they work their glutes, which act as a support for the lower back and must be strong to protect the spine.

After the glutes are exhausted and stretched, we turn to a series of core exercises. One of the most important of these is called flat back. This move cleverly forces the transverse abdominal muscle (which acts like a girdle around our entire middle) to fire and stay strong as it gives support to our spines. (Read more about this exercise for the deepest layer of muscle in our cores in HOW FLAT BACK GIVES US THE ABS OF OUR DREAMS.) Stretches punctuate the work to stretch and elongate all these muscles as we strengthen them. Towards the end of class, we do a pose specifically for the erector spinae after which we stretch the back while strengthening the glutes in an exercise we call back dancing but is known to many as a common physical therapy move for people with low back pain.

People know that The Bar Method gives you flat abs, toned thighs, and a lifted seat.  What they might not have known until now it that it also gives you a strong, stretched, supple back!

Strong Backs

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STRENGTH EXERCISES AND FLEXIBILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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