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WHAT CELL PHONES ARE DOING TO OUR BODIES

Head in the cellphone - Lauren March 2015 smallA new malady is sweeping the world, one that mainly targets children and teenagers but does not spare any age group. If you become afflicted, you can suffer disc herniation, pinched nerves, metabolic problems, reduced lung capacity, vascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, chronic headaches, poor emotional health, and chronic pain, not to mention reduced good looks. In 2008, the medical community named this new disorder “text neck.”

“Text neck” occurs when you allow your head, a ten-pound weight, to fall significantly forward of your body as you gaze down at an electronic device for long periods of time. This posture becomes more stressful on your spine as your head tilts progressively downwards. According to experts, every inch your head moves forward puts ten more pounds of weight on your spine.  If for example you hold your head six inches forward, you are putting a crushing 60 pounds of weight on your back and shoulders. Worst of all, this posture eventually becomes engrained in your body. bad-posture-620w from CBS NewsWhat our mothers told us, it turns out, is true: Slump, and you will get stuck that way! No wonder that we have an epidemic of young people with neck and back pain!

How do you treat “text neck?” Some doctors tell their patients to text less and try calling people. Others suggest lying backwards on an exercise ball. Chiropractors, who are all over this issue, recommend neck stretches and adjustments, and the cosmetic industry has come out with lotions to smooth neck wrinkles caused by texting.

These treatments might provide short term relief, but they fall short when it comes to providing a long term solution, one that would guard against getting “text neck” in the first place. Such a remedy could reset people’s posture physically and mentally so that they maintain relatively good posture throughout the day, even when they text. In my view, this solution would need to address “text neck” on three fronts: 1. Strengthen weak back and core muscles, 2. Increase poor body awareness and 3. Train in habitual good posture. You probably have already guessed where I’m going with this: the remedy is exercise.

Holding good posture during "diagonal seat"

Holding good posture during “diagonal seat”

Now that we’ve gotten this far, we still need to determine what kind of exercise best accomplishes these goals. For back strengthening, I’d like to suggest that barre workouts are an excellent choice. All barre classes, whether dance or exercise, compel your back muscles to work harder than usual over gravity as your muscles contract and extend, and many barre workouts include intense back strengthening intervals as well. In contrast, some ways of working out such as doing Nautilus circuits have you leaning on equipment much of the time. Second, an exercise-based remedy must teach you good posture, and last but not least it must increase body awareness by keeping you aware of your body alignment throughout the class. Without these last two features, a barre class could allow you to do the workout with your shoulders slumped, your back arched, and your head dropped forward, putting the 60 pounds on your spine that you’re trying to avoid!

All this considered, my recommendation for a long term solution to “text neck” is a barre workout that puts special emphasis on both improving posture and increasing body awareness. I know from personal experience that one such workout is The Bar Method.  In a Bar Method class, teachers mention the posture benefit of each exercise, then help you as you work on your individual posture goals. If your shoulders go up, they will remind you by name to draw them down. If your head drops forward, they will encourage you to keep it lifted. They may also give you gentle hands-on adjustments to give you a deep awareness of your alignment.

Over the past decade, countless students have told me that The Bar Method’s focus on body awareness has transformed their posture. Hear it from a student named Amy, who wrote us this testimonial after one month of classes:

“I am becoming convinced that improved posture is now within my reach. I still have a ways to go, but that daily awareness is there, which is huge. An additional benefit is that in “standing tall” (versus slumping) I feel more energized and balanced. I’m sure I’m breathing deeper too. As I learn how to integrate all my muscles into good posture, I have a picture in my mind of what that looks and feels like now. I don’t want to go back!”

 One last word on posture (see below): As the saying goes, if you don’t stand up straight, you could get stuck that way…forever 🙂

texting crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND MUSCLE TONE

I love to make New Year’s resolutions, and most years, one of my promises to myself is to get better results from my workouts.  If you’re like me and this goal is high on your resolution list, here’s a tip that can get you on your way: Whenever you work out to music, make it a project to sync your moves to its beat. Research studies have discovered that following a musical beat when you exercise improves your brain-muscle connection, not only making you look hotter on the dance floor but enabling your muscles to work harder during exercise, resulting in more tone and strength from your workouts. This is why Bar Method music mixes use exclusively tracks with a clear, strong beat for its strength exercises.

In this video Hoddy Potter, owner of the two Kansas City Bar Method studios, and I show you how it works.

Hoddy and Burr blog on music and muscle tone Jan 2015 small

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’S ADDICTING BLEND OF STRUCTURE AND NOVELTY

P90X photo 2 edit smallThere are two opposing theories about how best to design an exercise routine. One group of experts says you need to stick with a consistent program. The other side says doing a new and different set of exercises every week or so will give you better results. This debate has heated up within the weight lifting world ever since “P90X,” a home workout program sold by a company called Beachbody, came out in 2003. P90X’s central premise challenged a core tenet of the muscling building world: that you’ve got to repeat the same move over and over again to get results. Beachbody proposed a different theory. Mixing it up is better because, that way “your body will never get used to the routines,” it says. Beachbody named its technique “the science of muscle confusion” and made it the foundation of P90X.

The claim that confusing your muscles works better than plain old repetition threw the hard-core muscle guys into combat mode. Some of their comments were:

Brandon Morrison“You can’t just overload your muscles for a week and then shift the base to other muscles for the next week.” Fitness writer Abhijit Naikand. 

“Muscles cannot be confused, perplexed, bewildered or even a little befuddled,” Brandon Morrison, founder of a fitness company and the website Lift Big Eat Big.  

dr steve young small text 23“Muscle Confusion goes against everything I learned in physiology.” Physiologist Steve Young.

jay cutler photo small text2My favorite tirade against muscle confusion (see http://www.aworkoutroutine.com/muscle-confusion/) is by Jay Cutler, super-pumped four-time winner of the title Mr. Olympia. His witty rant sums up the fury of the body-building world over the suggestion that to buff up you don’t have to work your tail off doing upteen repetitions of an excruciating move.

Does this clash among muscle builders have anything to do with barre fitness? Obviously the goal of barre workouts isn’t to pump your muscles. Nonetheless, both types of exercise are essentially strength-work, and this process, no matter what shape you’re aiming to end up with, demands, in my view, a consistent routine. First of all, I’ve found that you simply have hit a muscle on a regular basis to get it to change. You can’t work your thighs on Thursday and your glutes on Friday. Shaping muscles requires lots of repetition!

learning to target the glutes1And that’s not all I’ve noticed about the benefits of consistency. It also helps you learn to work the right muscles. Any kind of strength work, whether it’s sculpting a dancer’s body or pumping yourself into a Goliath, involves learning how to catch the muscles you want to reshape. This process is not like aerobics, the goal of which is simply to keep your heart rate elevated. Working a muscle requires you to contract the right one, and that’s not easy at first. You might not really be “in” the muscle you want to shape until maybe your 30th workout. If you switch up your routine too often, you may never find it.

Therefore I agree with the muscle guys when it comes to the importance of a consistent routine, whether you want it to look huge, bulky and tough or long, lean and graceful.

learning good formIn a barre fitness class, a structured format gives you even more benefits. It enables you to work on coordination, alignment and posture (more about that later). It gives your teacher a window within each exercise to guide and coach you, and a set sequence when it’s well-designed, doubles the effectiveness of each exercise. (see my blog WHY THE BAR METHOD WORKS SO WELL).

But wait! There’s a significant difference between barre fitness and bodybuilding, one that opens up the debate about consistency vs. variety all over again. Barre fitness, unlike bodybuilding, is a form of “functional exercise.” It not only sculpts your muscles. It gives you an array of other physical benefits: increased flexibility, straighter alignment, better posture, improved patterns of motion, and enhanced coordination, grace and athleticism in everything you do.

Due to this difference variety does play a role in enhancing results when you’re doing functional exercise. When you’re working on enhancing your patterns of motion and general athleticism, you’re effectively simulating real life. Not knowing what comes next in this kind of class trains your mind and body to work together as a more tightly knit team. So by not being able to anticipate the next tempo or direction, you can systemically learn to meet the unexpected with improved coordination, alignment, posture and precision.

Mix up a barre fitness class too much however, and you lose its structure along with its many benefits. Like the muscle guys said, you really don’t want to confuse your muscles. You want to keep them as informed as possible. Novelty is not for your muscles anyway. It’s for your mind and your mind-body connection. So if a barre class regularly changes the sequence of the workout, the added interest this switch might initially give you could comes at the expense of results. This particular change in sequence, for example, not allow your back muscles to warm up enough to do your best crunches.

In my view, the ideal barre fitness workout weaves novelty into its structure so that you reap the benefits of both sculpting and body-training. The Bar Method, like a ballet class, uses an overlying structure within which it inserts novelty with rhythmic, ever-changing choreography and a rich palate of exercise variations.

rubyann curl small1This technique makes it unlikely that you’ll know which exercise variations you’ll get in a particular class. Then once you’re moving, you’re compelled to stay alert to catch the next tempo, direction and choreographic turn. In this way you mentally stay on the edge of your seat as you fight you way through the inevitable intensity your body will encounter.

Ballet classes are a great example of this formula. For hundreds of years, these classes have adhered to the same basic sequence of exercises. Ballet students often begin this routine as young children and perform it until the end of their careers as dancers. The combination of specialized muscle tone and ability this routine gives them is what dramatically changes their bodies into dancers’ bodies. Like a classic ballet barre sequence, the Bar Method’s blend of structure and novelty provides its students with the amazing changes that regular practice can work on their bodies, while it keeps their minds engaged enough to focus on finding the right muscles and improving form – an addicting formula.

TEN TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR RESULTS FROM THE BAR METHOD, PART 3

My tips last month on how to get the most out of the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise brought in a large number of comments and questions about this challenging exercise. Two of these emails brought up some interesting points that I’ll share with you later in this blog.

But first, here are tips #9 and #10 for boosting your results from the Bar Method, which are for the workout’s last two exercises, “back-dancing” and “final stretch.” Both of these sections are considerably less intense than those you do earlier in class, and might burn fewer calories than for example “thigh-work,” but they both have the power to make a major contribution to the way you look, move and feel.

tango dancersTip #9: Find your inner dancer during “back-dancing.”

Back-dancing teaches your body to move like a dancer. The next time you watch a ballroom dancing competition, notice how the dancers swing their lower torsos all over the place while keeping their upper torsos elegantly aligned with their partners’. Back-dancing gives you a head start on developing this same graceful fluidity in your torso by allowing you to rest your back on the floor. You can then focus on relaxing your lower back muscles, freeing your glutes and hamstrings to move your hips like a salsa dancer’s. Imagine you’re dancing, and stay with the tempo even when the song is fast. You’ll develop not only more tone in your rear, but also a more expressive and youthful spirit in way you move in general.

Tip #10: Go for the “stretch burn” during the final stretches.

butterfly textDuring the final section of class, give the stretches just enough energy to create a slight burning sensation in the muscles you’re stretching. When you assume the “butterfly stretch” for example, align your shins directly opposite your knees in a “T shape” so that you feel a “stretch burn” in the outsides of your upper legs (the location of your “IT band”). During the “strap stretch,” completely straighten the knee of the leg you’re stretching to fully extend your hamstrings, which reach across final stretch burr crop edit text smallthe back of your knee. The burn you feel when you do find the “edge” of your range of motion for these stretches is a sign that you’re now going beyond simply stretching a muscle. You’re also strengthening it and enhancing its fine motor skills (see my blog: “Stretching Makes You Stronger, And More”). Be mindful, patient and gentle with your body when you stretch. At the same time, supply enough power to the stretches to tap into these additional benefits that stretching can give you. By keeping your focus on gaining benefits from your workout, even in this last part of class, you’ll gain a leaner shape, a more graceful bearing, and control over a greater range of motion. Your back will feel better, you’ll feel more youthful, and you’ll move more effortlessly. Don’t miss out on this last chance to change your body!

diaphragm and taThe first noteworthy comment on last month’s tips was from Lizzie, a knowledgeable reader who pointed out several inaccuracies in my explanations about how flat-back works. “Just to clarify,” she wrote, “the diaphragm contracts on an inhale, not an exhale.” I double-checked this correction with the Bar Method’s medical consultants, Physical Therapists Cayce and Wendy, and they confirmed that Lizzie is right. Our diaphragm relaxes rather than contracts when we exhale. If we exhale forcefully however, our abdominals kick in to press the air out of our lungs by sharply pulling in our belly. The specific ab muscle that is most responsible for this pulling-in is our deepest one, our “transversus abdominis.” When you exhale sharply during flat-back — as well as during round-back and curl — you’re working and toning this deep ab muscle. You can make the contraction even more effective by consciously pulling in your abs with each exhalation.

Lizzie also set me right about which muscle is responsible for students’ abs “pooching” during flat-back. If your abs pop out when you attempt to lift both legs, the weakness, she said, is in that same deep ab muscle, the “TA.”

Both Lizzie and my PT consults agree with me however on the best strategy for achieving flatter abs during flat-back: Exhale sharply and pull in as much as you can on every rep, even if your abs pooch out a little. You will incrementally strengthen your “TA” until it becomes able to hold your stomach in when you raise your legs.

roundback holding onto strapThe second of the two emails I received was from Maria, who wanted advice on an exercise she struggles with called “round-back,” which students do right before flat-back in the studio-based workout. “Hoping you’ll have some suggestions for round back and how to improve form,” she wrote me. “I’m finding even after two years of practice that I feel this more in my hip flexors than in my quads.” 

Round-back is one of my favorite exercises because it gives students’ back muscles a needed stretch after they’ve held their spines straight for most of the first half of class. Round-back also stretches the glutes and hamstrings after the preceding “seat-work.” As for strengthening, round-back tones the quads and flattens the abs. That’s a lot of benefits from one exercise, but good positioning is key to reaping those benefits. To help Maria and students like her to do round-back comfortably and to best effect, I’d like to offer a few tips on comfortably and effectively performing this multi-faceted exercise.

First, lean on the wall so that your torso is at a 45 degree angle, or diagonal, to the floor. If you sit too high, you will over-flex your hips and be unable to contract your abs. If you sit too low, you’ll overly round your back.

Second, lift your chest so that your back is almost straight (the “round” in “round-back” is slight). Then press your navel downwards. Think of the shape of your back as similar to how you position it for “high curl,” except that during round-back you’re stretching your glutes rather than gripping them.

Third, pull in your abs with every rep! Like “flat-back,” this exercise requires you to forcefully exhale in order to recruit and flatten your deep abs.

Last but not least, if you have sensitive hip-flexors, hold onto your working leg the whole time! If it’s difficult for you to reach your leg, loop a strap over your arch, as illustrated above. Don’t worry about missing out on the results by taking these options. Challenge yourself to completely straighten your working knee during the straight-leg moves while maintaining good form, and you may even begin to enjoy round-back as much as I do.

TEN TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR RESULTS FROM THE BAR METHOD, PART 1

Kate and BritneyKate Grove is a master teacher and the manager of our Bar Method studio in the San Francisco Marina. Kate has a reputation for designing fun, creative classes, and she’s been just as creative as a studio manager. This year, she came up with the idea of offering student workshops to our “Club Bar” members, who are students with ongoing class packages. In the past, we’ve only given teacher workshops. Now thanks to Kate, our students are gaining expert knowledge about the Bar Method and are using that knowledge to take their workouts to the next level. After our first workshop, participants said that their classes were making them more sore than ever in the muscles they most wanted to shape. Britney Bart, a ten-year Bar Method student, commented that simply knowing where a muscle was on her body made the exercises feel different. “I have been doing arm walks with you since 2003,” Britney told me, “but I have not felt them and proactively utilized them for the specific purposes you described until the workshop.”

All these comments inspired me to share with Bar Method students who read this blog the information Kate and I gave in our workshop. This month focuses on our tips for the first half of class:

Tip # 1: Move your body in one-inch increments during the faster tempos.

Walnut CreekHow do you respond when your teacher says, “lift up, up, up” or “press in, in, in?” If your range is too large, you’re relying on momentum, which is only moderately effective at keeping your muscle “on.” If your range is too small, you’re not firing your muscle enough to get the most out of the exercise. A one-inch range keeps you “in the muscle,” while it enables that muscle to ignite with maximum energy on every rep.

Tip #2: Use your “rhomboids” and “lower traps.”

Trapezius Rhomboids and Serratus AnteriorWhen I take class, I’m constantly thinking about contracting my “rhomboids” and “lower traps” (“trapezius) during the weight-work section. These two muscles draw your shoulders in and down. During weight work they play a critical role in keeping your upper back from slumping forward and your shoulder joints from rotating out of kilter. They also help improve your posture and burn extra calories during the exercise. So one valuable piece of information I can offer you is to consciously use your “rhomboids” pull your shoulder blades closer together and your “traps” to pull your shoulder blades in and down. Reverse pushups can sculpt your lower “traps” if you hold your shoulders down while your arms are carrying the weight of your torso (see photo below). Stay aware of how these muscles enhance your performance, and you’ll sculpt your upper back muscles and give yourself a longer, more graceful your neck-line by virtue of your stronger “lower traps.”

Tip #3: Protect your joints by working in good form.

Here’s a fact you might not be aware of: when you stress a joint during a workout, the muscles around that joint will resist change. The joint sends a signal to these muscles saying in effect, “stop doing that!” So if you’re regularly tweaking a joint, you might not be getting the results you want.

jen in reverse pushupsThe Bar Method’s “reverse pushups” is an example of an exercise that you need to do in good form to get the best results. Here are the two key points to remember: 1. Keep your wrists turned forwards and slightly outwards. If you turn your wrists backwards, you’re pressing into your wrist joints instead of controlling the move with your arm muscles. 2. Keep your shoulders directly over your wrists. If you don’t and instead shift your shoulders forward of your wrists, you will pull your shoulder blades out of alignment and at the same time make the exercise significantly less targeted. So keep your shoulders directly over your wrists, and you’ll quickly gain the definition in your triceps you’re working for.

Tip #4: Do straight-leg pushups, and don’t go low!

Denise pushups straight armsPushups work an array of muscles. Obviously they sculpt your pecs and arms. Less obviously, they tone your abs, glutes, traps, and a muscle called the “serratus anterior,” which holds your shoulder blades in place when you’re pushing with your arms. By engaging these less obvious muscles, you’ll get much more out of pushups, and look great doing them. What’s the easiest way to do recruit all these muscles? Believe it or not, by doing straight-leg pushups (wait a second before you reject this idea!) and moving just one inch down and up. This way, you’re using every muscle in your pushups repertoire without killing yourself and creating a more defined body overall.

keryun thighTip #5: During thigh-work, let the music move you.

Bar Method students are famous for their fighting spirit, and if you’re one of them, I know you already give thigh-work your all. So what else can you do to get more out of this exercise? Make it a dance! Remember that you just gave your legs a deep stretch at the bar, and stretching is been proved to enhance muscular coordination. So use the stretches you did before thigh-work to take your performance to a new energetic level. Tap into the enhanced agility that the stretches infused into your legs, and do thigh-work like a dancer! Become one with the beat, and concentrate on performing the reps with precision and grace. Your muscles will expand and contract more energetically, and you’ll discover a new level of strength, athleticism and stamina in the process.

Next week! Ten Tips for Boosting Your Workout, Part 2

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.

STRETCHING MAKES YOU STRONGER, AND MORE

This year I had the opportunity to take a variety of different fitness classes including some that used a ballet bar. I noticed that the bar classes gave fewer stretches between exercises than what you get at the Bar Method. The intention of these workouts is probably to deliver good results to their students by being as aerobic as possible, a currently popular approach to fitness. But are their students missing out on the body-changing benefits to be gained from stretching?

Leg extension machineSports scientists have researched this subject over the past few years, and they’ve come up with some surprising findings. Three years ago for example, one team of researchers set up an experiment to find out if stretching strengthens muscles. They recruited 16 men and 16 women, all college students in Hawaii’s Brigham Young University. The authors of the study, (Kokkones, Nelson, Tarawhiti, Buckingham and Winchester) divided the 32 students into two groups that matched as much as possible in athletic ability. The members of the first group trained on three different exercise machines for the legs three days a week for eight weeks. The members of the second group did exactly the same routine three days a week for eight weeks. The only difference was that the second group also stretched twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.

After the eight weeks, the researchers tested their subjects’ performance on the three exercise machines. The members of the first group – those who’d only strength trained — improved their performance an average of 11.6% on each machine. Those in the second group, who’d also stretched twice a week, boosted their performance on the machines more than twice as much, to an average of 24.6%.

Why did the stretching substantially improve the performance of the second group?  The researchers said that, as other studies have found, “placing a muscle on stretch can induce Z-line ruptures and increase protein synthesis and growth factor production.”

I was fascinated to learn that stretching causes “Z-line ruptures” because that’s also how strengthening works. When you do a “strength” move such as lifting a weight, you cause tiny muscle tears that stimulate your muscle to build denser and stronger fiber as it repairs itself. Passive stretching, it turns out, causes the same kind of tears by pulling on muscles, while at the same time strengthening the stabilizer muscles that are maintaining the pose. No wonder I’m often out of breath after a stretch sequence!

Stretch at bar sideWith this research in mind, consider what’s happening to your body during the Bar Method’s “stretch at the bar.” When you place your leg on the bar, you can now credit the source of the burning sensation you feel to tiny ruptures in your hamstring muscle fibers, similar to those that occur from strengthening. When you turn your body to the side for the “waist stretch,” your obliques, triceps and back muscles are also being toned as you stretch them. Meanwhile, the heat generated by this work is serving to get your muscles warmed and limbered up for the thigh-work to follow. Last but not least, you feel extra satisfaction knowing that your muscles are doing more than just taking a break during this stretch!

The many research studies recently carried out on stretching have found that it has a lot of other benefits besides making you stronger. Here are highlights from three of the studies that focused especially on stretching’s power to enhance your appearance.

Improved coordination

StabilometerResearchers did a study to find out if stretching makes people more coordinated. They put forty-two college students on a “stabilometer,” which challenges the user to keep his/her balance while standing on it. The students who stretched before standing on the stabilometer significantly improved their balance, by 11.4%. Why? The researchers speculated that “stretching improved maintenance of balance perhaps by helping the subjects to eliminate the gross muscle contractions … and to replace them with fine muscle contractions.” In other words, stretching makes people less “klutzy” by reducing unintentionally jerky movements, thus enabling them to move more smoothly and efficiently.

A leaner body

Katelin kneeling seat stretchResearchers tested stretching’s ability to reduce blood sugar. Twenty-two subjects drank a large glass of juice. A half an hour later they either stretched for 40 minutes or did a “mock stretching regime” (not really stretching). Afterwards the researchers measured everyone’s blood sugar. They found that the group that stretched had “a significantly greater drop in blood glucose.” High blood sugar stimulates our bodies to convert the sugar into fat. Stretching, it turns out, metabolizes blood sugar, thereby preventing it from being stored as fat.

Beautiful posture

Finally, I want to mention the long-established connection between stretching and good posture. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain a proper posture.” Stretching gives these muscles greater range of motion, enabling our bodies to stand up straight and move with more elegance, confidence and grace.

ShannonAll this evidence shows that the Bar Method’s stretches are not merely elongating students’ muscles. They’re playing a significant role in changing their bodies. Shannon Albarelli, who co-owns a Bar Method studio in Montclair, New Jersey, noticed this difference after she took another barre fitness during her last four years in college. “I liked the class I took in college,” she told me, “but I it was only after I moved to New Jersey and started taking the Bar Method that my body changed.”

HEALING AFTER LOSS, ONE STUDENT’S STORY

Elyse ArringtonHow does someone begin to heal from a broken heart? Elyse Arrington learned the hard way when a personal tragedy struck her last year. Elyse grew up in Salt Lake City and came New York City to study at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She became a Bar Method student three and a half years ago, taking classes both in her hometown and in New York. She was engaged to be married and about to begin her teaching career when suddenly her focus change. Recovering from loss, she realized, would be a process, and it called for her to find a safe haven where her spirit could gradually reconstruct its place in the world. Elyse found such a place at the Bar Method. A few months ago, she wrote her Bar Method teachers at the New York Soho studio this thank you note:

“There is a certain kind of comfort in conformity. Not conformity in the mindless joining of the masses in prescribed rituals, but in routine, structure, and systematic movement. 
That’s where the classes come in. 
It was just over a year ago that I lost him; very sudden, without foresight or warning because, I guess, how can one be given warning of accidents and high rooftops with great views. It was just over a year ago that I fell out of pace with the rest of the world. I lost my footing in a once secure hold of love, life, and hope. 
It’s hard to survive these things living in a swelling metropolis like New York City, where you are literally a face in a sea and a name on a class roster. And yet, everyone does it, every day—unbeknown to anyone else. It is a constant struggle to feel important, like what happens in your life matters, to see yourself as an individual, and try to build and grow connections with those other faces in the sea. Elyse ArringtonSo, back to the classes.
 I realized this the other day while sitting during round-back: here is a room full of beautiful women. I do not know their names, their jobs, or where they are from and they do not know me. I know nothing about them, other than the fact that we all chose to come to class on this particular day, at this particular time and that we are now connected by doing the same structured movement at the same time, systematically. And sitting there, knowing nothing of these women, I felt joined to them in spirit, physical exertion and intent. And that was pretty powerful.
In that moment I realized the comfort that being in these classes has brought me. 
After my fiancé died, everybody rationalized my devotion to BM as my attempt to “work out my pain and grief,” burn it off in the form of calories I suppose. But I realized that it was more than mere endorphins and sweat. Yes, that was part of it I’m sure, but it was the combination of all that along with a routine and structure that had been familiar to me over the past 3 years and had stayed the same across the country, as I moved from Utah back to New York. And in practicing that routine collectively, unspoken and relatively unacknowledged connections, social synapses, were being formed. When the majority of my life had shifted out of the realm of familiar and comfortable, and everything else had been tainted with the bitterness of grief, coming to class became one of the only places that offered me something concrete to hold on to—a bar perhaps? It was something I could count on and one place where conforming to class routines brought me comfort. 
This message is not intended as an over-revealing story, but a great ‘thank you’ for being fabulous teachers and an overall great studio. 

See you in class—”

Today, Elyse teaches 9th grade English language arts at a public school in the Bronx.

Thank you, Elyse, for sharing your story with all of us!

TWO SURPRISING NEW DISCOVERIES ABOUT EXERCISE

Comparisons of quadsTwo amazing research studies published over the past year have challenged some major scientific assumption about exercise. Both studies found that regular, intense exercise has much more potential than previously thought to give us strong, lean and slender bodies all our lives.

The first study, printed by The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal last November, looked at 40 “master athletes” (20 men and 20 women) whose ages ranged from the 40 to 81 years, all of whom trained intensely 4 to 6 times a week. The authors of the study wanted to investigate whether the ill effects of aging – “loss of muscle mass and strength, resulting in falls, functional decline, and the subjective feeling of weakness” – are due to muscle aging or to muscle disuse. Their 40 subjects endured a series of strength tests and had MRIs made of their quads (as shown). Their findings were astonishing. At age 60, the master athletes lost a small amount of strength and mass. After that, they lost no strength and no muscle mass. The outcome of their work, in the authors’ words, “contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging.”

Experiment using electrodesThe second study, this one investigating the effect of exercise on appetite, was published in February by the Journal of Applied Physiology and covered later by the New York Times. The authors of the study wanted to know if exercise increases or decreases appetite and if so, whether it influences the types of foods people crave. For their subjects they recruited 30 fit male and female athletes in their 20s, all students at California Polytechnic. The researchers told half of them to work out strenuously for an hour and half to sit for an hour. Then they attached electrodes to the volunteers’ heads (I love when scientists do this) and showed them photos of different kinds of foods. As the subjects looked at the photos, the scientists noted how much their brains’ “food-reward systems” lit up. Here’s what they found: “In the volunteers who’d been sitting for an hour,” the New York Times reported, “the food-reward system lit up, especially when they sighted high-fat, sugary items. But if they had worked out for an hour first, those same people displayed much less interest in food, according to their brain scans.” The researchers switched the roles of the two groups of volunteers got the same results.

But does exercise have the same appetite-suppressing effect on sedentary people? Not as much, according to another similar study using electrodes done on 34 overweight

christine binnendyk for 9-12 smaller1subjects. Exercise did lower the appetites of 20 of the volunteers, and they lost an average of 11 pounds each. The remaining 14 members of the group were not as fortunate. Their brains’ food-reward networks, as the New York Times put it, “lit up riotously after exercise at the sight of food.” “It’s likely that, in order to achieve weight loss and weight maintenance,” concludes the leader of the Cal-Poly study Todd A. Hagobian, “you need to do a fair amount of exercise and do it often.”

Bar Method student Christine Binnendyk learned this from personal experience. “Funny how I can be ravenous for a big lunch on less physical days, yet a light lunch entirely satisfied me on more active days,” she wrote me.  “The longer I live, the better I become at hearing what my body is telling me.”

Where does this new research leave the millions of the sedentary people in the world today? Will it make any real difference going forward in how much people exercise?  Next month: some good news on this front.