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.

9 replies
  1. Jon Pipes
    Jon Pipes says:

    Thanks for this very interesting article. It is good to know that someone who is slender and athletic like myself can utilise the exercises recommended for your student Emily. Having two slipped discs myself, this article almost seems tailored for me. Many thanks and long live “the Bar Method”!

  2. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    I’m not sure if this is the right place for my question, but I cannot find anywhere else to post it. I suffer from acid reflux at times, occasionally quite badly. I have heard it is best to avoid doing abs exercises – is this true?

    By the way, I used the dvds a few years ago (I am in the UK and cannot attend classes) and achieved truly marvellous results, and I too was one of those who had always suffered with back pain. The more I did Bar method, the better my back became. Unfortunately I let things slip a while back when life got very hectic, and would now like to get back into it, but have since developed this annoying GORD problem. I would appreciate any advice please.

  3. Josh
    Josh says:

    That’s an awesome technique. Where can I buy a stall-bar? I’m not much into the science of exercise, but your stretching technique makes a lot of sense in general.

  4. nora
    nora says:

    I have pretty severe scoliosis in my thoracic area (with a compensating curve in the lumbar), which also means, in addition to the backwards “S” shape, my upper spine has a tendency toward rotating forward on my left side. I’ve done yoga for years and it helped tremendously with my awareness and posture, but all the instructors at the Bar Method are so precise in their vocal directions and hands-on in their adjustments that just a few months of doing it has really gotten to where it took me years of training in yoga to understand. And they do it all without ever bringing the (very obvious when I’m in any kind of bending postition) curve to the unnecessary attention of the class.

    I’m so grateful and happy to the Bar Method in Summit, NJ for that! The instructors have all been fantastic and I find myself consciously standing straighter even when not in class. (Not to mention I finally have a real butt where I used to be totally flat and non-existent!)

  5. Nancy Myers
    Nancy Myers says:

    I am borderline scoliotic, which means that I probably would have been diagnosed as a child if they had checked for that then.

    At 55, I have a herniated L5 disk which caused two extremely painful bouts of sciatica in 2010. I’d thought that I was just going to have to put up with from time to time, and stocked up on Oxycontin for when it started up and anti-inflammatories to heal it.

    Then I started Bar…

    Not even a whiff of sciatica since. I think what with all the tucking and core work we do, as well as hamstring and glute strengthening, my sciatica has just decided to go bother someone else. Someone who hasn’t heard of Bar.

    Thanks Bar Method!!!

  6. Bar Method Headquarters
    Bar Method Headquarters says:


    Thank you so much for your inspiring and candid post. You truly are a testament to the health benefits of exercise and The Bar Method. Best of luck for future health and fitness.

    Best Regards,
    The Bar Method Headquarters

  7. Beth Padgett
    Beth Padgett says:

    I love The Bar Method !!! I have degenerative disc. L4-L5 were fused in 2001. Always in discomfort, but have learned to deal with it. The workouts and instructors have been a tremendous help. Thank you so much.

  8. A.M.B.
    A.M.B. says:

    Hi! This is A.M. (the 50 year old lady–my new thing this year is to use my initials). Sorry to post this under back but I didn’t see anything about abdomen/diastasis recti on the website? I have d.r. since having my second child in 2004 and the Bar Method is the first set of exercises to help me “get it together.” Since starting to do Bar Method exercises in March 2013, I am now up to doing some of the advanced options, but… I still avoid any unsupported ab work at this point (hope to get there) because I am unable to keep the navel sucked in when my arms are lifted, and the “loaf” pops out. As long as I use my arms or the stretching strap to hold myself up in the “ballroom dancing” posture (I have a long torso and cannot always reach my legs), I can keep my abdomen sucked in. Thoughts?

    • barmethod
      barmethod says:

      Hi, Burr wants you to know that you are doing the right thing by exercising, and your modifications sound right. Our OBGYN consultants are all adamant that exercise is good for diastasis recti. Sharping exhaling while doing ab work makes the exercises even more effective.


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