Happy New Year From The Bar Method: Best of 2010

2010 was a seminal year for The Bar Method. Twelve new studios opened in the U.S. including locations in Manhattan, St. Louis, Dallas and Miami. In October Vancouver became the first international city to have a Bar Method studio, and in that same month The Bar Method released three new exercise DVDs. To celebrate all this growth, I’d like to honor the blog that received the most views and comments over the past 12 months. By a long shot (almost 9000 views more than the runner up) that blog was MAKING THE DANCER’S BODY DVD, the story of how lead performer Marnie Alton and her amazing team of teachers rose to my challenge and delivered a truly advanced Bar Method home workout.

Happy New Year!
Burr Leonard


marnie altonMarnie Alton not only teaches exercise. She teaches her students to be joyful, to remember that life is magnificent, and to believe wholeheartedly in their own strength and beauty, both outer and inner. This might sound like hyperbole, but it is exactly how she teaches. I can confidently say that — until Marnie moved to England this summer – she was one of the most popular and charismatic teachers not only within the Bar Method but just about anywhere.

Marnie radiates a joyful, no-holds-barred approach to life in her teaching and in everything she does. As an actress, singer, dancer and songwriter, she has lived her dreams. She has acted in around 30 TV shows and movies, played continuing characters in several TV series, and starred in one of them — detective Karen Yamamoto in “Hot Hot Los Angeles.” She has danced professionally, written, published and performed her own songs, and she is happily married to an executive in the entertainment industry. I was thrilled when she accepted my invitation to lead one of the advanced DVD workouts we taped in last month.

When I designed the two new advanced DVD routines, I intended to create “killer” workouts that resembled Bar Method “level 2” studio classes and that were also safe for home users. Leave it to Marnie to out-do my wildest expectations. Since the routine I led, “Super-Sculpting,” featured body-sculpting moves you can do with a ball, the more flowing, dance-like Bar Method variations such as arabesque and second position fell to Marnie. I actually hadn’t noticed how beautiful and athletic her routine was when I first designed it, but Marnie did. By the time I named it “Dancer’s Body,” she had already seized on the concept and made it the theme of her workout.

Dancer Body Performers

Marnie’s team of performers were perfectly cast for an advanced workout with “dance” in the title. All of them have long, lean, graceful bodies and are exceptionally focused, accomplished individuals. Katelin Chesna, shown next to Marnie, is a professional actress, acting coach, comedienne and master Bar Method teacher. Marin Van Vleck, to the left of Katelin, in addition to being an actress and singer, is the owner of a new, soon-to-be-built Bar Method studio in Dallas. Michael Lowery is an absolutely gorgeous, dynamic and sweet master Bar Method teacher who has just transferred to Bar Method New York/Soho so that he can attend graduate school at NYU, and Denise Burchard, shown below, is the talented, brainy and beautiful founding owner of the Portland Bar Method studio.

smallDenise full shot 1 resized 600The shoot schedule slotted Marnie’s workout as third in line to be taped. When her team was on stage and ready to go, I sat behind the row of production TV screens with the crew thinking, “just wait til you see this!” and I wasn’t disappointed. From the first words Marnie spoke, it was obvious that she was completely comfortable in front of a camera. She connected to her virtual students casually and cheerfully with a twinkle in her eye. I was particularly amazed that she was able to simultaneously do the workout and continually reel off gracefully phrased pointers on inner resolve such as, “Our muscles are like clay. They’ll sculpt into any shape you choose. Choose long.”

What most blew our minds was that the workout was so HARD. The production crew had already watched two pretty tough routines, but you could have picked everyone’s jaw up off the floor by Marnie’s second set of thigh-work. Then I remembered, “OMG, the last thigh set is the hardest in this workout!,” and the performers launched into the last amazing moments of the toughest thigh-work routine ever put on tape, all the time with Marnie never breaking her relentlessly joyful connection with the camera.

Adding to the overall dramatic effect were the flexible, balletic grace of the performers, their sweat-soaked, shiny, cut muscles, and their brute determination to hang in there.

“I just had to get into this mental zone,” Marin told me. “It was like a ‘do-or-die’ mindset.”
Denise had a similar experience, “The pressure of two back-to-back, challenging classes with a group of exceptional talent really made me push myself that much further. I surprised myself. My body could do more than my mind thought it could.”

Marnie’s “Dancer’s Body” DVD is just what Bar Method students have been lobbying for: a superlatively challenging workout that will continue to inspire them for years to come.

Thank you Marnie!

Click here to find out more why challenging workouts are so important to make you fit.

How to Achieve Good Posture

I’m eating dinner alone in a little Italian restaurant in Portland after teaching at the brand new Portland Bar Method studio. I notice a young, blond waitress serving some other tables. She’s tall, slender and pretty, only she has a noticeable slump that mars her looks. My usual rant about people’s posture starts to kick in inside my brain, which goes something like “How can people in our country spend billions every year on cosmetics and so little effort on such a major beauty issue?” but I stop myself.

The truth, I realize, is that changing the way you stand and walk gets hardwired into your body from an early age, and changing it is easier said than done. Most of the students I teach understand that their posture is a big factor is how they look and feel, and they’d love to improve it. Many of you, for example, wrote me in response to last week’s blog on posture asking for tips on how to make yours better. Thanks for asking! If you decide to set your mind to making this change, the benefits are huge. You’ll look prettier of course. You’ll also suffer fewer joint issues in your neck, back, hips, knees and ankles, all of which are adversely affected by poor posture. Here are three steps you can take to get started on this project.

The first step is to develop strong “posture” muscles, which is the only way you’ll have a fighting chance of holding onto your new alignment. The Bar Method  – or another well-designed bar class that uses mirrors and focuses on good alignment – is an excellent workout for developing stronger postural muscles because it requires you to stand up straight while you’re working your limbs, which mimics how you move throughout your day. Where are these “posture” muscles? They mainly reside in three places, in your back, in your abdominals and in your rear. Your back muscles, of course, hold your ribs upright. Your abs and glutes work as a team to hold your pelvis in good alignment. Make sure the workout you chose is safe and methodical enough to enable you to concentrate on how you’re standing and moving during the class.

POSTURE CORRECTIONSThe second step is to consciously work on your posture while you’re working out. Your perception of how you stand and the reality of how you really stand can be very different. For that reason, check your form in the mirror often during the standing bar work. Don’t assume that you’re standing up straight. Really look at the lines of your body. Is your head over your shoulders, or do you just assume that it is? Is your rib cage really upright, or does it sag backwards? At the same time, pay attention to any adjustments your teacher gives you. One adjustment you may get is what we teachers call “the shark bite,” which sounds scary but actually feels great, like a little massage. The teacher will place her or his on your upper back and press fingers and thumb inwards. The result is that your upper back will suddenly become straighter.

Your final step is to work on your posture during the day. This part of the process is the most challenging and usually requires that something or someone light a fire under you. The story of one person I know who successfully transformed her posture shows how hard this stage is even when you’re highly motivated. Becky Crabtree is currently a superb Bar Method teacher in Boulder, Colorado. As a teacher trainee, she proved herself to be uncompromisingly good humored and hard working.  Becky was the kind of trainee who went home after every training session and spent hours practicing a skill until she got it right. The one drawback in her teaching was that she tended to carry her head forward of her spine. I’d mentioned this problem to her more than once, as had other Bar Method teachers. Nevertheless, Becky showed little improvement on this front. Then last month, I visited the Boulder studio and took Becky’s class. “Your class was terrific,” I told her afterwards, “but your posture is unacceptable.” Knowing Becky, I wasn’t surprised when she came in the next morning with perfect posture and has held onto it from then on.

good postureLast week Becky emailed me this story about how the transformation in her posture has become an inspiration to her students: “Posture…is a hard thing to correct over night but it can be done,” she wrote. “I wanted to tell you that the other day a student came in after being gone in Africa for a month and she told me after class that she was inspired by my improved posture. She has always had bad posture and to see the difference in me meant she could do it too.” Becky added that she appreciated my feedback. “I guess I wanted to say that you not only affected me but our students as well.”

Read more from Burr on transforming your posture.

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Exercise Classes as Preventative Physical Therapy

Bad habits come in many varieties.   Some have straightforward consequences such as eating too much, exercising too little, being on time only occasionally, and habitually letting parking meters expire.  Other bad habits are sneakier.  They fuse themselves onto you and become invisible until years later when you’re hit with their adverse effect.

The habit of moving your body in deviant patterns – that is, out of alignment with your joints – is one of those sneaky bad habits that can inhabit you for years before you figure out it’s there.  You might acquire these physical “ticks” in childhood, later on as a reaction to stress, or simply by letting your muscles get weak and lazy.  Once these habits latch onto you, they become an invisible facet of your physical personality until for some reason unbeknownst to you, you find yourself with shoulder pain, lower back pain or arthritis in your knees.  Finally the physical therapist you might visit opens your eyes to the fact that your every move is throwing your body off-kilter.

exercise classes as physical therapyThe beauty of The Bar Method as a corrective to these problems is that it is methodical enough to catch many quirky movement patterns before they become injuries. (To read about The Bar Method and specific special conditions, go to Exercise Tips.) An example of such a problem is the “forward head,” an off-kilter stance I often come across while teaching the “seat-work” section of a Bar Method class. This upright seat-work exercise calls for students to stand at the ballet bar with their bodies as vertical and straight as possible.  In this position they lift one leg and press it back against the locked stance held by the rest of the body.   As soon as students begin to feel their muscles working, some typically drop their heads forward and down.

In a scientific study of the hazards of a “forward head posture”, 11 men and 10 women were made to raise their shoulders up and down, some with their heads properly over their shoulders and some with their heads held forward.    The scientists found that moving the shoulders up and down when the subjects were also keeping their heads forward both put stress on the “trapezius” muscle (a major shoulder muscle) and turned off the “serratus anterior” muscle (an important shoulder stabilizer).

This is where Bar Method technique can help.  Because its bar-work exercises last for minutes at a time, the teacher of the class has a chance to gently coach the students whose heads have dropped forward to focus on keeping their heads over their spines. As these bar exercises grow in intensity, students with an especially stubborn tendency to drop their heads forward get additional reminders from the teacher.  The challenging nature of the exercises themselves contributes to the students’ kinetic re-learning process, since once they learn to keep their heads up during excruciating exercise sets, doing so in daily life becomes relatively easy.

The most common movement mistake I run across while teaching involves students’ inability to connect to their gluteal muscles.  In the same Bar Method’s “seat-work” exercise I described earlier, many students not only drop their heads forward but also routinely arch their lower backs when the exercise calls for pressing back with their glutes.  A number of scientific studies have looked at this phenomenon and reported the same tendency among the subjects they observed. Three studies of lower back pain (Nadler et al., Kankaapaa et al, and Leinonen et al.) pointed to weak gluteal muscles, especially in women, as a major cause of their pain.   One of the studies discovered that the subjects who suffered from lower back pain were the same ones who tended not to use their glutes when swinging their legs behind them.  Instead they arched their lower backs.

The Bar Method puts considerable emphasis on correcting this movement error in the students who display it.  Teachers cue their students to “relax your lower back, “keep your hips still and move only your leg,” “feel the contraction in your glutes,” and “pull with your glutes.”  Students then get about four minutes on each leg to mentally and physically work on re-wiring their connection to their lower backs and glutes.  This re-training not only helps many students’ backs feel better. It also goes a long way towards creating gorgeous “bar butt” shape that is distinct feature of Bar Method bodies. To read more about the Bar’s glute work, read Three Secrets Behind Shaping a Bar Butt.

Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.
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The Exercise Studio for Rehabilitation Benefits

For more than a decade the Bar Method Exercise Studio has worked with physical therapists to modify its workout for students nursing injuries. This long-standing practice of collaborating with medical professionals has helped take the Bar Method as close as it can get to being a form of physical therapy.  These experts have helped formulate the exercises to perform as a safe way to rehabilitate injured muscles and joints.  You can of course find many rehabilitative features in a number of exercise systems.  This said,B Bar Method’s exercise classes has been especially methodical in its effort to incorporate every possible rehab benefit into its technique, plus a few more.

• Non-impact strengthening: When you’re injured, you certainly don’t want to jump around during exercise.  Pilates, yoga, gym routines, Tai Chi and many other workouts submit your joints to no impact and are less jarring to injured areas than, let’s say, kick boxing.  The Bar Method is also non-impact but goes farther than other such systems by giving more strength, and in turn more stability, to your recovering muscles.

exercise class curling• Gentle, controlled back stretching: Every year, one half of working Americans suffer from back pain.  Because stiff backs get tweaked more easily than do supple ones, stretching reduces the likelihood that the problem will occur in the first place.  More immediately, stretching can reduce or eliminate ongoing back pain.  The Bar Method Exercise Studio has its origins in rehabilitative back therapy and continues to be geared towards helping students’ backs.  Its deepest back stretches occur late in class when the back is fully warmed up, and it includes less twisting than yoga and Pilates, one reason some yoga students with injuries switch to its more orthopedically-oriented exercise class.

• Core strengthening: One common cause of back pain is core weakness.  Of course Pilates and the gym will blast your core – if by “core” you mean abs alone.  The Bar Method considers the glutes and upper back muscles an inseparable part of your core and works them with equal vigor.  The Bar Method also ties its core training in with body kinetics by working your stabilizer muscles against those in your limbs and by throwing in a few balances just when you’re least expecting them.   These added elements enhance core function by allowing the core to practice “turn itself on” when needed during movement.

• Precision: People often get injured in the first place because their body movement got careless.  Any exercise system worth its salt will address this condition by urging you to perform its exercises with good form.  As you might have gathered by this time, the Bar Method is famous for coaching its students on precise coordination.

• Balance: Being accident-prone is also a result of an out-of-balance musculature. The Bar Method pretty much stands along in its mission to re-activate muscles that have gotten lazy, for example in your rear end and inner thighs.

Exercise classes San Francisco• Alignment: Bad posture can have a corrosive effect that can over time end up as an injury.  One problem with seeking to improve your posture by taking Pilates or by using equipment is that you rarely get to stand upright and work against gravity in those systems.  The Bar Method, of course, keeps you upright and square-shouldered for most of the class, thereby training your body to keep itself that way on into your day.

• Range of Motion exercises: After an injury the first thing to go after is your range of motion.  Muscles that are healing tend to knit themselves more tightly together than before the injury in order to guard against getting re-injured.  It follows that one of the first things physical therapists check their patients for is loss of flexibility.  More than any other physical movement system outside of a clinic, the Bar Method acts gently and methodically to restore range of motion.  Students begin with shoulder work and proceed through each major muscle group, taking their joints from one end of their range to the other.  The exercises themselves help keep joints balanced by alternating between the front and back sides of the body.  This progressive technique gently brings back flexibility and often improves it.

• The Ballet Bar as Rehab Tool: The second aim of physical therapists is usually restore their patients’ kinetic acuity.  Look around a physical therapist’s clinic and you’ll see balance balls and wobble boards.  This and other similar paraphernalia are used by physical therapists to restore patients’ coordination.  In place of such equipment, the Bar Method uses the ballet bar.  The bar’s advantages are that injured students can work on strength while fully stabilized, and they can pace themselves during the balances by using the bar more or less as needed.

• The Modification System: The Bar Method is not one technique but two.  Inside the first one, there’s a whole other set of exercises for students with delicate joints.  Teachers lead both classes at the same time by guiding their injured students through the modifications that have been set up for each exercise.  Don’t worry.  Your condition won’t slip through the cracks.  Bar Method front desk managers ask you about any injuries, then pass this information onto your teacher.  During class you can then choose whether or not you want to take the options your teacher suggests for you.  With this system in place you don’t have to risk overdoing it.  The modifications are there like a good set of training wheels that you can throw off when your muscles are good and ready to go full speed.

How the Ballet Barre Revolutionizes Exercise

At the heart of the Bar Method’s technique, you’ll find, of course, a ballet bar.  The class could not produce its manifold results without it.   The simple act of balancing over gravity as you exercise, for one thing, mimics sports activities more so than does sitting on a bunch of exercise machines.  Studies conducted over the past decade in the UK, the US and Sweden support this idea.  When their subjects trained in free-standing exercise, they had better results than when they sat at machines.  Inspired by these findings, the sports world dubbed its new-found, now fashionable form of fitness “functional exercise.”  As defined by former Olympic coast John Philbin  functional exercise “improve(s) sports performance” by teaching you to “use multiple muscles and joints” and to “stay balanced.”  Add a bar to this concept and you’ve got a way to work simultaneously on balance, coordination and strength.  To put it another way, you’ve got functional exercise on steroids.  In the Bar Method’s thigh-work, for example, students use their thighs, hamstrings, glutes, calves and back muscles all in one exercise.  In flat-back they use their pecs, deltoids, abs, hip-flexors and thighs.   This multi-tasking format changes the body much more quickly than other currently popular exercises.

The bar has many other powers beyond that of making you a better athlete.  Here are six more reasons the bar – or an equivalent horizontal stabilizer  — has the unequaled ability to whip you into shape.

The bar makes it possible to keep your leg muscles working for minutes without a break by prolonging your balance over gravity, during thigh-work, for example. This unbroken holding forces more muscle fibers into service than you get while running — or even in spinning — by never giving the legs a chance to recover.  The result is firm, tight muscle mass, a leaner look and more joint stability.

The bar also works your largest, most calorie-hungry muscles, namely the ones in your thighs, glutes, and hamstrings.  With those babies burning, you’re knocking off a lot of calories and are doing so with impact on your joints.  Pilates by contrast works smaller muscle groups.  In this way bar exercises keep your heart rate up by forcing many muscle groups into service at once unlike conventional weight training.

booty sculptingThe bar’s use in muscle isolations is perhaps what makes the most visible change in your body.  Its lateral stability works like no other exercise tool by giving you a base from which to push hard into specific muscle groups.  During “glute-work” for example, the bar enables you to balance on one leg while keeping the glutes of your other leg contracted for minutes at a time.  Both your legs get worked to the limit, while the rest of your body has to concentrate on holding you upright.

One important and much neglected muscle, the gluteus medius, is so hard to isolate that it probably gets missed in just about every other system.  The gluteus medius gives our bodies lateral stability and also, if toned, an adorable “sexy back.”  The bar is the most effective tool I know to make this stubborn piece of our anatomy sit up and say “Uncle.” When students declare after their first class that, “I just worked muscles I never knew I had,” they’re usually referring to this one.  The bar became the means to this end by enabling these students to lock their hips in place while pressing one leg diagonally upward and outward, as shown above.

Similarly, the bar improves your posture by requiring you to keep your spine vertical while working.  This act seems simple – until you try it. The result is a straighter, sexier carriage and stronger postural muscles (abs, back and seat).

abs workoutAdd to this the bar’s capacity for firing up your aerobic system while strengthening your core.  In an exercise that can only be described as “aerobic abdominals”, students sit under the bar with their backs flat against the wall while they lift their legs off the floor.  (This move requires, by the way, a bar that’s firmly fixed to the wall or an all-inclusive bar.)   Right away they feel their pecs, shoulder muscles, abs, hip-flexors and thighs all engage.  Almost instantly they’re breathing hard and fast to keep all these muscle groups  in play.

Finally, the bar has special appeal to most students because it makes the workout both intense and easy to do. I get emails from all over the country from students thanking me for the intensity of the workout offering in the Bar Method DVDs.

Granted, the bar is a piece of exercise equipment every home should not be without.  But ballet bars have been around for a long time.  How then is the Bar Method different from any other bar-based exercise systems?  Ballet, the NYC Ballet Workout and other bar-based techniques use dance as a foundation for their moves.  The Bar Method instead uses an interval training format.  Though it retains graceful dance elements, the Bar Method has moved away from dance and towards sports training.  Bar Method students who try other bar workouts are often disappointed by their complex choreography and lack of intensity.

What about using a pole a la pole dancing?  Does it make a difference which you use?  Absolutely!  While pole dancing is indeed challenging, the pole itself can never provide the lateral stability needed to isolate muscles.  The bar gives students a three-point base, two on the bar, one of the floor, with which the body still swings free.

By wedding the tough, athletic principles of interval training with the graceful elements of bar-work, the Bar Method has created a powerful hybrid with unique properties of its own.

Click here to read more about the ballet barre and core strengthening exercises.

Click here to find a Bar Method exercise classes near you.

Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.