Posts

The Secret Behind The Bar Method’s High Quality Classes

Kristen Williams edit

Kristen

Samantha Elizabeth edit 2

Samantha

Bar Method studios have grown to more than 90 in number, and the quality of our classes, to hear it from our students, remains as high as ever.  “I can always count on getting a great workout no matter who is teaching,” Samantha, a DC student, posted on our Facebook page. Fresno student Kristen told us in her post: “I’m in love with the concepts of bar method, also, the high standards that each location and instructor is held to.”

How does The Bar Method manage to keep growing and keep our teachers at the top of their game? We begin with a comprehensive training program, but our focus on quality really kicks in after our teachers begin teaching. That’s when The Bar Method’s unique evaluation and coaching system comes into play.

We developed our evaluation system five years ago when our family of studios was still small. I would travel around to watch classes and noticed something interesting. When left alone, teachers usually got better at some things, such as confidence and “flow.”  At the same time, even our talented and dedicated teachers could actually get worse at other things, that is, unless Sharon evaluating editthey received regular feedback. One special challenge exercise teachers face is that they must repeat similar instructions class after class. Over time, that good bit of verbiage gets put on automatic, and teachers can stop hearing everything they’re saying. On top of this, they could develop “tics,” phrases unconsciously said over and over such as “that’s it,” “great job” and “good!” Teachers could also develop blind spots in their teaching. One example is getting into the habit of never looking at a certain part of the room. Any student who happened to be standing there was therefore not getting noticed. This slippage is not the teachers’ fault! All of us need guidance in order to stay alert and focused. What’s more, I was happy to see that feedback could play a positive role as well. Constructive guidance helped teachers to deepen their understanding of the technique, hone their flow, sharpen their observation, and become more creative motivators. This last component of growth gave teachers an exciting opportunity to become masters of their craft.

Jen and Sharon at meeting Aug 14 2015 edit

Master trainer Jen Hertsenberg and Sharon

To these ends, every year, The Bar Method now sends a team of national evaluators to every studio to evaluate/coach, and give guidance to each one of our approximately 1000 teachers. Even though I founded The Bar Method, I’m evaluated the same as any teacher (and get just as nervous beforehand!). All of us get a score that is an average of what we receive on a list of skills. Those skills include how well we present the exercises, how well we connect to our students and help them with their form, how motivating and supportive we are, how fun and challenging our choreograph is, and how well we use the music.

Sharon Sabrina Lauren edit

Sabrina, Lauren and Sharon

As you might think, the evaluation process can be nerve-racking to studio owners, but they love the results. “We find evaluations an integral part of success,” says Atlanta studio owner Melissa White, adding that “We were all nervous. At the same time, as a studio, we came out better teachers.” Sarah Kuzniar, who co-owns three Boston-area studios, values the Bar Method’s evaluation system because it validates the feedback she gives her own teachers. “You guys reinforce what we’ve been telling them,” she says. ”To hear it from the outside is helpful.”

I want to say a last word about our 15 intrepid evaluators led by our VP of Teacher Development Sharon Demko and her team members, Sabrina Porter and Lauren Ford. Sharon and her evaluators go to great lengths to assure that every Bar Method teacher receives a thorough and supportive evaluation. They take red-eyes, fight through snow and traffic to show up at 6 am classes, watch teachers all day, then spend more time writing up their evaluations, coaching and giving guidance. Their work is the secret sauce that keeps our classes top-notch. Thank you, guys!

The Bar Method Myths

As a former business reporter, I have tremendous respect and admiration for journalists. Their stories help guide our life decisions. At the same time, journalists have a responsibility to report the truth since their stories can impact the subjects themselves for the better or worse. Journalists realize this and for the most part do their best to get their stories right.

In the case of The Bar Method, the press has mostly gotten it right, for which I am grateful. Occasionally they don’t, despite their good intentions. Reporters may have come at the story with pre-conceived notions, put style over substance in an effort to entertain, or downplayed the facts to make a personal point. The following three articles are examples of these journalistic pitfalls. All three were recently published and cover a subject I’m especially familiar with, The Bar Method.

Pitfall #1. The Whirlwind Tour

Rozalynn FrazierThe quick tour of many different workouts is a popular story format for exercise reporters. In this scenario, the writer takes one class each at different studios or gyms, then reports on her or his personal impressions. The drawback of this approach is that these reporters usually aren’t fans of the workouts themselves, making it unlikely that they’ll gain any insight on their potential value to their readers.

This is the case with an article written by Huffington Post’s Rozalynn Frazier called “Are Barre Classes Worth The Buzz?” Rozalynn, a long-distance runner, took one class each at five different barre-based workouts. I applaud Frazier’s spirit in taking on this challenging assignment. However, taking a single class at five barre studios is about as useful as attending orientation day at a five colleges to determine the calibre of knowledge their graduates will acquire. Barre fitness classes in particular do not lend themselves to casual “toe in the water” testing. The moves are subtle, the techniques demand some dedication, and the results are huge. A beginner such as Frazier could not possibly have learned from a single class how greatly that class changes its students’ bodies, posture and well being. Nor could Frazier have noticed whether or not each studio she visited keeps track of its students’ progress and supports them over time. What’s more, Frazier is unlikely to have nailed the proper form of the exercises herself on her first try and so probably didn’t feel much happening to her own body.

In the end, Frazier could only come up with one random comment about the Bar Method (beyond what she’d already read on our website). “I was surprised,” she wrote, “given the name, at how little time we spent at the bar.” Frazier completely missed The Bar Method’s most distinctive features: the efficiency of its workout, its exceptional focus on posture and athleticism, and its unique interactive learning environment in which teachers give their students in-class coaching and support. Nothing in Frazier’s investigation touched on these benefits because she could not have discovered them within a “whirlwind tour” format.

Pitfall #2. The Personal Axe to Grind

The New Journalism became popular in the 60s when authors such as Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer shifted to a more personalized style of reporting. Today, exercise reporters are using this subjective writing style to better connect with their readers’ feelings of vulnerability when it comes to working out. The downside of this strategy is that the writers can allow their emotions to dictate the content of the story, to the detriment of the truth.

Why I quit the Bar MethodThis is what happened with Sadie Chanlett-Avery, author of an article called, “Why I Quit The Bar Method.” Chanlett-Avery has a masters degree in holistic health. At the start of her article she stated that she would use her barre-fitness experience as “my personal study of fitness and female body image.” This author’s effort to turn her workout story into a statement on women’s self-image was probably what led her to bend the truth to fit her arguments.

Sadie chanlett-avery photoFirst of all, Chanlett-Avery did not quit The Bar Method, because the workout she attended was not The Bar Method, which does not, as she describes, use “pink dumbbells,” lift weights with palms facing down as illustrated in the photo, use lots of Katy Perry tunes, or use the term “trouble-zones.” I’m sorry to say that Chanlett-Avery’s misstatement of the name of the workout that she “quit” was the first of a number of fallacious statements, for example:

  • “Relying on mirrors actually detracts from our awareness of how we move.” In fact, mirrors are an invaluable tool for improving posture, alignment, coordination, for developing good patterns of motion, keeping joints safe and well-aligned, and for teaching the body how to recruit muscles quickly and accurately.
  • “Isolating muscle groups for ‘toning’ perpetuates the debunked idea of spot reduction.” The truth is that millions of people around the world, including dancers, body builders, gym goers, physical therapy patients, and barre fitness students isolate their muscles to tone them, not to “spot reduce” them.
  • Stretching “is another activity that isn’t supported by current exercise science – muscles have fixed origins and insertions, so their lengths don’t change.” This statement is simply untrue. Regular stretching increases muscle length and range of motion. My own physiology textbook confirms that stretching does indeed “elongate” muscles.

What’s most telling about the underlying bias throughout Chanlett-Avery’s story is her evident distain for the very idea of body toning classes and for the students who take them. In the article she complains that the students of these classes wear “diamond rings” and are “chasing an elusive idea of perfection.” Chanlett-Avery might come to terms with the fact that wearing diamond rings is a common custom among married women everywhere, not a sign of vanity as she implies. She should also know that The Bar Method (perhaps not the class she took) is known for its diversity of students and its supportiveness of individual goals.

At the end of the article, Chanlett-Avery said that she is now a satisfied student at Cross-Fit. I’m glad she found the right exercise class for her.

Pitfall #3. Reliance on fake experts

Amy Rushlow headline with yahoo headerWorst among the fallacious articles on exercise I’ve recently come across is one that uses fake experts to distort the truth, possibly for their own self-interest. This article appeared on “Yahoo Health” and was written by Amy Rushlow, a “certified strength and conditioning specialist.”

Rushlow gets it wrong from the beginning in her title, “Barre Method: What’s True, What’s Hype & How To Stay Injury Free,” Rushlow did not fact-check the name of exercise genre she was writing about. In fact, The Bar Method owns the trademark “Barre Method.” It is a registered spelling of our brand name, not a generic term for barre-based workouts.

Nick Tumminello photoIn her article Rushlow calls on three “experts,” personal trainers Marc Santa Maria, Nick Tumminello, and Eric Beard. Using this threesome of obvious non-experts on barre fitness to back her up, Rushlow explains “the facts behind the hype” about barre fitness, most of which are completely false. Here are four of her most egregious misstatements:

  • “There is absolutely no way to increase a muscle’s length through exercise.” Again, this author’s experts need to consult their physiology textbooks.
  • “Doing these isolated, small-muscle-type movements is not very metabolically demanding.” It’s obvious that Rushlow’s experts have never taken the Bar Method, which is a form of intense interval training that has been proved to burn away plenty of fat.
  • “Many of the repetitive movements found in barre can possibly lead to overuse injuries.” Seriously? Barre classes keep students in one position for one or two minutes at a time. Athletes get repetitive use injuries from highly repetitive activities like running and working in poor form over time. Contrary to these “experts’” warnings, The Bar Method is therapeutic and healthy for the knees and lower back, a benefit that has been confirmed by many doctors and certified physical therapists with whom we’ve worked throughout the years. I am 67 years old, have regularly taken barre fitness for 34 years, and have never had a repetitive use injury from the class. Conversely, many of our students come to us from personal trainers or Cross Fit after having injured their shoulders and backs. True fitness experts know that no workout genre is in itself dangerous unless is it is carelessly taught.
  • Last, and most serious of Rushlow’s misguided statements was her advice to her readers to “Limit yourself to one barre workout per week.” No way would that work, as any Bar Method student will tell you. To achieve results, Bar Method students quickly discover that three-to-five classes a week give them the best results, and tens of thousands of our students take this number of classes a week and feel fantastic, many of them in their 50s, 60s and 70s. This age group discovers that our workout is the only one they’ve found that feels good on their joints and at the same time gives them the challenge, support, results and fulfilling class experience that they want.

Regrettably, when Rushlow’s article came out, it caused anxiety among many Bar Method students. Some of them approached their teachers asking if it was okay to take more than one class a week. Rushlow could have spared our students this unnecessary concern by consulting true experts on her subject, among them sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, and barre fitness teachers themselves.

Numbness: Why Some Students Have This Issue During Exercise

Amanda Cortis small edit little itty bittyLast month, a student named Amanda Cortis emailed me with a problem.  Amanda lives in Massachusetts and has been doing the Bar Method DVD workouts for about three years.  “My arms go numb when I come down to my elbows for lower ab work,” she said. “My forearms and hands get extremely numb.  This happens within 30 seconds and it makes it hard for me to get the best workout on that section.”

It turns out that Amanda is not alone! After receiving her email, I sent out a query to the Bar Method teachers at our flagship studio in San Francisco asking if anyone got numb during class. Seven of them emailed me back that, yes, they experience numbness in their arms or legs during certain exercises.

Jen lat pulls 2 small

Jen doing “lat pulls”

Sharon with fox ears edit small

Sharon in “fox ears”

Christine and Allyson both have Amanda’s issue: Their arms tend to get numb during kickstand curl (see below). Jen, a master teacher,trainer and evaluator, gets numb in her left arm when she does “lat pulls.” Sharon, our company’s Director of Training and Evaluations, has had several shoulder surgeries and gets “numbness and tingling,” when she lifts her arm above her shoulders, for example during the “high curl fox ears” position.

Melissa in arabesque edit small

Melissa doing “arabesque”

Christine pretzel modification small

Christine doing “pretzel”

As for numbness in the lower body, Melissa loses feeling in her standing leg during “fold-over” and “arabesque,” Rubyanne has to shake out her stand foot during “standing seat”  when it goes to sleep (below), and Christine’s front leg tends to fall asleep during “pretzel.”

Kerissa text somewhat smallerWhat’s behind all this numbness? As luck would have it, one of the teachers who responded to me, Kerissa Smith, is a physical therapist. Kerissa herself occasionally experiences exercise numbness during “fold-over,” and she provided me with a brief explanation for why this annoying problem can happen:

“Unlike muscles,” she explained, “nerves do not like to be stretched. Numbness generally occurs after a nerve has been over stretched, is inflamed, or ulnar nerve and arm photo smallwhen pressure has been applied to it. The ulnar nerve runs superficially below the elbow. When too much pressure is placed on the elbow, numbness occurs (think of hitting your elbow on something, and hurting your “funny bone” – aka your ulnar nerve).” Kerissa added that students like Amanda “may experience numbness during kickstand curl if there was too much pressure placed on the elbows in an over-stretched position.”

Cayce text smallerOur consulting physical therapist Cayce Hurley, who co-owns the Bar Method studio in Dr. Phillips, Florida, agrees. “Numbness during a weight bearing exercise is actually common,” Cayce says. “It could be from a few factors during ‘kickstand curl.’ I would say that the ulnar nerve is stretched or even the nerves in the brachial plexus (see illustration below) due to the position of the shoulders and then the elbows also bent.”

The lower-body nerve most often to blame for leg and foot numbness is the sciatic nerve. In some people, this nerve runs close to or Sciatic-Nerve-Pain-TreatmentThe nervous systemthrough muscles in the rear like the “piriformis” muscle. During exercise this muscle grips and presses on the sciatic nerve, causing the leg or foot below to go to sleep.

Gentle stretching can actually help nerves adjust to treating ranges of motion. Bar Method teacher/physical therapist Tera Roth (she’s pictured on our home page doing “pretzel”) says that her she and her fellow PT’s prescribe what they call “nerve glides” to patients to lengthen and free nerves. “The idea,” she says, “is that nerves can get shortened or they can get stuck in the surrounding soft tissue that they pass through. The exercises are a sequence of movements that stretch the nerves and get them gliding through the tissue. We generally tell people to stop the stretch before they feel the numbness or tingling in the extremity.”

Round-back (me)

Round-back (me)

Tera

Tera

Since round back is a position that really winds up the nervous system, I’ve told clients to lessen the flex in their foot to avoid the numbness but to try to push it a little further everyday and the numbness could resolve.

Kerissa and Cayce offered some recommendations for how Bar Method students can avoid getting numb when they work out. Before I share their advice with you, it’s important for me to mention that numbness might occur for reasons other than temporary pressure on a nerve. If your numbness consistently lasts longer than just a few moments and doesn’t go away shortly after you come out of the position, or if the numbness becomes painful, it could be a symptom of sciatica, spinal stenosis, diabetes, exertional compartment syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome or clogged arteries, all of which call for you to be under a doctor’s care. Besides these potentially serious conditions, experts have attributed numbness to vitamin deficiencies, poor blood flow, dehydration or muscle fatigue.  Long-distance running has its own set of numbness issues caused by loss of blood flow in the hands, fluid leakage into tissue, and pressure on the bottoms of the feet.

Cayce and Kerissa assured me that the kind of numbness most students run into in a strength/stretch class like the Bar Method is not likely to be a sign of these problems.  Here are their suggestions for how to avoid this annoying issue:

Sharon foldover at stallbar 2014 small

Sharon doing “fold-over” holding a lower rung at the “stall-bar”

Arms over the head with elbows bent, from Kerissa:

  • “I would avoid “fox ear” position (arms crossed behind the head) if the numbness occurs all the time. The ulnar nerve is at its end range in this position, and the shoulders are also internally rotated.”  In our teacher Sharon’s case, “given [her] history of surgeries, nerves are most likely being impinged at the shoulder in this position.”
  • Sharon herself has solved her shoulder numbness during “fold-over” by working at the “stall-bar” where she can rest her hands on a low rung.

“Lat pulls,” from Kerissa:

  • “Try lowering weights/ wrists below elbows to decrease pressure. Increase shoulder retraction/ external rotation of shoulder to take pressure off of shoulder joint.”  Our teacher Jen solves her problem by not using weights and not squeeze so intensely.
Rubyanne standing seat 2014 edit small

Rubyanne doing “standing seat”

“Standing seat,” from Kerissa:

  • “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.” “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.”“Fold-over/arabesque”
  • Kerissa herself (being a PT :-)) has resolved her own numbness issue during fold-over by shifting her weight differently. “When the numbness occurs it is usually because my weight is shifted too far posterior over my standing leg/ heel, if I soften the bend in my standing leg.”
Christine kickstand curl modification edit small

Christine doing “kickstand curl” with hands on the mat

“Kickstand curl,” from Cayce:

  • Try to avoid sinking your head down ‘into’ your shoulders.
  • Correct the placement of your elbows to directly under your shoulders.
  • Relax your forearms to avoid the over-stretch at the elbow.
  • As a last resort, place a mini-mat under your elbows to decrease the pressure on them.
  • And fire your abdominals rather than holding yourself up solely with your elbows!
Allyson kickstand curl modification small

Allyson doing “kickstand curl” with extra mat support

A few more suggestions for how to deal with numb arms during kickstand curl from Kerissa:

  • Rest on a black riser mat and mini-mat, a remedy our teacher Allyson (who has low blood pressure) has discovered on her own. “I have ‘solved’ this issue recently,” Allyson told me, “by using 2-3 mats behind me to enable me to lift my elbows.”

“Pretzel:”

  • Our teacher Christine is a scientist by profession and applied her own deductive reasoning to address the problem of her front leg becoming numb during pretzel: “I just have to keep my body a little more upright rather than leaning forward to relieve pressure on the front of my hip.”

If you’ve ever experienced exercise numbness, I hope this blog will help you find a way to avoid it. Remember, you can always consult your teachers, who may experience exercise numbness themselves.

STREAMING 2 COLLAGE

Update on our streaming videos:  Last weekend, we shot five more fun, butt-blasting, Bar Method workouts that will be available to students later this month.  Look on our home page for our Bar Online launch!