How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Back Conditions


Yesterday, I met a Bar Method student named Emily Murgatroyd, a slender, athletic student there who owns a green, sustainable event planning company based in Vancouver. I was in that city to teach at the beautiful new Bar Method studio there, and Emily was one of my students. After class, Emily told me that she has two herniated disks. “The recovery process for my back was slow and frustrating,” she told me. “The challenging workouts I used to enjoy caused me pain and while I enjoyed the low impact exercises recommended to me (yoga, Pilates etc.) I really missed the feeling of accomplishment and the ‘high’ I got from strenuous activity. To me it felt like an ‘either/or situation’…In June I was introduced to The Bar Method by a friend and after my first class I knew that I’d be hooked. The combination of low impact yet highly challenging exercises meant that I could enjoy all of the physical and mental benefits of a high intensity workout without any impact whatsoever on my back – or entire body for that matter.”

stall barBy talking to students like Emily over the years, I’ve found that most back pain sufferers who take The Bar Method get relief from their condition, as Emily did. A great deal of back pain is due to strains, sprains and spasms in back muscles caused by stress and muscle tightness. Exercise, especially The Bar Method, helps tremendously with this problem by strengthening students’ cores, stretching the muscles in their backs and legs, and improving their alignment and body mechanics. One group that is especially vulnerable to back issues is made up of people with weak abs and glutes, which are not brought into service when they should be. The result is that the lower back muscles get overused, thereby putting themselves at risk for tweaks. I can pick these students out when they take their first Bar Method classes because they tend lean back during the “seat” exercises, trying to use their back muscles instead of their glutes and hamstrings to move their legs. Eventually these students learn to use their seat-muscles and abs to control the movements of their legs and torso, taking a load of stress off their backs.

I’d like to tell you that all Bar Method students with back pain get better just by taking the class, but when it comes to the back, the situation is not so simple. Our backs, like our knees, are complicated joints with many moving parts, and like knees, can misfire in multiple ways (see my blog on knees posted earlier this month). Depending on the underlying cause, back pain can either respond well to the Bar Method or require students to modify some of the exercises. Here are a few back problems that can fall into this second category:

  • Sciatica is actually a symptom, not a condition in itself. It refers to numbness or tingling in your leg from something pressing on your sciatic nerve. The culprit could be a vertebral disk, a tight muscle or, if you’re pregnant, a baby. Depending on what’s happening at the pressure point, you might need to limit the degree of movement in your back when you exercise.
  • Scoliosis refers to an abnormal curvature of the spine and can cause low back pain. Students with scoliosis might again find it more comfortable to modify some of Bar Method exercises that include back bending.
  • Arthritis, osteoarthritis and bone spurs in the back are caused by degenerated vertebrae. Students who are moderately effected by these conditions usually benefit from the Bar Method’s core work and stretches, but can feel so much sensitivity around the affected areas that they find doing modifications during some of the back stretches more comfortable.

describe the imageIf you suspect you have a back condition that calls for special attention when you take class or use one of the DVDs, you can do the following modifications and still get a great workout: During the stretch at the bar, you can go to a stall-bar and place your leg up on a lower rung. Doing so will lessen the degree of stretching in your upper leg and lower back. See photo at right.

  •  During the “fold-over” version of “seat-work” you can work with a more upright torso, again, so as to minimize the flexion in your hips.
  • During pretzel, a sitting seat exercise, do “standing seat.”
  • describe the image During “round-back,” (shown right) which is taught only in Bar Method studio classes and not on the DVDs, you are welcome to lie down, as illustrated.

Most important of all, if you have back pain, find a way to exercise. More than 80% of Americans will experience severe back pain in their lifetimes, so you are statistically unlikely to escape the experience. Medical research has found that consistent exercise keeps your muscles and joints moving and active in a way that counteracts continued tightening and strains. So if and when you do have an episode, finding a way to exercise is your best bet at a speedy recovery.

Exercise and Evolution: How The Bar Method Exercises Target Back Muscles

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

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

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

back muscles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong Backs

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The Mind-Body Connection, Beauty and The Bar Method

“My tuck is VERY OFF!” a Bar Method student named Katie wrote me yesterday. “I know that if I could really get the tuck down, it would help keep me completely safe and strong…” The “tuck” that Katie is talking about is a Bar Method position that engages students’ core muscles – namely the glutes, abs and upper back – while it allows their lower backs to relax. To “get the tuck”, students like Katie must first get out of the habit of inadvertently contracting their back muscles when they engage their glutes.

Katie is right about the importance of learning good coordination. The way you move, like good posture, plays a big role in how good you look as well as how you feel. Carry yourself gracefully, and you will come across as more confident and attractive. The Bar Method helps you to attain this feature in two ways. First it trains your core muscles to turn on when you need them. (Read CORE STRENGTHENING – FACT AND FUNCTION for more about the core.)  Second – and less common among exercise techniques – it teaches you good coordination, which is your mind/body connection’s ability to choose the best possible muscles to use for each movement, and to relax those you don’t need.

Why do people use unnecessary muscles in the first place? They might do this because the muscle group that is supposed to do the work is weak, so the muscles around it have gotten into the habit of trying to help. Other reasons might be bad movement patterns picked up during childhood, or storing emotional tension in certain muscles.

core strengthening exercisesWhatever the cause, if you haven’t had serious athletic training, you probably unnecessarily use too many muscles at least on occasion. What are the hardest muscles for most Bar Method students to turn off? They’re the ones in the lower back, which is why Katie and so many other students find the tuck position so elusive at first. The reason lower back muscles have so much trouble letting go in general is that our glutes unavoidably spend much of their time resting in chairs and so become weak and, yes, lazy. This reduced strength on the part of our glutes causes our lower back muscles to compensate, but they can’t perform the work our glutes are supposed to do. So students end up arching their backs instead of contracting their seats.  To counteract this phenomenon, Bar Method teachers use an arsenal of training techniques, including visual imagery, gentle hands-on adjustments, frequent reminders, and breathing exercises.

Retraining your muscles to work more efficiently takes patience. You have to actually rewire your brain circuits in some cases so that the your brain doesn’t send the message “contract your lower back and glutes” when you really wanted to simply contract your glutes. The brain’s aptitude to fire specifically called upon muscle groups is what they call good mind/body connection.  This connection is learnable and the results are transformative. Some students take weeks or months; others take years to get the tuck or learn to keep their shoulders down. Here are four tips on how to improve your coordination during class:

1. Look at your form in the mirror. Try to look at yourself without pre-assumptions on what you see.  Try to notice whether or not your back is vertical or on an angle and whether or not your back is arched or straight.

2. Exhale deeply and sharply with each rep. Your diaphragm can get you in better touch with your core muscles if you let it help you. Try puffing out softly through your lips as you work on your form, and you’ll find that your back muscles will tend to release and your ab muscles will start to take over.

3. Ask your teacher for help. She or he will be happy to guide your body into the correct positions.

4. Stay alert during class. Avoid letting your mind wander. When it does, return to your breathing. Your added mental focus can work wonders on your form.

Most of all, be proud that you’ve set out to develop a trained and graceful body. It’s an enormous undertaking that, with patience and persistence, will transform your body.

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Finding and Flattening Your Abs

“I can’t feel my abs!” “When I try to pull in, nothing happens.” “My abs just aren’t changing.” I hear these statements from new students all the time. More than any other muscle group, the abdominals are typically the hardest ones for people to find, work and change. Even when the students’ themselves command their abs to get going, they seem to just sit there. Frustrating!

These people have come up against a maddening feature of our abdominals. They take their own sweet time to respond. In my experience, students’ abs typically take about four times longer than most other muscle groups to gain strength and look tighter. Why are they so slow on the uptake? The main reason is that they’re much thinner than other major muscles groups. You could (hypothetically) hold Arnold Schwarzenegger’s abdominals in one hand, while you could barely lift his quads. Their small mass makes it hard to get your brain around contracting them, especially when they’re weak. There’s not enough muscle fiber to get the job done.

ab workFortunately our abs have a built-in solution to the problem of their puny size. Our deepest abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis (“TA”) and our diaphragm are interconnected. This muscle-to-muscle relationship gives us all the ability to jump-start our abs by doing such things as sneezing, coughing, laughing or exhaling sharply with our diaphragm. Now you know why Bar Method teachers are always telling you to “exhale” as you work your abs.

I remember going through the process of getting my own abs up to speed during my first months as a Lotte Berk Method student in the early 80s. I would be doing the “curl” exercise, and the teacher would tell us, “exhale and pull in.” I would exhale, but my abs would not pull in. Then one day after coming to class regularly for about three months, I suddenly felt them come alive. When I later became a teacher, I noticed that many of my students also needed to concentrate on breathing and pulling in for the same three-month interval before their abs kicked in. Now I can happily reassure my beginning students that there’s nothing wrong with their abdominals. Tighter abs are on their way. Their biggest challenge in the meantime: patience!

Of course if you’re carrying excess intramuscular fat between the layers of your ab muscle, you have some additional work to do. Our bodies burn fat “systemically.” That is, it comes off our body as a whole. You can’t “spot” reduce fat. The best way to shrink your waist is to work your largest, most calorie-hungry muscle groups, specifically those in your upper legs and arms. Your abdominals on the other hand aren’t great calorie burners because they’re so thin, the better to wrap tightly around you.  So The Bar Method places ab work toward the end of its workout. That way, your already reved-up cardio-vascular system will continue to burn away fat as you focus on your breathing and pulling in.

Read more about The Bar Method’s Body Sculpting Secrets.

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Train your Core and Postural Muscles wIth The Bar Method Tuck

core strengthening exerciseThe position that the Bar Method calls “the tuck” is very different from Lotte Berk’s original “tuck.” Lotte invented the exercises the Bar Method is based on in the 1960s. She was a Martha Graham-style dancer, so her “tuck” was taken from modern dance and looked kind of like a sexy slump. One of Lotte’s seat exercises was actually called “the prostitute.” To do “the prostitute,” Lotte’s students held onto the bar with one hand, rounded their shoulders, and raised one leg out to the side. Conversely, the Bar Method tuck position is very close to a “spine-neutral” stance. It’s one of the secrets behind the Bar Method’s signature long, lean look.

More important than making our bodies look better, the Bar Method tuck addresses common posture problems that our cars, couches, computers, TVs and cell phones subject us to.  These gadgets are great, but they free us from the heavy work our bodies are designed for. Without strong back muscles we tend to slump. Without strong ab and glute muscles we tend to let our stomachs tilt forward and our rears tilt back, none of which is not good for our spines.  The Bar Method tuck position recruits all three of these core muscle areas in order to both strengthen and elongate them.

core strengthenerSo how do you do “The Bar Method tuck”? First, you draw your shoulder blades downwards. This action forces two sets of core muscles to turn on, namely your upper back muscles, which protect your shoulders, and your abdominal muscles, which protect your back. You are now holding your upper back a bit straighter than usual, a stance that strengthens your postural muscles.

Next, you relax your lower back. Releasing your lower back muscles is easy once you’ve done the first two steps described above, namely, lifting your chest and engaging your abs. Try this on your own: Stand up and then pull your shoulders down and your abs in. You’ll find that the weight of your rib cage is no longer pressing on your lower back.

The last step in assuming the Bar Method tuck is to grip your glutes, which are also a core muscle group. Your glutes qualify as core muscles because they keep your hips level when you walk and run. Now you’re in the Bar Method tuck, which means you’ve recruited all three core muscle groups: your upper back muscles, your abs and your glutes. Now you’re ready to exercise in a position that:
–protects your spine;
–improves coordination;
–trains and tones your core muscles; and
–gives you great posture.
As a bonus, using the Bar Method tuck will make you a better athlete, since the best athletes really know how to use their core to optimize power and precision.

The Bar Method tuck position has several additional therapeutic benefits. It stretches your hip-flexors (your “psoas/iliacus” muscles), which are connected to your lower spine and upper legs.  When your psoas is tight, so is your lower back. Our chair-oriented life-styles give us a tendency towards tight hip-flexors, and the Bar Method’s tuck position helps to lengthen them. Not to mention that the Bar Method tuck stretches your lower back, which has the same propensity for tightness. Finally, the tuck is great for strengthening your glutes. Because they’re located right under your spines, your glutes play an important role in supporting your lower back.

To be clear, the Bar Method tuck position is a great stance which strengthens lazy core and posture muscles and stretches tight ones when you exercise. It’s not supposed to become your permanent posture. Once you’re done exercising and out into the world, your body will assume its natural stance, only it will now be straighter, leaner looking and more graceful.

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How Flat Back Gives us The Abs of our Dreams

If we could have the abs of our dreams, what are the two top features we would ask for? First, I think most of us would want abs that are flat and firm. Second we’d want our abs to perform well as core muscles, supporting our backs and giving us better coordination.

core strengthening exercisesThe Bar Method’s flat-back exercise is vital to giving us abs with both these attributes. Without it, Bar Method students’ core muscles would neither be as toned nor as well-trained as they are. It’s one of my personal favorite Bar Method exercises because it makes you sweat while it carves just about every muscle on your front side from shoulders to knees.

Our panel of physical therapists – introduced in last week’s blog – have their own reasons for appreciating flat-back. Yesterday Mary Dellenbach, a PT in Fort Collins, CO took my class in the Bar Method studio in Boulder. When I asked Mary about flat-back she told me it “really focuses on your rectus abdominus [the ‘six-pack’ abdominal muscle] which in strengthening assists in proper spinal alignment…preventing and relieving back pain.”  (Read about how the core works in my blog “Core Strengthening, Fact and Function.”)

core strengthening absHeidi Morton, our consulting physical therapist in Summit, New Jersey sees many benefits to be gained from flat-back. “Flat-back really engages everything,” she says. “It establishes ‘the proper underlying core motor pattern.’” Jayme Anderson, our PT advisor in Walnut Creek, likes flat-back because it helps students make the connection between their abs and their breathing patterns. In her words the exercise is a “good position for allowing one to focus on the connection between the abdominals and breathing.”

Julie Bolanos, both a PT and a Bar Method teacher, sees three positive results that her students get from flat-back:
–greater strength in their abs plus many other muscle groups including the anterior upper extremity muscles, posterior muscles (scapular stabilizers/postural muscles), hip flexors, quads, and intrinsic foot muscles,
–better alignment of the knees and shoulders, and
–more endurance and stamina because flat-back produces “cardio bursts similar to interval training…enhancing, fat-burning.”

The fat-burning effect that Julie mentions works so well because flat-back takes place about 40 minutes into class when students are working aerobically (that is, burning a larger portion of fat calories) and because it is so darned challenging. That second half of class is the perfect time to jack up the intensity of the workout for the best results. Students thereby are burning fat off from around the muscles that they sculpted during the bar-work in the first half of class.

For me, flat-back is the exercise that gives the Bar Method its unique rigor. Twenty-eight years ago when I first struggled through that section of the workout, I liked flat-back because of the long, lean shape it gave my legs. Today, I appreciate it for furnishing me with a level of stamina I never imagined I’d have at age 62.

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Core Strengthening and Other Benefits of Signature Bar Method Exercises

In the fall of 2004, Kate Burgess, a marketing executive who lives in Chicago, developed severe back pain. She went the round of doctors and therapists, took anti-inflammatory drugs, tried injections, massages, back braces, chiropractic care and physical therapy. Kate had been athletic before the onset of her back pain. She remembers feeling “so incredibly sad to quit all the sports I was involved in.”

Finally after years of searching for a cure, Kate managed to find some relief from acupuncture. Nonetheless her doctors told her that she would never be able to do a sit-up or a crunch again. She continued to look for solutions anyway and, as she tells it, “decided to give Bar Method a shot.” That was a year ago. Today, Kate says, “I can do things that professionals told me I could/should never do. I am in this ‘better place’ physically (and thus emotionally).”

round backKate shares her positive outcome with hundreds of Bar Method students who came to the technique with back conditions. The reason that Kate and so many other students have benefitted from doing the Bar Method workout is that it was designed with back rehabilitation in mind. Two exercises in particular, “round-back” and “flat-back,” which were reformulated from the Lotte Berk Method original exercises with the help of physical therapists, are highly effective at both rehabbing problem backs and maintaining healthy ones.

What precisely are the benefits of these two exercises?  To get an informed answer I asked four physical therapists, all of whom take the Bar Method – Mary Dellenbach, a PT in Fort Collins, Colorado; Heidi Morton, our consulting PT in Summit, New Jersey; Jayme Anderson, a PT who consults for us in Walnut Creek, California; and Julie Bolanos, who is both a PT and a Bar Method teacher in San Mateo, California.

“Round-back”, says Mary Dellenbach, “assists in proper pelvic alignment” by stretching your hamstrings. “Using your abs while stretching your hamstrings assists in strengthening your core muscles, also key in preventing and relieving back pain.”

Heidi Morton loves “round-back” not only for core strengthening power but also for its ability to align and strengthen knee muscles. As an open chain quadraceps strengthener, in which the feet are off the ground and therefore the body’s weight is not a factor, quad muscles get a chance to work across the knee to evenly contract and lock the quads into place thereby balancing and stabilizing the patella.

Jayme Anderson says that “round-back” helps students learn better use of their abdominals while breathing. “Research is emphasizing the importance of the coordinated interplay between the diaphragm, the pelvic floor muscles and the deep intrinsics, and the abdominal wall. Round-back ”happens to be,” she says, “an effective activator not only of the abdominals but also of the pelvic floor.”

Julie Bolanos sees many benefits from “round-back,” among them:
–stretching of the thoraco-lumbar spinal muscles,
–strengthening of the anterior upper extremity muscles, coupled with co-contraction of posterior muscles,
–strengthening abdominals, hip flexors, quadriceps, gastrocnemii, anterior tibialli, and intrinsic foot muscles,
–endurance and stamina,
–pain-relieving for clients with spinal stenosis, and
–alignment of the patello-femoral joint.

(Read more about how The Bar Method works as preventative physical therapy.)

In answer to those of you who wrote me last week asking about “round-back” and “flat-back,” they are core stabilization exercises that are taught only in the Bar Method studio version and not in the home dvds. The reason we can’t offer them to those of you at home is that they require a securely wall-attached bar, a piece of equipment that most home users don’t have access to. In the future we plan to develop a bar for home use that will work for “round-back” and “flat-back.” Meanwhile both the dvd and studio versions of the workout effectively sculpt and elongate your body. The studio version however does so more efficiently for now since it includes “round-back” and “flat-back”.

NEXT WEEK: Physical therapists talk about the benefits of “flat-back.”

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Body Sculpting’s Top Ten Muscles for Women, Part 2

The worldwide symbol for a woman’s body is the hourglass, an object that evokes the pretty curves created by the female chest, waist and hips. To look great we women undoubtedly need to tone our arms and legs, but we exhibit our most essential feminine beauty around our torsos. That’s why the five top muscles for women to sculpt – the ones that most flatter our body – are there.

Fifth Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Lower Traps
The trapezius, a large muscle on our upper backs, moves our shoulder-blades up, in and down. The problem with having untrained traps is that they react to stress by yanking your shoulders upwards to protect your neck – and who today isn’t stressed out in some way? So unless you work at it, your shoulders are going to lift a lot and aren’t going to press down very much. Women, who are especially stressed out these days, can end up with a foreshortened neck and hunched shoulders. The Bar Method fixes this both by strengthening your lower traps and then requiring you to keep your shoulders down throughout the whole workout. The result is an elongated the neck, an elegant posture, and a sculpted upper back.

Fourth Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The “Six Pack Muscle”
Crunches are not unique to the Bar Method. Fitness-enthusiasts everywhere use them to chisel their abs. Bar Method students, being no exception to this rule, sometimes do more than 100 crunches per class. Even with that many crunches under their belt (so to speak), some female students don’t consider themselves as candidates for six packs, but I assure you that we women are at least in the running for 4-packs if we put our mind into each rep, as Arnold Schwarzenegger once famously said. My favorite mental image to use for crunches is an X ray photo of David Beckham’s “rectus abdominis,” the muscle responsible for his six-pack abs, juxtaposed on top of a portrait of my own abs. Envisioning me with David Beckham’s six-pack makes me laugh (an involuntary abdominal contraction by the way) and keeps my emerging 4-pack coming in strong.

Third Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The “TA” (Traversus Abdominis)
ab workThe “TA” is our deepest abdominal muscle. When it’s strong, it both flattens our stomach and stabilizes our lower spine. The catch is that this quintessentially core muscle is relatively thin and not attached to any bones, so it’s tricky to figure out a way to work it. Running, spinning, most yoga workouts, and even some sculpting classes miss the TA because women – especially those who’ve recently given birth – commonly can’t feel their TA’s, no less work them. The good news is that our TA is connected to our diaphragm, so when we breathe sharply and/or laugh deeply, we’re on our way to toning it. Bar Method students tone their TA’s with the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise. Students anchor themselves against the wall under the bar, exhale and “pull in” sharply, and then lift their legs against the stabilizing force of their core muscles. The TA’s quirky features make it slower to sculpt than other muscles; so if you’re a new student, don’t be discouraged. Give it few months – and hundreds of sharp exhales – and you’ll begin to feel your TA come to life.

Second Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Gluteus Medius
8Burr&CindySeatlight-resized-600The gluteus medius is arguably the cutest muscle in a woman’s body. It forms the top curves of the dancer’s proverbial heart-shaped butt. Like the “TA,” it stabilizes your core – in this case your pelvis – when you walk or stand on one foot, and it raises your leg out to the side. From a visual stand-point, toning the gluteus medius results in some dramatic changes. Your legs seem to start higher on your frame; saddle bags shrink or disappear altogether as your seat tightens, and hollows form in the sides of your seat, making your hips look slimmer. The Bar Method technique includes many exercises to shape the glutes medius, including “pretzel,” “standing seat,” “arabesque,” and “back-dancing.” Why other exercise systems appear to ignore this sexy-looking muscle baffles me. One reason could be the initial fear of bulking up that students encounter when this  particular glute first takes shape (See FITNESS TIPS: WHY YOU JUST MIGHT BULK UP BEFORE YOU SLIM DOWN). Let me reassure you that the ultimate results – a cute, tight butt and slim hips – are well-worth a few months of slightly tighter-fitting pants.

Top Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Gluteus Maximus
I bet you knew this muscle would take top prize. It’s the largest muscle in our bodies, and uniquely human in shape. It embellishes our elegant, upright posture, and in women forms the bottom part of our alluringly-female hour-glass shape. You’d think it would be easy to sculpt since it’s so large. The catch is that it’s lazy. Unless your glutes are already strong, they tend to let other muscles such as the hamstrings do the work. The Bar Method doesn’t let them get away with that. It’s on their case throughout the class, starting with a gentle tuck position during warm-up, proceeding to a stronger tuck during push-ups, then on to a deep tuck during heel lifts, diamond-thigh, “seat-work,” “curl” and “back-dancing.” No wonder the New York Times Style Magazine coined the phrase “the Bar Method butt!”

Find out more about the core in “Core Strengthening, Fact and Function.”

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Core Strengthening, Back Stretching, Posture Enhancing Exercises

“Neutral spine” is a catch phrase in Pilates workouts and indeed it is vital to address the lower back while doing ab work. Several unique structural features of the human body make it important to stretch the lower back and strengthen the upper back in addition to working the stomach muscles.  This maintenance is necessary for our bodies  because humans were built off-kilter (due in part to having evolved from 4-legged animals) in at least three areas (see below). All of these structural features can cause the lower back to become overly tight and cause back pain when the muscles around it aren’t strengthened, stretched and balanced.

core strengthening exercise
The thighs easily swing forward, but they don’t swing back more than an inch or two. This trait plays out in every step we take.  When we walk or run, our lower backs will by necessity arch a little or a lot depending on build.  The Bar Method we addresses this tendency by 1. tightening the abs, 2. lengthening and stretching the lower back, and 3. strengthening the hamstrings and glutes so that our students will tend to use their back-side muscles more and rely less on the meager mobility of their lower backs. Click here to read more about stretching exercises for the lower back.

ab core strengthening
Our structural back muscles (erector spinae) are at work every moment that we’re standing or sitting to keep us vertically aligned and to hold our heads up.  Our abs don’t keep us upright.  The inevitable result is a human tendency to develop tighter back muscles and looser abdominals.  The Bar Method helps correct this by, again, strengthening the abdominals and stretching the back.

good posture
This feature of our anatomy causes people to lean back in order to
keep their heads balanced over their bodies.  Many women with heavy breasts also have a tendency to lean back with their rib cages.  These conditions create excessive arching in the lower back.  A highlight of the Bar Method is that is forces students to hold their backs in good alignment for much of the class: specifically during weight work, heel lifts, thigh work and seat work.

Comprehensive core work should strengthen the abs of course.  However, just as important it should  develop the muscles in the glutes, hamstrings, and around our spines.  In addition, exercises that stretch the back is an essential element of a healthy spine.  The Bar Method class does all of this and promotes good posture at the same time.


Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvd’s.
Click here to find Bar Method exercise classes near you.

Core Strengthening and Sculpting Exercises

The Bar Method, by virtue of its ballet bar, is uniquely equipped for core work. When students hold challenging muscle-building poses at the bar, their bodies have no choice but to call their core muscles into action.

Take glute work, an essential component of core strengthening:
The bar is the Bar Method’s secret “butt kicking” weapon.  Not only are the glutes extremely tough, as I mentioned last week.   There’s also not much range of motion back there, so once you contract your glutes, there’s pretty much nowhere else to go with them. (Contrast this situation with the ability of our thighs on the other side of our bodies to bend.)  Even so, our glutes work most effectively while they’re contracted.

This fact seems self-evident, until you look at how other systems’ design glute work.  Lunges, squats, nautilus machines all bend the body forward at the hips, letting glutes lose their contraction with every rep.  This same “on-off” repetition-oriented formula ends up emulating what our rears do when we walk – turn on and off with every step.  Bottom line, Pilates, nautilus machines, toning workouts, even “buns of steel” DVDs, rarely address the true nature of our glutes.  The result: lots of time spent at the gym without results.

The Bar Method avoids these two pitfalls of glute-strengthening: that is, 1. frequent bending forward at the hips and 2. releases between reps.  Instead, it uses the ballet bar to keep the glutes deeply contracted for minutes at a time.  With the bar’s support, students maintain a sustained double-side glute contraction while
body sculpting glues
 they lift one leg off the floor and hold it there for several minutes at a time.  The weight and power within the backs of both legs are in this way put into service as resistance against gravity and each other.  Looks easy but try it.  After several minutes of keeping the muscles “on” in this way, students often say they’ve discovered “muscles I never knew I had.”

While the glutes are on fire, the ballet bar is making multiple demands on students’ other core muscles.  Abs are hard at work holding students’ hips upright from the front.  Back muscles are stabilizing their spines as shoulders and arms use the bar to maintain balance.  Even upper torso muscles put their weight by helping grip the bar.  In contrast, seatwork in Pilates is often performed lying down, so that some posture muscles are not in play.

Finally, bar-work helps stabilize our bodies by strengthening an odd but important muscle located deep within our centers.  It’s called the iliopsoas, and while technically not a core muscle, it plays a key role in keeping us vertical.  When our iliopsoas, or more simply “psoas”, is strong and flexible, we stand straighter; our abs look flatter and our legs appear longer.  The reason many exercise routines miss the psoas is that it’s so deep inside us that you can’t really see, and you certainly can’t “shape” it visibly.  Not the Bar Method.  When students comment on how straight the Bar Method workout makes them feel, the reason is, in part, their stronger, longer and more functional “psoas”.

abs sculptTo the left you can see a Bar Method exercise that uses the bar to strengthen and stretch the psoas, while at the same time it tones the muscles directly above them, namely the abs. Again, because this exercise is performed at the bar, it’s simultaneously training your abdominal muscles to “turn on” when those in those in your hips, legs and torso need them.   Conversely, ab work in a lying down position, or on machines, is less effective for being less integrated with the rest of you.  So unless your workout gives you ample practice coordinating your limbs with your core, your abs could be strong, but you could still be missing out on the payoff during performance.

With its approach to bar-based exercise, The Bar Method restores core muscle function to its rightful place in bodily movement: a dynamic base from which the four limbs perform.  From beginning to end the Bar Method workout pits the chest against the abs, the legs against the abs, the arms against the abs again and again until the abs learn to turn themselves on for every motion the body makes.