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My Hawaii Scrapbook

Honolulu Elaina at front desk 2015 edit

Elaina

The Bar Method opened in Honolulu in January 2015, our first studio in Hawaii. I visit every new studio, and I was especially looking forward to this trip. Elaina Olson is like my sister. Her office was next to mine for three years when she was working as our company’s Manager of Franchise Development, always dreaming about opening her own studio as she helped others open theirs. Finally, at the age of 27, she made her dream come true by opening a Bar Method studio in the heart of Honolulu. Besides being thrilled for Elaina, I was secretly thrilled for myself. I’d never been to Hawaii, and this was my chance!

My husband Michael and I saw a further opportunity in my assignment. Every year, we take a vacation in July, and by combining my trip with our vacation, we could see a part of the country we weren’t familiar with.

My first two days in Hawaii were visiting Elaina in Honolulu, and I had a blast. Her studio’s informal, beachy vibe drained the stress out of me, and like Honolulu itself, her students immediately won me over. They placed “leis” around my neck, taught me to give the “shaka” hand greeting, and had me throwing balls in the air with them. I left considering them life-long friends.

Honolulu Burr teaching July 2015 crop edit

Teaching class in Honolulu

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Leis and “shakas”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Throwing balls

Vacation was next! I took a tiny turbo prop to Maui and met my husband at the airport. We got a room with a great view.

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The view from our room

Michael turned 65 when we were there, and I took him out to dinner to celebrate.

Lelanie's Maui July 2015 edit

Wining and dining him again

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Dinner on Michael’s 65th birthday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the beach, Michael shed his T-shirt to show off his results from his 4-day-a-week Bar Method and Bar Move routine. Meanwhile, I tried to lounge by the pool and learned that it is not my thing. I don’t like to sit still unless I have to, and the time and effort to apply sunscreen on all the places that are usually covered by clothes was, well, not my thing.

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Michael showing off his Bar Method six pack

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Trying unsuccessfully to sit still

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parasailing we loved!

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Parasailing

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Being dunked!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were surfers all over the place in Maui. Being 68, I opted for splashing in the waves.

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Maui Burr in waves 7 edit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last day I started missing my dog (a pomeranian). Fortunately, there was a swan at the hotel who loves treats and wagged its tail when I offered it some.  Ahhh.

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Back to San Francisco in first class, a gift from my husband.

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Aloha!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Neglected Muscle During Exercise: The Serratus Anterior

Bad form pushups edit flipped

Not engaging the serratus anterior

If you take exercise classes, you’ve probably heard teachers say, “retract your rhomboids” and “engage your lower traps” when you’re doing weight-work. Rarely however do they prompt you to “contract your ‘serratus anterior,’” another set of muscles that are essential to good shoulder positioning. Why don’t teachers pay more attention to the serratus anterior? It’s not that students don’t need help with this set of muscles. They do! In my 24 years of teaching exercise, I’ve seen students struggle with recruiting their serratus anteriors more than they do any other hard-to-reach muscles, particularly during pushups.

One reason the serratus anterior may go missing in exercise instruction is that the darned name is simply a mouthful to say. The “Latissimus Dorsi” and the “Trapezius” abbreviate into friendly sounding nicknames: the “lats” and the “traps.” Not so for the seven-syllable, difficult-to-shorten “serratus anterior.” Then there’s the scary image conjured up by to the fact that this muscle was named after the sharp teeth of a saw!

Denise pushups straight arms 1 edit arrow smallWhatever the cause, it’s too bad! You really do need to pay attention to your serratus anterior. Without a well-functioning set of them, you will have a hard time moving your arms in certain directions, you will have an increased likelihood of neck and back pain, you could be on your way to an injury, and (if it’s relevant) you will have an abysmal right hook.

Now that I’ve got you worried (at least a little bit), I want to give you a basic rundown on where this muscle is on your body and how it works.serratus-side-view edit small The serratus anterior is a large muscle that wraps around the outsides of your rib cage like long-taloned claws and attaches underneath your shoulder blades at their inner rims. When your serratus anteriors are doing their job, they help your arms move in the following ways:

  1. They “protract” your shoulder blades. That is, they draw your shoulder blades away from each other towards the front of your ribcage and lock them there. Your arms are thereby rolled forward like a canon and locked into action mode. If your serratus anteriors fail to do this, your shoulder blades will ricochet right back into your body after you punch or push, greatly decreasing the power and effectiveness of your effort – and possibly tweaking your shoulders. rhomboids and serratus anterior text 2 smallThis is the situation during pushups if you don’t engage these muscles!
  2. They work as a team with your rhomboids to keep your shoulder blades in place, one kicking in when your arms are being pulled forward and the other taking over when your arms are being pushed back. For example, when you hold weights out in front of you, your rhomboids engage to keep your shoulder blades from flying apart. When you’re pushing against something, the floor for example, your serratus anterior takes over to keep your shoulder blades from collapsing inwards. Finally, when you want to keep your shoulder blades down, the two muscles join forces, for example, during reverse pushups.
  3. They play a major role in your basic ability to raise your arms above shoulder height. When you want to raise your arms, your serratus anteriors on each side tilt your shoulder blades upwards at their outer edges. This maneuver effectively points your shoulder joints more upwards so that your arms can move around freely at a higher range. Your lower trapezius helps with this process as well.
    Misty Copeland's back muscles

    Misty Copeland

    If your serratus anteriors don’t turn on to perform this rotation, you will have to raise your shoulder blades towards your ears, possibly resulting in impingement and a rotator cuff tear. Dancers have fantastic serratus anteriors as evidenced by the graceful lift of their elbows and long necks when their arms rise overhead.

  4. The serratus anterior has many other protective features.
    1. It prevents “winging” of your shoulders blades, which result in a less stable shoulder.
    2. It protects against neck pain by enabling your arms to move in a large range without compressing your neck.
  5. Last but not least, the serratus anterior helps you hold good posture! “When firing properly,” says physical therapist and Bar Method teacher Kerissa Smith, “the serratus anterior anchors and stabilizes the shoulder blade/scapula, aiding in an open chest and lifted posture.”
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Protractions

Are there ways to fix a lazy serratus anterior? Yes! First, you can do a few simple exercises at home that can get your serratus anterior into gear.

  1. Do shoulder blade protractions. Lean against a wall and press the backs of your palms and your elbows against it. Then slide your shoulder blades forward (away from each other) – keep them down as well – and hold.  This exercise is a great way to rev up for the added weight your serratus anterior will be dealing with during pushups.
  2. Serratus anterior exercises in pushup position

    Scapular pushups

    Do scapular pushups. Assume a pushup position. Keep your arms straight and carefully slide your shoulder blades inward towards each other, then outwards away from each other. Repeat this action at least ten times. As the website “anabolic minds” explains: “Scapular push ups will isolate the serratus anterior. Make sure that your scapula just protracts, don’t let it ELEVATE.”

  3. Serratus anterior exercises

    Wall exercises for the serratus anterior

    Stand with your back against a wall and inch your arms upward against it in stages, shoulders down. Start with your thumbs touching the wall, and graduate to your elbows pressed as far back as you can manage.

Meanwhile, there are your Bar Method classes: Pushups, plank, rhomboid pulls, arm dancing and oblique punches (a curl exercise) all work your serratus anterior. Dedicate some of your mental focus during class on engaging your serratus properly — that is, keep them down and wide against your ribs — during all these exercises.

See you in pushups.

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Celebrating The Bar Method 3/60 Challenge Winner: Lianne Zhang

Bar Method 3|60 Challenge Winner Lianne ZhangMy last two blogs featured testimonials by two of the three contestants in our San Francisco Marina studio’s annual 3|60 Challenge, Karen Dodge and Ryan Salma. To fill you in if you didn’t read last week’s post, the Challenge pits three beginning Bar Method students against each other for sixty days of class taking and testimonial writing. The contestant who turns out to be best overall new student in terms of attendance, enthusiasm and gains in health wins a month of free classes. The winner this time: the third contestant in the Challenge, Lianne Zhang. “The other two did well,” studio manager Mike Najjar told me. “Lianne won because she was here quite often, and she was so enthusiastic.”

Lianne, 26, is a brand promotion and event strategist who recently moved to San Francisco from New York City. She had worked 70-hour weeks during her four years in New York. Now that she was a San Francisco resident, she was determined to create a more livable pace for herself. “I wanted to embark on a new lifestyle,” she told us, “one ensuring me a good work/life balance – a concept foreign to New Yorkers.”

After a month of classes, Lianne noticed that the Bar Method was doing more than improving her appearance. It was also having a positive impact on the way she was experiencing her new, adventurous life in San Francisco. This is how she describes the differences she felt in her body during her travels around San Francisco week four into the Challenge:

SF MARINA 3|60 BLOG: LIANNE WEEK #4

Lianne ZhangI can’t believe four weeks have flown by. As I notice differences not only in my lifestyle choices but my body- I’m also noticing how useful Bar Method technique is to my everyday life.

Here’s a little guide to how Bar Method has improved this recent transplant’s daily life in SF:

1) It absolutely trains you for crowded places where hanging off various street fixtures is a necessity in order to gain full view of the event.

For example, I went to the Giants Parade and in the madness, the only available space that offered a decent view of the players’ float was to hang off of these metal gates. Because of the Bar Method, I was able to hang on for a full thirty minutes- it was all the Posey, Lincecum, Huff and Cain I needed to bring myself closer to being a San Franciscan!

2) It helps provide better balance on MUNI buses.

SF MUNIAs a former New Yorker, I tend to ride subways better than buses. In fact I am not a fan of buses. Since I live in lower Pac Heights, I’m forced to take buses anywhere that I can’t walk to. I tend to tumble all over the place as I’m not used to standing on lurching vehicles above ground. However, ever since I started doing Bar Method, I found myself able to use my core muscles to stable myself much better. It sounds silly but it’s been extremely helpful. As for the lady that likes to booty shake at the front aisle of the 22,…no amount of Bar Method will remedy.

3) It strengthens my muscles, allowing me to have the confidence and capabilities to try things I never could try before.

I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing but because I have an embarrassingly low amount of upper body strength, I always put it off for fear of making a fool of myself. However, since I started doing Bar Method, I’ve realized that my arm strength has increased significantly and tonight I am going for my first session! Wish me luck! (Especially after five straight days of Bar Method!)

Congratulations, Lianne, for being our 2010 3|60 Challenge winner!

Burr Leonard

How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Back Conditions

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 About.com 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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Evolution, Work and Working Out, or Why People Need Muscles

Have you ever have ever had a problem with your shoulders, back or knees? Last year, I was giving a talk at the famed destination Spa Rancho La Puerta in Mexico and I asked the members of the audience there that question. Nearly everyone raised their hand. The odds are that you have had some of these issues, too.  Most people suffer discomfort or disability in these areas at some point in their lives.

Why are people prone to having weak knees, bad backs, and unstable shoulder joints? The reason lies in man’s evolutionary journey from four legged creature to human being. The human muscular structure was originally designed to fit a four-legged frame, one we still share with most other mammals. It may seem strange to us that an elephant, a four-legged animal, has two scapula, a sternum, two humerus bones, two ulna bones, two femurs, patellas, tibias and fibulas just as we do.

muscles

You can see in the picture above how many muscles we share with horses including traps, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, glutes, quads and hamstrings. As our bodies evolved, we humans gained arms, hands and bigger brains. These additions provided us with spectacular survival skills but our evolution came at a price.

One significant difference between our anatomy and theirs is that horses and elephants have a limb on each corner of their torso like a table. You probably wouldn’t design a table with two legs leaving the rest of its structure hovering vertically in space. Neither would evolution unless it had a really good reason. Evolution built us the way it did to enable us to have an extraordinary spectrum of survival skills including building dwellings, making clothes and fires, hammering out tools and weapons and then hefting and throwing them, climbing trees and mountains, traveling with our children and possessions on our backs, and chasing down other mammals as well as running from them.

Most mammals have a relatively simply survival strategy. They hunt down their prey, breed and take care of their young. When they’re off work, they sleep. We, on the other hand, survive by keeping busy.  Even with our vulnerable two-legged structure, we evolved to become the best overall athlete of all animals. Other animals can beat us at individual skills like running and strength. We would win the best average of all physical skills combined, and until fairly recently every human alive was an athlete living a life of non-stop, bodily multitasking.  Compared to other animals, we are built to be total physical workaholics and the muscular system that resulted protected our bodies like suits of armor.

Contrast this lifestyle with today’s. Before age one we might be placed in a baby walker. Our parents toted us around in strollers, then in cars. We got to play, but soon we were in school at desks, and after school in front the TV. Later we became transfixed by computers and cell phones. In our youth we participated in sports for a few hours a day give or take. Finally we settled down with American Idol, Facebook, Twitter and texting.

muscle densitySo here we are with a two legged body that has been radically altered to suit this A-type physically active, multitasking creature. The very activities we humans had to perform to enable us to survive also protected our joints and backs by keeping us super-fit. Yet we’ve now multitasked ourselves right out of the need to be active with our bodies. I’m not knocking this amazing achievement. However, the drastic adaptations that evolution made to our bodies left us with a number of physical weaknesses, especially in our shoulders, backs and knees that can only be overcome by building a very strong muscular structure, something that was a natural result of all the survival activities man used to engage in.  (Read WHY BAR METHOD CREATES MUSCLES THAT ARE SUPREMELY FIRM, LEAN AND SHAPELY for more on how Bar Method workouts build muscle.)

The situation today is that we no longer have the high level of fitness – and the muscles that result from it – that was once an inevitable part of our lives. In the next three weeks, I’ll take look at the three parts of our bodies – our shoulders, backs and knees — that are especially vulnerable to injury, and examine how exercise can re-endow these areas with the stability they need.

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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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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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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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