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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.”
Anita protractions 2 July 2015 small crop

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.

Burr Pi pushups 2 July 2015 edit 2 small

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.

How to Make a Great Workout Music Mix

Now that Bar Method classes are online, you can get your workouts in just about anywhere – almost. The exception is when you’re outside, at the beach, camping or traveling where there’s no internet connection, and you really want to maintain your Bar Method muscles by doing some moves on your own. It’s handy at these times to have a music mix on your phone that’s awesome enough to keep you going for up to an hour, preferably a mix made up of your favorite songs. But what if your best-loved songs are too mellow and laid back for working out? How do you identify the ones that will really get your heart-pumping?  Fortunately, there are now some easy-to-use apps that help you put together a reliably energizing mix worthy of a professional DJ. If you’ve ever thought about doing this with the music in your iTunes library, I’d like to share with you an amazing, easy-to-use app that can help you, plus some tricks I’ve learned from decades of making mixes for the Bar Method.

Body Shots mixes for blog textFirst, find any available extended “club” mixes of the songs you love. You might be pleasantly surprised at how often DJs have already done some groundwork for you by creating “danceable” versions of popular songs. If you discover one, download it!

Cadence BPM Tapper

You’re half way there. Next, find out your songs’ “BPM” (beats per minute). According to research studies, the ideal tempo for working out is around 130 BPM, give or take about five BPMs. Most people can’t tell if a song is a suitable tempo for working out, so determining the BPM of your songs will save you from the disappointing experience of trying to exercise to a beat that sounds okay on your computer but that turns out to be too slow or too fast to move your body to. Fortunately, there’s now an amazing app that can easily, almost magically, provide you with this information.  It’s called “Cadence BPM Tapper.” Here’s how to get it and use it:

Go to the Apple store and download Cadence BPM Tapper for $2.99.  Open it and drag it onto your dock at the bottom of your desktop screen (the line of icons representing applications).

Go back to your playlist. At the top of your screen click on “View” on the menu bar. In the “View” drop down, click on the first item, “Show View Options.”  In that window uncheck stuff you don’t need (I always uncheck “rating” and “plays”). Then check “BPM.”

Go back to your playlist and if you need to, drag the remaining columns closer to each other by grabbing the tops of their columns so that you can see the BPM column. You’re ready!

Play one of your songs. As the song is playing, open the BPM Tapper. Put your cursor on the center of the white circle and tap your mouse or space bar to the beat.  Tap on every beat (tap tap tap tap tap) not every other beat. Tap about 10-15 times without pausing. The BPM will appear in the squarish white box next to the white circle. Stop tapping, and click on the white box. Magically, the BPM will appear on your iTunes playlist.

Do this to all your songs. Now you can see if any of your songs are too slow or too fast for you to use for working out. Delete the songs that are slower than about 125 BPM and faster than 140 BPM. Sorry, but in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

Finally, put your songs in ascending order of BPM.  That way, the gradual rise in BPM throughout the class will help spike your energy.

Burr's Playlist

Here’s a workout playlist featuring top artists that I put together today using the BPM tapper. You can recreate it from iTunes, or make your own.  Enjoy! 

 

 

Fun Facts About How Muscles Heal

One benefit you get from doing the Bar Method and other exercise routines that are both intense and safe is that you fortify your body against injury. The strength, flexibility, joint stability and enhanced coordination you gain all reduce the likelihood that you’ll tweak, strain, sprain or break something. Even so, injuries can happen to anybody no matter their level of fitness.  The good news is that your body is equipped with its own EMS service, which rushes to the scene after you’re injured to start putting you back together. You can speed your recovery by knowing something about this healing system, which is the subject of this blog.

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Hoddy team text 6 not as smallFirst though, I want to tell you some exciting news. Last weekend, a group of wonderful Bar Method teachers from around the country taught classes in front of a camera, and these classes will soon be online for you to take wherever you are. With master teacher Kate Grove producing, the teachers rocked! They were challenging, easy to follow and hilarious. Thank you, Bar Method teachers, for helping us take the Bar Method online!

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Returning to how your muscles heal, here are five fun facts about what happens inside you during the healing process that are good to know if you ever find yourself working through a recovery:

First, your body heals in two basic ways, by means of “regeneration” or “repair.”

1: You can actually regenerate parts of yourself to a certain extent.

The Wolverine transformation 2In the movie The Wolverine, Huge Jackman develops mutant super-human healing powers after being doused by radiation from an atomic bomb. His regenerative powers are actually less science fiction than you might think. Our bodies can really do what his did, only not nearly so quickly or on such a large scale. We also share the Wolverine’s reason for being able to regenerate live tissue: Survival! To meet this primordial need, our bodies evolved our two complementary healing systems.

The first healing system, “regeneration,” is in essence the same re-growth technique as the Wolverine’s, namely, by means of tissue regeneration, which works with small injuries (Scientists are working on some day giving us a way for us to regenerate major body parts, but they’re not there yet). One instance of “regeneration” is when you’re sore after exercise and your body knits together the micro-tears in your muscles you sustained by working out intensely. In this case of regeneration, the muscle heals stronger than before (see last month’s blog).

2: Your body’s healing kit also has its own “cement filler.”

Regeneration and repair text smallRepair” is our body’s other healing system. The “repair” system doesn’t generate new tissue. Instead it grows scar tissue to patch up injuries that are too large for us to fix with new cells of the original type. During “repair,” your body sends collagen to the wound and, long story short, your injury fills with scar tissue. (To be accurate, some degree of regeneration happens during most healing, even in “repair” cases.)

3: Scar tissue needs exercise!

Once scar tissue has formed, you’ve Brett Sears text small 2got one more step to take to be thoroughly healed, and it’s called “remodeling.” The reason you need to “remodel” your healing injury is that scar tissue first forms in a disorganized tangle. As physical therapist Brett Sears explains, “Unfortunately, the body does not know exactly how to arrange the collagen cells so that they become healthy tissue” and for that reason, “remodeling scar tissue is a must.”

4. Don’t stay in bed for too long after an injury.

Scar Tissue unremodeled text edit smallSo how do you “remodel” scar tissue? Here’s how you don’t do it: Go to bed for six weeks. The result will be a knot of scar tissue that feels tight, limits your mobility, and puts the injured area at risk for re-injury. If you follow a wiser course and rest only during the acute phase of the injury, then start to regularly move and stretch the area when it begins to feel better, your scar tissue will stretch out and align itself with the neighboring tissue fibers, thereby gaining strength and suppleness.

Physical Therapist Sears gives an example of how you’d heal a hamstring strain:

“Follow the R.I.C.E protocol [Rest Ice Hamstring remodeling text smallCompression Elevation] for a few days,” he says. “After some healing has taken place, gentle stretching of the hamstring muscle is indicated to help ensure that the scar tissue is remodeled properly.”

Physical therapists like Sears are your first responders when it comes to getting started remodeling scar tissue. Down the line however, you’ll need exercise. Wound healing can last a year or longer, and, barring a major recovery, you usually don’t Blakeley text small need to be in physical therapy for as long as a year. Once you’re on the mend and your PT gives you the okay, you can optimize your recovery with a safe and intense exercise program. The Bar Method, for example, has helped countless students rehab after getting hurt. Among them is Seattle Bar Method Blakely, who had gotten injured in college sports and was happy to find an exercise system, she says, “to help strengthen my back and help heal my injuries.”

5. Muscles heal three to five times faster than tendons or ligaments.

Muscles heal fast because they’re rich in blood flow. They’re also rich in nerves, so when you hurt a muscle, it hurts! You may feel bruised, but muscle tissue bounces back well. It’s the tough guy of the group.

Ligaments ACL-Torn2 smallerare the opposite of muscles in these ways. They have much less blood flow and relatively few nerves (the reason they’re colored white in drawings). Ligaments attach bone to bone and help stabilize your joints, if you haven’t injured them too much. People can pop an ACL (“anterior cruciate ligament,” which stabilizes the knee) and they may not even feel it due to the lack of nerves. Then they try to walk! If someone’s badly injured an ACL, it may not come back at all. You can often resolve an ACL injury by strengthening the muscles that extend across your knee so that they replace the stability you lost. In some cases, you may need an operation to fix your ligament tear.

Tendons are another story. In my work as an exercise teacher, I’ve found them to be the problem child of the group. They’re at the ends of your muscles, usually around your joints. They attach muscles to bones, and act kind of like pulleys, moving your bones when the muscle contracts. The problem with tendons is that they have little blood flow and a moderate amount of nerves (like ligaments, they’re also colored white in anatomy illustrations). So they don’t heal well, and when they’re hurt, they really hurt!

Hamstrings text 3This fact may come in handy if you ever find yourself with a case of tendonitis. Consider that it would take you, let’s say, six weeks to heal from a muscle injury of a certain magnitude. That could be up to 30 weeks for a tendon strain! At the Bar Method, some of my students come to class with hamstring tendonitis, and they resist modifying the stretches because they believe their injury will get better by itself. The reality is that these kinds of stubborn tendon issues characteristically need medical intervention. A good doctor or physical therapist can get a student started on a regime of rest, medication and gentle stretching. Then the student needs to modify in class for a while. Modifying basically means not stretching full out but very gently just before the point of pain. If you ever need to do this in class, don’t be shy about it!  Be proud that you know how to enable your muscles to heal.

I hope you found this information as fascinating and fun as I do.  

Regards to all, Burr

 

Fun Facts About How Exercise Changes Your Muscles

Exercise makes us stronger. This we know. But how exactly does exercise make us stronger? It turns out to be a interesting story and not all of it involving dense cellular biology. I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite fun facts about what goes on in your muscles after you exercise. Keep them in mind the next time you’re in the midst of a tough workout, and you may find they give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the experience.

Star Wars action figures smallFirst, I want to tell you about “dark muscle” and “white muscle” fibers. People have both types of these fibers in their muscles in varying proportions according to each individual.

“Dark muscle” fibers are dedicated to keeping us moving indefinitely. They’re called “slow twitch” fiber. You use this endurance-oriented-type fiber when you walk and run long distances. Our neck muscles have a lot of slow twitch fibers so that we can easily hold our head erect all day. Our deep calf muscles also have a lot of them so that we can run around from dawn to dusk if we want to. Look at “slow twitch” fibers through a microscope and they will appear dark. That’s because slow twitch fibers are filled with capillaries, giving them a rich blood flow that is a source of continuing energy (Muscle cells also produce their own energy.)

White and dark muscle fibers smallerBy doing lots of aerobic exercise, and you’ll infuse your slow twitch fibers with even more capillaries. Slow twitch fibers burn lots of calories, but no matter how long you work them, these fibers stay pretty much the same size, so they don’t contribute significantly to sculpting you. Finally, as their name implies, slow twitch fibers have a relatively slow reaction time.

Studies have shown that elite marathoners tend to be genetically endowed with a higher-than-average percentage of slow twitch fibers, while Olympic sprinters have more fibers that give them strength and quickness.

tiffany in thigh 2013 edit lighter text crop small1…Which brings us to the other major type of fiber in your muscles, “fast twitch” or “white muscle.” “Fast twitch” fibers are designed for power and speed. They have has less blood flow, which makes them lighter in color. Fast twitch fibers are what most reshapes your muscles. Do strength training, and these fibers get firmer. Keep training and these fibers will undergo “hypertrophy,” that is, they will get larger. Women’s muscles (fortunately) don’t increase size easily, so women can use heavy weights and still not see a lot of hypertrophy. Whatever sex you are, the manner in which you work out will determine the body shape you achieve. If you use heavy weights with few reps for several months, your “fast twitch” muscle fibers will increase in size. If your routine employs light weights with lots of reps, the result will be muscles that are firm and shapely but not significantly larger. The Bar Method’s practice of performing many reps with light weights produces just enough hypertrophy to sculpt muscles but not bulk them up.

One last note on dark and white fibers: Each of our muscles has a different proportion of “slow twitch” and “fast twitch” cells according to what that muscle does. For example, your hamstrings and arm muscles have a high percentage of fast twitch fibers for power and speed. Your glutes have a lot of both types (one reason they’re so large!)

hypertrophy text edited smallerHere’s how both types of fibers get stronger from exercise: First, working out causes “micro-tears” in your muscle fiber. The torn muscle fibers then heal themselves, building new fiber that is stronger than the old. The more intensely you exercise and the heavier the weights you use, the more micro-tears you’ll create, and the larger your healed “fast twitch” fibers will become (see “hypertrophy” above).

You know you’ve had a good workout when you get “delayed-onset soreness” (DOMS) 24 to 48 hours afterwards. This soreness is caused by your fibers’ healing process, not from lactic acid as has previously been believed.

Cindy ChuThere is a second type of strengthening that happens after exercise. It is less well known but has been found to give women most of the results they get from working out. Exercise physiologists called it “synchronous activation.” What this means is, in effect, improved mind/body coordination. Here’s how it works: An untrained muscle is weak in part because the message it gets from the brain and nerves is disorganized. A student literally does not have the neural connection between her brain and her muscle to perform the action she wants to. She may intend to fire a muscle to move a part of her body, but she can’t recruit enough of that muscle to make it behave. Mark A. W. Andrews, an associate professor of physiology, explains it this way: Exercise, especially when it focuses on form and precision, gives you “the ability to recruit more muscle cells – and thus more power strokes – in a simultaneous manner.” Andrews adds, “This neural adaptation generates significant strength gains with minimal hypertrophy and is responsible for much of the strength gains seen in women and adolescents who exercise.”

The Bar Method workout is especially focused on this fitness component. So the next time you’re doing a Bar Method workout and struggling with your form, take satisfaction in knowing that improving your form is increasing your strength and fitness as well.

best back exercise chartFinal fun fact: Most of your largest and most powerful muscles are on your back side. When you’re working out, pay attention to your back! That side of you houses most of the largest muscles in your body. They include the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in your torso; the triceps, the largest muscle in your arm; and the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle that moves your legs and the most massive muscle in your entire body.

So don’t assume your back has to be “out of sight out of mind.” During exercise try imaging your back in your mind’s eye and feel what’s happening back there. By doing so you’ll use more muscle and burn more calories, not to mention benefit your posture awareness as well.

Ten Tips for Boosting Your Results from The Bar Method, Part 3

My tips last month on how to get the most out of the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise brought in a large number of comments and questions about this challenging exercise. Two of these emails brought up some interesting points that I’ll share with you later in this blog.

But first, here are tips #9 and #10 for boosting your results from the Bar Method, which are for the workout’s last two exercises, “back-dancing” and “final stretch.” Both of these sections are considerably less intense than those you do earlier in class, and might burn fewer calories than for example “thigh-work,” but they both have the power to make a major contribution to the way you look, move and feel.

tango dancersTip #9: Find your inner dancer during “back-dancing.”

Back-dancing teaches your body to move like a dancer. The next time you watch a ballroom dancing competition, notice how the dancers swing their lower torsos all over the place while keeping their upper torsos elegantly aligned with their partners’. Back-dancing gives you a head start on developing this same graceful fluidity in your torso by allowing you to rest your back on the floor. You can then focus on relaxing your lower back muscles, freeing your glutes and hamstrings to move your hips like a salsa dancer’s. Imagine you’re dancing, and stay with the tempo even when the song is fast. You’ll develop not only more tone in your rear, but also a more expressive and youthful spirit in way you move in general.

Tip #10: Go for the “stretch burn” during the final stretches.

butterfly textDuring the final section of class, give the stretches just enough energy to create a slight burning sensation in the muscles you’re stretching. When you assume the “butterfly stretch” for example, align your shins directly opposite your knees in a “T shape” so that you feel a “stretch burn” in the outsides of your upper legs (the location of your “IT band”). During the “strap stretch,” completely straighten the knee of the leg you’re stretching to fully extend your hamstrings, which reach across final stretch burr crop edit text smallthe back of your knee. The burn you feel when you do find the “edge” of your range of motion for these stretches is a sign that you’re now going beyond simply stretching a muscle. You’re also strengthening it and enhancing its fine motor skills (see my blog: “Stretching Makes You Stronger, And More”). Be mindful, patient and gentle with your body when you stretch. At the same time, supply enough power to the stretches to tap into these additional benefits that stretching can give you. By keeping your focus on gaining benefits from your workout, even in this last part of class, you’ll gain a leaner shape, a more graceful bearing, and control over a greater range of motion. Your back will feel better, you’ll feel more youthful, and you’ll move more effortlessly. Don’t miss out on this last chance to change your body!

diaphragm and taThe first noteworthy comment on last month’s tips was from Lizzie, a knowledgeable reader who pointed out several inaccuracies in my explanations about how flat-back works. “Just to clarify,” she wrote, “the diaphragm contracts on an inhale, not an exhale.” I double-checked this correction with the Bar Method’s medical consultants, Physical Therapists Cayce and Wendy, and they confirmed that Lizzie is right. Our diaphragm relaxes rather than contracts when we exhale. If we exhale forcefully however, our abdominals kick in to press the air out of our lungs by sharply pulling in our belly. The specific ab muscle that is most responsible for this pulling-in is our deepest one, our “transversus abdominis.” When you exhale sharply during flat-back — as well as during round-back and curl — you’re working and toning this deep ab muscle. You can make the contraction even more effective by consciously pulling in your abs with each exhalation.

Lizzie also set me right about which muscle is responsible for students’ abs “pooching” during flat-back. If your abs pop out when you attempt to lift both legs, the weakness, she said, is in that same deep ab muscle, the “TA.”

Both Lizzie and my PT consults agree with me however on the best strategy for achieving flatter abs during flat-back: Exhale sharply and pull in as much as you can on every rep, even if your abs pooch out a little. You will incrementally strengthen your “TA” until it becomes able to hold your stomach in when you raise your legs.

roundback holding onto strapThe second of the two emails I received was from Maria, who wanted advice on an exercise she struggles with called “round-back,” which students do right before flat-back in the studio-based workout. “Hoping you’ll have some suggestions for round back and how to improve form,” she wrote me. “I’m finding even after two years of practice that I feel this more in my hip flexors than in my quads.” 

Round-back is one of my favorite exercises because it gives students’ back muscles a needed stretch after they’ve held their spines straight for most of the first half of class. Round-back also stretches the glutes and hamstrings after the preceding “seat-work.” As for strengthening, round-back tones the quads and flattens the abs. That’s a lot of benefits from one exercise, but good positioning is key to reaping those benefits. To help Maria and students like her to do round-back comfortably and to best effect, I’d like to offer a few tips on comfortably and effectively performing this multi-faceted exercise.

First, lean on the wall so that your torso is at a 45 degree angle, or diagonal, to the floor. If you sit too high, you will over-flex your hips and be unable to contract your abs. If you sit too low, you’ll overly round your back.

Second, lift your chest so that your back is almost straight (the “round” in “round-back” is slight). Then press your navel downwards. Think of the shape of your back as similar to how you position it for “high curl,” except that during round-back you’re stretching your glutes rather than gripping them.

Third, pull in your abs with every rep! Like “flat-back,” this exercise requires you to forcefully exhale in order to recruit and flatten your deep abs.

Last but not least, if you have sensitive hip-flexors, hold onto your working leg the whole time! If it’s difficult for you to reach your leg, loop a strap over your arch, as illustrated above. Don’t worry about missing out on the results by taking these options. Challenge yourself to completely straighten your working knee during the straight-leg moves while maintaining good form, and you may even begin to enjoy round-back as much as I do.

Ten Tips for Boosting Your Results From The Bar Method, Part 1

Kate and BritneyKate Grove is a master teacher and the manager of our Bar Method studio in the San Francisco Marina. Kate has a reputation for designing fun, creative classes, and she’s been just as creative as a studio manager. This year, she came up with the idea of offering student workshops to our “Club Bar” members, who are students with ongoing class packages. In the past, we’ve only given teacher workshops. Now thanks to Kate, our students are gaining expert knowledge about the Bar Method and are using that knowledge to take their workouts to the next level. After our first workshop, participants said that their classes were making them more sore than ever in the muscles they most wanted to shape. Britney Bart, a ten-year Bar Method student, commented that simply knowing where a muscle was on her body made the exercises feel different. “I have been doing arm walks with you since 2003,” Britney told me, “but I have not felt them and proactively utilized them for the specific purposes you described until the workshop.”

All these comments inspired me to share with Bar Method students who read this blog the information Kate and I gave in our workshop. This month focuses on our tips for the first half of class:

Tip # 1: Move your body in one-inch increments during the faster tempos.

Walnut CreekHow do you respond when your teacher says, “lift up, up, up” or “press in, in, in?” If your range is too large, you’re relying on momentum, which is only moderately effective at keeping your muscle “on.” If your range is too small, you’re not firing your muscle enough to get the most out of the exercise. A one-inch range keeps you “in the muscle,” while it enables that muscle to ignite with maximum energy on every rep.

Tip #2: Use your “rhomboids” and “lower traps.”

Trapezius Rhomboids and Serratus AnteriorWhen I take class, I’m constantly thinking about contracting my “rhomboids” and “lower traps” (“trapezius) during the weight-work section. These two muscles draw your shoulders in and down. During weight work they play a critical role in keeping your upper back from slumping forward and your shoulder joints from rotating out of kilter. They also help improve your posture and burn extra calories during the exercise. So one valuable piece of information I can offer you is to consciously use your “rhomboids” pull your shoulder blades closer together and your “traps” to pull your shoulder blades in and down. Reverse pushups can sculpt your lower “traps” if you hold your shoulders down while your arms are carrying the weight of your torso (see photo below). Stay aware of how these muscles enhance your performance, and you’ll sculpt your upper back muscles and give yourself a longer, more graceful your neck-line by virtue of your stronger “lower traps.”

Tip #3: Protect your joints by working in good form.

Here’s a fact you might not be aware of: when you stress a joint during a workout, the muscles around that joint will resist change. The joint sends a signal to these muscles saying in effect, “stop doing that!” So if you’re regularly tweaking a joint, you might not be getting the results you want.

jen in reverse pushupsThe Bar Method’s “reverse pushups” is an example of an exercise that you need to do in good form to get the best results. Here are the two key points to remember: 1. Keep your wrists turned forwards and slightly outwards. If you turn your wrists backwards, you’re pressing into your wrist joints instead of controlling the move with your arm muscles. 2. Keep your shoulders directly over your wrists. If you don’t and instead shift your shoulders forward of your wrists, you will pull your shoulder blades out of alignment and at the same time make the exercise significantly less targeted. So keep your shoulders directly over your wrists, and you’ll quickly gain the definition in your triceps you’re working for.

Tip #4: Do straight-leg pushups, and don’t go low!

Denise pushups straight armsPushups work an array of muscles. Obviously they sculpt your pecs and arms. Less obviously, they tone your abs, glutes, traps, and a muscle called the “serratus anterior,” which holds your shoulder blades in place when you’re pushing with your arms. By engaging these less obvious muscles, you’ll get much more out of pushups, and look great doing them. What’s the easiest way to do recruit all these muscles? Believe it or not, by doing straight-leg pushups (wait a second before you reject this idea!) and moving just one inch down and up. This way, you’re using every muscle in your pushups repertoire without killing yourself and creating a more defined body overall.

keryun thighTip #5: During thigh-work, let the music move you.

Bar Method students are famous for their fighting spirit, and if you’re one of them, I know you already give thigh-work your all. So what else can you do to get more out of this exercise? Make it a dance! Remember that you just gave your legs a deep stretch at the bar, and stretching is been proved to enhance muscular coordination. So use the stretches you did before thigh-work to take your performance to a new energetic level. Tap into the enhanced agility that the stretches infused into your legs, and do thigh-work like a dancer! Become one with the beat, and concentrate on performing the reps with precision and grace. Your muscles will expand and contract more energetically, and you’ll discover a new level of strength, athleticism and stamina in the process.

Next week! Ten Tips for Boosting Your Workout, Part 2

Stretching Makes you Stronger and More

This year I had the opportunity to take a variety of different fitness classes including some that used a ballet bar. I noticed that the bar classes gave fewer stretches between exercises than what you get at the Bar Method. The intention of these workouts is probably to deliver good results to their students by being as aerobic as possible, a currently popular approach to fitness. But are their students missing out on the body-changing benefits to be gained from stretching?

Leg extension machineSports scientists have researched this subject over the past few years, and they’ve come up with some surprising findings. Three years ago for example, one team of researchers set up an experiment to find out if stretching strengthens muscles. They recruited 16 men and 16 women, all college students in Hawaii’s Brigham Young University. The authors of the study, (Kokkones, Nelson, Tarawhiti, Buckingham and Winchester) divided the 32 students into two groups that matched as much as possible in athletic ability. The members of the first group trained on three different exercise machines for the legs three days a week for eight weeks. The members of the second group did exactly the same routine three days a week for eight weeks. The only difference was that the second group also stretched twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.

After the eight weeks, the researchers tested their subjects’ performance on the three exercise machines. The members of the first group – those who’d only strength trained — improved their performance an average of 11.6% on each machine. Those in the second group, who’d also stretched twice a week, boosted their performance on the machines more than twice as much, to an average of 24.6%.

Why did the stretching substantially improve the performance of the second group?  The researchers said that, as other studies have found, “placing a muscle on stretch can induce Z-line ruptures and increase protein synthesis and growth factor production.”

I was fascinated to learn that stretching causes “Z-line ruptures” because that’s also how strengthening works. When you do a “strength” move such as lifting a weight, you cause tiny muscle tears that stimulate your muscle to build denser and stronger fiber as it repairs itself. Passive stretching, it turns out, causes the same kind of tears by pulling on muscles, while at the same time strengthening the stabilizer muscles that are maintaining the pose. No wonder I’m often out of breath after a stretch sequence!

Stretch at bar sideWith this research in mind, consider what’s happening to your body during the Bar Method’s “stretch at the bar.” When you place your leg on the bar, you can now credit the source of the burning sensation you feel to tiny ruptures in your hamstring muscle fibers, similar to those that occur from strengthening. When you turn your body to the side for the “waist stretch,” your obliques, triceps and back muscles are also being toned as you stretch them. Meanwhile, the heat generated by this work is serving to get your muscles warmed and limbered up for the thigh-work to follow. Last but not least, you feel extra satisfaction knowing that your muscles are doing more than just taking a break during this stretch!

The many research studies recently carried out on stretching have found that it has a lot of other benefits besides making you stronger. Here are highlights from three of the studies that focused especially on stretching’s power to enhance your appearance.

Improved coordination

StabilometerResearchers did a study to find out if stretching makes people more coordinated. They put forty-two college students on a “stabilometer,” which challenges the user to keep his/her balance while standing on it. The students who stretched before standing on the stabilometer significantly improved their balance, by 11.4%. Why? The researchers speculated that “stretching improved maintenance of balance perhaps by helping the subjects to eliminate the gross muscle contractions … and to replace them with fine muscle contractions.” In other words, stretching makes people less “klutzy” by reducing unintentionally jerky movements, thus enabling them to move more smoothly and efficiently.

A leaner body

Katelin kneeling seat stretchResearchers tested stretching’s ability to reduce blood sugar. Twenty-two subjects drank a large glass of juice. A half an hour later they either stretched for 40 minutes or did a “mock stretching regime” (not really stretching). Afterwards the researchers measured everyone’s blood sugar. They found that the group that stretched had “a significantly greater drop in blood glucose.” High blood sugar stimulates our bodies to convert the sugar into fat. Stretching, it turns out, metabolizes blood sugar, thereby preventing it from being stored as fat.

Beautiful posture

Finally, I want to mention the long-established connection between stretching and good posture. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain a proper posture.” Stretching gives these muscles greater range of motion, enabling our bodies to stand up straight and move with more elegance, confidence and grace.

ShannonAll this evidence shows that the Bar Method’s stretches are not merely elongating students’ muscles. They’re playing a significant role in changing their bodies. Shannon Albarelli, who co-owns a Bar Method studio in Montclair, New Jersey, noticed this difference after she took another barre fitness during her last four years in college. “I liked the class I took in college,” she told me, “but I it was only after I moved to New Jersey and started taking the Bar Method that my body changed.”

What to Expect From Your First Barre Class

“All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it,” Benjamin (played by Matt Damon) says to his son in the movie “We Bought A Zoo.” A first class at the Bar Method is one of those acts that can take a bit of insane courage, and just as Damon’s character promises, great things — in this case getting a more beautiful, healthy body — can come of it.

Jen's Class bicepsIt’s understandable that that walking into your first Bar Method class takes at least some courage. It has a reputation for being challenging, and friends are often so darned devoted to it that they can make you wonder. These friends are well-meaning, but their enthusiasm for the Bar Method can backfire and churn up inner cascades of self-doubting questions among the uninitiated: “Am I going to get addicted? Will everyone be, and look, better than me? Will I feel singled out when the teacher calls my name? Will I even get through the class!?”

If you’re wondering how you’d do in your first class, I want to reassure you that the overwhelming majority of new students of all ages and fitness levels have a positive experience. Bar Method teachers are skilled at making their new students feel safe and welcome, letting them know what they’re going to feel, explaining the benefits and mechanics of the exercises, and getting them into a focused workout “zone” that makes the hour go by fast. But don’t just take my word for it! Hear about the first day experiences of three students who almost never got there, and were glad they did.

Rachael, Summit, New Jersey

Rachael on right with her daughterFor a long time Rachael walked by the Bar Method studio in Summit without going in. A single mom in her mid-40s, Rachael “dismissed it as an option for me,” she says, “because the word ‘bar’ implied ballerina and that was something I certainly wasn’t.” One Thanksgiving, her daughter came home from college, and the two of them decided to give the class a try. “I changed three times before I left the house,” Rachael recalls, “not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise…options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me. The instructor offered specific encouragement and suggestions to each student using their names! It was clear that each student was so involved in their own progress that no one had time (including me!) to notice anyone else.”

Mary Ann, Redmond, Washington

Mary AnnFor two years, Mary Ann’s California-based daughter called her to talk about the positive effects the Bar Method was having on her body. Then a Bar Method studio opened in Mary Ann’s area. She was placed on the mailing list but didn’t attend for another year. Finally Mary Ann signed on “and I might add without too much enthusiasm,” she admits, “because I was suffering from a lower back injury. However, once I began taking classes under the watchful eyes of Bev and Maika (the studio’s owners), I was nurtured with kind comments, disciplined corrections and happy faces. I got the message; this is working for me.”

Grace, Bernardsville, New Jersey

A busy mother of three young boys, Grace would not be dragged to a first class for a long time in spite of the persistent efforts of her best friend Margaret. “I can be a little sarcastic and a physical underachiever,” Grace says by way of explanation. At last Margaret prevailed. “As I entered the class,’ Grace remembers, ‘I was really impressed by the instructor’s desire to not just learn the names of students, but to engage and take a serious interest in each individual’s progress and development. Honestly, on that first day, I was a “D” student, but that did not matter. What struck me is how much and how often these instructors encouraged me and others and made constructive adjustments in order for proper form to be achieved. Also, every exercise is explained along with its function and benefits. It is fascinating to submit to this level of instruction. Not only did it stimulate my muscles, but a switch was flipped in my brain, too. This Bar Method became my Mt. Everest and I was hooked.”

Thank you, everyone, for you support this past year.

Happy New Year!

Burr

Why It’s so Important to Exercise as You Age

Burr in Chair for blogNow that I’m 64 and the aging process is noticeably changing my body, I’ve become profoundly grateful to have exercise in my life. I feel especially lucky that the workout I’ve been doing for the last three decades, the Bar Method, seemed to have assumed the role of protector against time. In my 30s and 40s I loved the workout (which was then the Bar Method’s predecessor, the Lotte Berk Method) because it made me look and feel good. Over the past few years I’ve been stunned to find that my workouts, while not exactly reversing time, are turning it back significantly. Now they’re not just making me more buff and toned. They’re also wiping away fatigue, mental cloudiness, grumpiness, aching joints and a host of other symptoms of the aging process. I can go into a class feeling exhausted and walk out of it almost magically energized. My muscles don’t as easily retain the strength gained from my workouts like they used to decades ago, but the classes always leave me calmer, more centered, and in a better humor. I hate to think how different my life would be at this stage if I didn’t have this workout to renew me on an ongoing basis.

Burr in round-backEverything I’ve reported to you in this blog thus far is old news to the medical community. Doctors and economists have been all over this subject for decades, and their research has been sending up flags about the dangers of older adults not being active. A group of several hundred physiologists found that millions of Americans are dying prematurely each year from “Sedentary Death Syndrome,” or lack of physical activity. Meanwhile, economists have determined that the cost of these deaths to our country are somewhere around three trillion dollars a year due to life-style related diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, dementia, accidental falls, and other lifestyle-related illnesses and issues. Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control estimates that if all these physically inactive Americans became active, we’d save “$77 billion in direct annual medical costs, and an estimated $150 billion in direct and indirect medical costs.”

There are signs that more and more of us in this country are beginning to understand the relationship between inactivity and illness. We see an increasing number of older people whose bodies remind us of cars that haven’t been maintenanced for decades, and their downcast, disappointed, and defeated-looking faces can’t but affect us. We might ask ourselves, ”what happened to those people? Could they have been in accidents?”  More likely, they’ve lived the sedentary lifestyle that our society has made the norm.

Bill CunninghamCall me an optimist, but I believe that at some point in our future history, people will figure out a way out of this pitfall. The results have come in from our mass experiment with inactivity. We know that it hurts us, especially now that we’re living longer. Fortunately, as a species we’re ambitious when it comes to our right to enjoy life to the last drop, and we have the drive, ability and adaptability to reinvent ourselves when it serves our purposes. One example from the past is our dental care habits, which have evolved to become unrecognizable from the way they were 200 years ago. “Sedentary Death Syndrome” is actually a pretty recent problem. People started to become inactive in great numbers less than a century ago when enough modern conveniences were invented to relieve them of the necessary of exerting their bodies. We’re really just in the preliminary stages of tackling this challenge.

Already some Americans have been deciding to lead very active lives in their later years. Jack LaLanne lifted weight into his 90s. Cloris Leachman competed in Dancing With The Stars at age 82, and the wonderful 83-year-old photographer Bill Cunningham still spends his days riding his bike around Manhattan with the grace of a dancer shooting street fashion for the New York Times. I’d like to imagine that in a few hundred years these athletic late-lifestyles will no longer be the exception but our new norm.