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Body Types Part 2: Customizing The Bar Method or Your Flexibility

Taylor Swift and Reese Witherspoon

Taylor, 5’11,” and Reese, 5’1″

In last month’s blog, I listed some some celebrities who have a variety of recognizable body types, such as being tall or petite, and gave you tips on how to adjust your Bar Method workout if your body is similar to one of the types I described.

This month, I want to talk about a difference in our bodies that is less obvious at first glance: our degree of flexibility! How flexible you are usually becomes a significant factor only in the event that you decide to get involved in a sport or an exercise technique that involves stretching. It’s at that point that, if you’re an inflexible person, you can get discouraged from trying some of these pursuits. You will assuredly not feel that way in a Bar Method class, where teachers customized every stretch to accommodate all students. In this blog, I’ll show you some of these stretches and how they work.  (See last month’s blog for descriptions of the Bar Method’s exercise equipment.)

  1. Tight hamstrings

Of the roughly 639 muscles in our body, a mere three of them, namely our three hamstrings, identify us to the world as flexible or inflexible, somewhat unfairly in my view. For that reason, I’ve made sure that all Bar Method students can stretch comfortably and safely regardless of their hamstring length. If you have tight hamstrings, here are a few of the many options you can take:

  • Stretch at the bar:
    Kim hamstrings for body type blog Oct 2014 1 small

    Kim stretching at a “stall-bar”

    • Go to a “stall-bar,” a device with lower rungs, for this stretch. When you reach your hands forward, hinge only so far as you comfortably can while keeping a straight leg.
  • Thigh stretch in front of the bar:
    • During the hamstring stretch, hold onto the bar and lift your torso so that it’s more upright.
    • You can also rest your hands on your thigh rather than on the floor.
  • Fold-over:
    • Raise your torso on a slight upward diagonal, and raise your working hip about ¾” higher.
      Raymonde hamstrings body type blog Sept 2014 small

      Raymonde using a strap to stretch

      Both these adjustments lessen your hip flexion while allowing you to work hard during the exercise.

  • Round-back:
    • Use a strap looped over the arch of your working leg as shown.
  • Flat-back:
    • Sit on at least one or two “risers,” which boost you up from the floor, allowing more room for your legs  and less bend in your seat.
  1. Flexible hamstrings:

Being blessed with flexible hamstrings not only means you can stretch more easily but also that you need to adjust some positions so that you get the most out of that exercise.

  • Lauren body types hamstring roundback Sept 2014 small

    Lauren working higher on the wall in “round-back”

    Thigh stretch on the floor:

    • Feel free to do a split and raise your arms.
  • Round-back:
    • Shift your torso higher than 45 degrees on the wall, as shown.
  1. Tight back:

Many athletic people, including some dancers, have relatively inflexible backs. If you’re among them, you probably barely notice this feature except when you’re trying to do a back extension or attempting an abdominal crunch. In a Bar Method class, teachers will recommend adjustments and provide you with equipment that allows you to get the most out of these exercises.

  • Jen in curl with riser and small mat 1 Sept 2014 small

    Jen using a “riser” and a small mat for “curl”

    “Arabesque:”

    • This glute-lifting, back toning exercise calls for you to extend your upper back like a dancer while you raise one leg up behind you. If you have limited back extension, not to worry. Simply direct your gaze diagonally downward at the bar rather than directly in front of you. Your upper back muscles will still get the intense toning workout that this exercise is known for.
  • Abdominal curls:
    • Use plenty of mat support under you as Jen is doing above.
  1. Hanna body types second position Sept 2014 small

    Hanna in “second position”

    Tight inner thighs and hips:

If you have this body type and are female, friends have undoubtedly told you they envy your cute “boy hips.” This boyish look can also come with the characteristic tightness of guy’s hips, which limits your ability to stretch your legs outward, for example, in “second position” and straddles. Here’s how you can stay aligned in these exercises:

  • Second position weight-work and thigh-work:
    • The priority is to keep your back vertical rather than your thighs wide apart. So work higher, that is, with less bend in your knees, and turn your feet forward to match the turnout of your knees.

Pretzel stretches:

  • It’s okay to do a sitting figure four stretch instead of the half-lotus, as Hanna is illustrating below.
  • Straddle after flat-back:
    Tight hips Hanna Oct 2014 smaller

    Two ways to do the “half lotus” stretch

    • Keep your hands pressing against the floor behind you.
  • Butterfly stretch at the end of class:
    • If you can cross your legs, do so. The cross-legged position more effectively stretches your outside glutes than the figure four. If you can’t get your knees crossed, go ahead and do a “figure 4 stretch,” that is, one foot resting on your other thigh.
  1. Tight Achilles tendons:
Sit-spin blog Oct 2014 small

A “sit-spin”

If you have tight Achilles tendons (they extend across the backs of the ankles) as I do, don’t even think about attempting a figure skater’s “sit-spin,” which demands that you have very flexible ankles. In a Bar Method class, you won’t need to make any significant adjustments in your stretches. Only be aware that you’ll look slightly different from most other students in some exercises such as the one below:

  • Narrow V thigh:
    Achilles tendons Burr Oct 2014

    Me doing “narrow V thigh-work”

    • Your heels will lift higher than one-inch from the floor as you go lower. That’s okay. You’re still targeting your lower quads as long as you keep your calves relaxed.
  1. Double-joined:
Double jointedness Denise Oct 2014

Denise fully extending her joints and doing shoulder walks

If you’re this body type, you’re flexible everywhere! Your extraordinary flexibility is beautiful and makes us want to be as flexible as you, but your joints have a bit less stability due to their greater range of motion. That means you need to ease up on extended positions in your elbows, knees and hips as follows:

  • Arm work, including weight work and pushups
    • Do not completely straighten your elbows.
  • Stretch at the bar:
    • Keep a slight softness in your stretching-side knee.
  • Heel lifts:
    • Ease up on the straightness of your knees.
  • Second position thigh-work:
    • Keep your lower back vertical, not rolled forward. Do not over-tuck.
  • Straight-leg standing seat.
    • Keep a slight bend in your standing knee.

The six body types I just described make up a small fraction of all the ways we can differ from one another in our flexibility. If you didn’t see your body type on this list or in last month’s blog — and want to know how you can adjust the Bar Method exercises for you — talk to your teacher! She or he will be happy to customize modifications that will work for you.

How to use “Active Stretching” to Become More Flexible

flexible dancer smallDancers and elite athletes use special stretching techniques to achieve their amazing flexibility. Rarely do exercise routines designed for the rest of us include these kinds of stretches. Most workouts rely on a common stretching technique called “passive stretching,” which works only to a point. You stretch “passively” when you hold the stretch position in place with a force such as your hand, a strap, a ledge or gravity, something other than the actual body part you’re stretching. Common passive stretches include: grasping a foot behind you to stretch your quads, placing one leg up on a ledge, and sitting in a “straddle.”

sylvie2 small2Passive stretches definitely play a role in making you more flexible, and all good workouts include some version of them. Experts agree however that passive stretching by itself is not enough to significantly increase range of motion. Passive stretches don’t warm muscles up enough for them to relax deeply, and, just as important, don’t give muscles sufficient control over any increased range of motion you manage to achieve by doing it. That’s why a workout that includes only passive stretches can leave you feeling “loosey-goosey” or not much more flexible at all.

This is where “active stretching” comes in. When you stretch “actively,” you contract the muscles on the opposite side of the body part you’re stretching to hold the stretch in place. An active stretch is 50% stretch and 50% strength, so it’s actually a workout for the entire body part you’re stretching. Its distinctive difference from other moves is that it compels you to hold a part of your body at or near the edge of its current range of motion the whole time. Be advised that this kind of stretching is intense! Dancers do it when they extend one leg upwards and hold, a move that helps give their legs astounding strength and control, as well as their famously elongated, sculpted muscles.

Incorporating active stretching into your workout, just as dancers do, gives you benefits that are worth the effort, including increased agility and grace in your movements, improved performance at sports, reduced likelihood of injuring yourself since short muscles make you more vulnerable to strains, and (last but not least), a slimmer-looking, more streamlined body!

Another training technique that’s becoming popular among elite athletes is called “functional stretching,” which is different from the more risky “dynamic stretching” (using momentum to force a limb or body part beyond its normal range of motion) or “ballistic stretching” (moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach and speed). Functional stretching consists of active stretches with some added motion performed at the edge a limb’s range of motion. A good functional stretching exercise immediately changes the way your muscles coordinate with each other. It readies your shoulders, hips, core and limbs for action in all directions, and it protects your joints against injury from a sudden, uncontrolled move. It works so well in part because the sheer physical effort it requires warms the muscles you’re stretching so that they can relax more deeply.

In recent years, the sports world has discovered that functional stretching techniques give muscles not only more strength but increased kinesthetic adeptness as well. For this reason, according to exercise physiologist Anoop T. Balachandran, “Most of the strength coaches now lean towards functional stretching to improve flexibility.”

Burr lunge and arabesque no text smallerThe Bar Method has been doing its own version of “functional stretching” for more than a decade, a variety I’d like to call “energetic stretching” (commonly known as “those little moves that can make a huge difference!”). Most Bar Method students think the controlled isolations they perform during class is a strength technique, but those same little moves constitute a form of stretch as well. In fact, the deliciously centered, energized feeling students get after a Bar Method class is partially the result of all the energetic stretching sequences they’ve just performed, even without realizing it!

Next month: How Bar Method exercises increase flexibility

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.

How The Bar Method Enhances Sex, Part 1

Sex and the CityI was putting away my mat after taking class a few months ago and a student approached me. She was pretty and looked like she might have been a lawyer or worked in the corporate world. “Have you or anyone ever written about how great the Bar Method is for sex?” she asked me. Out of habit I gave her my usual answer: Yes, it’s great for sex, but we’ve always played down that feature. “Thanks for your answer,” she said, “but it really is.”

As the student walked away, it hit me that for 20 years I’ve been giving that same stock response to questions about the Bar Method’s connection to sex. My habit of side-stepping this issue started with my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990. That year I was studying in New York City to become a Lotte Berk Method studio owner, and my trainers wanted me to keep my approach to this subject consistent with theirs. “People might ask you about sex,” they told me. “Focus on other benefits.”

I went with their advice during my ten-year term as a Lotte Berk Method licensee.  Now that license has been expired for ten years, and it’s about time that I formulate by own policy on this subject.  So here it is: The Bar Method-type workout is absolutely great for one’s sex life, and let me tell you why:

First, exercise itself has been proven to increase sexual potency. According to researcher Mark Stibich “Studies have shown that women who frequently exercise become aroused more quickly and are able to reach an orgasm faster and more intensely.” Exercise gives you an especially powerful boost if you do workouts that focus on stamina, muscular endurance, strength and flexibility. Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise credits exercise with “physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function (specifically, enhanced peripheral blood flow),” which he says says “can all enhance sexual functioning.” Why? Paige Waehner ACE explains.  “Sex also requires you to hold…er…occasionally unusual positions for short periods of time,” she says, plus, “Being limber can enhance anyone’s sex life by making it a bit easier to get into your favorite position with a minimum amount of fuss.”

Lotte Berk dancingDo The Lotte Berk Method/Bar Method techniques have any advantages over other exercise forms in this arena? Most definitely! They build a fantastic degree of stamina; they make you more flexible; and most distinctively, they focus on strengthening and stretching the muscles around your pelvis pretty much during the whole class. The Bar Method’s “narrow V” thigh exercise, for example, strengthens the “pelvic floor” muscles, according to Physical Therapist Heidi Morton. Then of course there are all the glute and abdominal exercises such as “water-ski thigh,” and “water-ski seat,” and the other “seat” exercises, plus the curl work, which students perform with their pelvis locked in place by means of all its surrounding muscles. Finally we come to “back-dancing,” an exercise that looks almost embarrassingly sexual, but more about that later.

Considering that sex is probably our greatest natural high, you’d think these benefits would be worth mentioning. Even so, over the past 20 years, the hundreds of press articles written about my Lotte Berk or Bar Method studios have pointed out only the Method’s ability to make you look sexy. Nowhere in my memory has there been anything written or said about its effect on sex itself. The most direct reference to sex in connection to the Bar Method that I could find appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July of 2002. The writer speculated on what would happen if the “Sex and the City” characters moved to San Francisco. “Samantha,” the article said, “would be in to various trendy California pursuits like… the Bar fitness method.” Nothing, however, on how much more fun Samantha, um, might have had later…

This reticence hasn’t always been the case. In the early 70s, the press was all over the news that an exercise technique was improving people’s sex lives. Why then did my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990 tell me to zip my lips on this subject? The answer goes back a half a century to the workout’s inventor, Lotte Berk, who expressly and unapologetically designed the workout to enhance sex.

Next week: The rise and fall of Lotte’s sexual revolution (and why we can finally start talking about it again 🙂

Wooing the Guys with Valentines “MAN” Barre Classes

Valentine's Day HeartWOOING THE GUYS WITH VALENTINE’S DAY “MAN” CLASSES

It’s February, and Valentine’s Day is two weeks away. In keeping with the spirit of the day, many Bar Method studios hold special “man” classes to which men can come free either by themselves or with their girlfriends or spouses. My home studio in the San Francisco Marina is holding three of these “man” classes on Saturday, February 12th, and I’m teaching the last one. I love teaching these special men-oriented classes. The Bar Method has the power to “up” a guy’s fitness level above and beyond what he gets from his usual gym routine of weights, abs and cardio, and it’s fun to talk about these benefits as the men make their way through the exercises. Two things I definitely don’t say are that they’re lifting their seats and ripping their arms. Men already have lifted seats, and many have ripped arms. What guys do get from the workout is stronger legs, tighter abs, more flexibility, relief from back pain, stability in their knees, a better functioning core, and – if they’re athletes – amazing sports conditioning.

Bar Method Seattle Owner Luke CurreirWith all these fitness benefits to be had by men, why aren’t Bar Method classes full of guys? One reason, in my estimation is that the classes are full of girls, beautiful ones at that. You’d think this would be a big draw, but no. Guys don’t like thinking they’re being shown up by more flexible, dance-y females. What’s more, they don’t like the idea of standing at a ballet bar wearing socks. The problem with this rational is that, one, we female students are actually in awe of guys who brave the class (but most of them never get this), and, two, the ballet bar and the socks are non-material details that don’t reflect the true machismo-like essence of the workout.

In spite of this general male mind-set, a small group of men do come regularly across the spectrum of Bar Method studios. Who are these unusual male students? Some are athletes who’ve found that the class makes them more competitive at their sport. Others are husbands whose back problems disappeared from the workout. A handful are runners who use it to strengthen, stabilize and increase flexibility their knees and hips, ultimately adding longevity to their running careers. My boyfriend Michael is among the atypical guys who come regularly simply because he likes the workout (see my blog “GUYS AT THE BAR” about his experience.) We studio owners are proud that these men are among our students, but the truth is, most of us could count the number of men who come regularly to each studio on the fingers of one hand.

Luke - Low Curl

But there’s always hope. Every Valentine’s Day lots of men come to our “man” classes; they work hard, they seem to get it, and every year I think excitedly to myself, “this is the year!” Then these guys don’t come back. One student from a “man” class I taught a few years back gave me an insight as to why. “I’d love this, “he said, “if I knew there’d be at least a few other guys in class.” Alas, it seems a chicken and egg type situation. The guys won’t come because their buddies aren’t there.

Maybe on the 12th, things will change…… 🙂

Happy Valentine’s Day
Burr Leonard

Happy New Year From The Bar Method: Best of 2010

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

Happy New Year!
Burr Leonard

MAKING THE DANCER’S BODY EXERCISE DVD

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

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

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

Dancer Body Performers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Marnie!

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

Strength Exercises and Flexibility

This past year, many of you wrote in with thought-provoking questions that got me thinking. Here’s one of my favorites from 2009:

On December 29th, Lucy wrote in that:
“I was doing the Barre Method every day for about 4 weeks and my hips started bothering me. They are now really tight….”

What gave me pause when I read this question was that Lucy’s experience is pretty much in sync with how muscles respond to strength exercise. On a cellular level, strength-work causes microscopic tears in muscle fibers. Our muscles then repair themselves by generating more fibers than the original number. These new and more numerous fibers then knit themselves more tightly around our bones in an effort to stabilize the stressed area.

This muscle-tightening phenomenon will cause people who do only strength-work and no stretching to develop shorter and shorter muscles until they’re muscle bound, an unpleasant condition you probably want to avoid.

stretchingThe good news is that stretching not only counteracts this tightening process. It can make you more flexible than you were in the first place. The reason is that your joints can detect how supported – or not – they are by the muscles around them. The stronger your muscles, the more stability they give to their underlying joints. (Just ask your physical therapist if you have one). Joints will allow muscles to elongate when those muscles can adequately maintain control over an increased range of motion. Conversely, joints will not allow weak muscles to elongate because those muscles would lose control if allowed an increased range. Strengthening your muscles, therefore, gives you a chance to also increase your flexibility.

How does all this, you ask, relate to Lucy’s experience? The answer is that muscles take longer to become flexible than they do to get strong. Bar Method students typically take class for several months before they feel more flexible. Many students actually get temporarily tighter before the stretching kicks in. Lucy therefore is likely to begin to feel more flexible in her hip-flexors after around three months of classes.

Click here to find Bar Method Exercise Studios near you.
Click here to sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.

How to Sculpt a Dancer’s Body

There’s no doubt that a Bar Method class feels like it’s mostly intense strengthening exercises.  When your muscles are on fire, they get the bulk of your attention over any stretching squeezed in between the tough parts.

Detach yourself from the burn for a moment, and look more closely at how you’re stretching your muscles during each exercise.  You already know that you stretch after each strength section.  These stretches fall into the category of “passive stretching” and are easy to recognize as such.  You perform them, according to physiologists, when you hold a part of your body in a stretch position with the help of some other part of your body, or by using a stable support such as a bar or the floor.   A split position is a passive stretch because you use gravity and the floor rather than your own power. Now look at a few sections of the workouts you thought were solely dedicated to muscle carving. You might notice that there are additional stretches embedded in many of the strength exercises. One muscle-elongating technique, which physiologists call “active stretching” actually plays a greater role in giving you a dancer-like body than the passive ones. To create an “active stretch” you enlist your own muscles on the opposite side of your body, your “agonist” muscles.   The active stretches in a Bar Method class are less noticeable because they’re piggybacking on some of the most intense strength moves. Click here for more on stretching exercises.

seat sculptingConsider what’s happening to your thighs and hips during seat-work.   All “seat” exercises in the Bar Method require you to draw your thighs back from your hips and hold them there for up to five minutes per leg as you work your back-of-the-leg muscles.

By maintaining this position the muscle contractions that you’re using to sculpt your seat are simultaneously pinning your thighs and hips back into their utmost extension — and deepening that extension with every little “pull-back” and “pulse” that you do.  The double-benefit of this two-pronged-action is both tighter, higher buns and longer, narrower thighs. Click on this link to read more on Bar Method’s core strengthening exercises.

ab sculptingAnother example of an “active stretch” is “round-back,” which comes right after seat-work.  Round-back obliges you to hold your legs at a range of motion that is the polar opposite of the way you held them during the seat section.  Now you are flexing one thigh at a time inwards towards your abdominals, and now it’s your thigh that’s the “agonist” for your glutes and hamstrings, which are being held in a continual stretch by the power on the other side of your legs.

Add up all the moments during a Bar Method that elongate your muscles with either active or passive of stretching, and you come up with 35 minutes of exercises that include stretches.  That’s more than half the workout.  So what’s happening during the other 25 minutes?  You’re targeting your arms, abs and other areas where you want extra definition.

The result of this blend of strength-work and stretches is a body that features the legs of a dancer plus the carved arms and abs of an athlete, a unique look that is both graceful and sculpted. To read more about how Bar Method carves and elongates muscles, read THREE BODY SCULPTING SECRETS USED BY BAR METHOD.

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The Elongated Body: Balanced Flexibility, Part III

Last week, I promised you some surprising scientific evidence on stretching. Here are the findings from studies on stretching that were conducted at universities in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

hip stretchFinding # 1. Active and dynamic stretching are both better at increasing flexibility than is passive stretching. You stretch passively when you use your hand, the floor or a piece of exercise equipment to create the stretch.   You stretch actively when you enlist the muscles on the other side of those being stretched – termed the “agonist” muscles – to form your stretch as shown as the picture at the right. In this illustration the hamstring and glute muscles on the back of the leg are stretching the thigh and hip flexor muscles on the front of the leg. You stretch dynamically when your agonist muscles create little pulses of movement to deepen the stretch on the other (“antagonist”) side. In this example, small contractions of the hamstring and glutes drawing your leg back dynamically stretches your thigh and hip flexor muscles.

The studies concluded that passive stretching is good at relaxing your body but is not very good at increasing range of motion. The largest increases in flexibility came in studies during which subjects performed a combination of active and dynamic stretches and saved the passive stretches for the cool-down.  Yoga, with its focus on surrender, is mostly composed of passive stretches. Pilates uses mostly active stretches and so is better at increasing range of motion than is yoga.  The Bar Method fuses strength work together with active and dynamic stretching.   Look closely at its strength exercises and you’ll notice that they double as active/dynamic stretches for the flip-side, or agonist, muscles.

At the ballet bar students pit strength against length for the muscles of their legs, as shown in the photo above.
strengthenLater on mats, Bar Method students form dynamic and active stretches for their backs as they hold the fronts of their torsos in a flexed position or perform tiny forward bends at the waist which strengthen their abs as seen to the left. Finally, the Bar Method inserts a passive stretch sequence as seen below at the end of every active one.  The warm, exhausted muscles just worked surrender more wholly to the passive stretches than they would if they had not just been worked. In this way, the Bar Method’s passive stretches act more deeply than many yoga stretches performed with muscles that are fresh. Coming at the end of dynamic stretching sets, these passive stretches also give students a moment to gently reinforce any increased range of motion they’ve just gained.

Finding # 2. You don’t have to hold a stretch for very long to get the maximum benefit.  One study in Montreal found that 15 to 30 second stretches work best to lengthen muscles.  Holding stretches
for longer – or repeating them too often – either did nothing at all
or had the unpleasant effect of re-tightening those muscles.  This finding suggests that yoga classes that give holding pose for longer than a minute could be tightening, not lengthening their students’ muscles.    In another study based in Toledo, Ohio two groups stretched their hamstring muscles for different lengths of time, one for 30 seconds and the other for 10 seconds repeated three times. After six weeks, the range of motion gains were equal in both groups.  The evidence in favor of shorter stretches is strong.  If you’re aiming for a more flexible body, yoga’s long, unbroken holds have no advantage over numerous shorter ones, and can even be counterproductive.

Final Stretch

Finding # 3. Strength and Stretch are part of one continuum, not separate features of fitness.   Picture a yogi or a contortionist.  Your mind will probably conjure up a slender, fragile figure.  Now imagine a body-builder or football player.  Odds are you’ll be seeing a tight, muscle-bound physique.  In actuality these stereotypes represent extremes of body-type, not end results from physical regimes.   For us average body types, the first step in stretching one of our muscles is to strength it.   Our stronger muscle will in turn add stability to its underlying joint, making it less likely that the joint will fly out of control and get injured (joints are smart).  Then, and only then, the joint allows our muscle to increase its range of motion.

When in my 30’s I started taking The Lotte Berk Method, the predecessor of the Bar Method. I was a regular yoga student but had been frustrated by the lack of gain in my flexibility.  I even daydreamed of an operation that would add some length to my tight muscles.  The new workout, which greatly strengthened my muscles, almost immediately began giving me more flexibility.   Today I can do the splits and back-bends that were once fantasies.

The flip side of this equation is the strength you get from becoming flexible.  Simply stated, stretching makes you stronger by giving muscles more ability to both contract and expand.  So unless you’re a body-builder solely into fitness to look pumped, you have every reason to add range of motion to your hard-won strength.  That range of motion will translate into greater strength during performance, whether you’re lunging for a long-shot on the tennis court or running in a marathon.

Finding #4: Stretching does indeed make muscles look long and lean.  No, this is not a myth.  Muscles that get stretched as well as strengthened look visibly smaller than solely “pumped” ones.   These same muscles are just a strong as their heftier looking counterparts, but they’ll lie closer to the bone and appear smoother.

Taking all evidence into consideration makes it clear that any strength workout worth its salt must not just throw a few passive stretches in at the end but must instead fully integrate flexibility training into its routine.  Click on this link to see how Bar Method’s effective stretching exercises contributes to to sculpting a dancer’s body.

The Elongated Body: Balanced Flexibility, Part II

Let’s take a look at all the gifts we give our bodies by making them more supple.

1. Better posture plus sexier looks. We’ve all seen people who’ve lived their lives without stretching.  They shuffle stiffly, slouch, and appear to have grown smaller.  Avoiding their fate takes some tough love on any dangerously shrinking muscles in order to bring them back into line with those around them.

A good stretching program today targets typically tight muscles around our hips and lower back.  Your resulting flexibility will beautify the way you walk.  Strong, elastic hips, thighs and back will make your legs look longer and your abs look flatter.  Mobile hips will also re-align your glutes to sit higher on your rear, giving your walk an extra dash of youthfulness and energy.

2. Greater Strength, Performance and Body Awareness. All strengthening and no stretching definitely make Jack a muscle-bound boy.  His muscles contract inward but don’t easily expand outward.  Strong as he might look, he’ll be pretty clumsy and inept if asked to play football or tennis. Think of kicking a football, swinging a tennis racket or maneuvering your skis around moguls.

G.O. Parsons

Professional athletes know they’ve got to stretch in order to gain full use of their muscles’ power to move.  They also know that stretching will help increase the range of motion over which they weald this power as well as gaining better control of this range.  Athletes aren’t the only ones entitled to enjoy enhanced performance and coordination.  The heightened body awareness that comes from balanced stretching shows through in the style and grace of your everyday movements.

3. Health. Balanced flexibility protects the blood vessels, bursa and other organs and tissues around your joints and lubricates your joints themselves.  Stretching also makes your muscles less prone to injury and your body more likely to stay active and thereby free from the diseases associated with physical inertia.

G.O. Parsons

Some Surprising Scientific Evidence on Stretching. So is yoga is the best exercise you can do for becoming more flexible?  Researchers around the world have tested the benefits of various types of stretching and have come up with some surprising results.  Click on this link to learn more on these findings: stretching and flexibility