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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

How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Shoulder Conditions

This month I’ve explained how you can safely take the Bar Method when you have issues with your joints in particular areas of your body. I started with foot and ankle issues and worked my way up to knees, hip and back problems. As you may have noticed, each of these body parts has it’s own “best practices” regarding how and how much to exercise if you’re nursing an injury to one of them.

Finally we come to shoulder conditions, which present their own set of issues due to the odd and unique history of this joint.

When our distant ancestors’ front legs evolved into arms, their shoulder joints gave up stability in order to gain more flexibility so that their arms could move in all directions. Today our shoulder is still a ball and socket joint like our hip, but while our hip socket fits snuggly around the ball of our thighbone, our shoulder socket has become so small and shallow, the better to allow our arms to swing freely, that it has become relatively ineffectual as a stabilizing force. To compensate for this lack of stability numerous ligaments and muscles developed around the joint, which now do much of the heavy work of holding it in place. The problem is that if any of these ligaments and muscles get weak, strained, sprained or just tired, the ball and socket can slip out of alignment. A number of very painful conditions can result including these common shoulder disorders as described by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

  • Instability: Sometimes, one of the shoulder joints moves or is forced out of its normal position. This condition is called instability, and can result in a dislocation of one of the joints in the shoulder. Individuals suffering from an instability problem will experience pain when raising their arm. They also may feel as if their shoulder is slipping out of place.
  • Impingement: Impingement is caused by excessive rubbing of the shoulder muscles against the top part of the shoulder blade, called the acromion. Medical care should be sought immediately for inflammation in the shoulder because it could eventually lead to a more serious injury.
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries: The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that hold the bones of the shoulder joint together. The rotator cuff muscles provide individuals with the ability to lift their arm and reach overhead. When the rotator cuff is injured, people sometimes do not recover the full shoulder function needed to properly participate in an athletic activity.

describe the imageFortunately physical therapy is highly effective at treating mis-aligned shoulders for the same reason that they are so often tweaked, namely that joint can be coaxed back into its correct position almost as easily as it can snap out of it. Here, for example, is a PT routine from a highly regarded book on sports therapy called “Peak Condition” by Dr. James Garrick. (Consult your doctor before you try doing these moves.) You can see that Garrick’s exercises involve simple repetitive motions that act to nudge the bones back into proper alignment.

Let’s say you have a shoulder condition and you’ve embarked on a course of physical therapy. Can you also do the Bar Method, and can it play a role in your recovery? Absolutely. The Bar Method’s arm exercises were designed by a physical therapist to be as safe and therapeutic for your shoulders as possible. In addition, both studio-based classes and DVD workouts offer you alternatives for doing the exercises without raising your arms higher than shoulder height, a motion that is usually painful to do if you’re nursing a shoulder injury.

Your best bet in this case is to modify the class in such a way that you avoid “bad” pain to a reasonable degree. Usually this strategy means keeping your arms as close to your sides as possible. Here are the basic modifications you would use:

  • describe the imageDuring shoulder walks, opt for raising your arms no higher than shoulder height.
  • Do push-ups against the bar and keep your elbows pointing downwards.
  • During the “fold-over” exercise (At right, top is Heather demonstrating the unmodified position; bottom is the modification) hold onto the bar with your elbows pointing downwards.
  • Use a strap to hold onto during the “under-the-bar” exercises.
  • You can place a few small mats under your back during the abdominal curl section to lessen the effort in your arms.
  • Feel free to keep your arms at or lower than shoulder height when raising the arms is simply a matter of choreography.
  • For “chair” and “water-ski seat” (exercises in studio classes only), substitute standing thigh and standing seat.

In the end you’ll be glad you stuck with exercising in spite of your condition. The strength you’ll gain will pay off in greater stability and less risk of injury going forward.

How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Back Conditions

HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH BACK CONDITIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Hip Conditions

BURR FLATBACK“I will be 63 in December and have had two total hip replacements,” Mary Brauch, (shown right) a former marathon runner, emailed me this week. Mary is now training for a walking marathon and has discovered that The Bar Method, which she’s been doing at home in Chesterfield, MO with The Bar Method DVDs, is helping to get her in shape for the event. “It is very important to have strong legs with muscle (lean, strong) muscle,” she wrote me. “The Bar Method accomplishes that…I am addicted.”

Most Bar Method students like Mary with common hip conditions like hip replacements and arthritis find that the non-impact, controlled nature of the workout offers them an ideal way to get strong without jarring their joints. Other types of hip conditions aren’t as easily adapted to the Bar Method workout as Mary’s. Still, they won’t prevent students who have them from doing the workout provided they use a few simple modifications.

Hip Dysplasia and Labrum Tears:

One such disorder is hip dysplasia, a congenital deformity of the hip that causes the ball and socket not to fit together well, making it vulnerable to dislocation. Another condition is a tear in the “labrum”, a fibrous tissue deep in the hip socket. Students with either condition feel discomfort or instability when their leg moves inwards and upwards towards the center of their body. In order to take class in comfort, they should simply avoid exercises that move their legs in that way. In place of pretzel, which requires students to sit so that one hip is flexed and drawn inward, they can do standing seat. Instead of the “butterfly stretch,” a seat stretch at the end of class that requires students to cross one leg tightly over the other, they can do a “figure 4” stretch, thereby allowing their legs to remain slightly open

Tendonitis:

describe the imageInflamed muscles and tendons, usually due to overuse, are another source of hip problems. The hip muscles that are most likely to get tweaked in this way are the “rectus femoris,” a thigh muscle that helps elevate the leg, and the iliapsoas, which is actually comprised of two big muscles that join to flex the hip. Dancers as you can imagine are known for getting tendonitis in their hip muscles from repeatedly extending their graceful legs upwards. One such dancer, a beautiful Rockette named Jacey who is now a Bar Method teacher in New York City, developed sensitive hips from all the kicks she performed over the years.

describe the imageDuring “flat-back,” an intense Bar Method exercise that works the hip-flexors, Jacey has found that sitting on a “riser” mat eliminates the problem (shown left). This solution works for any student with easily irritated hips.

As I’ve said in more than one blog, I believe that the overwhelming majority of students with limitations due to joint issues benefit from intense exercise as long as they can do it safely. The reason the Bar Method is a great fit for such students is, to put it in Mary’s words, “because of the results…especially for people who should NOT do high impact but want a good, worthwhile workout.”

How The Bar Method’s Workout Can Help Knee Issues, Part 2

Last week I looked into why knee pain is so common and how the Bar Method can help students who have knee issues. To recap, if your knees hurt because of ligament damage or moderate arthritis, The Bar Method workout can help you regain stability in the joint by strengthening and balancing the major muscles that extend across your knee, principally your quads, calf muscles, and hamstrings.

The cause of your knee discomfort could also be a matter of having leg muscles that are of uneven strength and length. In that case you will need to use some minor modifications during the workout in order for your knees to feel comfortable and get better. This problem arises when the muscles on the outside and front of your legs become very strong but those on the inside of your legs don’t, an imbalance that causes your stronger muscles pull your kneecaps off track towards the outside of your legs during exertion. Runners and dancers can both suffer from this problem for different reasons. Runners are prone to IT band syndrome, which involves a tendon on the outside of the leg becoming too tight and pulling on the knee. Both runners and dancers can suffer patella displacement by developing strong quads while letting their hamstrings and inner leg muscles remain relatively weak. If you think you have one of these conditions, here are some modifications you can try:

High thigh for kneesDuring thigh-work:

• Instead of the narrow V position, do “parallel thigh.” If needed, bend your knees to a lesser extent as I’m showing in the photo. This adjustment prevents your stronger outer quad muscles from over-engaging. In this position you can also squeeze a ball, small mat or cushion between your legs to help strengthen your inner quads (see last week’s blog for details).

During standing seat-work:

Standing seat modification for knee• Instead of bent-knee standing seat, do straight knee standing seat. Under normal circumstances standing seat is a great stretch for the quad muscles, which have just been worked. The reason the exercise might be uncomfortable for you is because your outside leg muscles might be not only stronger but also tighter than those on the inside and so are pulling your kneecap outwards. Until your leg muscles regain more evenly balanced strength and length, simply keep both legs straight in this exercise.

Now we come to students who have more problematic knee issues, those that involve something going on inside the joint itself. Here are a few of these conditions:

Meniscus tears: You have two menisci in each knee. They’re a kind of cartilage but with a specialized cushioning and stabilizing ability. A sudden twist is what often tears a menisus, usually causing enough pain and disability to need medical treatment before you return to exercise. When you do come back to class, after your initial treatment the exercises can help you strengthen your knee if you take it easy at first.

Patellar tendonitis: Your patella or kneecap kind of floats inside your quad tendon, a big tendon that extends across your knee and fastens to your shinbone. (Your kneecap itself has a smaller tendon of its own.) Patellar tendonitis, which you get when these tendons become inflamed, is a stubborn condition that doesn’t go away easily. It causes pain and swelling in the front of your knee when you bend it. If you have this condition, some thigh exercises will be uncomfortable for you.

Hamstring tendonitis: You have three hamstring muscles, the tendons of which stretch across the back of your knee. These tendons can also become inflamed (another obstinate problem) and cause pain in the back of your knee.

Bursitis: Your knee has three bursae whose function it is to help lubricate the joint. When your bursa is inflamed, usually from kneeling for long hours, your knee will experience swelling, tenderness and redness. Excess swelling around the bursa will cause an accumulation of synovial fluid behind the knee, a condition known as “Baker’s Cyst.”

Obstruction in the knee joint: Your knee might have an obstruction in the joint due to a piece of cartilage, menisci or other tissue stuck between the bones. Obviously in this situation you wouldn’t be able to straighten your knee without a lot of pain.

Greater than average “Q angle”: Women’s “Q angle,” that is, the angle between the quad muscle and the patellar tendon, which is greater than mens’ due to a wider pelvis. Women’s knees are beset by this issue because evolving humans found it to their advantage to produce ever smarter babies with bigger heads. Women’s knees have as a result ended up with “a narrower femoral notch, increased ‘Q angle,’ and increased ligamentous laxity” according to James A. Nicholas, M.D., the founding director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, thereby making women’s knees inherently more vulnerable to injury.

The issues listed above of course require medical attention. Meanwhile, provided that you’re being treated and are on your way to recovery, can you take the Bar Method? The answer is a qualified yes. If your doctor says it is safe for you to do strengthening and stretching exercises you can take class by using some modifications during some of the exercises. Here are some substitutions you can try:

chair resized 600During thigh-work: Knee problems vary, so try the following substitutions and see which ones work best for you:

• Instead of parallel, leg-together and narrow V thigh work, do “chair.” This position keeps the feet flat on the floor and the knees right over the ankles. It’s also great for distributing the effort from your quad muscles evenly across your knees.

leg lifts• Instead of “diamond thigh” and “second position,” both of which are performed in a wide turn-out, do “second position” with your feet flat on the floor. Like chair, this position allows you to keep your heels down and your knees over your ankles.

• When all else fails, you can always do leg lifts during thigh-work. Leg lifts work your thighs with no weight on your knees. You can do leg lifts both in a parallel position and with your legs turned out (always keep your leg directly in front of your hip, whether the leg is “parallel” or turned out).

During stretches that involve kneeling or bending your knee:

stretch knee• Your knees might be simply sensitive, or you may not be able to bend them completely. In these cases, you can modify the leg stretches in a number of ways. Here are two modifications for example that you can use during the thigh-stretches.

• Throughout the whole class anyone with limited flexion in a knee can keep it straight during any stretch or perform the stretch standing while holding onto the bar.

In the long run, finding a way to workout rigorously without joint pain will help your knees. In my view the Bar Method is an ideal workout choice first of all because its tight structure enables you to anticipate each next position and adjust accordingly, and also because its modifications accommodate as many knee issues as possible.

Find Bar Method Exercise Classes near you.

Sample and buy Bar Method Exercise DVDs.

Read more about exercise and the human body:  EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: THE COMPLEX, MOBILE AND BEAUTIFUL SHOULDER

How The Bar Method’s Special Equipment Keeps Students’ Joints Safe

no impact exerciseThis morning while I was taking the 7 am class, I noticed two students, Raymonde and Rose, who were working across from me. The three of us are regulars at this hour, so I’ve had the pleasure of watching Raymonde and Rose develop from struggling beginners into students with good form. Their improvement has been especially satisfying for me to watch because their height could have interfered with their progress had they not been at the Bar Method. Both are on the petite side, especially Rose, and Raymonde also has delicate shoulders. Here their stature and joint sensitivity are not a problem due to the availability of “riser mats,” a piece of equipment that you can find in every Bar Method studio. Riser mats are two inches thick and filled with dense rubber. Students who are petite or have sensitive shoulders can sit on “risers” so that they can reach up to the bar from below without straining their necks and shoulders. Raymonde as you can see is also using a stretching strap to hold her leg elevated, which helps her do the exercise without running the risk of overworking her hip-flexors.

The idea to make riser mats an essential piece of equipment came from The Bar Method’s long-standing effort to make its workout as safe as possible. When your joints are comfortable, you can concentrate on your muscles, not to mention that you feel intrinsically safer. With this aim in mind The Bar Method has developed not only its risers but a variety of equipment that contributes to its goal of creating a workout that is gentle on its students joints, the better to be challenging to their muscles.

Rubber Underlayment: On first sight a Bar Method studio looks like a normal carpeted room. In fact, the flooring in the room is quite unusual. Under the carpet lies not regular carpet padding but rubber underlayment that is three-fourths-of-an-inch thick. Walk into a Bar Method studio in your socks and you’ll notice that your heels sink down slightly with each step. During class this underlayment gives extra protection to students’ feet, knees, elbows and hips.

Large Mat: Yoga mats are popular in many exercise studios but can feel uncomfortable during strengthening and stretching exercises. The Bar Method’s mats are filled with dense, inch-and-a-half-thick foam that protects students’ spines and hips during ab work.

ab exerciseSmall Mat: During thigh-work students sometimes press The Bar Method’s small mat between their thighs to tone their legs. The main purpose of the small mat however is to protect two particularly boney parts of the body. First, students with sensitivity around the balls of their feet can place it under their feet during thigh-work. Second those with stiff or delicate backs can tuck it under their ribs as shown above during ab work. If you want a small mat to use at home, you’ll be able to buy one on our website in late October along with the new Bar Method DVDs, “Dancer’s Body,” “Beginner’s Workout,” and “Pregnancy Workout,” all of which use this piece of equipment.

Riser Mat: As I mentioned earlier in this blog, riser mats come in handy if you’re petite or have sensitive shoulders and you’re doing “round-back” (shown above) or “flat-back” (similar to round-back but with a straight, vertical back). Its biggest success however has been with students who have hip issues. When these students sit on one or two risers during “flat-back,” their feet drop lower down than their hips. This adjustment makes their legs easier to lift and their hips experience less strain – while still offering plenty of challenge to their abs.

Heather in flat back with strapStretching Strap: The Bar Method’s stretching straps mainly make hamstring stretching more doable. Students with shoulder issues have also found them useful during “flat-back,” which Heather is demonstrating.  By looping two straps over the bar and holding onto their ends, students can perform this challenging exercise while keeping their upper arms lower than their shoulders.

How much of a difference does all this equipment make? One student named Jen who emailed me awhile ago put it this way:  “I have joint problems and arthritis from numerous sports injuries, and this is the ONE workout that actually makes my legs, hip and back feel better. Thanks again.”

Read here how exercise itself helps keep your joints safe: Why People Need Muscle  

Find a Bar Method Exercise Studio near you. 

Sample and buy Bar Method Exercise DVDs.

Fitness Challenge Before and After Stories

Fitness challenges are becoming popular at Bar Method studios around the country because the workout makes such noticeable changes in students’ bodies. The challenges are contests held over three to four months for various prizes.  Recently, the Bar Method studio in Redmond just East of Seattle, Washington held a Fitness Challenge that inspired many students to work a little harder than usual.  The testimonials that the contestants wrote are inspirational, and I found them fun to read.

Bar Method Redmond has been open less than a year. In early 2009,  two Bay Area Bar Method teachers moved back home to the Seattle, Washington area to open their own studio near where they grew up. Bev Currier had been teaching in Walnut Creek, California for years. Maika Manring was a newer teacher in that same studio.  The two women were joined by Bev’s husband Luke Currier, who although not a teacher, is integrally involved in every other aspect of the studio.

Bev, Luke and Maika opened Bar Method Redmond, Seattle-Eastside in August, 2009 and less than a year later, it is a vibrant, jam packed exercise center that has touched thousands of people’s lives. The 2010 Fitness Challenge, which was launched in January, excited the entire studio and many participants reached their goals, which varied from weight loss to injury prevention, better posture, greater flexibility, overcoming depression, and simply getting some “me time.”

Studio co-owner Maika explains that “we did not choose the winner of the transformation challenge by the person who changed their body the most.  The transformation could be how Bar Method changed their life for the better, be it a physical change, a mental/emotional change, or both. All fitness challengers submitted testimonials to describe these changes and the person that won showed a transformation that embodied Bar Method body, mind and spirit.”

Here is one of the stories that I particularly love from Cynthia and her before and after pictures.

cynthia before resized 600 “I joined the fitness challenge with the goal of attending Bar 5 times per week.  In reality I made it on average 3-4 times.  My overall goals consisted of getting in shape for a looming 10-year high school reunion this summer and fitting into a pair of jeans I have hung on to for way too long!

I was so excited to join this challenge and see it through just as quickly as I had committed to it.  Over the course of the challenge I overcame many obstacles along my fitness journey to achieve success:  sprained ankle, sickness, family illness the loss of my beloved grandpa.  Through each of these obstacles I rededicated myself to my goals by making positive life long changes.  I did this by focusing on balancing my diet and eating habits, especially when it was not possible to attend Bar.   These obstacles also gave me a better understanding that eating healthy in addition to Bar Method workouts was also a key component to achieving the results I set out for myself.  Each obstacle I overcame allowed me to achieve small successes every week and every month I participated in the challenge.

My overall method for reaching my goals was to attain them by balanced, realistic and sustainable means.  In short, my recipe for success has been largely based on attending Bar Method classes regularly, drinking more water, getting more sleep, limited alcohol consumption, less soda, less overall calorie intake and generally paying greater attention to what I am putting into my body.

The more classes I attended, the more I came to the conclusion that I love Bar Method!  There has not been a single day that I did not experience the sensations of burning, shaking and quivering in nearly every muscle in my body.  The combination of pilates, yoga with isometric movements has been the best compliment to my typically cardio-heavy workout regimen.  I have never had the muscle definition and dense muscle composition that I have now.

My battle with weight has been a recent struggle of mine.  It was not until I entered my late 20’s that I ever had any difficulty managing my weight and staying toned. Bar Method has not on transformed my body but also the way I approach my ongoing fitness goals.  Now at 28, I’m committed and dedicated to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes Bar Method regularly!  Along this journey I have gained confidence, my clothes fit better (I now fit into that pair of jeans I have hung on to!!!), I stand taller and I have more energy and motivation.

After 4 months I have lost: 1.5 inches off my arms, 2 inches off my chest, 3.5 inches off my waist, 3 inches off my hips, 3 inches off my thighs, and 1.25 inches off my calves!

cynthia resized 600Sometimes it has felt like life interrupted my fitness plans on my fitness journey but like everything else in life some things do not go as planned, we take a detour along the way, but amazingly we can still arrive at our destination.  I have felt this many times over during the course of this challenge.   I am definitely a stronger individual because of these experiences and obstacles.  Even though I was able to meet most of my fitness goals for this challenge I plan on establishing new goals to continue to strive to meet and stay motivated.

I continue to look forward to my daily dose of Bar Method and warm greetings and smiles from Bev, Luke and Maika.  Their smiles encouragement helped get me out of bed, even on the coldest and darkest of winter mornings at 6am and that is what continues to bring me back for more… I love Bar Method!”

Allison, the winner of the 2010 Fitness Challenge, sums up the supportive spirit of the Redmond studio at the close of her interview:

“So, it is obvious I feel a connection both in body and spirit to The Bar Method and am thrilled at the results I am seeing. The icing on the cake is the camaraderie, support and love I feel for the group of people I take with, and for my incredible teachers Bev and Maika.”

Read all incredible results in all twenty testimonials from Bar Method Redmond.

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Exercise and Evolution: How The Bar Method Strengthens Your Knees

Four million years ago, our ancestors stood up and walked on two legs. Now our two knees, which are the body’s largest joints, do the job that four knees used to do and they help keep us in balance, which is an issue when you’re more vertical than horizontal. Our knees need all the muscles around them to be as strong and balanced as possible.

By systematically strengthening all three muscles groups that run through the knees – the calf muscle, the quads, and the hamstrings – Bar Method students keep them strong and pain free, which may be especially important for runners or participants in other high impact sports. Here’s part of a blog that I happened to run across:

JaMarcus Russell“My current fitness obsession is The Bar Method.  Check out Burr Leonard’s Exercise blog at  http://blog.barmethod.com/.  I have Burr’s two CDs and do the workouts at home.  At one point I plan to sign up for classes too – the studio is comfortably close to the Embarcadero Bart station in San Francisco.  The effect on my abs and lower back is astonishing, and my genetically weak knees do not bother me anymore.” (Click here to read the entire blog.)

Even if you are not an athlete, the health of your knees is important. Knees carry the weight of most of the body with every step we take. Keeping them strong and youthful requires a pretty simple formula: strengthen and balance the muscle groups that extend across the knee joint.

strong kneesThe long calf muscle (the “gastrocnemius”)is the first of three that intersect in the knee.  You can see them toward the bottom of the picture to the right. This muscle enables us to come up onto the balls of our feet in what could be thought of as a “high heels” position. The great thing when it comes to knee stabilization is that the calf muscles extend across the back of our knees, thereby helping to hold them aligned and straight.

If you have an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury, the gastrocnemius can stabilize the back of the knee in its place. This is why physical therapists give calf strengthening exercises to their patients with ACL injuries. The Bar Method’s starts its leg-exercises with heel lifts for this reason.

Above the knee on the back of the body are the hamstrings. The picture above shows this group of muscles (the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus.) The Bar Method is know for it’s “seat-work,” which is really a series of exercises for the backs of your upper legs including the glutes. These exercises target your hamstrings, the third major muscle group that extends across our knees. Feel those kinds of sharp cords that run across the backs of your knees. Those are your hamstring tendons. When your hamstrings are strong, they help hold your knees in place. When these muscles aren’t toned, our knees get less support. A side benefit of strong hamstrings is the beautiful slightly rounded shape of the back of fit thighs.

The quads are the muscles in the fronts of our thigh and happen to be our bodies’ largest muscle group. The quads extend across the front of our knee. The intense, non-impact plies, little knee bends where the muscles stay engaged that we do in a Bar Method class, are tremendously effective to strengthen and balance the quads. The Bar Method’s knee bends are safe because students do them while bringing their heels up off the floor, thereby engaging the calf muscles to lock the knee in place.

healthy kneesEvery Bar Method class includes at least three different sets of these plies with the quads at slightly different angles. These multiple positions assure that the quads get worked evenly. The four muscles in the quads include the vastus muscles and the rectus femoris as you can see in the picture to the left. Runners, tennis players and athletes in other sports tend to use their outer quad muscles (vastus lateralis) more than their inner one (vastus medialis). That can ultimately pull their patellas to the side with flexion, causing pain. The Bar Method emphasizes inner quad work to help address this issue.

This blog is the fourth in a series on special challenges we humans face due to our evolutionary journey from four legged creatures to bipeds. Shoulders, backs, and knees changed radically as we stood up, walked, and used our arms to reach over our heads. We can stay supple and healthy by producing and toning muscle around these especially vulnerable areas. Click on any of the links below to read other sections of the series.

EVOLUTION, WORK, AND WORKING OUT OR WHY PEOPLE NEED MUSCLES 

EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: THE COMPLEX, MOBILE, AND BEAUTIFUL SHOULDER

EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISE TARGETS BACK MUSCLES

Exercise and Evolution: The Complex, Mobile and Beautiful Shoulder

A major focus of The Bar Method workout is to increase the stability of one of our most delicate joints, namely the shoulder. People injure their shoulders so much for a simple reason. The human body developed through ages when our upper bodies did a lot of heavy work, which served to develop enough muscle around the shoulder joints to stabilize them. Today our survival needs don’t include much upper-body strengthening activity so we have to add it in. The Bar Method addresses this situation by paying special attention to the shoulder muscles.

After a brief warm up of leg lifts, the first exercise in a Bar Method
class is for the shoulders. Called “shoulder walks,” we do it off the beat of the music and it serves as a quiet, nearly meditative start to class allowing students to turn inward and click on their “mind-body connection.” From there, the class continues with biceps and triceps exercises, push ups and reverse push-ups focusing on pecs, triceps, and deltoids. Upper body muscles continue to play a major but supporting role in all the exercises for the rest of the hour up until the last cool down glutes work before final stretch.

shoulder joingIn last week’s blog, EVOLUTION, WORK AND WORKING OUT OR WHY PEOPLE NEED MUSCLES, I talked about how the human evolutionary journey from four legged to upright creatures caused certain vulnerabilities in our bodies, especially in the shoulders, knees and backs. Man’s ability to rotate his arm 360 degrees enabling him to climb, throw, and carry require the most complex and delicate combination of coordinated muscles in our bodies. According to Dr. Lev Kalika of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization, “The anatomy of the shoulder joint is in fact the highlight of human evolution. The versatility and mechanics of the motion of the shoulder is far more complex than of any existing precision machine.”

SHOULDER MUSCLESThe shoulder joint is often compared to a golf ball sitting on a tee. There is no snug, safe socket enclosing the end of our arm bone. This is what makes the shoulder so vulnerable. Instead, it relies on a complex system of muscles called the rotator cuff to girdle the shoulder joint in place. In addition to the rotator cuff, which is not visible, the deltoids and triceps, as shown in the picture to the right, are visible and, along with other nearby muscles, contribute to the workings of the shoulder.

Here’s a letter that a grateful Bar Method student wrote to Summit, New Jersey Bar Method studio owners Jen Hedrick and Angie Comiteau:

I want to let you both know how thrilled I am to have found Bar
shoulder health
 Method! It really has changed my life. I have belonged to gyms, played organized sports, dabbled in road races, had stints with personal trainers…you name it…for as long as I can remember.  
 
About a year and a half ago I started having severe shoulder/rotator cuff problems. Normal everyday activities such as lifting the kids or even a carton of milk out of the fridge became excruciating. At times the pain prevented me from sleeping. I saw doctors and physical therapists and was very discouraged. Eventually I turned to The Bar after hearing how great it was….I have a lot to learn as far as technique and positioning are concerned, but I thoroughly enjoy and learn in each and every class and constantly feel challenged, energized, and overall, simply healthier. Most importantly, my shoulder pain is totally gone! It’s nothing short of miraculous. I’ve got my life back and no longer feel incapable.  
 
Thanks guys…I appreciate all that you do…Elizabeth

Shoulder exercises, however, are not only good for you; they look good on you. Sculpted arms and shoulders are perhaps the hottest red carpet trend in physical fitness today.  Harper’s Bizarre says, “Arms are the New Face”  Michelle Obama’s gorgeous upper body created an uproar as people gossiped about her sleeveless wardrobe. Self Magazine talks about “A-List Sculpted Arms.”

shoulder musclesJust as Bar Method creates a distinctive looking butt with a lifted base and a slimmed down side punctuated by a dimple, so does it create a distinctive arm and shoulder.  The deltoid is augmented making it more prominent and it tapers off in a triangular point like the end of a heart on the top of the upper arm. The neck muscles or trapezius above it is lengthened and unbulky. The biceps are shapely but not too big. There is a small tear drop shape right below the collar bone that is formed where the deltoid and pecs meet. Firm triceps and defined pecs make up the rest of the look.

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Evolution, Work and Working Out, or Why People Need Muscles

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

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

muscles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Bar Method exercise classes near you.
Sample and buy Bar Method exercise dvds.