Stretching Makes you Stronger and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improved coordination

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

A leaner body

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

Beautiful posture

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

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

Exercise For Our Children’s Children

Frail and triathleteIn the delightful movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Dev Patel’s character has a saying, “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not right, it’s not yet the end.” Patel’s motto is right on the mark, in my view, when it comes to how we’re progressing on keeping ourselves healthy. Last month for example, I reported on some new scientific evidence that exercise can significantly extend mris of quadsyouthfulness in the realms of strength, agility and leanness. One recent study found that the muscles of triathletes in their 70s and 80s ressemble those of 40-year old triathletes, while sedentary people lose most of their muscle mass by that age. A second study showed that exercise suppresses the appetites of fit people.

Did this amazing news hit the headlines and prompt people to exercise? Hardly. The reports hovered on the periphery of the media, barely noticed. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that as Patel says, “it’s not yet the end.” For one, our historical behavior shows that we’re hard-wired to take advantage of new knowledge about our health, only it takes a number of generations for us to change our habits in the right direction. In the process it can even appear as if we’re going backwards. Look at the general population’s increasing weight issue and continued love affair with smoking in the face of clear evidence that both habits shorten life. I think we’ll eventually get it, even though it will take a few generations before people consider eating healthy food and exercising regulary as obligatory as brushing their teeth.

the better angels of our natureBefore you call me a cock-eyed optimist, I’d like you to consider one more scientific study about our health that came out within the year. Last October, Harvard psychologist and world renowned thinker Steven Pinker published the findings from this study in a fascinating book called “The Better Angels of our Nature.” Pinker’s book makes a powerful case that human beings are gradually but steadily moving away from their old self-destructive ways. In his preparatory research Pinker exhaustively surveyed human violence through history, and he came to a surprising conclusion: In spite of what we see on the evening news, human violence has steadily decreased throughout history. For example in past centuries, people were prone to stabbing each other and cutting off each others’ noses at the dinner table. Dinner knives are for that reason round at the tips.

Fighting at the dinner tableToday the world in which that kind of boorish behavior was an everyday occurence is too far in our past for us to appreciate how far we’ve come in our table manners. Violence has decreased significantly even in the past 50 years, and we’re getting nicer to each other in other ways, among them bestowing human rights and fair treatment to others.

How do Pinker’s findings relate to exercise? Though Pinker doesn’t go into detail about whether we’re treating ourselves with increasing kindness, his research points clearly in that direction, and recent mass changes in behavior do too. Before the 1960s, new mothers wore girdles rather than exercising to get back into “pre-baby shape.” Before the 1980s, people rarely thought about planning for a high quality physical old ago, just a secure financial one. Another sign of change is the fitness industry’s growth from a bare existence 50 years ago to a $25 billion market last year. My reading of these shifts is that they confirm we’re in the learning stages of instilling good manners into ourselves towards our own bodies, a process that’s ultimately going to involve parents en mass teaching children from an early age about good food and regular exercise. The obesity epidemic looks bad to us now, but press the zoom-out button enough times, and I think the trend away from obesity and towards a full payoff from exercise will come into view.

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.

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How The Bar Method’s Workout Can Help Knee Issues, Part 1

Bar Method students with knee issue fall into three groups: those whose knee pain lessens or disappears after a few months of classes; those whose knees improve when they use Bar Method modifications during class that are specially designed for their particular condition; and those who have knee disorders that need a doctor’s care. This third group can benefit from taking the Bar Method. However, they need to use more specialize modifications during class, and their knee issues will take longer to resolve.

The reason there is so much variation in the way knees respond to exercise is that the knee is simply a very complicated joint. A lot of very different things can go wrong with it, and in recent years knee injuries have become so widespread that they are now the most common musculoskeletal complaint that people bring to their doctor. Two trends have converged to cause this recent surge. First, collegiate and amateur sports such as soccer, skiing and off-road biking have become more competitive. Second, the people signing up for these sports have become less fit. In the last ten years for example, the number of high school age girls who play soccer has doubled while the overall level of physical fitness in this age group has declined. Today girls are five times more likely than boys to injure their knees while playing this sport.

Fortunately most students with knee issues fall into the first group, the one that responds quickly to the Bar Method workout. These students’ knees simply lack stability due to loose or damaged ligaments or arthritis. Such conditions usually originate from sports that involve jumping, executing sudden turns such as soccer or repetitive high impact movements such as running. The Bar Method workout addresses such problems by firming up and patella lateral force for blog2 resized 600 balancing the muscles that run across the knee, thereby giving the joint the added stability via a strong girth of muscle. The Bar Method’s exercises were designed in conjunction with physical therapists with this express purpose in mind. Countless Bar Method students with ligament injuries or moderate joint degeneration have told me that their pain goes away after a few months of classes.

burr leonardThe second group of students usually have muscles running though their knees that are of unequal length and strength. When they bend their knee with a certain amount of muscle power, their muscles pull the knee cap to one side as shown above (usually in an outward direction) causing pain. Runners and dancers for different reasons come down with these conditions more so than other athletes. My favorite modification for this problem, shown to the right, is for students to do thigh-work with just a slight bend in their knees while squeezing a ball or small mat between their thighs. This position helps them to strengthen and tighten their inner quad and leg muscles, helping eventually to make them as strong as those in their outer quad and leg muscles.

The students in the third group, the ones who need additional modifications during class, have a wide range of conditions, each with its own set of causes and symptoms. Before I describe the modifications that these students would use, I want to explain why there are so many kinds of knees injuries. The reason in brief is that the human knee consists of a greater number of parts than the average joint. If just one goes awry, the rest of the knee is affected. Since the knee supports almost the entire weight of the body, when something goes wrong, the situation can deteriorate pretty quickly.

knee therapyThe knee, unlike most joints is composed of not two but three bones: the thigh bone, the shin bone and the knee cap (the patella). These bones are bound together by four major ligaments. Next, numerous tendons run up, down and across all sides of it. (Tendons are the ends of the muscles that operate your knee.) Finally, deep inside the knee joint is cartilage, meniscus, which is kind of sliding cartilage, and several bursae, which serve to reduce friction.

All of these components can misfire, wear out, or get tweaked, creating a multitude of knee issues that, should you have one, will affect your workout in different ways. It’s important to note that if you happen to be someone whose knees are bothering them, it’s important that you see your doctor if you’re feeling persistent joint pain.

Next week, I’ll describe some of the knee disorders that need special attention when you work out, and I’ll give you step by step instructions on how to modify The Bar Method exercises for these conditions.

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Successful Strategies for Beating Exercise Hunger

Does exercise make you more or less hungry? This is the question I asked in my last two blogs, and many of you responded by describing your personal experience with exercise hunger. More input came from The Bar Method Southern California facebook page, which polled its fans on this issue.

If you’re one who wrote in either to the blog or facebook that exercise makes you more hungry, you’re not alone. Ninety-five percent of the facebook respondents said that exercise definitely makes them “more hungry.” Some of the specific comments were:

“I’m a monster when I work out, all I want to do is eat. :(”

“a LOT hungrier, such a bummer.”

“More hungry. It sucks.”

“insatiable after Bar…..during abs all I think about is what I wanna eat…”

The Bar Method clearly can make students very hungry! What about the alleged appetite-suppressing power of exercise (see blog-before-last)? Is the Bar Method doing something in particular that makes people feel starving? In fact it is. The human body is genetically programmed to preserve homeostasis — that is, to change as little as possible in order to keep all its internal systems in a steady state. That’s why habits, both good and bad, get so entrenched. Activities that cause quick change set off metabolic alarm bells. It follows that the rapid increase in firm muscle that the Bar Method initiates in students’ bodies sometimes causes them to feel somewhat disoriented, which can translate into hunger.

Now for the good news: A number of the responses I got were from students who’d figured out by trial and error some effective ways of beating their exercise hunger. Their solutions are worth sharing:

1. Make sure to eat some healthy food before or after working out.

Ellen: I have a snack before I work out and then eat breakfast after, usually egg whites, oatmeal and berries and it seems to keep me satisfied

Ilona: I’m always hungry right after a work out so I make sure to pack a banana in my bag to munch on afterwards.

Vera: Since I started doing early a.m. Bar Method, I was starving, half way through class. Now I drink a protein shake before class and it makes all the difference in the world in my workout, appetite, weight, and strength. Now I’m seeing results!

2. Eat small meals more often.

Kelly: …small more frequent meals help me to not feel so hungry after my bar method workouts! Love the bar method 🙂

3. Try changing the time of day you work out. describe the image

Harmony (right): I noticed that the time of day I work out affects my appetite. If I work out early morning, I am more hungry throughout the day, but if I workout after lunch or at the end of the day, it suppresses my appetite. That gives me one more piece of information to work with when trying to balance exercise and calorie intake for overall results.

daisy_jumping_cropped med-resized-6004. Go to sleep a bit hungry.

Daisy (left): Totally agree about the tidbit about going to sleep a bit hungry, but not ravenous! I have found if I do that consistently, I can eat a healthy balanced meal of protein, fiber and sweet and still look awesome (don’t forget my bar method work outs!)

5. Take a serious look at your relationship with food.

Rali: Being ravenous after workouts used to be my MO until I realized I had an eating disorder. It took years to rebalance body and mind, but the result is that I now eat whatever I want and whenever I want it without adding weight. Funny how the mind works…

6. Stick with it! (and stay away from sugar).

julie_021 med-resized-600Julie (right): The Bar Method has really changed the way my body looks and feels. Doing the workout 3 to 4 times a week has added muscle and cut down on the hunger. I do agree with Burr cutting out the white sugar is very important and eating healthy foods in key. At 51 years old I have never felt so good!

Read how the production of lactic acid in intense exercise helps you lose weight!

Diet, Exercise, and Hunger

Exercise makes many people less hungry. Men as a group have been found to be largely immune from increased appetite after exercise, and may even become temporarily “anorexic” according to a 1994 study conducted in the U.K. by Leeds University. Previous studies at Leeds found that this suppression of appetite can last for up to two days.

Some women also experience the same appetite-suppressing effects from working out. Sara Giller, a comedienne, Bar Method teacher and desk manager at the Los Angeles studios, was heard to say recently, “Days when I exercise, I never want to eat. When I’m just working at the desk, though, I’m noshing all day.”

At the same time, many women exercisers are made somewhat more hungry by their workouts. An experiment conducted in 2007 by the U.K.-based Journal of Endrocrinology that included female subjects found that the subjects did feel hungrier after exercising, but, if left alone with food, consumed about a third fewer of the extra calories than their workout burned for them, thus achieving a caloric deficit overall.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those people whom exercise makes ravenous. This month I got an email from a Bar Method student named Andrea describing her struggle with this issue:

“I’ve been in love with the Bar Method for over a year,” Andrea wrote, “and have seen great changes in my body.…however, I feel as though my diet is all that is holding me back from seeing results… Is it normal that I feel hungrier than usual all day after doing a class? If yes, what is the best food to satisfy my post-workout hunger?…What does your daily diet look like? I would really appreciate any feedback.”

Muscle building exerciseFirst of all, for Andrea and others who run into this road-block to body-change, there is good news on the horizon. Past Bar Method students with this issue have reported to us that their appetites revert to normal after about six months of classes. It is likely that their initial hunger was being caused by rapidly increasing muscle mass, an essential component in body reshaping. (Here’s a blog I did on how the Bar Method builds and sculpts muscles.) During those first six months or so, students’ bodies also burn away a significant amount of intramuscular fat, which thereafter no longer needs to be fed. After that time, their leaner bodies are feeding muscle not fat, and their appetites revert to normal or even become a bit suppressed. Men probably don’t fall prey to exercise hunger, unless they are body-builders, because their bodies are genetically predisposed to have leaner, denser muscles than women, even without exercise.

Okay, but how do students cope with the raging hunger in the meantime? I thought about what to advise Andrea. I knew that people can learn to be okay with feeling a little hungry, but they can’t cope with feeling ravenous. Minimizing her risk of feeling famished by keeping her blood sugar level steady would be foremost. I included elements of my own eating habits and sent Andrea these tips:

• Avoid eating sweets during the first six months that you take the Bar Method. Staying away from sweetened foods will help your body burn away fat more quickly.

• Avoid eating after dinner.

• Don’t eat muffins or cookies.

• Drink water slowly. It will relax your stomach.

• When you go to bed, feel just a bit hungry but not starving.

• And of course eat reasonably healthy food.

I pressed “send” and immediately remembered that I had right at my fingertips a wealth of fantastic advice on dieting that I hadn’t included. For eight years The Bar Method has handed out an article by Consumer Reports called “The Truth About Dieting,” which is mind blowing, especially for those who’ve  gotten caught up in all the hype in the media about losing weight.  “The Truth About Dieting” is packed with eye-opening – and entertaining — scientific information on how simple changes in diet – with the help of exercise – can cause you to eat less and lose weight. Wow, I thought! This is MUST reading not just for Andrea but for anyone who’s ever wanted to take off a few pounds. The article is not available in its entirety online, so I will describe its highlights – including six tips for losing weight and keeping it off in next week’s blog.

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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  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

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exercise and Age

Exercise affects people differently at different ages. I never gave much thought to how age would impact the results I got from exercise; that is until it did. At age 36, three Lotte Berk Method classes a week – all I could afford at that time — were enough to give me thighs and buns like rocks. In my 40s I opened my first exercise studio, so I bumped up my attendance to four times a week. That extra weekly class made me even stronger and more toned, which led me to believe that I could hold onto my level of fitness indefinitely simply by continuing to work out at that rate.

I’d love to report that over the next 20 years, exercising that much protected my body against aging, but that is not the case. By my late 50s, I began to notice that skipping class for more than a few days in a row left me feeling weak, and that I had to struggle through a week’s worth of classes after such a lapse to recover my strength. When I hit 60, my muscles started to feel like sieves, the strength draining out of them unless I attended class very regularly. Now that I’m closing in on 63, I find that the Bar Method is still giving me great results, but I need to take class five times a week to get them.

exercise and ageMy story is typical of regular exercisers. According to a report by Dr. Stephen Seiler, a leading sports scientist, “after about age 60, strength levels fall more rapidly” in people who strength train on a long-term basis. ”The good news,” he writes, are that these declines “are diminished by continued training.”

What happens, then, to people who don’t exercise?  The study cited by Dr. Seiler found that their decline in muscle strength starts decades earlier, in their 30s, and then accelerates relative to their active peers. The way to avoid this loss, it turns out, is exercise more often as you get older.

Sedentary people not only get weaker by the way. They also get heavier.  A recent study of 34,079 non-dieting middle-aged women published last month by the Institute of Medicine found that over 13 years these women gained an average of six pounds each. A subgroup of 13% of the women, however, did not gain weight. These were the women in the study who did moderate-to-intense exercise for about hour a day every day. Even the ones who exercised a half-an-hour of a day, which doctors have recommended for years, didn’t keep the extra weight from coming on.

These findings make sense when you consider a long-known fact about our bodies. Without exercise we lose on average about a half a pound of muscle mass a year. That adds up, over 20 years, to 10 fewer pounds of muscle to burn the calories consumed.

I’m happy to know that upping my number of classes per week has special benefits related to my age. That is good news but the really good news according to Dr. Seller is that you can begin strength training at any age and make significant gains in your muscle mass. I also feel fortunate that I do the Bar Method because it continues to feel good on my body as I get older. It is so safe and gentle that it’s something I can do all my life to maintain my strength.

ab strength

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Exercise Makes You Smarter

Near my house there are 200 steps going up to another street. I often run up them when walking my dog.  After the run when I return to my computer and I happen to be working on an article or blog, my mind suddenly fills with new ideas. The scientific community has recently come up with a flood of new information on why my mind seems sharper after working out.

exercise smartNot just one or two, but dozens of studies over the last few years have shown that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells, reverses the aging process, and even causes the front lobes to increase in size. Working out, according to these studies, improves thinking over both the short and the long term. We used to think of exercise as just something we do to look and feel better. Now we can add that exercise makes you “think better,” too.

smart exerciseNewsweek reported in March of 2007 that there is a “recent and rapidly growing movement in science showing that exercise can make people smarter,” and the reason, according to The New York Times in November of 2009 is because of “improved research techniques and a growing understanding of the biochemistry… of thought itself.” “The field is just exploding,” says Fred Gage, who co-authored a study on exercise and cognition.

When you look at a sampling of these studies as a group, their implications are pretty mind-blowing. Here are brief summaries of a few of them. They provide a powerful incentive, I think, for all the couch potatoes who want to get an edge their goals to get moving.

Studies on mice and rats:
• In May 2009 researchers at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan forced mice to run faster than their normal speeds. After four weeks, these mice beat out a control group of mice at skills and learning tests.

• Another neuroscientist, Fernando Gómez-Pinilla also did experiments comparing rats that exercised to those who didn’t and found the fitter rats smarter.

Studies on children:
• In a study published in 2007, Charles Hillman, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, reported on an experiment he did with 259 third and fifth graders. He tested them both for physical fitness and cognitive ability. Those with the fittest bodies were the ones with the fittest brains, even when factors such as socioeconomic status were taken into account.

• The Naperville, Illinois school system has for several years been scheduling its students with poor verbal skills to take PE right before reading class. Their reading scores have significantly improved.

Studies on adults:
• A 2007 National Academy of Sciences study found that people who worked out for three months sprouted new brain neurons.

• A psychologist at the University of Illinois recently discovered that exercise causes people’s frontal lobes to increase in size. “It’s not just a matter of slowing down the aging process,” says Arthur Kramer, author of the study. “It’s a matter of reversing it.”

Studies on older adults:
• 155 women ages 65 to 75 who did strength training for a year scored 10.9 to 12.6 percent higher on cognitive tests than women the same age who did just balance and toning exercises.

• Other studies have found that exercise slows the onset of dementia. “Active adults have less inflammation in the brain. They also have fewer “little bitty strokes that can impair cognition without the person even knowing,” says Kristin Yaffe, a neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco

In a nutshell, says John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist, “Exercise stimulates a brain chemical that acts like Miracle-Grow for the brain.”

At age 62, I’m not going to take a chance that all this evidence is anything but for real. See you in class!

Read how scientists have also determined that exercise improves mood.

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