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

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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Adapting The Bar Method Workout To Students with Foot Problems

Look closely enough at the Bar Method’s technique and you’ll find a second Bar Method technique inside of it. This auxiliary Bar Method is similar to the original with the exception that it’s tailored to students with physical limitations or injuries. If you’re someone who is lucky enough not to have issues, you might be surprised at how many of your fellow students do.

Students have come to me about how to deal with inflamed joints, torn ligaments, strained muscles, exercise headaches, diaphragm cramps, bunions, vertigo, carpel tunnel syndrome, IT band syndrome, compressed disks, numbness in certain positions, diastasis split, plantar fasciitis, scoliosis, pelvic floor disorder, MS, whiplash, frozen shoulder and varicose veins. Others have consulted me about recovering from surgery and having immune diseases that cause weakness and pain.  Don’t underestimate the frustration these students feel! They didn’t chose to have these problems, and I commend them for seeking an exercise routine they can do safely.

The first advice I give those who ask me how to adapt the class so that it works with their health issues is to consult a medical professional. I also let them know that most doctors recommend exercise to patients with most medical conditions since it’s an activity that strengthens both the immune system and the skeletal joints. By all measures the Bar Method would seem to an ideal choice for many of people with special conditions. It’s non-impact, rehabilitative and gentle — not to mention tremendously effective at strengthening the muscles around joints – and it comes with a comprehensive set of modifications designed for students with a wide range of physical limitations.

physical therapyTake for example one of the most common physical problems that students encounter while exercising: sensitive feet. Due to fashion’s enduring fondness for putting women in super high heels, many students have beaten up their feet by wearing them, and I’m no exception. I have legs that are on the short side, so throughout the 70s and 80s while living in Manhattan I stuffed my feet into high heel boots, clogs, pumps, strappy sandals, skin-tight jazz shoes – whatever made me feel taller. By the early 90s I was hobbling and in 1994 had to have a bunion operation. This experience finally wised me up, and I switched to wearing medium heels. People with foot problems didn’t necessarily get them the way I did. Students have been injured by falling down the stairs, being run over by a bicycle, spraining their ankle, rupturing their achillis tendon, running marathons on pavement, or simply stubbing their toe really badly.

In whichever manner students came to have their foot conditions, my own past experience gives me a personal reason for making the class totally doable for them. Here’s how I’ve tailored the workout, exercise by exercise, so that such students can do it with minimum stress to their feet:

— During heel lifts, you can either raise both of your heels just an inch up and down, or alternate your heels.

–During thigh-work:

thigh workout• If you’re a student who takes in a studio: do “chair” in place of parallel and legs-together thigh-work. “Chair” is a thigh-work position during which the feet stay flat on the floor (the teacher will show you how to do it).

• If you’re a student who does the Bar Method DVDs, simply keep your heels low and bend your knees less than the DVD instructor is doing.

• If you simply have sensitive feet, try standing on a small Bar Method mat (shown at right), which you’ll be able to buy on our website starting this week.

• Whichever Bar Method workout you’re doing, feel free to substitute leg lifts for any other thigh exercise.

Whatever your foot issue, I hope these guidelines enable you feel the burn in comfort!

In the coming weeks: modifications for your knees, hips, back and shoulders. Stay tuned for the release of our new DVDs!

Click here to read how exercise can function as preventative physical therapy.

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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: How The Bar Method Exercises Target Back Muscles

For the past couple of weeks, I ve been discussing the vulnerable areas in our human bodies and how The Bar Method strengthens them. Our back is certainly one of our most susceptible body parts. The origin of our back issues goes way back to when we stood up on two legs, losing the relative stability that comes with having four of them. Our back problems got worse when modern conveniences enabled most of us humans to lead very successful lives without doing much upper body work. Twenty-First Century Man could scarcely move all day and still make Forbes 100 Richest list at the end of the year.

It’s a fact that, as reported by the New York Times, people who do not exercise regularly face an increased risk for low back pain. Is it any wonder then that low back pain is the second most common cause of missed days of work (next to the common cold) in the United States? Close to 80% of all Americans experience it at some point and about 50% of us experience each year.

A common misconception about lower back pain is that we can eliminate it simply by doing abdominal exercises. The logic here is that a strong front of the body will give you a strong back. The truth is, to have a healthy back, you have to strengthen not only the front of your trunk but the back itself, and develop good posture and alignment.

back muscles

Look at the chart above. It shows the superficial layers of the muscles in our backs. I‘m struck by the beauty of these intertwined muscular groupings and impressed by the obvious importance of each of these muscles in keeping us upright and healthy. When I talk to new Bar Method students who tell me they have problematic backs, I rarely hear them ask me about how to strengthen their back muscles. Yet clearly our back muscles were meant to be used and strengthened, especially given that they have a unique role in holding us upright unlike our distant four legged ancestors.

How can we minimize our risk of suffering from back pain or injury? Jonathan Clutt, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and About.com writer, recommends “sustained use of back muscles performed two or three times a week at least.” Sports injury expert Owen Anderson of Sports Injury Bulletin reported on five different studies on lower back pain, which all lead to the same conclusion. In the article he urges us to: “consider one last study, a beauty carried out in Teheran, Iran, with a grand total of 600 subjects. These 600 individuals were subdivided into four groups: 150 asymptomatic men, 150 asymptomatic women, 150 men with low-back pain, and 150 women with the same….. As it turned out, among all of the physical characteristics measured, the endurance of the back-extensor (erector-spinae) muscles had the highest (negative) association with low-back pain. The Iranian researchers suggested that low-back-muscle endurance could be used as a screening tool to predict which individuals would be likely to develop low-back disorders.”  In other words, just as as Dr. Cluett said above, people should do exercises that employ sustained use of the back muscles and the erector-spinae muscle group is a particular important one to keep toned.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching Bar Method classes and hanging out in the waiting room with students before and after class is hearing from some of them how much The Bar Method has helped their backs.  The Method does that in a variety of ways. In addition to strengthening the abdominals, it strengthens, stretches and aligns students’ backs.  Stretching on the stall bars at the start and end of class lengthens the spine and reverses some of its constant compression from gravity. The first 15 minutes of classes specifically strengthens the shoulder, arms, and upper body muscles including the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and lats. Students use their upper backs consistently during this segment.

The Bar Method’s leg exercises also plays a role in stabilizing students’ backs. At the bar, Students’ back muscles get the very kind of sustained isometric work which strengthens the erector spinae to protect against lower back pain. Then they work their glutes, which act as a support for the lower back and must be strong to protect the spine.

After the glutes are exhausted and stretched, we turn to a series of core exercises. One of the most important of these is called flat back. This move cleverly forces the transverse abdominal muscle (which acts like a girdle around our entire middle) to fire and stay strong as it gives support to our spines. (Read more about this exercise for the deepest layer of muscle in our cores in HOW FLAT BACK GIVES US THE ABS OF OUR DREAMS.) Stretches punctuate the work to stretch and elongate all these muscles as we strengthen them. Towards the end of class, we do a pose specifically for the erector spinae after which we stretch the back while strengthening the glutes in an exercise we call back dancing but is known to many as a common physical therapy move for people with low back pain.

People know that The Bar Method gives you flat abs, toned thighs, and a lifted seat.  What they might not have known until now it that it also gives you a strong, stretched, supple back!

Strong Backs

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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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Fitness TIps on Maintaining Healthy Shoulders

Raise your arm.  Does your shoulder lift significantly upwards towards your ear at the same time?  Now raise both of your arms together.  Do your shoulders tend to round forward? If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, one of your upper back muscles – the “trapezius” to be specific” – isn’t working as it should. A lazy trapezius can cause your shoulders to tense over time so much that your neck begins to look shorter.

healthy sholdersLet me describe how your “trap” is supposed to work.  The trapezius moves your shoulders-blades up, in and down.  The lower part of your trap – the part that moves your shoulders down – is supposed to contact when you raise your arm, stabilizing your shoulder joint. The problem is, a lot of people’s lower traps don’t do this or, worse, their upper traps fire instead. These people seem to be lifting their arms and shoulders-blades as if they were one joint. This habit not only makes people look awkward. According to an intriguing study done in 2003, it can also injure their shoulders.

That year, a Belgian physical therapist named Ann Cools gathered together 69 athletes, both men and women, whose sports involved a lot of arm raising. These “overhand” athletes played volleyball, racquet ball, tennis or other ball sports or were swimmers. Thirty-nine of her subjects suffered from shoulder impingements, a painful condition that results in weakness and loss of range of motion. Shoulder impingement is the most common upper-back injury among athletes. Cools’ other thirty athletes were injury-free.

Cools attached electrodes around the shoulders of these athletes, then told them to move their arms in different directions. Sometimes she used weight machines to add resistance to her subjects’ arm movements. She was careful to avoid any further injury to her subjects by instructing them to stop moving as soon as they felt any pain.

Cools’ findings were unequivocal. There was a significant difference in how the two groups of athletes used their traps. When the healthy athletes raised their arms, their inner and lower “trap” muscles contracted almost immediately to keep their shoulders-blades in place. When the injured athletes raised their arms, their “traps” fired much later, too late to prevent the shoulder-blades from sliding out of place.

In the Bar Method classes I teach, roughly about half of my students lift their shoulders and arms together. As often as possible I remind them to lower their shoulders, and when I can I give them a gentle tap on the tops of their shoulders. My students usually smile back at me when I remind them of their shoulder stance, aware that they look much better with a relaxed looking neck. Cools’ study shows that my efforts with these students also saves their shoulders from possible future injury.

If you are a Bar Method student and find that your shoulders tend to go up during arm raises, you can apply the tips from last week’s blog THE MIND BODY CONNECTION, BEAUTY AND THE BAR METHOD on relaxing the lower back to rewire your mind/body connection to your shoulders.  Using your shoulder muscles correctly and gracefully will make a big difference in the way you look and feel.

fitness tips

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Core Strengthening and Other Benefits of Signature Bar Method Exercises

In the fall of 2004, Kate Burgess, a marketing executive who lives in Chicago, developed severe back pain. She went the round of doctors and therapists, took anti-inflammatory drugs, tried injections, massages, back braces, chiropractic care and physical therapy. Kate had been athletic before the onset of her back pain. She remembers feeling “so incredibly sad to quit all the sports I was involved in.”

Finally after years of searching for a cure, Kate managed to find some relief from acupuncture. Nonetheless her doctors told her that she would never be able to do a sit-up or a crunch again. She continued to look for solutions anyway and, as she tells it, “decided to give Bar Method a shot.” That was a year ago. Today, Kate says, “I can do things that professionals told me I could/should never do. I am in this ‘better place’ physically (and thus emotionally).”

round backKate shares her positive outcome with hundreds of Bar Method students who came to the technique with back conditions. The reason that Kate and so many other students have benefitted from doing the Bar Method workout is that it was designed with back rehabilitation in mind. Two exercises in particular, “round-back” and “flat-back,” which were reformulated from the Lotte Berk Method original exercises with the help of physical therapists, are highly effective at both rehabbing problem backs and maintaining healthy ones.

What precisely are the benefits of these two exercises?  To get an informed answer I asked four physical therapists, all of whom take the Bar Method – Mary Dellenbach, a PT in Fort Collins, Colorado; Heidi Morton, our consulting PT in Summit, New Jersey; Jayme Anderson, a PT who consults for us in Walnut Creek, California; and Julie Bolanos, who is both a PT and a Bar Method teacher in San Mateo, California.

“Round-back”, says Mary Dellenbach, “assists in proper pelvic alignment” by stretching your hamstrings. “Using your abs while stretching your hamstrings assists in strengthening your core muscles, also key in preventing and relieving back pain.”

Heidi Morton loves “round-back” not only for core strengthening power but also for its ability to align and strengthen knee muscles. As an open chain quadraceps strengthener, in which the feet are off the ground and therefore the body’s weight is not a factor, quad muscles get a chance to work across the knee to evenly contract and lock the quads into place thereby balancing and stabilizing the patella.

Jayme Anderson says that “round-back” helps students learn better use of their abdominals while breathing. “Research is emphasizing the importance of the coordinated interplay between the diaphragm, the pelvic floor muscles and the deep intrinsics, and the abdominal wall. Round-back ”happens to be,” she says, “an effective activator not only of the abdominals but also of the pelvic floor.”

Julie Bolanos sees many benefits from “round-back,” among them:
–stretching of the thoraco-lumbar spinal muscles,
–strengthening of the anterior upper extremity muscles, coupled with co-contraction of posterior muscles,
–strengthening abdominals, hip flexors, quadriceps, gastrocnemii, anterior tibialli, and intrinsic foot muscles,
–endurance and stamina,
–pain-relieving for clients with spinal stenosis, and
–alignment of the patello-femoral joint.

(Read more about how The Bar Method works as preventative physical therapy.)

In answer to those of you who wrote me last week asking about “round-back” and “flat-back,” they are core stabilization exercises that are taught only in the Bar Method studio version and not in the home dvds. The reason we can’t offer them to those of you at home is that they require a securely wall-attached bar, a piece of equipment that most home users don’t have access to. In the future we plan to develop a bar for home use that will work for “round-back” and “flat-back.” Meanwhile both the dvd and studio versions of the workout effectively sculpt and elongate your body. The studio version however does so more efficiently for now since it includes “round-back” and “flat-back”.

NEXT WEEK: Physical therapists talk about the benefits of “flat-back.”

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