Why Barre Workouts Need to Pay Special Attention to Alignment

One-weight liftsI started teaching bar fitness in Greenwich, Connecticut in May of 1992 when my husband and I became licensees of the Lotte Berk Method, the bar fitness pioneer based in nearby New York City. During my first few weeks as a studio owner, my students told me they loved the workout, but some of them mentioned that they were feeling some pain in their knees, backs and shoulders.

I consulted a physical therapist, Rick Stebbins, about these complaints. Rick watched a few classes. Then he gave me the good news and the bad news: The workout was generally terrific. As a physical therapist, he believed everyone should do strength-work to keep their joints healthy, and the Lotte Berk Method did that well. But, he added, some of the positions I was teaching could tweak joints.

reverse pushupsI enlisted Rick to help me find safer ways to teach the exercises, and over the next months, we worked together to rethink them. “One-weight lifts,” for example, an exercise for the back of the shoulder, was taught by the Lotte Berk Method with a rounded back. We repositioned the spine so that it was neutral. Reverse pushups were trickier. The Lotte Berk classes extended students’ bodies forward away from their arms, which Rick said put the shoulder and wrist joints at risk. We almost eliminated reverse pushups entirely, but both of us really loved how it quickly strengthened the triceps. Finally, we agreed that if students pressed their ribcages and upper arms together and maintained vertical arms, the exercise became sufficiently safe, as Amy illustrates at right.

reverse pushupsThe result of our efforts turned out to be better than either of us expected. The workout became safe enough to be rehabilitative for students with pre-existing injuries. What’s more, the class got harder and more targeted, and it was changing students’ bodies faster. One reason is that I could now give more reps with confidence that my students were in good alignment. By 2001, the workout had diverged so much from Lotte Berk’s that our two companies mutually agreed to part ways. We became the Bar Method.

Today, 20 years later, bar fitness is exploding. You can take a bar class at hundreds of studios around the country as well as at gyms and yoga studios. All I can say is, what took them so long to get here? Bar-based routines are fantastic at making bodies beautiful. They use weight loads (students’ own bodies), so they shape students’ muscles, and their strength intervals can last for enough reps to build stamina and burn fat.

These benefits, however, come with a caveat: bar workouts to be safe need to pay special attention to alignment. Take a closer look at what happens in a bar fitness workout, and you’ll see why:

From Strength Training AnatomyBar exercise is strength-work. Unlike purely aerobic exercise it loads a muscle with more weight than it’s comfortable supporting. Unlike classical strength technique however, bar routines require loaded muscles to perform up to 100 reps at a time. Strength training limits its sets to eight to ten reps that are performed with focus and under the guidance of spotters.

Bar classes give their students less weight than strength work does and fewer reps than cardio. But the fact remains: bar classes load muscles for minutes at a time, so they need to bear in mind the alignment of the underlying joints. bernadetteSpeaking for the Bar Method, I can say we do our best to make our bar exercises safe.

Bar Method students tell us that they appreciate this effort. “Bar has been invaluable to me over the past few years,” a student named Bernadette Collins wrote me. “I tore my hamstring a few years ago and it has helped tremendously with rehab and strengthening… I believe there are other ‘similar’ classes out there. However, having tried one or two, they aren’t as well conceived or safe as the Bar Method, in my opinion.”

8 replies
  1. Ann Korach
    Ann Korach says:

    Burr I am so glad you wrote this piece. As a teacher of ballet and disciple of Lotte’s, I have kept a keen eye on the exercise market and there has been an explosion of barre work outs, many of which are highly touted. However I believe Bar Method to be one of the safest along with Exhale ,the current trend is to see a great amount of fast change movements which definitely can cause joint strain and thus injury. Keep up the great work and keep the articles coming.
    Thank you, Ann

  2. SusanM
    SusanM says:

    Great post. I appreciate the information about how the Bar Method is tailored to strengthen without harming joints. This also helps to explain why Bar Method instructors are sticklers for good form and it reminds me to focus on my form. I look forward to your blog entries every month. Keep them coming!

  3. jessica
    jessica says:

    i agree! as a pilates instructor i can’t stress enough how good alignment keeps a workout safe but also eases stress on the incorrect parts of the body we don’t want to work – then the work is more focused and targeted where we want to tone!

  4. donna
    donna says:

    I tore my hamstring when I was 40 playing soccer with the kids I was coaching (welcome to 40!) It’s bothered me ever since. Started doing Bar Method in October at the Carmel Mountain Studio, and now when I go to my strength training workouts, I notice my hamstring is much stronger and I’m upping my weights. So yes, it’s working! Still having some back issues though. I think I need to work more on the alignment…

  5. Debbie Grewal
    Debbie Grewal says:

    I like many things about the Bar Method and find it to be the most efficient workout in one hour. However, I have had several persitent injuries-both shoulder (from the arm exercises) and back — (ab work). I no longer use weights for a couple of the arm exercises and do not participate in the tri-cep dips. I cannot do high curl either.

    I have been going to the Bar Method for a couple years, and during this past year I’ve had to drop down my activity significantly due to injuries. When in class, I am spotted and usually told I have good form. I have learned to make my own adjustments as I am not willing to be injured…. because then I cannot workout at all. I have made many visits to a physical therapist to take care of these injuries.

  6. Gregory Brown
    Gregory Brown says:

    This is one of the safest and effective workout methods that I have tried. You can really feel the effects of your workout when you are done and the results that you see are absolutely amazing. I wish I had found this years ago when I first started working out.

  7. Charleen
    Charleen says:

    I was introduced to the Bar Method when hip pain forced me to quit running. After 35 years of running, I was sure my life was over. However, Bar Method proved to not only give me the same endorphin fix I got from running, but I my muscles felt leaner and I was definitely more agile. I remember falling out of a chair at work and gracefully landing in push up position. I felt so strong. Everyone around me was wide-eyed and talked about how strong and gracefully I “did that”. Moreover, Bar Method helped me postpone an inevitable hip replacement surgery. When doctors saw my deteriorated hip xrays, they were shocked at my wide range of motion and low pain level. After surgery, I was immediately able to walk without an assistive device and within the week was cleaning bathrooms and gardening, with pain controlled by regular strength acetaminophen. I had an excellent surgeon and Physical Therapist who attributed my successful surgery and recovery to my adherence to an exercise program of strengthening and stretching, The Bar Method. People sometimes ask if I will start running again, and I think, why would I? My joints are happier and I look and feel better doing the Bar Method. Honestly there are reasons I miss running, like the deep meditative aspect of “the zone”, which I don’t experience in anything else, not even walking or swimming. But walking, like running can be done with a buddy, where you talk and laugh as you as you experience the panoramic outdoors and changing seasons.


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