Historically barre classes, like The Bar Method, have been categorized as a form of isometric exercise. While this is not necessarily inaccurate, it is not a true representation of what The Bar Method is and how it effectively strengthens and transforms the body. Like most things in life, there is much more to it than what meets the eye. In order to understand how The Bar Method works, it helps to become familiar with the different ways that muscles operate.
When engaged, muscles can produce three different types of contractions: isometric, concentric, or eccentric. Isometric comes from the Greek word “isos”, which translates to “having the same measurement”. An isometric contraction is when a muscle contracts, but no movement is produced. At The Bar Method, an example of an isometric contraction is a static hold in parallel thigh work. The quadriceps are engaged in this position, but the muscle fibers do not change in length, therefore, no movement is produced. Other examples of Bar Method isometric exercises include planks, static curl with the feet on the floor (previously referred to as low curl), and holding the working leg still in fold–over.
While there are many examples of isometric exercises at The Bar Method, anyone who has taken a class knows there is much more to our method than static holds. Although our movements tend to be very small, they do involve both eccentric and concentric movements, too. A concentric muscle contraction is when a muscle shortens as it contracts. Drawing weights towards the body during bicep curls is an example of a concentric contraction of the biceps. In other words, the muscle is shortening while the elbow is bending. Conversely, an eccentric contraction is when a muscle lengthens while it contracts. Lowering the weights away from the body during bicep curls illustrates an eccentric contraction of the biceps (the bicep muscle lengthens as the elbow extends).
Since Bar Method movements are relatively small, the body relies on muscular contractions to control movement rather than momentum. This not only helps to strengthen muscles but protects the joints and ligaments throughout the body which prevents injury. To get a better understanding of how the muscles engage during class, let’s use our knowledge of muscle contractions and apply it to a set of parallel thigh work. When a Bar Method instructor cues you to press down during a set of high–heeled parallel thigh work, many muscle groups are working at the same time to produce movement. The quadriceps are lengthening and producing an eccentric contraction, lowering the body down. The hamstrings are shortening, producing a concentric motion. This co-contraction of the quadriceps and hamstrings helps keep the movement controlled, while simultaneously strengthening and lengthening musculature. Lastly, the calf muscles are isometrically contracting to aid in the stabilization of the knee joint. Needless to say, there are a lot of things happening at once! And this is only one small example in a Bar Method class, so imagine what an entire class of exercises with this methodology can do.
The concurrent work of strengthening and lengthening exercise, plus the intelligent placement of Bar Method exercises results in strong, long, lean muscles. The next time you take class, think about a specific exercise and try to visualize all of the different ways your muscles are working to produce movement, control and stability at the same time. You will be amazed at what your body is capable of and may find a new appreciation for your inner and outer strength.
About The Author
Kerrisa Smith Manheimer has been a licensed physical therapist for over 16 years, working in a variety of settings throughout her career including: orthopedics, outpatient neuro, acute rehab, skilled nursing, acute care, and home healthcare. Kerrisa has been a Bar Method student for more than 10 years, and an instructor for seven years. Currently, Kerrisa teaches at The Bar Method Boston and also serves as a physical therapy consultant to The Bar Method headquarters. She enjoys working with the entire Bar Method team, studio owners, and members. In addition to teaching and taking Bar Method classes, Kerrisa loves to travel, explore new restaurants with her husband and friends, and spend time with her Bernese Mountain dog Frankie.