The Method

The Bar Method’s Addicting Blend of Structure and Novelty

July 8, 2013
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There are two opposing theories about how best to design an exercise routine. One group of experts says you need to stick with a consistent program. The other side says doing a new and different set of exercises every week or so will give you better results. This debate has heated up within the weight lifting world ever since P90X, a home workout program sold by a company called Beachbody, came out in 2003. P90X’s central premise challenged a core tenet of the muscling building world: that you’ve got to repeat the same move over and over again to get results. Beachbody proposed a different theory. Mixing it up is better because, that way your body will never get used to the routines, it says. Beachbody named its technique the science of muscle confusion and made it the foundation of P90X.

The claim that confusing your muscles works better than plain old repetition threw the hard-core muscle guys into combat mode. Some of their comments were:

You can’t just overload your muscles for a week and then shift the base to other muscles for the next week. Fitness writer Abhijit Naikand. 

Muscles cannot be confused, perplexed, bewildered or even a little befuddled, Brandon Morrison, founder of a fitness company and the website Lift Big Eat Big.  

Muscle Confusion goes against everything I learned in physiology.” Physiologist Steve Young.

My favorite tirade against muscle confusion (see http://www.aworkoutroutine.com/muscle-confusion/) is by Jay Cutler, super-pumped four-time winner of the title Mr. Olympia. His witty rant sums up the fury of the body-building world over the suggestion that to buff up you don’t have to work your tail off doing upteen repetitions of an excruciating move.

Does this clash among muscle builders have anything to do with barre fitness? Obviously the goal of barre workouts isn’t to pump your muscles. Nonetheless, both types of exercise are essentially strength-work, and this process, no matter what shape you’re aiming to end up with, demands, in my view, a consistent routine. First of all, I’ve found that you simply have hit a muscle on a regular basis to get it to change. You can’t work your thighs on Thursday and your glutes on Friday. Shaping muscles requires lots of repetition!

And that’s not all I’ve noticed about the benefits of consistency. It also helps you learn to work the right muscles. Any kind of strength work, whether it’s sculpting a dancer’s body or pumping yourself into a Goliath, involves learning how to catch the muscles you want to reshape. This process is not like aerobics, the goal of which is simply to keep your heart rate elevated. Working a muscle requires you to contract the right one, and that’s not easy at first. You might not really be “in” the muscle you want to shape until maybe your 30th workout. If you switch up your routine too often, you may never find it.

Therefore I agree with the muscle guys when it comes to the importance of a consistent routine, whether you want it to look huge, bulky and tough or long, lean and graceful.

In a barre fitness class, a structured format gives you even more benefits. It enables you to work on coordination, alignment and posture (more about that later). It gives your teacher a window within each exercise to guide and coach you, and a set sequence when it’s well-designed, doubles the effectiveness of each exercise. (see my blog WHY THE BAR METHOD WORKS SO WELL).

But wait! There’s a significant difference between barre fitness and bodybuilding, one that opens up the debate about consistency vs. variety all over again. Barre fitness, unlike bodybuilding, is a form of functional exercise. It not only sculpts your muscles. It gives you an array of other physical benefits: increased flexibility, straighter alignment, better posture, improved patterns of motion, and enhanced coordination, grace and athleticism in everything you do.

Due to this difference variety does play a role in enhancing results when you’re doing functional exercise. When youre working on enhancing your patterns of motion and general athleticism, youre effectively simulating real life. Not knowing what comes next in this kind of class trains your mind and body to work together as a more tightly knit team. So by not being able to anticipate the next tempo or direction, you can systemically learn to meet the unexpected with improved coordination, alignment, posture and precision.

Mix up a barre fitness class too much however, and you lose its structure along with its many benefits. Like the muscle guys said, you really dont want to confuse your muscles. You want to keep them as informed as possible. Novelty is not for your muscles anyway. Its for your mind and your mind-body connection. So if a barre class regularly changes the sequence of the workout, the added interest this switch might initially give you could comes at the expense of results. This particular change in sequence, for example, not allow your back muscles to warm up enough to do your best crunches.

In my view, the ideal barre fitness workout weaves novelty into its structure so that you reap the benefits of both sculpting and body-training. The Bar Method, like a ballet class, uses an overlying structure within which it inserts novelty with rhythmic, ever-changing choreography and a rich palate of exercise variations.

This technique makes it unlikely that you’ll know which exercise variations you’ll get in a particular class. Then once you’re moving, you’re compelled to stay alert to catch the next tempo, direction and choreographic turn. In this way you mentally stay on the edge of your seat as you fight you way through the inevitable intensity your body will encounter.

Ballet classes are a great example of this formula. For hundreds of years, these classes have adhered to the same basic sequence of exercises. Ballet students often begin this routine as young children and perform it until the end of their careers as dancers. The combination of specialized muscle tone and ability this routine gives them is what dramatically changes their bodies into dancers bodies. Like a classic ballet barre sequence, the Bar Method’s blend of structure and novelty provides its students with the amazing changes that regular practice can work on their bodies, while it keeps their minds engaged enough to focus on finding the right muscles and improving form “ an addicting formula.