One benefit you get from doing the Bar Method and other exercise routines that are both intense and safe is that you fortify your body against injury. The strength, flexibility, joint stability and enhanced coordination you gain all reduce the likelihood that you’ll tweak, strain, sprain or break something. Even so, injuries can happen to anybody no matter their level of fitness. The good news is that your body is equipped with its own EMS service, which rushes to the scene after you’re injured to start putting you back together. You can speed your recovery by knowing something about this healing system, which is the subject of this blog.
First though, I want to tell you some exciting news. Last weekend, a group of wonderful Bar Method teachers from around the country taught classes in front of a camera, and these classes will soon be online for you to take wherever you are. With master teacher Kate Grove producing, the teachers rocked! They were challenging, easy to follow and hilarious. Thank you, Bar Method teachers, for helping us take the Bar Method online!
Returning to how your muscles heal, here are five fun facts about what happens inside you during the healing process that are good to know if you ever find yourself working through a recovery:
First, your body heals in two basic ways, by means of “regeneration” or “repair.”
1: You can actually regenerate parts of yourself to a certain extent.
In the movie The Wolverine, Huge Jackman develops mutant super-human healing powers after being doused by radiation from an atomic bomb. His regenerative powers are actually less science fiction than you might think. Our bodies can really do what his did, only not nearly so quickly or on such a large scale. We also share the Wolverine’s reason for being able to regenerate live tissue: Survival! To meet this primordial need, our bodies evolved our two complementary healing systems.
The first healing system, “regeneration,” is in essence the same re-growth technique as the Wolverine’s, namely, by means of tissue regeneration, which works with small injuries (Scientists are working on some day giving us a way for us to regenerate major body parts, but they’re not there yet). One instance of “regeneration” is when you’re sore after exercise and your body knits together the micro-tears in your muscles you sustained by working out intensely. In this case of regeneration, the muscle heals stronger than before (see last month’s blog).
2: Your body’s healing kit also has its own “cement filler.”
“Repair” is our body’s other healing system. The “repair” system doesn’t generate new tissue. Instead it grows scar tissue to patch up injuries that are too large for us to fix with new cells of the original type. During “repair,” your body sends collagen to the wound and, long story short, your injury fills with scar tissue. (To be accurate, some degree of regeneration happens during most healing, even in “repair” cases.)
3: Scar tissue needs exercise!
Once scar tissue has formed, you’ve got one more step to take to be thoroughly healed, and it’s called “remodeling.” The reason you need to “remodel” your healing injury is that scar tissue first forms in a disorganized tangle. As physical therapist Brett Sears explains, “Unfortunately, the body does not know exactly how to arrange the collagen cells so that they become healthy tissue” and for that reason, “remodeling scar tissue is a must.”
4. Don’t stay in bed for too long after an injury.
So how do you “remodel” scar tissue? Here’s how you don’t do it: Go to bed for six weeks. The result will be a knot of scar tissue that feels tight, limits your mobility, and puts the injured area at risk for re-injury. If you follow a wiser course and rest only during the acute phase of the injury, then start to regularly move and stretch the area when it begins to feel better, your scar tissue will stretch out and align itself with the neighboring tissue fibers, thereby gaining strength and suppleness.
Physical Therapist Sears gives an example of how you’d heal a hamstring strain:
“Follow the R.I.C.E protocol [Rest Ice Compression Elevation] for a few days,” he says. “After some healing has taken place, gentle stretching of the hamstring muscle is indicated to help ensure that the scar tissue is remodeled properly.”
Physical therapists like Sears are your first responders when it comes to getting started remodeling scar tissue. Down the line however, you’ll need exercise. Wound healing can last a year or longer, and, barring a major recovery, you usually don’t need to be in physical therapy for as long as a year. Once you’re on the mend and your PT gives you the okay, you can optimize your recovery with a safe and intense exercise program. The Bar Method, for example, has helped countless students rehab after getting hurt. Among them is Seattle Bar Method Blakely, who had gotten injured in college sports and was happy to find an exercise system, she says, “to help strengthen my back and help heal my injuries.”
5. Muscles heal three to five times faster than tendons or ligaments.
Muscles heals fast because they’re rich in blood flow. They’re also rich in nerves, so when you hurt a muscle, it hurts! You may feel bruised, but muscle tissue bounces back well. It’s the tough guy of the group.
Ligaments are the opposite of muscles in these ways. They have much less blood flow and relatively few nerves (the reason they’re colored white in drawings). Ligaments attach bone to bone and help stabilize your joints, if you haven’t injured them too much. People can pop an ACL (“anterior cruciate ligament,” which stabilizes the knee) and they may not even feel it due to the lack of nerves. Then they try to walk! If someone’s badly injured an ACL, it may not come back at all. You can often resolve an ACL injury by strengthening the muscles that extend across your knee so that they replace the stability you lost. In some cases, you may need an operation to fix your ligament tear.
Tendons are another story. In my work as an exercise teacher, I’ve found them to be the problem child of the group. They’re at the ends of your muscles, usually around your joints. They attach muscles to bones, and act kind of like pulleys, moving your bones when the muscle contracts. The problem with tendons is that they have little blood flow and a moderate amount of nerves (like ligaments, they’re also colored white in anatomy illustrations). So they don’t heal well, and when they’re hurt, they really hurt!
This fact may come in handy if you ever find yourself with a case of tendonitis. Consider that it would take you, let’s say, six weeks to heal from a muscle injury of a certain magnitude. That could be up to 30 weeks for a tendon strain! At the Bar Method, some of my students come to class with hamstring tendonitis, and they resist modifying the stretches because they believe their injury will get better by itself. The reality is that these kinds of stubborn tendon issues characteristically need medical intervention. A good doctor or physical therapist can get a student started on a regime of rest, medication and gentle stretching. Then the student needs to modify in class for a while. Modifying basically means not stretching full out but very gently just before the point of pain. If you ever need to do this in class, don’t be shy about it! Be proud that you know how to enable your muscles to heal.
I hope you found this information as fascinating and fun as I do.
Regard to all, Burr
Exercise makes us stronger. This we know. But how exactly does exercise make us stronger? It turns out to be a interesting story and not all of it involving dense cellular biology. I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite fun facts about what goes on in your muscles after you exercise. Keep them in mind the next time you’re in the midst of a tough workout, and you may find they give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the experience.
First, I want to tell you about “dark muscle” and “white muscle” fibers. People have both types of these fibers in their muscles in varying proportions according to each individual.
“Dark muscle” fibers are dedicated to keeping us moving indefinitely. They’re called “slow twitch” fiber. You use this endurance-oriented-type fiber when you walk and run long distances. Our neck muscles have a lot of slow twitch fibers so that we can easily hold our head erect all day. Our deep calf muscles also have a lot of them so that we can run around from dawn to dusk if we want to. Look at “slow twitch” fibers through a microscope and they will appear dark. That’s because slow twitch fibers are filled with capillaries, giving them a rich blood flow that is a source of continuing energy (Muscle cells also produce their own energy.)
By doing lots of aerobic exercise, and you’ll infuse your slow twitch fibers with even more capillaries. Slow twitch fibers burn lots of calories, but no matter how long you work them, these fibers stay pretty much the same size, so they don’t contribute significantly to sculpting you. Finally, as their name implies, slow twitch fibers have a relatively slow reaction time.
Studies have shown that elite marathoners tend to be genetically endowed with a higher-than-average percentage of slow twitch fibers, while Olympic sprinters have more fibers that give them strength and quickness.
…Which brings us to the other major type of fiber in your muscles, “fast twitch” or “white muscle.” “Fast twitch” fibers are designed for power and speed. They have has less blood flow, which makes them lighter in color. Fast twitch fibers are what most reshapes your muscles. Do strength training, and these fibers get firmer. Keep training and these fibers will undergo “hypertrophy,” that is, they will get larger. Women’s muscles (fortunately) don’t increase size easily, so women can use heavy weights and still not see a lot of hypertrophy. Whatever sex you are, the manner in which you work out will determine the body shape you achieve. If you use heavy weights with few reps for several months, your “fast twitch” muscle fibers will increase in size. If your routine employs light weights with lots of reps, the result will be muscles that are firm and shapely but not significantly larger. The Bar Method’s practice of performing many reps with light weights produces just enough hypertrophy to sculpt muscles but not bulk them up.
One last note on dark and white fibers: Each of our muscles has a different proportion of “slow twitch” and “fast twitch” cells according to what that muscle does. For example, your hamstrings and arm muscles have a high percentage of fast twitch fibers for power and speed. Your glutes have a lot of both types (one reason they’re so large!)
Here’s how both types of fibers get stronger from exercise: First, working out causes “micro-tears” in your muscle fiber. The torn muscle fibers then heal themselves, building new fiber that is stronger than the old. The more intensely you exercise and the heavier the weights you use, the more micro-tears you’ll create, and the larger your healed “fast twitch” fibers will become (see “hypertrophy” above).
You know you’ve had a good workout when you get “delayed-onset soreness” (DOMS) 24 to 48 hours afterwards. This soreness is caused by your fibers’ healing process, not from lactic acid as has previously been believed.
There is a second type of strengthening that happens after exercise. It is less well known but has been found to give women most of the results they get from working out. Exercise physiologists called it “synchronous activation.” What this means is, in effect, improved mind/body coordination. Here’s how it works: An untrained muscle is weak in part because the message it gets from the brain and nerves is disorganized. A student literally does not have the neural connection between her brain and her muscle to perform the action she wants to. She may intend to fire a muscle to move a part of her body, but she can’t recruit enough of that muscle to make it behave. Mark A. W. Andrews, an associate professor of physiology, explains it this way: Exercise, especially when it focuses on form and precision, gives you “the ability to recruit more muscle cells – and thus more power strokes – in a simultaneous manner.” Andrews adds, “This neural adaptation generates significant strength gains with minimal hypertrophy and is responsible for much of the strength gains seen in women and adolescents who exercise.”
The Bar Method workout is especially focused on this fitness component. So the next time you’re doing a Bar Method workout and struggling with your form, take satisfaction in knowing that improving your form is increasing your strength and fitness as well.
Final fun fact: Most of your largest and most powerful muscles are on your back side. When you’re working out, pay attention to your back! That side of you houses most of the largest muscles in your body. They include the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in your torso; the triceps, the largest muscle in your arm; and the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle that moves your legs and the most massive muscle in your entire body.
So don’t assume your back has to be “out of sight out of mind.” During exercise try imaging your back in your mind’s eye and feel what’s happening back there. By doing so you’ll use more muscle and burn more calories, not to mention benefit your posture awareness as well.
Last month, I reported on five ways that exercise enhances beauty by changing the behavior of your cells and hormones, and how strength-stretch techniques boost these effects. To recap, working your muscles boosts collagen production, flushes out waste from your skin, decreases stress hormones, increases sex hormones, and improves the quality of your sleep. It’s motivating to know this! After writing this blog, I worked all the harder in class knowing I was simultaneously treating my skin to a platter of these beautifying treatments.
The final five ways I’d like to mention that the Bar Method makes you more beautiful include ones you normally associate with exercise, plus a few that may surprise you:
6. Pretty muscles
Experts say we can’t “spot reduce” parts of our bodies. We can however “spot tone” them. The Bar Method focuses on our muscles’ ability to change shape with targeted exercises. It especially targets hard-to-reach muscles that, when toned, help create a graceful, dancer-like body. Take for example the gluteus maximus. It’s both our largest muscle and one of the most difficult to “turn on.” The hamstrings are our walking muscles, and they get so used to doing the work that they tend to dominate during exercises that use an alternating leg pattern, such as jogging and spinning. Your glutes activate for intense actions such as bursting into a full-out run, leaping into a “grand jete,” or taking an exercise class such as the Bar Method that methodically targets them. The Bar Method’s “arabesque” exercise, for example, engages your gluteus maximus in two ways. This large muscle extends your hip and can turn it out as well. So in arabesque, you contract your gluteus maximus to turn out your working leg, then compel it to stay contracted while it raises your leg upwards in one-inch sized lifts until muscle exhaustion. After doing arabesque, you know you’ll walk out of class with a more chiseled rear. Speaking personally, I started bar-work with a very small rear and now have a nice lifted one.
7. A leaner body
There are several things going on in a Bar Method class that make you lean. Exercise physiologists say that working your large muscles groups — as opposed to smaller muscles such as the biceps — results in optimal caloric burn. Most exercises in a Bar Method workout are strengthening several large muscle groups at a time, particularly those in your legs and in the backs of your limbs. Examples of multi-muscle Bar Method moves are “reverse pushups” (the triceps and traps), “diamond thigh” (the quads and glutes), “fold-over” (the glutes, hamstrings and quads), and “flat-back” (the chest, abs, hip-flexors and quads). At the same time, the Bar Method’s interval training format – intense strength intervals followed by a few minutes of stretching – burns more fat in relatively less time.
Great posture is a must-have if you want to look your best, regardless of your inborn traits. One way to attain this key beauty feature is to take ballet classes, which compel you to perform rigorous arm and leg exercises while maintaining a straight back and a lifted chest. Barre fitness workouts that focus on posture provide this same benefit. The Bar Method for one is dedicated to helping you focus on posture throughout the class. Most students who improve their posture discover that they’ve also given themselves a “prettier” appearance overall.
9. Altered gene expression
We are born with a unique genetic code that tells our cells how to function. At any one time our cells use only part of this genetic information. This year, researchers made an amazing discovery, that exercise deactivates genes related to fat storage, type 2 diabetes and obesity. So far, researchers have found that exercise changes the expression of 7,000 genes and are still studying this phenomenon. Meanwhile we can throw out the old belief that we’re a helpless product of our DNA. Exercise can transform us into a different version of ourselves! The surest way bring out your “lean genes” is to find a workout that’s easy to stick with long term, a feature that thousands of exercisers have found in the Bar Method.
10. Prolonged youthfulness
This exercise effect is one of the most significant that science has discovered. By exercising, you greatly reduce the likelihood of living the last part of your life in ill health and infirmity. Exercise can keep you active and healthy, not to mention physically attractive, until the end. Our growing knowledge of exercise’s ability to extend our prime of life is changing world cultures, economy and life habits. With exercise, you can look more striking and sensational with the years. Hear it from 54-year-old Dallas nurse Cynthia Tarantino: “I thought since I was older that it was impossible for me to change my body because I had tried everything,” she wrote me. “I felt horrible about myself and it was affecting myself esteem. …With only three months at the Bar Method, I have never looked better in my life. I refuse to be that middle aged woman with the big belly and the cafeteria lady underarms!”