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.
8. Better posture
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!"
When I was a little girl in Georgia in the 50s, women wanted to have a small waist, lots of curves, or both. It wasn't desirable to be toned or athletic, rather to appear soft, fragile and mysterious.
Our standard of beauty has changed dramatically since then. We now admire women who are lean, strong, athletic, confident and more diverse in their features. Why this shift happened is not the subject of this blog (the women’s liberation movement, etc.), but I’d like to talk about one driving force behind this change that has directly influenced our idea of what is beautiful: science's growing knowledge of how we can look our best. Since my childhood, scientific discoveries about health have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that strong, athletic bodies enjoy longer lasting youthfulness, not to mention a winning edge in the game of life.
Don’t get me wrong! Our obsession for being as beautiful as possible by any means natural or artificial is not going away any time soon. What’s different about our current pursuit is that, unlike the old days we got our beauty tips handed down to us from an archive of old wives tales, and now we get advice that has a solid foundation in science.
What is the top beauty tip that we keep hearing from this source? Exercise! As one researcher, Tim Church M.D., put it, "Every cell in the human body benefits from physical activity." Spa treatments, facials and makeup tricks can't hold a candle to exercise when it comes to beautifying you in multiple ways. Here are ten of my favorite beauty benefits of exercise and how you can boost these results with efficient full-body workouts like the Bar Method.
1. More collagen
Fibroblasts are skin cells that produce collagen, a factor in youthful-looking elastic skin. “As we age, fibroblasts .. get lazier and fewer in number,” says dermatologist Audrey Kunin in an article by Catherine Guthrie for Experience L!fe. “But the nutrients delivered to the skin during exercise help fibroblasts work more efficiently, so your skin looks younger.” Bar Method exercises work large muscle group repeatedly until they are thoroughly exhausted, facilitating this cellular process.
2. Better functioning lymph nodes
Why is this important to your looks? The hundreds of lymph nodes in your body “take out metabolic trash,” says Guthrie. “But the nodes can’t haul garbage to the curb without the help of nearby muscles. When muscles contract during exercise, they squeeze the lymph nodes, helping them pump waste out of your system.” So when you’re working your way through all the intense muscle contracting and stretching during a Bar Method class, you’re not only shaping your muscles but also fueling your body’s natural waste removal system. The results, in Guthrie’s words: “You look less puffy and polluted.”
3. Less stress
Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. It increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and decreases bone formation, all for the purpose of devoting your full energy to handling the source of that stress. When you suffer from chronic stress, excess cortisol production can cause collagen loss and inhibit protein synthesis, impacting your skin and health! Exercise enables your body to turn on cortisol when you need it, then turn it off when you don’t. The Bar Method’s strength-stretch sequence gets cortisol out of your system without beating you up in the process, so that afterwards your body can turn its attention to repairing and regenerating your muscles and skin.
4. Better sleep
Almost 20 percent of Americans suffer from stress leading to poor sleep, according to the National Institute of Health. Studies have found that moderate-to-intense exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. The Bar Method workout provides the intense exercise that facilitates sleep, while its focus on stretching and breathing makes for a relaxed body and a good night’s rest so that you look fresh the next day.
5. Enhanced sexiness
We know by now that the Bar Method makes you look sexier. It also happens to literally make you sexier. Huffington Post blogger David Katz, M.D., reports that exercise can “Increase blood flow in a way that has a direct affect on sexual function.” Not only that! Researchers have learned that exercise increases levels of testosterone, the hormone most responsible for making us feel sexy, and HGH (human growth hormone), also found to boost libido. A British study found that a group of middle aged men who exercised had 25% more testosterone and 4 times more HGH than sedentary men. When it comes to workouts that optimize your sexiness, the Bar Method, with its targeted strengthening and stretching exercises for the muscles around the hips, tops the list! “We all know the obvious effects of the Bar Method…” says teacher and studio owner Andrea Davis, “an enhanced sex life.”
Rhonda Vassello, a 32 year old Bar Method student in Carlsbad, California, agrees. “I have done almost EVERY type of workout out there, Boot camps, Circuit Training, Cycling and even the dreaded task of running," she wrote me in a recent email. "Each time my body reached a plateau that I just could not overcome… THIS WORKOUT has done it… and let’s be honest ladies when you feel good your confidence peeks and that is the sexiest feature any woman can have!
Next month: TEN WAYS THE BAR METHOD MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL, PART 2
Last month, I described active stretching and other stretch techniques that dancers and athletes use to develop their amazing bodies. You stretch actively when you hold a stretch position in place by using the muscles on the opposite side of your body rather than with a strap, your hand, or some other “passive” force. Now, I’d like to share with you a great active stretching sequence from the Bar Method workout. These exercises sculpt and elongate your muscles at the same time, so they're give you results beyond what you'd get with intense exercise alone.
1. Begin with "Leg Lifts." For most people, kicking one leg upwards is not especially challenging. In this exercise you'll be drawing it up and keeping it up there, an altogether different endeavor! Our legs don't do this normally, so leg lifts generate immediate intensity while they elongate the muscles in the backs of your legs with active stretching. Follow these steps to do leg lifts at home:
Place the foot that's opposite your stable support on the floor in front of you.
Slightly bend both of your knees.
Hold onto to the back of your thigh with your free hand, and draw your leg upwards as high as you can.
Pull in your abs and lift your chest.
Hold your leg where it, let go of your leg, and place your hand on your waist.
Keep your leg to the height at which you initially raised it for a few moments.
Finish by lifting it up an inch and down an inch at a moderate tempo (preferrably to music) 20 times.
2. Proceed to "Standing Seat.” This exercise, one of my personal favorites, takes place after leg lifts and reverses the hinge in your hips from being continually flexed, (see above) to being continually extended. Standing seat takes advantage of the fact that your quads and hips thoroughly warmed and exhausted. Now it's your glutes' and hamstrings' turn to do the active stretching. Their assignment is to actively stretch your hips by extending them to their utmost point and holding them there for up to five minutes. During that time, you perform small movements back while never allowing your leg to swing more than an inch forward. The devil is in the small size of the movements, which both keep your back-of-leg muscles “on” and your front-of-leg muscles extended. Somewhere in the heat of this battle, old patterns of motion start to give way in favor of new more graceful ones. The result is a shift in your hip-leg connection towards greater mobility. Visually, you gain longer muscles in your hips and more lifted ones in your rear. Here's how to do "Standing Seat" at home:
Immediately after you finish leg lifts, do the "standing thigh stretch" to passively stretch your quads and hips that you just worked (see photo above).
Turn the passive quad stretch into an active one by letting go of your foot and holding your leg in place with your glutes and hamstrings. Now it's time to concentrate on the position of your body.
Upright your torso and draw in your abs.
Slightly bend your standing knee.
Grip your glutes tightly and align them directly under your spine, not jutting out behind you.
Also align your working-side thigh directly under your spine, not slanted behind you.
Hold this pose for about 30 seconds. Feel the active stretch for your quads and hips.
Keeping your pose in place, draw your leg back an inch and forward an inch at a moderate tempo while keeping your hips still and your glute and hamstring muscles continually engaged. Do 30 reps.
Stretch your glutes and hamstrings by bending forward at your hips while you hold on to your piece of furniture.
3. Put the finishing touch on your realigned body with "Arm Walks." Human shoulders are especially flexible, so you might imagine that increasing flexibility is less of an issue for than it is for your quads and hamstrings. Not so! Shoulder muscles, pecs and lats can get tight. The result is rounded posture and out-of-kilter patterns of motion when you move your arms, which can lead to a variety of shoulder conditions. The Bar Method's “Arm walks” exercise is designed to reset your shoulder and chest muscles into good alignment, as well as to tone your deltoids.
Arm walks calls for students to draw their shoulder blades inward and downward, and hold them there while they flex their shoulder joints to 90 degree angles. 90 degrees is not the greatest flexion the human arm can achieve, so arm walks isn’t technically an active stretching exercise. All the same, students must keep their rhomboids (the muscles between their shoulders blades) contracted and their shoulder blades in place as they move their arms forward and upwards, training them to stay square during sports and everyday activities. To perform arm walks:
Stand with good posture with one weight in each hand.
Open your feet to hip width apart, and slightly bend your knees.
Relax your lower back, grip your glutes, and bend slightly forward at your waist to engage your abs and upright your spine.
Turn your weights so that they're parallel to each other and place them lightly on the fronts of your thighs.
Straighten your arms.
Draw your shoulder blades inward and downward, and hold them firmly in place. It's important that you keep your attention on these muscles throughout the exercise.
Raise one weight up in front of you to shoulder height.
Lower it smoothly back down to where it began as you raise your other weight up to shoulder height. Keep both arms moving the whole time.
Perform these alternating lifts at a pace that is on the slow side, not following a music beat and moving both arms continually.
Do about 30 walks. Release and roll your shoulders a few times.
This effort pays off not only in more toned arms but better shoulder alignment and improved posture. Hanna, who’s been taking the Bar Method for two years, says that as a result of doing arm walks, “I’ve definitely been able to keep myself more upright and lifted in everything I do.”
If you do these exercises regularly, you'll notice that the active stretches give you an echelon of results beyond what you'd get from intensely working out without them: longer more sculpted muscles, a realigned body, and soreness in the right places the next day :-)
Dancers and elite athletes use special stretching techniques to achieve their amazing flexibility. Rarely do exercise routines designed for the rest of us include these kinds of stretches. Most workouts rely on a common stretching technique called "passive stretching,” which works only to a point. You stretch “passively” when you hold the stretch position in place with a force such as your hand, a strap, a ledge or gravity, something other than the actual body part you’re stretching. Common passive stretches include: grasping a foot behind you to stretch your quads, placing one leg up on a ledge, and sitting in a "straddle."
Passive stretches definitely play a role in making you more flexible, and all good workouts include some version of them. Experts agree however that passive stretching by itself is not enough to significantly increase range of motion. Passive stretches don’t warm muscles up enough for them to relax deeply, and, just as important, don’t give muscles sufficient control over any increased range of motion you manage to achieve by doing it. That’s why a workout that includes only passive stretches can leave you feeling "loosey-goosey" or not much more flexible at all.
This is where "active stretching" comes in. When you stretch "actively," you contract the muscles on the opposite side of the body part you’re stretching to hold the stretch in place. An active stretch is 50% stretch and 50% strength, so it’s actually a workout for the entire body part you're stretching. Its distinctive difference from other moves is that it compels you to hold a part of your body at or near the edge of its current range of motion the whole time. Be advised that this kind of stretching is intense! Dancers do it when they extend one leg upwards and hold, a move that helps give their legs astounding strength and control, as well as their famously elongated, sculpted muscles.
Incorporating active stretching into your workout, just as dancers do, gives you benefits that are worth the effort, including increased agility and grace in your movements, improved performance at sports, reduced likelihood of injuring yourself since short muscles make you more vulnerable to strains, and (last but not least), a slimmer-looking, more streamlined body!
Another training technique that's becoming popular among elite athletes is called “functional stretching,” which is different from the more risky "dynamic stretching" (using momentum to force a limb or body part beyond its normal range of motion) or "ballistic stretching" (moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach and speed). Functional stretching consists of active stretches with some added motion performed at the edge a limb’s range of motion. A good functional stretching exercise immediately changes the way your muscles coordinate with each other. It readies your shoulders, hips, core and limbs for action in all directions, and it protects your joints against injury from a sudden, uncontrolled move. It works so well in part because the sheer physical effort it requires warms the muscles you’re stretching so that they can relax more deeply.
In recent years, the sports world has discovered that functional stretching techniques give muscles not only more strength but increased kinesthetic adeptness as well. For this reason, according to exercise physiologist Anoop T. Balachandran, “Most of the strength coaches now lean towards functional stretching to improve flexibility.”
The Bar Method has been doing its own version of “functional stretching” for more than a decade, a variety I’d like to call “energetic stretching” (commonly known as “those little moves that can make a huge difference!”). Most Bar Method students think the controlled isolations they perform during class is a strength technique, but those same little moves constitute a form of stretch as well. In fact, the deliciously centered, energized feeling students get after a Bar Method class is partially the result of all the energetic stretching sequences they've just performed, even without realizing it!
Next month: How Bar Method exercises increase flexibility
Every week, I look forward to The New York Times Tuesday Science Times section, which usually includes new and interesting discoveries about exercise. The field of exercise itself is so young - only around 50 years old - that researchers are just starting to investigate its powers to change our bodies and minds. So far, they've made some amazing discoveries: that exercise fortifies our immune system, improves sleep, quickens our minds, lessens cognitive decline, guards against kidney disease, strokes, depression, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer, and helps prevent weight gain by curbing our appetite. This week's Science Times section includes two articles on recent discoveries. The first article suggests that exercise helps us learn more quickly, and the other reports evidence that exercise changes our DNA itself, which might even carry down to future generations!
I'm excited to read about anything that research comes up with, but I've learned to take today's research with a grain of salt. At this early stage in science's investigation into exercise, some studies are just preliminary snapshots that don't tell the whole story. For example, typical studies put their subjects on treadmills or exercise bikes to test “exercise," leaving other types of workouts unexamined.
Other studies yield limited results by testing their ideas over a brief time span, often just a few months. A recent article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that people lose more weight by exercising four times a week than they do by exercising six times a week. The testing ended after 13 weeks - precisely the point when our Bar Method students are often just begining to lose weight from the workout. If this study had followed its subjects longer, it might have drawn a different conclusion.
One pitfall of buying into every finding this early research comes up with is that people can jump to conclusions prematurely, spawning exercise "myths" that will later be dispelled by future research. A recent article in US News & World Report might have left itself open for such a reversal. The article was entitled “Crazy for Exercise: Are We Overdoing It?” and cited a study about the possible harm to cardiovascular health from marathons, triathlons or long-distance bike racing. Later, the article quoted experts at Equinox, ACE and the University of Connecticut saying that the new trend towards high-intensity group fitness programs like CrossFit, Insanity and boot camps are pushing Americans “to the brink of, or well past, their capacity.”
In fact, CrossFit, Insanity and boot camps are just a sub-set of today's “high-intensity” workouts. Many other currently popular intense routines don’t subject their students to the risk of harming their cardiovascular health or injury. By leaving out such a large group of intense types of exercise, this article concluded that Americans aren't ready for intense exercise. Go to a Bar Method class, and you'll find many Americans who are plenty ready!
In the long run, I have no doubt that science will come up with the right answers about exercise, as it always does. One sign of progress on this front is a new batch of scientific research that the American Council on Exericse has commissioned addressing specific fitness fads. Among the subjects that were scientifically studied were the benefits -- or lack thereof -- of hot yoga, Pilates, Curves, Zumba, Wii Fit, boot camp, kettlebells, toning pants, toning shoes, power bracelets, baby strolling, hula hooping, and even “super-oxygenated” water.
So far, however, there have been no studies -- by ACE or any scientific institution anywhere -- on bar fitness. This genre of workout has become a popular choice in every part of the country. Bar Method studios alone will receive about 2.5 million client visits this year, and the Bar Method is just one bar-based workout among a rapidly expanding genre known for its surprising degree of intensity and, at least in the case of the Bar Method, for its high degree of safety.
Until science gets curious enough about bar fitness to look into it, the bullhorn belongs to bar fitness professionals to state its distinctive benefits, and best available evidence to be had is the huge number of student testimonials that continue to flood in. Based on the abundance of colloquial evidence, I'd like to venture a guess on what science will discover about bar fitness.
First, researchers will test the endurance of Bar Method students and discover that they have tremendous stamina, even though the workout is not classic endurance training. They will analyze bar work's thigh exerises and conclude that they are unlike any other kind of quad strengthening. First, they consist of “eccentric” contractions like “pliés” in a dance class, but unlike dance moves, they leave students "in the muscle" for the entire set. Conversely, leg presses challenge muscles only on the “concentric” part of a rep. “Squats” don't consist of "eccentric contractions," and yoga doesn't require students to move against resistance enough to generate the energy spike that bar fitness gives. The results from bar fitness will be found to include rock hard thighs and bottomless stamina.
Second, the will discover that “fold-over.” a bar-based exercise for the back of the legs, consists of a unique mix of challenges and yields its own set of results. In fold-over, one leg holds the weight of the body while its hamstrings and glutes are super-extended. The other leg presses against gravity while its hamstrings and glutes and super-contracted. They'll learn that this dynamic combination of contractions, extensions and holds makes the exercise more intense than the sum of its parts. It gives students power of a wide range of motion, not to mention high, muscular rears more than with other types of glute and hamstring exercises.
None of my speculations have of course been scientifically proven, yet. The only evidence so far comes from students – millions of them – who have testified about the amazing results they get from the workout. Soon, I’m sure, science will agree.
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 differs 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 you’re working on enhancing your patterns of motion and general athleticism, you’re 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 don’t want to confuse your muscles. You want to keep them as informed as possible. Novelty is not for your muscles anyway. It’s 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 come 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, and would lessen the workout's overall fat burn since the large muscle groups in your arms and legs would not be sufficiently worked at that point to be exercising aerobically.
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.
My tips last month on how to get the most out of the Bar Method's "flat-back" exercise brought in a large number of comments and questions about this challenging exercise. Two of these emails brought up some interesting points that I'll share with you later in this blog.
But first, here are tips #9 and #10 for boosting your results from the Bar Method, which are for the workout's last two exercises, "back-dancing" and "final stretch." Both of these sections are considerably less intense than those you do earlier in class, and might burn fewer calories than for example "thigh-work," but they both have the power to make a major contribution to the way you look, move and feel.
Tip #9: Find your inner dancer during "back-dancing."
Back-dancing teaches your body to move like a dancer. The next time you watch a ballroom dancing competition, notice how the dancers swing their lower torsos all over the place while keeping their upper torsos elegantly aligned with their partners'. Back-dancing gives you a head start on developing this same graceful fluidity in your torso by allowing you to rest your back on the floor. You can then focus on relaxing your lower back muscles, freeing your glutes and hamstrings to move your hips like a salsa dancer's. Imagine you're dancing, and stay with the tempo even when the song is fast. You’ll develop not only more tone in your rear, but also a more expressive and youthful spirit in way you move in general.
Tip #10: Go for the “stretch burn” during the final stretches.
During the final section of class, give the stretches just enough energy to create a slight burning sensation in the muscles you're stretching. When you assume the “butterfly stretch” for example, align your shins directly opposite your knees in a "T shape" so that you feel a "stretch burn" in the outsides of your upper legs (the location of your “IT band”). During the “strap stretch,” completely straighten the knee of the leg you're stretching to fully extend your hamstrings, which reach across the back of your knee. The burn you feel when you do find the “edge" of your range of motion for these stretches is a sign that you're now going beyond simply stretching a muscle. You're also strengthening it and enhancing its fine motor skills (see my blog: "Stretching Makes You Stronger, And More"). Be mindful, patient and gentle with your body when you stretch. At the same time, supply enough power to the stretches to tap into these additional benefits that stretching can give you. By keeping your focus on gaining benefits from your workout, even in this last part of class, you’ll gain a leaner shape, a more graceful bearing, and control over a greater range of motion. Your back will feel better, you’ll feel more youthful, and you’ll move more effortlessly. Don’t miss out on this last chance to change your body!
The first noteworthy comment on last month's tips was from Lizzie, a knowledgeable reader who pointed out several inaccuracies in my explanations about how flat-back works. "Just to clarify," she wrote, "the diaphragm contracts on an inhale, not an exhale." I double-checked this correction with the Bar Method's medical consultants, Physical Therapists Cayce and Wendy, and they confirmed that Lizzie is right. Our diaphragm relaxes rather than contracts when we exhale. If we exhale forcefully however, our abdominals kick in to press the air out of our lungs by sharply pulling in our belly. The specific ab muscle that is most responsible for this pulling-in is our deepest one, our "transversus abdominis." When you exhale sharply during flat-back -- as well as during round-back and curl -- you're working and toning this deep ab muscle. You can make the contraction even more effective by consciously pulling in your abs with each exhalation.
Lizzie also set me right about which muscle is responsible for students' abs "pooching" during flat-back. If your abs pop out when you attempt to lift both legs, the weakness, she said, is in that same deep ab muscle, the "TA."
Both Lizzie and my PT consults agree with me however on the best strategy for achieving flatter abs during flat-back: Exhale sharply and pull in as much as you can on every rep, even if your abs pooch out a little. You will incrementally strengthen your "TA" until it becomes able to hold your stomach in when you raise your legs.
The second of the two emails I received was from Maria, who wanted advice on an exercise she struggles with called "round-back," which students do right before flat-back in the studio-based workout. "Hoping you'll have some suggestions for round back and how to improve form," she wrote me. "I'm finding even after two years of practice that I feel this more in my hip flexors than in my quads."
Round-back is one of my favorite exercises because it gives students' back muscles a needed stretch after they've held their spines straight for most of the first half of class. Round-back also stretches the glutes and hamstrings after the preceding "seat-work." As for strengthening, round-back tones the quads and flattens the abs. That's a lot of benefits from one exercise, but good positioning is key to reaping those benefits. To help Maria and students like her to do round-back comfortably and to best effect, I'd like to offer a few tips on comfortably and effectively performing this multi-faceted exercise.
First, lean on the wall so that your torso is at a 45 degree angle, or diagonal, to the floor. If you sit too high, you will over-flex your hips and be unable to contract your abs. If you sit too low, you'll overly round your back.
Second, lift your chest so that your back is almost straight (the "round" in "round-back" is slight). Then press your navel downwards. Think of the shape of your back as similar to how you position it for "high curl," except that during round-back you're stretching your glutes rather than gripping them.
Third, pull in your abs with every rep! Like "flat-back," this exercise requires you to forcefully exhale in order to recruit and flatten your deep abs.
Last but not least, if you have sensitive hip-flexors, hold onto your working leg the whole time! If it's difficult for you to reach your leg, loop a strap over your arch, as illustrated above. Don't worry about missing out on the results by taking these options. Challenge yourself to completely straighten your working knee during the straight-leg moves while maintaining good form, and you may even begin to enjoy round-back as much as I do.
Last month I gave you the first five of ten tips for boosting your results from the Bar Method. The manager of my home studio in San Francisco, Kate Grove, and I first shared these tips with our students during a student workshop at my home studio in San Francisco. The next three tips are the ones we gave our students for the exercises they do midway through the Bar Method workout.
Tip #6: During “standing seat,” find vertical on your body.
Standing seat can transform your body, if you do it in the right form. Here’s how you can be sure yours is correct: Imagine a vertical line stretching from your ears, through your shoulders, hips and working thigh, and keep these body parts centered on the line. Staying vertical during this exercise is easier said than done. Your mind gets the idea, but your body instinctively craves a more comfortable stance. Lose focus for a moment, and when you snap back to attention you might discover that your head has dropped forward, your seat as arched back, your torso has leaned one way or the other, or your working thigh has wandered off the line. How do you avoid falling out of vertical? First use the mirror to check that your torso is upright. Next, keep re-gripping both sides of your glutes, and remind your lower back to relax. Maintain a vertical spine, and finally, keep your working knee unwaveringly under your hip (give or take an inch). This level of good form requires self-honesty and determination, but it’s worth the effort. When you succeed, standing seat will give you gorgeous posture and could become your favorite killer exercise.
Tip #7: During “flat-back,” don’t worry about a little “pooching out.”
If you’re like many students, you're hesitant to take the option of lifting both legs during flat-back because whenever you try to raise them, your abs push out. In fact, a little pooching during flat-back is a natural stage your abs go through on their way to getting flatter. Pooching out usually happens when your two deepest abdominal muscles are weak. They are your transversus abdominis ("TA") and your internal oblique. When you exhale sharply, these muscles pull in your belly. If they're weak, they don't pull in effectively, which allows your ab muscles that are on top, including your powerful six-pack muscle (the rectus abdominis) to contract outwards. The good news is that simply by vigorously exhaling, you engage your deep abs. When you vigorously exhale and add the weight of your legs to the effort, you strengthen these muscles. So even if you start with a little pooching out, you'll end up with flatter abs by challenging your deepest ones during every class.
There's another reason your abs might be misbehaving during flat-back. Your four ab muscles tend to store fat in between their layers, and that fat can bunch up when you contract them. In either case, raising both legs during flat-back, even if your abs pooch out a few inches, is harmless and will ultimately help you achieve flatter abs. Simply put, the more you work your deep abs during flat-back, the stronger and flatter they'll get in relation to your other abs muscles, and the more "belly fat" you’ll burn.
One caveat: if you're very over-weight or have very weak abs, they may pop forward more than three inches when you raise your legs. In that case, hold back on the lifting both at the same time until you lose some weight or get stronger.
Finally, if you just can’t lift your legs no matter how hard you try, sit on one-to-three "risers," which are firm cushions designed to raise you up a few inches from the floor. If you’re tall and need to use risers, go to a stall-bar, lay a riser against it, and place three of them under you. By sitting up higher, you'll be able to get your legs airborne and derive the full benefits of doing flat-back.
Tip #8: During curl, imagine your favorite super-cut celebrities doing ab work.
Students have been known to say that Bar Method ab work is “worse than childbirth.” Maybe so, but this thought is not the most motivating one to have in mind when getting through the last reps during "curl" section! Switch it out with mental picture of a hunky super star working his way through is own ab-sculpting routine. Stars grunt through hundreds of crunches a workout just as you do, so picture the abs of celebrities like David Beckham, Matthew McConaughey or Ryan Reynolds doing ab exercises such as the Bar Method's "high curl" or "clam." Your "inspiration" hunk will get you into the spirit of embracing a macho zeal for the burn!
If you just plain have trouble staying in the burn, try this approach: Devote just as much energy to the "back" part of each crunch as you do to the "forward" of it. This techique keeps you tightly in the muscle as you proceed through the reps, and doubles your benefits along the way.
Next month: Tips for finding your inner dancer during the last part of class.
Kate Grove is a master teacher and the manager of our Bar Method studio in the San Francisco Marina. Kate has a reputation for designing fun, creative classes, and she’s been just as creative as a studio manager. This year, she came up with the idea of offering student workshops to our “Club Bar” members, who are students with ongoing class packages. In the past, we've only given teacher workshops. Now thanks to Kate, our students are gaining expert knowledge about the Bar Method and are using that knowledge to take their workouts to the next level. After our first workshop, participants said that their classes were making them more sore than ever in the muscles they most wanted to shape. Britney Bart, a ten-year Bar Method student, commented that simply knowing where a muscle was on her body made the exercises feel different. “I have been doing arm walks with you since 2003,” Britney told me, “but I have not felt them and proactively utilized them for the specific purposes you described until the workshop.”
All these comments inspired me to share with Bar Method students who read this blog the information Kate and I gave in our workshop. This month focuses on our tips for the first half of class:
Tip # 1: Move your body in one-inch increments during the faster tempos.
How do you respond when your teacher says, “lift up, up, up” or “press in, in, in?” If your range is too large, you’re relying on momentum, which is only moderately effective at keeping your muscle “on.” If your range is too small, you’re not firing your muscle enough to get the most out of the exercise. A one-inch range keeps you “in the muscle,” while it enables that muscle to ignite with maximum energy on every rep.
Tip #2: Use your "rhomboids" and "lower traps."
When I take class, I’m constantly thinking about contracting my “rhomboids” and “lower traps” (“trapezius) during the weight-work section. These two muscles draw your shoulders in and down. During weight work they play a critical role in keeping your upper back from slumping forward and your shoulder joints from rotating out of kilter. They also help improve your posture and burn extra calories during the exercise. So one valuable piece of information I can offer you is to consciously use your “rhomboids” pull your shoulder blades closer together and your “traps” to pull your shoulder blades in and down. Reverse pushups can sculpt your lower “traps” if you hold your shoulders down while your arms are carrying the weight of your torso (see photo below). Stay aware of how these muscles enhance your performance, and you'll sculpt your upper back muscles and give yourself a longer, more graceful your neck-line by virtue of your stronger "lower traps."
Tip #3: Protect your joints by working in good form.
Here’s a fact you might not be aware of: when you stress a joint during a workout, the muscles around that joint will resist change. The joint sends a signal to these muscles saying in effect, “stop doing that!” So if you’re regularly tweaking a joint, you might not be getting the results you want.
The Bar Method’s “reverse pushups” is an example of an exercise that you need to do in good form to get the best results. Here are the two key points to remember: 1. Keep your wrists turned forwards and slightly outwards. If you turn your wrists backwards, you’re pressing into your wrist joints instead of controlling the move with your arm muscles. 2. Keep your shoulders directly over your wrists. If you don't and instead shift your shoulders forward of your wrists, you will pull your shoulder blades out of alignment and at the same time make the exercise significantly less targeted. So keep your shoulders directly over your wrists, and you’ll quickly gain the definition in your triceps you're working for.
Tip #4: Do straight-leg pushups, and don’t go low!
Pushups work an array of muscles. Obviously they sculpt your pecs and arms. Less obviously, they tone your abs, glutes, traps, and a muscle called the “serratus anterior,” which holds your shoulder blades in place when you’re pushing with your arms. By engaging these less obvious muscles, you’ll get much more out of pushups, and look great doing them. What’s the easiest way to do recruit all these muscles? Believe it or not, by doing straight-leg pushups (wait a second before you reject this idea!) and moving just one inch down and up. This way, you’re using every muscle in your pushups repertoire without killing yourself and creating a more defined body overall.
Tip #5: During thigh-work, let the music move you.
Bar Method students are famous for their fighting spirit, and if you're one of them, I know you already give thigh-work your all. So what else can you do to get more out of this exercise? Make it a dance! Remember that you just gave your legs a deep stretch at the bar, and stretching is been proved to enhance muscular coordination. So use the stretches you did before thigh-work to take your performance to a new energetic level. Tap into the enhanced agility that the stretches infused into your legs, and do thigh-work like a dancer! Become one with the beat, and concentrate on performing the reps with precision and grace. Your muscles will expand and contract more energetically, and you’ll discover a new level of strength, athleticism and stamina in the process.
Next week! Ten Tips for Boosting Your Workout, Part 2
If you were to look in on a typical Bar Method class, you’d see a wide diversity of age groups. Some students will be barely out of college. Others will be in their 60s. Whatever their age, they will all be equally focused on psyching their way through the shake and the burn, adjusting their bodies to the stream of form cues emanating from the teacher, and tackling the “last 20!” In these efforts they become a team, regardless of where they fit into the generational scheme of things.
Why does the Bar Method appeal to so many generations? One student in her mid-70s named Lynn gave us the answer from her vantage point. A few years ago, Lynn fell into a funk after having to give up the dance aerobic classes she loved. She'd developed chronic hamstring and knee injuries, pain in her feet and low back and muscle spasms. “My body just couldn’t take the punishment any more,” she said. Lynn tried other kinds of classes and therapy, and none of them worked for her. Then an acquaintance turned her on to the Bar Method in Redmond, Washington, and she was “blown away!” Since becoming a Bar Method student, she says, “my old bod has strengthened and streamlined,” “my ‘old age’ aches and pains have minimized, my formerly poochy abs are now flat,” and ”how fun it is to work out with so many beautiful, dedicated young women my grandkids’ age.”
Lynn's fellow student Norma had a bumpier ride getting up to speed as a Bar Method student. When Norma discovered the class in 2010, she was in her late 50s, 75 pounds overweight, and was recovering from a car accident. She managed to struggle through her first class but not without some hardship. “I was the heaviest, the oldest, and, assuredly, the most out-of-shape participant, and yet the teachers and students were so kind and encouraging that I continued to struggle through,” she remembers. When Norma turned 60, she had lost 75 pounds and wore a size 8 pant. “My doctor is amazed at my statistics,” she says. “Who would have thought?...”
Students like Lynn and Norma tell us they also enjoy the welcoming atmosphere at Bar Method studios. They especially appreciate that teachers give "options" for different body types and abilities during class. The friendliness of the staff eases students' anxieties around their first class. Rachael, for example, a student in her 40s, wrote us about her first time at the studio in Summit, New Jersey. "I changed three times before I left the house, not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise, options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me."
Does the Bar Method's supportive style of customer service appeal to younger generations too? To hear it from the brides who come to class, absolutely! These three young students wrote the Redmond studio these words of thanks for helping them them look and feel gorgeous on their wedding days:
“My arms were toned, my shoulders were sculpted and looked great in my dress, and as an added bonus, I felt more comfortable and confident in my bikini on our honeymoon than I ever have before!” Brynn
“By my wedding day I had lost 25 pounds, 3 sizes in denim and 4 dress sizes. My dress had to be taken in 3 times before we had it right!.” Stefani
“The thick, muscular, “jacked” body that I had before is long gone because The Bar Method transformed it into a strong, long and lean body instead. I was able to stand up at the altar on my wedding day with a stunning body, beautiful posture, and all the poise and self-confidence in the world.” Melanie
When you mix generations, inevitably those generations are going to start mixing with each other. Daughters and mothers, sons and fathers find a new connection as fellow students in a class that both generations can relate to. Penny, a Ridgewood, New Jersey student goes to class with daughters Carolyn and Julie because “it makes me feel as young as them!” Cheryl, another Ridgewood, mom, says of her experience attending with her daughter Alyssa, “we found it to be something that has provided tangible benefits to both of us.”
Riggs attends the Marina Del Rey studio with his son George. “My son and I are avid skiers," he wrote us, "so he got into the Bar Method… and he loves it too! We love the supportive, no-nonsense environment and the constant focus on correct form."
Jamie, another Marina Del Rey student, told us why she loves having her mom as a fellow student. “When we take class together, I can’t be next to her because her facial expressions distract me and make me laugh. We have so much fun and it’s brought us even closer than we were before.”
Jamie’s mom Rosita says she gets great benefits of her own from the class. “As a fifty-four year old woman, I am no spring chicken. My knees, like those of many women my age, hurt when I get up from bed or out of my car due to arthritis. I used to have aches and pains all over my neck, shoulders and arms. After Bar Method, I don’t feel that pain anymore…Another plus side," she added," …is what it has done for my butt.”
I’d like to end this blog by adding my own thanks to the Bar Method for what it does for my 65-year-old body: for the firm muscles around my knees it gives me that allow me to run around like a young person, for a recent bone scan of my spine which my doctor marked "good!", and, though my husband says he loves me no matter how I look, for being my age and still being able to look great for him! ;-)