Welcome to my blog! My subject today is the hazards of ignoring your torso during exercise.
Today it’s popular to work your legs first and foremost, and there’s good science behind this trend. Our largest, most calorie hungry muscles are in our glutes, quads and hamstrings, so exercising them is a good way to burn calories and get lean. But without a keen awareness of the role of your torso during exercise, especially strength exercise, you could be working an entirely different muscle group from the one you think you’re targeting. Worse, you might inadvertently impact your joints so severely that you build weakness in the muscles around them, not strength, since compromised joints will stop strength from building in their surrounding muscles.
In this video, I’ll show you some examples of how students can miss out on the benefits of strength work by turning a blind eye to their torso. Click on this photo to watch:
In last month’s blog, I listed some some celebrities who have a variety of recognizable body types, such as being tall or petite, and gave you tips on how to adjust your Bar Method workout if your body is similar to one of the types I described.
This month, I want to talk about a difference in our bodies that is less obvious at first glance: our degree of flexibility! How flexible you are usually becomes a significant factor only in the event that you decide to get involved in a sport or an exercise technique that involves stretching. It’s at that point that, if you’re an inflexible person, you can get discouraged from trying some of these pursuits. You will assuredly not feel that way in a Bar Method class, where teachers customized every stretch to accommodate all students. In this blog, I’ll show you some of these stretches and how they work. (See last month’s blog for descriptions of the Bar Method’s exercise equipment.)
- Tight hamstrings
Of the roughly 639 muscles in our body, a mere three of them, namely our three hamstrings, identify us to the world as flexible or inflexible, somewhat unfairly in my view. For that reason, I’ve made sure that all Bar Method students can stretch comfortably and safely regardless of their hamstring length. If you have tight hamstrings, here are a few of the many options you can take:
- Stretch at the bar:
- Go to a “stall-bar,” a device with lower rungs, for this stretch. When you reach your hands forward, hinge only so far as you comfortably can while keeping a straight leg.
- Thigh stretch in front of the bar:
- During the hamstring stretch, hold onto the bar and lift your torso so that it’s more upright.
- You can also rest your hands on your thigh rather than on the floor.
- Raise your torso on a slight upward diagonal, and raise your working hip about ¾” higher.
Both these adjustments lessen your hip flexion while allowing you to work hard during the exercise.
- Raise your torso on a slight upward diagonal, and raise your working hip about ¾” higher.
- Use a strap looped over the arch of your working leg as shown.
- Sit on at least one or two “risers,” which boost you up from the floor, allowing more room for your legs and less bend in your seat.
- Flexible hamstrings:
Being blessed with flexible hamstrings not only means you can stretch more easily but also that you need to adjust some positions so that you get the most out of that exercise.
Thigh stretch on the floor:
- Feel free to do a split and raise your arms.
- Shift your torso higher than 45 degrees on the wall, as shown.
- Tight back:
Many athletic people, including some dancers, have relatively inflexible backs. If you’re among them, you probably barely notice this feature except when you’re trying to do a back extension or attempting an abdominal crunch. In a Bar Method class, teachers will recommend adjustments and provide you with equipment that allows you to get the most out of these exercises.
- This glute-lifting, back toning exercise calls for you to extend your upper back like a dancer while you raise one leg up behind you. If you have limited back extension, not to worry. Simply direct your gaze diagonally downward at the bar rather than directly in front of you. Your upper back muscles will still get the intense toning workout that this exercise is known for.
- Abdominal curls:
- Use plenty of mat support under you as Jen is doing above.
Tight inner thighs and hips:
If you have this body type and are female, friends have undoubtedly told you they envy your cute “boy hips.” This boyish look can also come with the characteristic tightness of guy’s hips, which limits your ability to stretch your legs outward, for example, in “second position” and straddles. Here’s how you can stay aligned in these exercises:
- Second position weight-work and thigh-work:
- The priority is to keep your back vertical rather than your thighs wide apart. So work higher, that is, with less bend in your knees, and turn your feet forward to match the turnout of your knees.
- It’s okay to do a sitting figure four stretch instead of the half-lotus, as Hanna is illustrating below.
- Straddle after flat-back:
- Keep your hands pressing against the floor behind you.
- Butterfly stretch at the end of class:
- If you can cross your legs, do so. The cross-legged position more effectively stretches your outside glutes than the figure four. If you can’t get your knees crossed, go ahead and do a “figure 4 stretch,” that is, one foot resting on your other thigh.
- Tight Achilles tendons:
If you have tight Achilles tendons (they extend across the backs of the ankles) as I do, don’t even think about attempting a figure skater’s “sit-spin,” which demands that you have very flexible ankles. In a Bar Method class, you won’t need to make any significant adjustments in your stretches. Only be aware that you’ll look slightly different from most other students in some exercises such as the one below:
- Narrow V thigh:
- Your heels will lift higher than one-inch from the floor as you go lower. That’s okay. You’re still targeting your lower quads as long as you keep your calves relaxed.
If you’re this body type, you’re flexible everywhere! Your extraordinary flexibility is beautiful and makes us want to be as flexible as you, but your joints have a bit less stability due to their greater range of motion. That means you need to ease up on extended positions in your elbows, knees and hips as follows:
- Arm work, including weight work and pushups
- Do not completely straighten your elbows.
- Stretch at the bar:
- Keep a slight softness in your stretching-side knee.
- Heel lifts:
- Ease up on the straightness of your knees.
- Second position thigh-work:
- Keep your lower back vertical, not rolled forward. Do not over-tuck.
- Straight-leg standing seat.
- Keep a slight bend in your standing knee.
The six body types I just described make up a small fraction of all the ways we can differ from one another in our flexibility. If you didn’t see your body type on this list or in last month’s blog — and want to know how you can adjust the Bar Method exercises for you — talk to your teacher! She or he will be happy to customize modifications that will work for you.
You can run, bike, circuit train and take cardio classes without giving more than a passing thought to your body type. Granted you need to adjust the seat height on your bike, but after that it won’t matter if you’re petite, tall, tight-muscled or flexible. Even in yoga, where your hamstring and hip flexibility play a role in how easily you get into poses, it’s not going to make a difference if you’re tall, petite, long-waisted or short waisted.
The Bar Method is a different story. Your body type can make a difference in the the way you perform certain exercises. For example, if you have tight hamstrings, you may want to stretch at the stall-bar during bar stretch. If you have a tight back, you would place more small mats under your back during “low curl” (I’ll explain below). Then there’s the bar! Most of it is one height, unlike people. Finally, the Bar Method puts you into subtle positions that stretch some body parts while you strengthen others. If you have tight hips, for example, you need to be aware that your version of good form is going to look different from other students’.
The payoff from your having to pay attention to these variables is that you get a big bang for your buck from taking the Bar Method: spectacular and surprisingly quick changes in your body. So that every body type will have full access to these benefits, the Bar Method has created simple adjustments within each exercise that make them work for everyone. Doing these modifications can simply be a matter of changing your positioning to suit your body type, or you might use the special Bar Method equipment that every class provides.
This equipment includes a section of bar called the “high bar,” which is two inches higher than the regular one. If neither bar height is right for you, there are “stall-bars” with other bar heights to choose from. “Risers” (the black square mats shown at right) are especially useful for accommodating body types. They are two-inch high cushions that are soft but retain their height when you sit or stand on them. “Small mats” are one-and-a-half-inch deep cushions that do compress downward a bit when you press them but provide support as well. Then of course, straps are available to help you stretch if you have tight hamstrings.
So how do you do the Bar Method if you have a body type that calls for some adjusting during class? The best way I can think of to answer this question is to list some common body types and how to adjust your Bar Method workout if you have one of them. I’ll describe body types that you can visually identify, and I’ll name some celebrities who have them as examples in this blog. (Next month I’ll focus on body differences in flexibility, such as whether you have tight or flexible hamstrings). See if you recognize one of the below body types as yours:
Petite is powerful! Just try to tangle with Reese Witherspoon, Vanessa Hudgens or Kristen Bell (all 5’1”). Like these actress, I bet you look youthful for your age and probably get away with being spunky. Here are your modifications:
Stretch at the bar: The regular bar is a little high for you, so unless you have very flexible hamstrings, go to the stall-bar to stretch your legs during this section.
- Standing seat-work: Boost yourself up by standing on one or two risers for this exercise.
- Pretzel under the bar: The bar will be high to reach up to, so sit on a riser.
- Fold-over: Again, customize the bar for your height by holding onto it with your elbows pointed down and your head opposite the bar rather than over it. Many of our petite students also like to go to a stall-bar for fold-over.
- Round-back and flat-back: You’ll see a lot of other students taking a riser for round-back. Feel free to take two of them.
You have the long thighs and waist-line the rest of us secretly long for and share your height with some famous beauties such as Nicole Kidman, Taylor Swift (both 5’11”), and Brooke Shields (6’).
Thigh-work and standing seat-work: The bar will feel somewhat low for you. Every Bar Method studio room has a “high bar.” Ask the teacher where it is and work there. You can also do thigh-work at a stall-bar, which has rungs that are a wide variety of heights.
- Fold-over: Avoid placing your head on the regular bar, which will cause you to slump downwards. Instead, work at the high bar or a stall-bar, or hold onto the regular bar and raise your head a few inches over it, as Maggie is doing at right.
- Round-back and flat-back: Work at the high bar. If you need a higher bar than that, place one riser against a “stall-bar” (shown above) and one or two more risers underneath you.
More than you may know, others see you as doll-like and cute, but you’re likely to stuff your feet into scarily high heels anyway. Out of your dress clothes, you can be athletic and fiercely competitive. Claire Danes, Olivia Wilde and Rachel Bilson have your body type.
Curl: Place a riser or one or more small mats under your ribs. Also feel free to slide your feet a little more forward than others do.
- Back-dancing: Raise your heels if you’d like to. You’ll add length to your legs thereby increasing your ability to move your seat up and down.
Judging from the celebrities who are short-waisted, among them Melanie Griffith, Mila Kunis and Jada Pinkett Smith, it appears that your body type gets the hot guys!
Pretzel: Your legs, being proportionally longer than average, will feel extra heavy for you. Even the playing field by placing a riser underneath your seat during pretzel to boost you up and allow your long legs more room to work.
Round-back: Your longer legs will give you the appearance of being low on the wall when you actually could be too high. Adjust for this optical illusion and slide down until your back is more or less diagonal to the wall.
- Flat-back: This is a leg-lifting exercise, and once more, you will be lifting proportionally more weight than your fellow students. Not only that, when you sit on the floor with your long legs in front of you, your thighs tilt upwards and your hips flex more than average. To resolve both these issues, sit on one or two risers. I recommend using risers even if you can lift your feet without them. That way, you’ll do the exercise with the right amount of flexion in your hips.
Curl: During low curl/feet down, you have the option to slide your feet a little more towards you to balance the weight of your legs and torso.
- High curl: Again, you run into the issue of placing your long legs in front of you while sitting on the floor. As you did for flat-back, place one or two risers underneath your mat to lessen the flexion in your hips.
5. Short hip-flexors/more S-curve:
As featured on Eva Longora and Beyoncé, you clearly have possibly the sexy-est looking of all body types. Your hips and your lower back, however, are tight! For this reason, your version of good form during some exercises will not look at as “tucked.” That’s okay! As long as you engage the right muscles, you’ll still be getting the benefits of the exercises.
Standing weight-work: Free-weight exercises like “shoulder walks” call for students to stabilize their core by gripping their glutes and abs. When you do this, your S-curve shape will still be there, which is correct. Avoid trying to over-tuck to get your tailbone completely under your spine, which might over-stretch your lower back and hips.
- Second position thigh-work: Keep your spine upright and grip your glutes while not trying to force your tailbone under your spine.
- Standing seat: Because your hips are tight, it’s okay for you to position your working thigh slightly forward of your hip during standing seat with a bent knee. Focus on the principal component of good form in standing seat, namely keeping your body vertically aligned.
- Another issue that comes up when you have tight hips is tightness around the knees during this exercise. If that’s the case with you, do standing seat with both your legs straight
- Pretzel: Feel free to lean your torso more than 45 degrees away from your working side to allow your leg to press back.
- Flat-back: Place a small mat behind your waist if it helps you to better press your mid-back against the wall. Then enjoy showing off! Students with your body type can sometimes outdo everyone else on the height of their legs.
- Low curl: Flexing at the waist doesn’t come easy to you. No matter. You can comfortably work your abs by placing one or more small mats under your ribs.
- Back-dancing: If the “legs-together” back-dancing position bothers your lower back, open your legs to hip-width apart.
6. Long hip-flexors/lessor S-curve:
Your body type can manifest itself as willowy and elegant like Taylor Swift, Keira Knightly and Kate Middleton or free-spirited and girl-power-loving like Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann.
- Standing weight-work: Your spine is already straight, so keep it straight and simply grip your glutes without pressing them forward. Because you have a flexible upper back, focus on keeping your chest lifted during this section.
One-weight lifts: Your lower back can also be flexible, so pay extra attention to not rounding it when you hinge forward at your hips during one-weight lifts.
- Thigh-work: Maintain your elegant straight back from top to bottom by not over-tucking.
- Standing seat: In this exercise, you can feel free to tuck strongly. At the same time, balance your tuck by drawing your working leg back behind your hip as much as you can. And remember as always to keep your chest lifted and your torso vertical.
- Fold-over: Avoid rounding your torso, and let your seat to tilt up a bit. Once, you raise your leg, I bet you can lift it higher than your hips and still be in good form, so give that a try!
Next month, find out how to modify the Bar Method exercises for your body if you have:
- Tight hamstrings
- A tight back overall
- Tight inner thighs and a limited turnout
- Short Achilles tendons
- Flexible hamstrings
- Double-jointed shoulders, elbows, or knees