I have a deep appreciation for power of a great song to energize a workout. When I’m in class about to go into “thigh-work” and I hear the century-old Italian ballad “Torna a Surriento” start to play, I know that Pitbull is about to jump in and stomp all over this old song with a high energy, joyful rap about “sexy people all around the world.” Blood flows into my thighs and I’m propelled through the reps by the pounding beat of “Sex-y Peo-ple.”
There’s a definite advantage to being able to exercise in this day and time when you can download onto easy-to-use portable music devices a multitude of great dance songs by artists like Pitbull, David Guetta, Flo Rida, Nelly Furtado, Ludacris, Kaci Battaglia or who anyone who inspires you :-) ♫
In addition to keeping you motivated and energized, music can optimize your results from working out in a number of other ways. If you exercise to a musical beat, that beat can spur you to move faster. Dance aerobics and some strength workouts such as the Bar Method tap into the power of rhythm this way to intensify their workouts. Pushups in a Bar Method class are more challenging than they otherwise would be because you do them to an up-tempo beat, making each rep more explosive, precise and effective than reps you would perform if you were left alone to determine your own pace.
You can also harness the power of music during exercise to help you change the shape of your muscles. A small number of targeted sculpting workouts, including the Bar Method, put music to work to this end. The Bar Method, for example, teaches students to “find muscles I never knew I had,” as they put it, by training those muscles first to follow a simple beat, then to contract to that beat with more and more precision and power. This technique has enabled thousands of students to tone certain muscles for the first time, an outcome that has been duplicated by research. University studies on movement and music have found that when subjects focused on performing moves to a beat, they significantly increased their strength and coordination. At the Bar Method new students often initially aren’t aware that training their muscles is a key component of the sculpting process. Many of them start out with a normal level of mind-body awareness but not as much as they need to recruit “hard-to-reach” muscles well enough to change them. So the first few times they try to work these “difficult-to-reach muscles” (the glutes for example), their initial effort is inaccurate and weak. They can’t yet fully engage the muscles and might not engage them at all.
These students can sweat and burn some calories, but they won’t change the shape of muscles as long as they can’t fully engage them. I’ve taught many new students who are just starting out on this learning curve. During, “seat-work,” for instance, their movements are disorganized. They might aim their working leg in a different direction than the one the teacher instructed, or move it slower or faster than the beat, or miss their glutes entirely and bend at their waist, shoulders or ankles. These students simply haven’t yet laid down the neural circuitry they need to execute certain moves with precision and power.
This ability to locate and fire a muscle quickly and accurately is called “synchronous activation” (see my blog FUN FACTS ABOUT HOW EXERCISE CHANGES YOUR MUSCLES). Bar Method teachers use a number of techniques to help students develop “synchronous activation,” including adjusting individual students’ form and encouraging them when they improve. Among their techniques is system of training muscles by means of music. Teachers start by playing songs with a simple, clear beat that all their students can follow. Then they make sure to count clearly, accurately and on the beat. Finally, they prompt individual students to “accent the rep,” “make the motion sharper and more powerful,” “make your motion a little larger/smaller,” “hold on the top of each rep where you’re most deeply in the muscle,” and so on. This way, students are able to heighten and fine-tune the quality of their movements. After a few months of this work, students develop the neural connections to their muscles that enable them to fire those muscles deeply, thereby effectively strengthening and toning them. One popular result is a noticeably lifted seat, (for which we can thank Pitbull and Ludacris, in part
Next week: How to make a great music set with the music you love!
Last month, a student named Amanda Cortis emailed me with a problem. Amanda lives in Massachusetts and has been doing the Bar Method DVD workouts for about three years. “My arms go numb when I come down to my elbows for lower ab work,” she said. “My forearms and hands get extremely numb. This happens within 30 seconds and it makes it hard for me to get the best workout on that section.”
It turns out that Amanda is not alone! After receiving her email, I sent out a query to the Bar Method teachers at our flagship studio in San Francisco asking if anyone got numb during class. Seven of them emailed me back that, yes, they experience numbness in their arms or legs during certain exercises.
Christine and Allyson both have Amanda’s issue: Their arms tend to get numb during kickstand curl (see below). Jen, a master teacher,trainer and evaluator, gets numb in her left arm when she does “lat pulls.” Sharon, our company’s Director of Training and Evaluations, has had several shoulder surgeries and gets “numbness and tingling,” when she lifts her arm above her shoulders, for example during the “high curl fox ears” position.
As for numbness in the lower body, Melissa loses feeling in her standing leg during “fold-over” and “arabesque,” Rubyanne has to shake out her stand foot during “standing seat” when it goes to sleep (below), and Christine’s front leg tends to fall asleep during “pretzel.”
What’s behind all this numbness? As luck would have it, one of the teachers who responded to me, Kerissa Smith, is a physical therapist. Kerissa herself occasionally experiences exercise numbness during “fold-over,” and she provided me with a brief explanation for why this annoying problem can happen:
“Unlike muscles,” she explained, “nerves do not like to be stretched. Numbness generally occurs after a nerve has been over stretched, is inflamed, or when pressure has been applied to it. The ulnar nerve runs superficially below the elbow. When too much pressure is placed on the elbow, numbness occurs (think of hitting your elbow on something, and hurting your “funny bone” – aka your ulnar nerve).” Kerissa added that students like Amanda “may experience numbness during kickstand curl if there was too much pressure placed on the elbows in an over-stretched position.”
Our consulting physical therapist Cayce Hurley, who co-owns the Bar Method studio in Dr. Phillips, Florida, agrees. “Numbness during a weight bearing exercise is actually common,” Cayce says. “It could be from a few factors during ‘kickstand curl.’ I would say that the ulnar nerve is stretched or even the nerves in the brachial plexus (see illustration below) due to the position of the shoulders and then the elbows also bent.”
The lower-body nerve most often to blame for leg and foot numbness is the sciatic nerve. In some people, this nerve runs close to or through muscles in the rear like the “piriformis” muscle. During exercise this muscle grips and presses on the sciatic nerve, causing the leg or foot below to go to sleep.
Gentle stretching can actually help nerves adjust to treating ranges of motion. Bar Method teacher/physical therapist Tera Roth (she’s pictured on our home page doing “pretzel”) says that her she and her fellow PT’s prescribe what they call “nerve glides” to patients to lengthen and free nerves. “The idea,” she says, “is that nerves can get shortened or they can get stuck in the surrounding soft tissue that they pass through. The exercises are a sequence of movements that stretch the nerves and get them gliding through the tissue. We generally tell people to stop the stretch before they feel the numbness or tingling in the extremity.”
Since round back is a position that really winds up the nervous system, I’ve told clients to lessen the flex in their foot to avoid the numbness but to try to push it a little further everyday and the numbness could resolve.
Kerissa and Cayce offered some recommendations for how Bar Method students can avoid getting numb when they work out. Before I share their advice with you, it’s important for me to mention that numbness might occur for reasons other than temporary pressure on a nerve. If your numbness consistently lasts longer than just a few moments and doesn’t go away shortly after you come out of the position, or if the numbness becomes painful, it could be a symptom of sciatica, spinal stenosis, diabetes, exertional compartment syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome or clogged arteries, all of which call for you to be under a doctor’s care. Besides these potentially serious conditions, experts have attributed numbness to vitamin deficiencies, poor blood flow, dehydration or muscle fatigue. Long-distance running has its own set of numbness issues caused by loss of blood flow in the hands, fluid leakage into tissue, and pressure on the bottoms of the feet.
Cayce and Kerissa assured me that the kind of numbness most students run into in a strength/stretch class like the Bar Method is not likely to be a sign of these problems. Here are their suggestions for how to avoid this annoying issue:
Arms over the head with elbows bent, from Kerissa:
- “I would avoid “fox ear” position (arms crossed behind the head) if the numbness occurs all the time. The ulnar nerve is at its end range in this position, and the shoulders are also internally rotated.” In our teacher Sharon’s case, “given [her] history of surgeries, nerves are most likely being impinged at the shoulder in this position.”
- Sharon herself has solved her shoulder numbness during “fold-over” by working at the “stall-bar” where she can rest her hands on a low rung.
“Lat pulls,” from Kerissa:
- “Try lowering weights/ wrists below elbows to decrease pressure. Increase shoulder retraction/ external rotation of shoulder to take pressure off of shoulder joint.” Our teacher Jen solves her problem by not using weights and not squeeze so intensely.
“Standing seat,” from Kerissa:
- “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.” “Over pronation at the foot may cause numbness in foot/ankle. Try “lifting up” at standing hip – this will engage glut medius. Sometimes glut medius weakness will cause the standing hip to drop, causing the foot to over pronate or flatten more. Also (like in fold over/ arabesque that call for a soft standing knee) shift weight over arch of foot.”“Fold-over/arabesque”
- Kerissa herself (being a PT :-)) has resolved her own numbness issue during fold-over by shifting her weight differently. “When the numbness occurs it is usually because my weight is shifted too far posterior over my standing leg/ heel, if I soften the bend in my standing leg.”
“Kickstand curl,” from Cayce:
- Try to avoid sinking your head down ‘into’ your shoulders.
- Correct the placement of your elbows to directly under your shoulders.
- Relax your forearms to avoid the over-stretch at the elbow.
- As a last resort, place a mini-mat under your elbows to decrease the pressure on them.
- And fire your abdominals rather than holding yourself up solely with your elbows!
A few more suggestions for how to deal with numb arms during kickstand curl from Kerissa:
- Rest on a black riser mat and mini-mat, a remedy our teacher Allyson (who has low blood pressure) has discovered on her own. “I have ‘solved’ this issue recently,” Allyson told me, “by using 2-3 mats behind me to enable me to lift my elbows.”
- Our teacher Christine is a scientist by profession and applied her own deductive reasoning to address the problem of her front leg becoming numb during pretzel: “I just have to keep my body a little more upright rather than leaning forward to relieve pressure on the front of my hip.”
If you’ve ever experienced exercise numbness, I hope this blog will help you find a way to avoid it. Remember, you can always consult your teachers, who may experience exercise numbness themselves.
Update on our streaming videos: Last weekend, we shot five more fun, butt-blasting, Bar Method workouts that will be available to students later this month. Look on our home page for our Bar Online launch!
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