Look around on a busy street or in a store, and you’ll probably see a few people whose spines are clearly not in “neutral,” or in a well-aligned position. This is an issue that those of us exercise field would love to help with. “Everywhere you look people are talking about the benefits of being able to achieve and maintain a neutral spine alignment” Pilates instructor and author Nuala Coombs says on her website. “It is important to maintain the neutral alignment of these curves to assist with cushioning the spine from excessive stress or strain.”
I agree. Walking through life without a neutral spine invites a host of physical ailments. Slumping on a regular basis can give a person’s back ligaments “creep.” “Creep” is the physiological term for the damaging deformation of the lower back tissues when someone leaves her lower back out of neutral for an extended period of time. And that’s just what happens to the back! Bad posture adversely affects the neck, hips, knees, ankles – just about every major joint in the body.
So should people exercise with their spine in neutral? Many exercise spokespeople say yes including Coombs. “Most exercise regimes," she says, "and especially Pilates based exercise programmes encourage working with the spine in a neutral position.”
I'm with Coombs with regard to her point about exercise routines needing to be safe in order to protect students’ spines and their surrounding tissues. But should spines literally stay in neutral during exercise as Coombs suggests? In theory, this seems like a good idea. In practice, less so. First of all no core workout -- least of all Pilates with all its rounding, arching, rotating and side-bending -- actually keeps the spine in neutral. Second, back movement during exercise is a good thing. The spine has 24 joints and is designed for a certain amount of bending. Arching and contracting the back in a controlled manner is healthy and therapeutic for the spine’s discs and surrounding muscles.
Coombs nevertheless recommends that people hold their spines in neutral during exercise just the way they do in daily life, even to the extent of allowing their core muscles to be just barely "on" when working out. “The muscles of the core,” she says, “only need a mild contraction to become activated and function effectively…Once they are on you can confidently use the large muscles for the action phase of a movement now that you have stabilised the spine…”
Coombs is right about the core muscles needing simply to be "on" during normal activities. The problem with just keeping them merely "on" during exercise is that not much change results. To significantly strengthen muscles you have to work them harder than normal. Exercise can do this for core muscles and so improve their function outside of class. To this end the Bar Method has developed exercise positions that work the core muscles while at the same time keeping the back muscles in neutral. One such stance is “the Bar Method tuck.” To assume this pose, a student slightly lengthens her lower back and slightly shortens her upper back by lifting her chest. This position keeps the ligaments and joint capsules in her back in neutral, while her glutes, abs and upper back muscles – the three groups responsible for good alignment – grip tighter than usual, gaining strength.
"The Bar Method tuck" makes other important contributions to core stability: First, it stretches the long muscles that run through the hips and kness. As Physical Therapist Sydney James, one of the Bar Method's consultants, explains, "It's important to keep the quads and hamstrings reasonably flexible and balanced so that the lumbar spine isn't overly jostled by walking, running and other motion."
Second, it teaches students to hold themselves straight with their chests over their spines, a practice that helps correct habitual slouching. Bar Method students' back muscles gain energy, and students themselves start to enjoy standing up straighter. Walk into a Bar Method studio and you’ll see lots of people with beautiful posture. One reason is “the Bar Method tuck.”
Last but not least, the Bar Method trains its teachers to give their students individual coaching on good posture throughout class. The Bar Method tuck - since it requires the use of all three core muscle groups - provides both teachers and students with the basic building blocks of good alignment in a way that is simple for everyone to follow. During bar-work when it's especially important to focus on alignment, teachers search for students who look like they could use extra help on posture and encourage them to "lift your chest," “keep your head over your spine,"“look straight ahead," and if needed give them gentle "hands-on" adjustments to their form.
Nora Luongo of Summit, New Jersey is one Bar Method student who has benefitted from this approach. “All the instructors at the Bar Method are so precise in their vocal directions and hands-on in their adjustments," she wrote me, "that just a few months of doing it has really gotten to where it took me years of training in yoga to understand…. I find myself consciously standing straighter even when not in class.”
There are clear advantages to working out at home. You pay nothing, you get fit your way, and you save travel time. Most of all, you enjoy the unbeatable convenience of exercising at home. At the same time there are some downsides associated with home-workouts that are worth talking about. First, there's the well-known fact that most people find it a struggle to stay challenged day in and day out without being egged on by a teacher. DVD workouts can help by providing someone on video who can motivate you.
"DIY" workouts can also subject you to some less commonly known risks, especially if they're your chief means of staying fit and even if you use DVDs. At home, you can be tempted to pick and choose among an infinity of vaguely-recalled routines or pieces of DVD workouts, and these choices might not always be the safest and most results-oriented ones you could make for your body. In any case, there's no one at home to check your form.
Linda Greenberg, a recent Bar Method convert, is a good person to ask about what happens when you work out at home over the long term, something she did regularly for 40 years. Staying motivated certainly wasn’t one of her problems. At an early age, Linda came to understand that she possessed an abundance of determination. “If I believed in something,” she realized, “I could do it well.” Linda, 57, was born and grew up in San Francisco and always loved to work out. When she was a teenager, she spent her monthly $25 allowance on training sessions at her local Jack LaLanne, and during college at UCLA and Wharton School of Business, she biked, ran and lifted weights. By her mid-20s, she’d become a five-mile-a-day runner, and that’s when she ran into her first setback: her knees started to bother her. Not being one to give up easily, Linda pushed through the pain until age 30, when she finally gave up her long runs.
With a vengeance, Linda launched into a search for a perfect exercise routine that did not include running. She watched exercise channels and combed through fitness magazines for good exercise routines. She tried Pilates, but it was a little too mellow for her. She hired a personal trainer, but that turned out not to be the answer either. “He was this crazy muscle-bound macho guy,” she remembers. “We did a lot of squats and lunges, militaristic things like burpies. I expected him to take out a whip any minute. Why did I keep going back? To prove to myself how strong I was. I actually dreaded going, but I went for about a year. It was a kind of masochistic thing. I ended up putting on a bunch of weight and built bulk, the exact opposite of what my intention was.”
After that experience, Linda decided to forego assisted exercise and step up her home workouts, which she’d been doing all along, to two hours every other day. “I bought a Bowflex and committed myself to “hitting every hit every part of my body with 30-to-100 reps while wearing 5-pound ankle weights,” Linda says. Therein, for the next two decades as she built a successful career in the home loan industry and raised twin daughters (now 16,) Linda exercised on her own.” “It’s just what I did for years and years. I’d get on some music. My dog would be there. My husband would come in and think I was crazy with the weights. He would call me ‘Lucy.’”
Finally last summer, Linda suffered a game-changing ill effect from her workouts. She developed bursitis in her hips, a painful injury that brought home to her the extent to which she’d been overdoing it. “I’d been doing massive reps with massive weights,” she admits, “pushing my body. It was so stupid. I had to go to the orthopedist. He said it was because I was working too hard on the weights.” Ironically, Linda’s extraordinary willpower, which had first enabled her to exercise by herself, had ended up derailing her. She resolved to find some guidance, and her search led her last September to the Bar Method.
Linda now takes four to five Bar Method classes a week and uses the treadmill two days a week. She began to see changes after a few months. “My body is leaner now. My muscles have elongated for the first time ever instead of bulking up.” she says, “My kids say, ‘mom, you have no butt left.’ I’ve dropped some inches and feel better.” Another plus side to exercising at the Bar Method, Linda found, is its friendly environment. “I love all of the instructors,” she told me. “They’re enthusiastic, and they push you, but not in an offensive way, and I’ve made friends here. It’s a community.” Three months ago, Linda lost her mother, and her Bar Method classes became an unexpected source of support. “To be around cheerful people with upbeat music has helped me take care of me first while I’m taking care of all this other stuff.”
Does Linda have any plans to return to her home workouts? “I don’t miss anything,” she told me. “For the last 40 years I was bulking up when I wanted to be elongating. Finally I have the right combination of contractions and stretches." As for the future, Linda declares with her usual hutzpah, "I’m going to do the Bar Method until the day I go."
As the year comes to a close, I would like to republish the most popular blog I've written in 2009. At the bottom of the article, I have also included links to my other blogs which make up this year's five most read.
See you in 2010! Have a very Happy New Year!
HOW THE BAR METHOD SLIMS YOU DOWN AND KEEPS YOU AEROBICALLY FIT
Since the 70s, millions of active Americans have been led to believe that aerobics slims you down and strength work tones your muscles. The truth is not so simple.
In fact most kinds of exercise that keep us moving continuously for more than a few moments, strength work included, are aerobic. Stored fat is our most convenient energy source, so our bodies use it as soon as possible, that is, after you've finished the warm-up stage of your workout. Walking, running, vacuuming, anything that raises your heart rate above resting level, burns both carbs and fat.
The question we should really be asking is: how do we maximize the number of fat calories burned from exercise? To find this out, experts now rely less on how aerobic a particular type of exercise is, and more on how intense it is. Want to know which exercise routine to choose when you're trying to drop a few dress sizes? Experts now suggest you rank them by level of intensity. Pretty straight forward: work harder; use more fuel.
So how do you determine intensity? Think back to that old adage: "feel the burn." The burn in your muscles is a good clue that your workout is getting intense. To find out just how intense, try clocking the amount of time you spend during your workout while experiencing a muscle burn. If it's zero, you're not using a lot of calories. If it's a good part of your workout, you're cooking with fire. Want to up your caloric expenditure? Increase your level of muscle burn until you can barely continue. Now you're cooking with dynamite!
Using intensity as a gauge, you can now see through the old adage that walking's a better fat burner than running. Truth be known, walking does not burn a lot of calories per minute of exercise. Go for a two-hour run and you'll burn about a half a pound of fat. You'd need to walk for five hours to match that result. Yes, compared with running, walking can burn a somewhat higher proportion of fat calories than it does carbs, but compared with running, it simply does not do a good job when it comes to burning total calories. Intense aerobic activity burn calories like crazy and so is doing away with a lot more fat calories per minute of exercise, even if its fat-to-carb ratio is lower than that of walking. Bottom line: walking is not an efficient calorie burner because it's not intense exercise.
For the same reason, yoga and pilates use relatively little energy. Kick up the intensity with running, biking and other aerobic sports, and you get a much better result: more calories consumed and a gain in aerobic stamina to up your caloric burn during your next workout.
Granted: Running, biking, rowing and other high-energy exercise all do an okay job on the "calories out" side of the fuel equation. To do better - to burn even more calories during exercise and to drop even more jean sizes - you'd need to up the level of intensity you experience during aerobics. But how?
Recently a new student walked into a Bar Method studio to sign up for classes. "I'm going to take the Bar Method once a week, because I love it," she told the front desk manager. "But I'm trying to lose some weight, so I'm going to run on the other days." If this student had chosen instead to take the Bar Method four days a week, she probably would have ended up a dress size or two smaller. Like this student, most fitness consumers believe the best remedy for extra pounds is running. It's only when Bar Method students see their bodies shrink beyond what they were able to accomplish by running do they begin to understand that there's something more you can do to shrink your body besides run. To read how Bar Method shapes muscles as well, read How To Sculpt a Dancer's Body.
The problem with running is that by its very nature it's limited in the degree of intensity it can produce. Unless you're planning a brief sprint, running leaves you no choice but to proceed at less than top speed, simply in order to keep going. If you did attempt to run at top speed, your body would give out after a few moments. This is running's catch 22: It challenges you, but there's a kind of glass ceiling of intensity beyond which it won't let you go.
Here are four other blogs that with the one above make up 2009's most popular.
GETTING IN SHAPE: A BODY SCULPTING TRANSFORMATION STORY
THREE BODY SCULPTING SECRETS USED BY THE BAR METHOD
FITNESS TIPS: WHY YOU MIGHT JUST BULK UP BEFORE YOU SLIM DOWN
HOW TO SCULPT A DANCER'S BODY