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.
“I can’t feel my abs!” “When I try to pull in, nothing happens.” “My abs just aren’t changing.” I hear these statements from new students all the time. More than any other muscle group, the abdominals are typically the hardest ones for people to find, work and change. Even when the students’ themselves command their abs to get going, they seem to just sit there. Frustrating!
These people have come up against a maddening feature of our abdominals. They take their own sweet time to respond. In my experience, students’ abs typically take about four times longer than most other muscle groups to gain strength and look tighter. Why are they so slow on the uptake? The main reason is that they’re much thinner than other major muscles groups. You could (hypothetically) hold Arnold Schwarzenegger’s abdominals in one hand, while you could barely lift his quads. Their small mass makes it hard to get your brain around contracting them, especially when they’re weak. There’s not enough muscle fiber to get the job done.
Fortunately our abs have a built-in solution to the problem of their puny size. Our deepest abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis (“TA”) and our diaphragm are interconnected. This muscle-to-muscle relationship gives us all the ability to jump-start our abs by doing such things as sneezing, coughing, laughing or exhaling sharply with our diaphragm. Now you know why Bar Method teachers are always telling you to “exhale” as you work your abs.
I remember going through the process of getting my own abs up to speed during my first months as a Lotte Berk Method student in the early 80s. I would be doing the “curl” exercise, and the teacher would tell us, “exhale and pull in.” I would exhale, but my abs would not pull in. Then one day after coming to class regularly for about three months, I suddenly felt them come alive. When I later became a teacher, I noticed that many of my students also needed to concentrate on breathing and pulling in for the same three-month interval before their abs kicked in. Now I can happily reassure my beginning students that there’s nothing wrong with their abdominals. Tighter abs are on their way. Their biggest challenge in the meantime: patience!
Of course if you’re carrying excess intramuscular fat between the layers of your ab muscle, you have some additional work to do. Our bodies burn fat “systemically.” That is, it comes off our body as a whole. You can’t “spot” reduce fat. The best way to shrink your waist is to work your largest, most calorie-hungry muscle groups, specifically those in your upper legs and arms. Your abdominals on the other hand aren’t great calorie burners because they’re so thin, the better to wrap tightly around you. So The Bar Method places ab work toward the end of its workout. That way, your already reved-up cardio-vascular system will continue to burn away fat as you focus on your breathing and pulling in.
Read more about The Bar Method's Body Sculpting Secrets.
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The position that the Bar Method calls “the tuck” is very different
from Lotte Berk’s original “tuck.” Lotte invented the exercises the Bar Method is based on in the 1960s. She was a Martha Graham-style dancer, so her “tuck” was taken from modern dance and looked kind of like a sexy slump. One of Lotte’s seat exercises was
actually called “the prostitute.” To do “the prostitute,” Lotte’s students held onto the bar with one hand, rounded their shoulders, and raised one leg out to the side. Conversely, the Bar Method tuck position is very close to a “spine-neutral” stance. It’s one of the secrets behind the Bar Method’s signature long, lean look.
More important than making our bodies look better, the Bar Method tuck addresses common posture problems that our cars, couches, computers, TVs and cell phones subject us to. These gadgets are great, but they free us from the heavy work our bodies are designed for. Without strong back muscles we tend to slump. Without strong ab and glute muscles we tend to let our stomachs tilt forward and our rears tilt back, none of which is not good for our spines. The Bar Method tuck position recruits all three of these core muscle areas in order to both strengthen and elongate them.
So how do you do “The Bar Method tuck"? First, you draw your shoulder blades downwards. This action forces two sets of core muscles to turn on, namely your upper back muscles, which protect your shoulders, and your abdominal muscles, which protect your back. You are now holding your upper back a bit straighter than usual, a stance that strengthens your postural muscles.
Next, you relax your lower back. Releasing your lower back muscles is easy once you’ve done the first two steps described above, namely, lifting your chest and engaging your abs. Try this on your own: Stand up and then pull your shoulders down and your abs in. You’ll find that the weight of your rib cage is no longer pressing on your lower back.
The last step in assuming the Bar Method tuck is to grip your glutes, which are also a core muscle group. Your glutes qualify as core muscles because they keep your hips level when you walk and run. Now you’re in the Bar Method tuck, which means you’ve recruited all three core muscle groups: your upper back muscles, your abs and your glutes. Now you’re ready to exercise in a position that:
--protects your spine;
--trains and tones your core muscles; and
--gives you great posture.
As a bonus, using the Bar Method tuck will make you a better athlete, since the best athletes really know how to use their core to optimize power and precision.
The Bar Method tuck position has several additional therapeutic benefits. It stretches your hip-flexors (your “psoas/iliacus” muscles), which are connected to your lower spine and upper legs. When your psoas is tight, so is your lower back. Our chair-oriented life-styles give us a tendency towards tight hip-flexors, and the Bar Method’s tuck position helps to lengthen them. Not to mention that the Bar Method tuck stretches your lower back, which has the same propensity for tightness. Finally, the tuck is great for strengthening your glutes. Because they’re located right under your spines, your glutes play an important role in supporting your lower back.
To be clear, the Bar Method tuck position is a great stance which strengthens lazy core and posture muscles and stretches tight ones when you exercise. It’s not supposed to become your permanent posture. Once you’re done exercising and out into the world, your body will assume its natural stance, only it will now be straighter, leaner looking and more graceful.
If we could have the abs of our dreams, what are the two top features we would ask for? First, I think most of us would want abs that are flat and firm. Second we’d want our abs to perform well as core muscles, supporting our backs and giving us better coordination.
The Bar Method’s flat-back exercise is vital to giving us abs with both these attributes. Without it, Bar Method students’ core muscles would neither be as toned nor as well-trained as they are. It’s one of my personal favorite Bar Method exercises because it makes you sweat while it carves just about every muscle on your front side from shoulders to knees.
Our panel of physical therapists – introduced in last week’s blog – have their own reasons for appreciating flat-back. Yesterday Mary Dellenbach, a PT in Fort Collins, CO took my class in the Bar Method studio in Boulder. When I asked Mary about flat-back she told me it “really focuses on your rectus abdominus [the ‘six-pack’ abdominal muscle] which in strengthening assists in proper spinal alignment…preventing and relieving back pain.” (Read about how the core works in my blog "Core Strengthening, Fact and Function
Heidi Morton, our consulting physical therapist in Summit, New
Jersey sees many benefits to be gained from flat-back. “Flat-back really engages everything,” she says. “It establishes 'the proper underlying core motor pattern.'” Jayme Anderson, our PT advisor in Walnut Creek, likes flat-back because it helps students make the connection between their abs and their breathing patterns. In her words the exercise is a “good position for allowing one to focus on the connection between the abdominals and breathing.”
Julie Bolanos, both a PT and a Bar Method teacher, sees three positive results that her students get from flat-back:
--greater strength in their abs plus many other muscle groups including the anterior upper extremity muscles, posterior muscles (scapular stabilizers/postural muscles), hip flexors, quads, and intrinsic foot muscles,
--better alignment of the knees and shoulders, and
--more endurance and stamina because flat-back produces “cardio bursts similar to interval training…enhancing, fat-burning.”
The fat-burning effect that Julie mentions works so well because flat-back takes place about 40 minutes into class when students are working aerobically (that is, burning a larger portion of fat calories) and because it is so darned challenging. That second half of class is the perfect time to jack up the intensity of the workout for the best results. Students thereby are burning fat off from around the muscles that they sculpted during the bar-work in the first half of class.
For me, flat-back is the exercise that gives the Bar Method its unique rigor. Twenty-eight years ago when I first struggled through that section of the workout, I liked flat-back because of the long, lean shape it gave my legs. Today, I appreciate it for furnishing me with a level of stamina I never imagined I’d have at age 62.
In the fall of 2004, Kate Burgess, a marketing executive who lives in Chicago, developed severe back pain. She went the round of doctors and therapists, took anti-inflammatory drugs, tried injections, massages, back braces, chiropractic care and physical therapy. Kate had been athletic before the onset of her back pain. She remembers feeling “so incredibly sad to quit all the sports I was involved in.”
Finally after years of searching for a cure, Kate managed to find some relief from acupuncture. Nonetheless her doctors told her that she would never be able to do a sit-up or a crunch again. She continued to look for solutions anyway and, as she tells it, “decided to give Bar Method a shot.” That was a year ago. Today, Kate says, “I can do things that professionals told me I could/should never do. I am in this ‘better place’ physically (and thus emotionally).”
Kate shares her positive outcome with hundreds of Bar Method students who came to the technique with back conditions. The reason that Kate and so many other students have benefitted from doing the Bar Method workout is that it was designed with back rehabilitation in mind. Two exercises in particular, “round-back” and “flat-back," which were reformulated from the Lotte Berk Method original exercises with the help of physical therapists, are highly effective at both rehabbing problem backs and maintaining healthy ones.
What precisely are the benefits of these two exercises? To get an informed answer I asked four physical therapists, all of whom take the Bar Method – Mary Dellenbach, a PT in Fort Collins, Colorado; Heidi Morton, our consulting PT in Summit, New Jersey; Jayme Anderson, a PT who consults for us in Walnut Creek, California; and Julie Bolanos, who is both a PT and a Bar Method teacher in San Mateo, California.
“Round-back”, says Mary Dellenbach, “assists in proper pelvic alignment” by stretching your hamstrings. “Using your abs while stretching your hamstrings assists in strengthening your core muscles, also key in preventing and relieving back pain.”
Heidi Morton loves “round-back” not only for core strengthening power but also for its ability to align and strengthen knee muscles. As an open chain quadraceps strengthener, in which the feet are off the ground and therefore the body's weight is not a factor, quad muscles get a chance to work across the knee to evenly contract and lock the quads into place thereby balancing and stabilizing the patella.
Jayme Anderson says that “round-back” helps students learn better use of their abdominals while breathing. “Research is emphasizing the importance of the coordinated interplay between the diaphragm, the pelvic floor muscles and the deep intrinsics, and the abdominal wall. Round-back ”happens to be,” she says, “an effective activator not only of the abdominals but also of the pelvic floor.”
Julie Bolanos sees many benefits from “round-back," among them:
--stretching of the thoraco-lumbar spinal muscles,
--strengthening of the anterior upper extremity muscles, coupled with co-contraction of posterior muscles,
--strengthening abdominals, hip flexors, quadriceps, gastrocnemii, anterior tibialli, and intrinsic foot muscles,
--endurance and stamina,
--pain-relieving for clients with spinal stenosis, and
--alignment of the patello-femoral joint.
In answer to those of you who wrote me last week asking about “round-back” and “flat-back,” they are core stabilization exercises that are taught only in the Bar Method studio version and not in the home dvds. The reason we can’t offer them to those of you at home is that they require a securely wall-attached bar, a piece of equipment that most home users don’t have access to. In the future we plan to develop a bar for home use that will work for “round-back” and “flat-back.” Meanwhile both the dvd and studio versions of the workout effectively sculpt and elongate your body. The studio version however does so more efficiently for now since it includes “round-back” and “flat-back”.
NEXT WEEK: Physical therapists talk about the benefits of “flat-back.”
The worldwide symbol for a woman’s body is the hourglass, an object that evokes the pretty curves created by the female chest, waist and hips. To look great we women undoubtedly need to tone our arms and legs, but we exhibit our most essential feminine beauty around our torsos. That’s why the five top muscles for women to sculpt – the ones that most flatter our body – are there.
Fifth Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Lower Traps
The trapezius, a large muscle on our upper backs, moves our shoulder-blades up, in and down. The problem with having untrained traps is that they react to stress by yanking your shoulders upwards to protect your neck - and who today isn’t stressed out in some way? So unless you work at it, your shoulders are going to lift a lot and aren’t going to press down very much. Women, who are especially stressed out these days, can end up with a foreshortened neck and hunched shoulders. The Bar Method fixes this both by strengthening your lower traps and then requiring you to keep your shoulders down throughout the whole workout. The result is an elongated the neck, an elegant posture, and a sculpted upper back.
Fourth Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The “Six Pack Muscle”
Crunches are not unique to the Bar Method. Fitness-enthusiasts everywhere use them to chisel their abs. Bar Method students, being no exception to this rule, sometimes do more than 100 crunches per class. Even with that many crunches under their belt (so to speak), some female students don’t consider themselves as candidates for six packs, but I assure you that we women are at least in the running for 4-packs if we put our mind into each rep, as Arnold Schwarzenegger once famously said. My favorite mental image to use for crunches is an X ray photo of David Beckham’s “rectus abdominis,” the muscle responsible for his six-pack abs, juxtaposed on top of a portrait of my own abs. Envisioning me with David Beckham’s six-pack makes me laugh (an involuntary abdominal contraction by the way) and keeps my emerging 4-pack coming in strong.
Third Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The “TA” (Traversus Abdominis)
The “TA” is our deepest abdominal muscle. When it’s strong, it both flattens our stomach and stabilizes our lower spine. The catch is that this quintessentially core muscle is relatively thin and not attached to any bones, so it’s tricky to figure out a way to work it. Running, spinning, most yoga workouts, and even some sculpting classes miss the TA because women – especially those who’ve recently given birth – commonly can’t feel their TA’s, no less work them. The good news is that our TA is connected to our diaphragm, so when we breathe sharply and/or laugh deeply, we’re on our way to toning it. Bar Method students tone their TA’s with the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise. Students anchor themselves against the wall under the bar, exhale and “pull in” sharply, and then lift their legs against the stabilizing force of their core muscles. The TA’s quirky features make it slower to sculpt than other muscles; so if you’re a new student, don’t be discouraged. Give it few months - and hundreds of sharp exhales – and you’ll begin to feel your TA come to life.
Second Best Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Gluteus Medius
The gluteus medius is arguably the cutest muscle in a woman’s body. It forms the top curves of the dancer’s proverbial heart-shaped butt. Like the “TA,” it stabilizes your core – in this case your pelvis – when you walk or stand on one foot, and it raises your leg out to the side. From a visual stand-point, toning the gluteus medius results in some dramatic changes. Your legs seem to start higher on your frame; saddle bags shrink or disappear altogether as your seat tightens, and hollows form in the sides of your seat, making your hips look slimmer. The Bar Method technique includes many exercises to shape the glutes medius, including “pretzel,” “standing seat,” “arabesque,” and “back-dancing.” Why other exercise systems appear to ignore this sexy-looking muscle baffles me. One reason could be the initial fear of bulking up that students encounter when this particular glute first takes shape (See FITNESS TIPS: WHY YOU JUST MIGHT BULK UP BEFORE YOU SLIM DOWN
). Let me reassure you that the ultimate results – a cute, tight butt and slim hips – are well-worth a few months of slightly tighter-fitting pants.
Top Muscle for Women to Sculpt: The Gluteus Maximus
I bet you knew this muscle would take top prize. It’s the largest muscle in our bodies, and uniquely human in shape. It embellishes our elegant, upright posture, and in women forms the bottom part of our alluringly-female hour-glass shape. You’d think it would be easy to sculpt since it’s so large. The catch is that it’s lazy. Unless your glutes are already strong, they tend to let other muscles such as the hamstrings do the work. The Bar Method doesn’t let them get away with that. It’s on their case throughout the class, starting with a gentle tuck position during warm-up, proceeding to a stronger tuck during push-ups, then on to a deep tuck during heel lifts, diamond-thigh, “seat-work,” “curl” and “back-dancing.” No wonder the New York Times Style Magazine coined the phrase “the Bar Method butt!”
Simply put, “core muscles” lock down parts of our torsos to give us extra stability when our bodies need it, for example, when throwing a ball or picking up a toddler. The three most important core muscle groups are:
1. those in our backs,
2. those under our spines, and
3. our abdominals.
The word “core” became popular in the 90s when aerobics and yoga
turned out to have not much effect on students’ waists-lines. Today Amazon.com sells hundreds of titles that include the word “core." Some of these core workouts do a nice job at integrating muscle function so that the body performs actions more efficiently. Good core routines also work the body “functionally;” that is, while bearing its entire weight. Other, less thoughtfully designed programs have ratcheted down the concept of “core” to only one of its components, namely abs. Students of these systems miss out on neuro-muscular learning, since they use only small groups of muscles at a time. Examples of imbalanced core workouts that over-emphasize the abdominals are Pilates and exercise ball routines.
Such over-emphasis on ab-work results in bodies that lack athletic power and have insufficient protection against episodes of back pain. A strong balanced core requires support on both sides of our bodies. So glute strengthening needs to be a big part of any core workout. Glutes, however, are highly resistant to exercise. The reason for their pig-headedness goes back to our evolution when glutes needed to work long and hard. Now they’re our largest, deepest muscles and come laced with fat for extra endurance. It follows that we need to work them long and hard before they sit up and take notice. Any core workout worth its salt knows this and has something special cooked up to serve these particular core muscles.
Last but not least, for a strong core you need to work on upper back strength and alignment. Good posture and control over your shoulders will result, free your lower back from lots of needless stress and strain and protect your shoulders from injury.
The beauty of core muscles is their versatility. As I mentioned above, their principal job is to stiffen our torsos whenever our actions call for extra support around our spines. Our well-braced torso also gives our arms and legs more power by providing them with a stable base from which to perform, when hitting a tennis ball for example. What’s impressive is that core muscles can freeze our torsos into just about any bend or twist. They can also stiffen only torso sections needed while leaving other parts free to maneuver.
With training, core muscles can become amazingly quick and deft at calculating the intersection of body-position and muscle power. Experienced athletes know to focus on developing both these components of core performance: namely, strength and coordination.
Consider a pitcher’s throw of the ball. The core muscles allow her spine to twist but then lock, exerting tremendous holding power around the shoulder-blades. Without the support of these muscles a pitcher’s arm would be in grave danger of flying off, ball still in hand.
Core muscles’ last trick is their ability to let go when we need our torsos to become pliable, such as when we’re lounging in an easy chair or strutting our stuff on the dance floor.
Now let’s look at where the core muscles are in a tennis player's body as someone prepares to hit the ball:
--First, her abdominals stiffen her torso, preventing it from falling back as she swings.
--Second, her back muscles solidify into a base for her shoulders.
--Third, deep muscles in her upper back lock her shoulder blades firmly down giving power and stability to the arm holding the racquet.
--Fourth, her glutes weld her torso and legs into an immovable structure long enough for her to drive the ball over the net.
This stiffening-loosening dance characterizes core muscles at their best. Legs may allow us to run, arms to throw. Core muscles enable us to run and throw with our entire bodies.
Good core workouts, therefore, includes strength exercises for the shoulder stabilizers and the glutes as well as for the abs and back. Just as important, well-designed core training teaches muscles to interact with each other, and also with the rest of our bodies. This education for the abs can make the difference between “throwing like a girl” and throwing like an athlete.