HOW THE BAR METHOD EXERCISES HELP STUDENTS WITH BACK CONDITIONS
Yesterday, I met a Bar Method student named Emily Murgatroyd, a slender, athletic student there who owns a green, sustainable event planning company based in Vancouver. I was in that city to teach at the beautiful new Bar Method studio there, and Emily was one of my students. After class, Emily told me that she has two herniated disks. “The recovery process for my back was slow and frustrating,” she told me. “The challenging workouts I used to enjoy caused me pain and while I enjoyed the low impact exercises recommended to me (yoga, Pilates etc.) I really missed the feeling of accomplishment and the 'high' I got from strenuous activity. To me it felt like an 'either/or situation'…In June I was introduced to The Bar Method by a friend and after my first class I knew that I'd be hooked. The combination of low impact yet highly challenging exercises meant that I could enjoy all of the physical and mental benefits of a high intensity workout without any impact whatsoever on my back - or entire body for that matter.”
By talking to students like Emily over the years, I’ve found that most back pain sufferers who take The Bar Method get relief from their condition, as Emily did. A great deal of back pain is due to strains, sprains and spasms in back muscles caused by stress and muscle tightness. Exercise, especially The Bar Method, helps tremendously with this problem by strengthening students’ cores, stretching the muscles in their backs and legs, and improving their alignment and body mechanics. One group that is especially vulnerable to back issues is made up of people with weak abs and glutes, which are not brought into service when they should be. The result is that the lower back muscles get overused, thereby putting themselves at risk for tweaks. I can pick these students out when they take their first Bar Method classes because they tend lean back during the “seat” exercises, trying to use their back muscles instead of their glutes and hamstrings to move their legs. Eventually these students learn to use their seat-muscles and abs to control the movements of their legs and torso, taking a load of stress off their backs.
I’d like to tell you that all Bar Method students with back pain get better just by taking the class, but when it comes to the back, the situation is not so simple. Our backs, like our knees, are complicated joints with many moving parts, and like knees, can misfire in multiple ways (see my blog on knees posted earlier this month). Depending on the underlying cause, back pain can either respond well to the Bar Method or require students to modify some of the exercises. Here are a few back problems that can fall into this second category:
- Sciatica is actually a symptom, not a condition in itself. It refers to numbness or tingling in your leg from something pressing on your sciatic nerve. The culprit could be a vertebral disk, a tight muscle or, if you’re pregnant, a baby. Depending on what’s happening at the pressure point, you might need to limit the degree of movement in your back when you exercise.
- Scoliosis refers to an abnormal curvature of the spine and can cause low back pain. Students with scoliosis might again find it more comfortable to modify some of Bar Method exercises that include back bending.
- Arthritis, osteoarthritis and bone spurs in the back are caused by degenerated vertebrae. Students who are moderately effected by these conditions usually benefit from the Bar Method’s core work and stretches, but can feel so much sensitivity around the affected areas that they find doing modifications during some of the back stretches more comfortable.
If you suspect you have a back condition that calls for special attention when you take class or use one of the DVDs, you can do the following modifications and still get a great workout: During the stretch at the bar, you can go to a stall-bar and place your leg up on a lower rung. Doing so will lessen the degree of stretching in your upper leg and lower back. See photo at right.
- During the “fold-over” version of “seat-work” you can work with a more upright torso, again, so as to minimize the flexion in your hips.
- During pretzel, a sitting seat exercise, do “standing seat.”
- During “round-back,” (shown right) which is taught only in Bar Method studio classes and not on the DVDs, you are welcome to lie down, as illustrated.
Most important of all, if you have back pain, find a way to exercise. More than 80% of Americans will experience severe back pain in their lifetimes, so you are statistically unlikely to escape the experience. Medical research has found that consistent exercise keeps your muscles and joints moving and active in a way that counteracts continued tightening and strains. So if and when you do have an episode, finding a way to exercise is your best bet at a speedy recovery.
For the past couple of weeks, I ve been discussing the vulnerable areas in our human bodies and how The Bar Method strengthens them. Our back is certainly one of our most susceptible body parts. The origin of our back issues goes way back to when we stood up on two legs, losing the relative stability that comes with having four of them. Our back problems got worse when modern conveniences enabled most of us humans to lead very successful lives without doing much upper body work. Twenty-First Century Man could scarcely move all day and still make Forbes 100 Richest list at the end of the year.
It’s a fact that, as reported by the New York Times, people who do not exercise regularly face an increased risk for low back pain. Is it any wonder then that low back pain is the second most common cause of missed days of work (next to the common cold) in the United States? Close to 80% of all Americans experience it at some point and about 50% of us experience each year.
A common misconception about lower back pain is that we can eliminate it simply by doing abdominal exercises. The logic here is that a strong front of the body will give you a strong back. The truth is, to have a healthy back, you have to strengthen not only the front of your trunk but the back itself, and develop good posture and alignment.
Look at the chart above. It shows the superficial layers of the muscles in our backs. I‘m struck by the beauty of these intertwined muscular groupings and impressed by the obvious importance of each of these muscles in keeping us upright and healthy. When I talk to new Bar Method students who tell me they have problematic backs, I rarely hear them ask me about how to strengthen their back muscles. Yet clearly our back muscles were meant to be used and strengthened, especially given that they have a unique role in holding us upright unlike our distant four legged ancestors.
How can we minimize our risk of suffering from back pain or injury? Jonathan Clutt, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and About.com writer, recommends “sustained use of back muscles performed two or three times a week at least.” Sports injury expert Owen Anderson of Sports Injury Bulletin reported on five different studies on lower back pain, which all lead to the same conclusion. In the article he urges us to: “consider one last study, a beauty carried out in Teheran, Iran, with a grand total of 600 subjects. These 600 individuals were subdivided into four groups: 150 asymptomatic men, 150 asymptomatic women, 150 men with low-back pain, and 150 women with the same..... As it turned out, among all of the physical characteristics measured, the endurance of the back-extensor (erector-spinae) muscles had the highest (negative) association with low-back pain. The Iranian researchers suggested that low-back-muscle endurance could be used as a screening tool to predict which individuals would be likely to develop low-back disorders.” In other words, just as as Dr. Cluett said above, people should do exercises that employ sustained use of the back muscles and the erector-spinae muscle group is a particular important one to keep toned.
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching Bar Method classes and hanging out in the waiting room with students before and after class is hearing from some of them how much The Bar Method has helped their backs. The Method does that in a variety of ways. In addition to strengthening the abdominals, it strengthens, stretches and aligns students’ backs. Stretching on the stall bars at the start and end of class lengthens the spine and reverses some of its constant compression from gravity. The first 15 minutes of classes specifically strengthens the shoulder, arms, and upper body muscles including the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and lats. Students use their upper backs consistently during this segment.
The Bar Method’s leg exercises also plays a role in stabilizing students’ backs. At the bar, Students’ back muscles get the very kind of sustained isometric work which strengthens the erector spinae to protect against lower back pain. Then they work their glutes, which act as a support for the lower back and must be strong to protect the spine.
After the glutes are exhausted and stretched, we turn to a series of core exercises. One of the most important of these is called flat back. This move cleverly forces the transverse abdominal muscle (which acts like a girdle around our entire middle) to fire and stay strong as it gives support to our spines. (Read more about this exercise for the deepest layer of muscle in our cores in HOW FLAT BACK GIVES US THE ABS OF OUR DREAMS
.) Stretches punctuate the work to stretch and elongate all these muscles as we strengthen them. Towards the end of class, we do a pose specifically for the erector spinae after which we stretch the back while strengthening the glutes in an exercise we call back dancing but is known to many as a common physical therapy move for people with low back pain.
People know that The Bar Method gives you flat abs, toned thighs, and a lifted seat. What they might not have known until now it that it also gives you a strong, stretched, supple back!