This year I had the opportunity to take a variety of different fitness classes including some that used a ballet bar. I noticed that the bar classes gave fewer stretches between exercises than what you get at the Bar Method. The intention of these workouts is probably to deliver good results to their students by being as aerobic as possible, a currently popular approach to fitness. But are their students missing out on the body-changing benefits to be gained from stretching?
Sports scientists have researched this subject over the past few years, and they’ve come up with some surprising findings. Three years ago for example, one team of researchers set up an experiment to find out if stretching strengthens muscles. They recruited 16 men and 16 women, all college students in Hawaii’s Brigham Young University. The authors of the study, (Kokkones, Nelson, Tarawhiti, Buckingham and Winchester) divided the 32 students into two groups that matched as much as possible in athletic ability. The members of the first group trained on three different exercise machines for the legs three days a week for eight weeks. The members of the second group did exactly the same routine three days a week for eight weeks. The only difference was that the second group also stretched twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.
After the eight weeks, the researchers tested their subjects’ performance on the three exercise machines. The members of the first group – those who’d only strength trained -- improved their performance an average of 11.6% on each machine. Those in the second group, who’d also stretched twice a week, boosted their performance on the machines more than twice as much, to an average of 24.6%.
Why did the stretching substantially improve the performance of the second group? The researchers said that, as other studies have found, “placing a muscle on stretch can induce Z-line ruptures and increase protein synthesis and growth factor production.”
I was fascinated to learn that stretching causes “Z-line ruptures” because that’s also how strengthening works. When you do a “strength” move such as lifting a weight, you cause tiny muscle tears that stimulate your muscle to build denser and stronger fiber as it repairs itself. Passive stretching, it turns out, causes the same kind of tears by pulling on muscles, while at the same time strengthening the stabilizer muscles that are maintaining the pose. No wonder I’m often out of breath after a stretch sequence!
With this research in mind, consider what’s happening to your body during the Bar Method’s “stretch at the bar.” When you place your leg on the bar, you can now credit the source of the burning sensation you feel to tiny ruptures in your hamstring muscle fibers, similar to those that occur from strengthening. When you turn your body to the side for the "waist stretch," your obliques, triceps and back muscles are also being toned as you stretch them. Meanwhile, the heat generated by this work is serving to get your muscles warmed and limbered up for the thigh-work to follow. Last but not least, you feel extra satisfaction knowing that your muscles are doing more than just taking a break during this stretch!
The many research studies recently carried out on stretching have found that it has a lot of other benefits besides making you stronger. Here are highlights from three of the studies that focused especially on stretching's power to enhance your appearance.
Researchers did a study to find out if stretching makes people more coordinated. They put forty-two college students on a “stabilometer,” which challenges the user to keep his/her balance while standing on it. The students who stretched before standing on the stabilometer significantly improved their balance, by 11.4%. Why? The researchers speculated that “stretching improved maintenance of balance perhaps by helping the subjects to eliminate the gross muscle contractions … and to replace them with fine muscle contractions.” In other words, stretching makes people less “klutzy” by reducing unintentionally jerky movements, thus enabling them to move more smoothly and efficiently.
A leaner body
Researchers tested stretching’s ability to reduce blood sugar. Twenty-two subjects drank a large glass of juice. A half an hour later they either stretched for 40 minutes or did a “mock stretching regime” (not really stretching). Afterwards the researchers measured everyone’s blood sugar. They found that the group that stretched had “a significantly greater drop in blood glucose.” High blood sugar stimulates our bodies to convert the sugar into fat. Stretching, it turns out, metabolizes blood sugar, thereby preventing it from being stored as fat.
Finally, I want to mention the long-established connection between stretching and good posture. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain a proper posture.” Stretching gives these muscles greater range of motion, enabling our bodies to stand up straight and move with more elegance, confidence and grace.
All this evidence shows that the Bar Method’s stretches are not merely elongating students’ muscles. They’re playing a significant role in changing their bodies. Shannon Albarelli, who co-owns a Bar Method studio in Montclair, New Jersey, noticed this difference after she took another barre fitness during her last four years in college. "I liked the class I took in college," she told me, "but I it was only after I moved to New Jersey and started taking the Bar Method that my body changed."
“You use light weights, so I don’t understand why Bar Method students have such sculpted arms.” Leandra Rouse, a fitness expert and trainer, made this remark to me last month when we were working together on a video shoot to promote the Bar Method DVDs.
I got a similar comment a few days later from a Bar Method student named Robin. "I’m curious about why Bar Method classes all follow the same routine," she said. "I'm not complaining because I'm getting great results. Can you just explain to me why the class is so structured?” In asking her question, Robin had unknowingly hit on the answer, namely that the secret of the Bar Method's effectiveness lies precisely in its structured design.
If you’ve ever taken a Bar Method class, you might have noticed as Robin did that the order of the exercises is mostly the same. To illustrate how this structure works, I’d like to take you on a virtual tour of the workout and explain along the way.
First, it's important to mention that the safety of exercises allows you to work deep “in the muscle” long enough to change your muscles without risk to your joints. Your teachers give you extra help staying in this intense "zone" by providing you with clear-cut counting and interesting choreography. Just when an exercise becomes too intense to bear, your teacher introduces a new tempo or move that revitalizes your spirit and energy.
About halfway through the class, you notice that you’re alternating between working the front and the back sides of your body. This pattern stretches and elongates the muscles you just worked in the previous exercise while you're sculpting the muscles on the opposite side. Early in the class you work the front of your arms, then the back of them while you stretch the front of them. Then you work the front of your legs during thigh-work, the back of your legs during seat-work, the front of your legs again during “round-back,” and finally the back of your legs again during “curl” and “back-dancing.” In effect, you’re usually doing two exercises rolled into one: toning one side while elongating the other side, which has been primed for stretching by having just been worked to exhaustion.
Later in the class you hit what feels like an aerobic section. Your teacher explains that you’re maximizing fat burn-off by performing aerobic-style exercises just when you're beginning to burn a high portion of fat as fuel. Your lungs pump oxygen as you perform “flat-back” and do more pushups, both quick-moving sections that spike your heart rate. These exercises are a key to the Bar Method's special ability to create sculpted arms. They burn the fat off from around the arm muscles, plus they give the arms two additional intense sculpting intervals.
Another feature to bring to your attention about the structure of the class is that it's working each major muscle multiple times. You thought you’d gotten thigh-work over with after the thigh section. Then you find yourself working your thighs all over again during “round-back” and “flat-back.” Every bout of challenge digs deeper into these muscles, and by the time you walk out of class, you tingle with a thoroughly “worked-out” feeling.
And as you probably already know, the Bar Method ensures that you get into the right muscles, those "muscles that I didn’t know I had.” This is an important ingredient in its recipe for quick body change. Some muscles when left to themselves become habitually lazy over time, and others get overused. Bar Method instructors teach you how to find these lost muscles and they have time to give you clear, easy-to-follow instructions on how to work in good form.
Finally during this virtual class, it's become clear that the Bar Method requires you to lift not just light weights but a very heavy weight: your own body! During pushups you lowered and lifted your body with your arms. During "thigh-work" you lowered and lifted your body with your thighs. During "seat-work" you lowered and lifted your body with your glutes and hamstrings. During “flat-back,” an ab and leg exercise performed under the bar, you raised your legs with the power of your thighs, hips, pecs and shoulders. This was not in any sense a “light weight” workout!
The Bar Method gets surprising results, in sum, because it arranges its exercises strategically; then it targets muscles with precision, multiplying the benefits you get from each exercise.
MAKING THE SUPER SCULPTING II EXERCISE DVD, PART TWO
Last week I told you what I enjoyed most, and what was hardest, about making the new Bar Method “Super Sculpting II” DVD. This week my three intrepid fellow “Super Sculpting II” performers, Sharon, Kiesha and Juan, weigh in about their toughest, funniest and most fun moments during the shoot:
What did you find most difficult about performing in the Super Sculpting II DVD shoot?
Kiesha: Maintaining perfect form throughout the shoot. You don't realize when you take class how many times you come out of form, simply by tucking your hair behind your ear, scratching your nose, or adjusting your stance.
Juan: Honestly, finding pants. It’s surprising how few examples of yoga clothing actually exist for men.
Sharon: Finding a blue tank top that [Burr] liked!
What did you find most fun?
Juan: The fact that we were going to be watched really brought out a drive in me that I didn’t know was there…at least not to that degree.
Sharon: Shopping for blue tank tops.
What was the funniest moment?
Kiesha: Watching Sharon unload her suitcase of a dozen different blue tops.
Juan: My favorite line ever said by Burr during the curl portion of the video: ‘I’ve never heard anyone say their abs were so sore they couldn’t eat.’
What do you think of the workout?
Kiesha: I LOVE it. It’s intense, but within reach for someone to work up to. The choreography is really fun.
Sharon: It was awesome. I still might be a little sore.Note to my readers:
Starting this month, I will be posting my blog on the first Tuesday of every month rather than weekly. This change in schedule has become necessary to an increasing number of new Bar Method ventures that are requiring my time. Among what’s happening are upcoming studios in Boston, Washington, DC, Austin and Houston plus several future Bar Method media projects, the details of which are yet to be made public.
Thank you for your support during this change.
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.
A few years ago I took a class from a new teacher who accidentally reversed two exercises called “round-back” and “flat-back” (they are taught only in the studio-based classes and not on the dvds). Most students, myself among them, find these exercises two of the toughest in the workout. That day when the teacher reversed them, they became easy. My heart-rate slowed down, and I did not feel challenged for the rest of the class. Was it my imagination, or did switching the order of these exercises rob them of their edge?
The answer is yes, exercise order can make or break your workout. The Bar Method recognizes this dynamic and uses it to maximize results. Take the above example: Round-back and Flat-back are designed to raise your heart-rate and burn away fat. Flat-back is the harder and faster exercise, and placing it second makes it exponentially harder because your muscles are already pretty fatigued when you get to it. That state of near exhaustion is what you want to get to if you’re aiming for quick body change.
Similarly, The Bar Method places push-ups after its free-weight exercises so that push-ups become intense enough to serve as a bout of interval training. That way, you wrap up the upper-body work section by burning fat off the muscles that the free-weight exercises just sculpted. Why end with push-ups? Because they work a larger portion of your body’s muscles than free-weights do. Yes, if you reversed the order and did push-ups first, the free-weight work will seem more challenging, but free-weights just don’t engage enough of your body’s muscles to ever be a serious burner.
Safety is another reason the Bar Method puts free-weights before push-ups. The human shoulder tends to be vulnerable to injury because of its unusual flexibility relative to other joints. To have our cake (sculpted arms) and eat it too (less fat), the Bar Method starts with the gentler exercises to allow the shoulders to warm up before launching into push-ups.
Most important of all for body change, the Bar Method’s exercise sequence sculpts long, graceful muscles like those of dancers. Their ballet bar workout starts with plies to warm up their thighs and ends with battements to stretch their hips. The Bar Method class uses the same progression. It starts with leg raises that engage your thighs and ends the standing bar work section with seat exercises that extend your leg behind your hip. In the second half of the class, the Bar Method starts with thigh and hip work (round-back and flat-back) and ends with hip stretching (back-dancing). (For more on stretching, see “How to Sculpt a Dancer’s Body"
The three-fold beauty of this sequence is that it generates plenty of intensity to slim down your body, maximizes joint safety, and constantly elongates your muscles from the initial warm-up to the final stretch.