This month I’ve explained how you can safely take the Bar Method when you have issues with your joints in particular areas of your body. I started with foot and ankle issues and worked my way up to knees, hip and back problems. As you may have noticed, each of these body parts has it’s own “best practices” regarding how and how much to exercise if you’re nursing an injury to one of them.
Finally we come to shoulder conditions, which present their own set of issues due to the odd and unique history of this joint.
When our distant ancestors’ front legs evolved into arms, their shoulder joints gave up stability in order to gain more flexibility so that their arms could move in all directions. Today our shoulder is still a ball and socket joint like our hip, but while our hip socket fits snuggly around the ball of our thighbone, our shoulder socket has become so small and shallow, the better to allow our arms to swing freely, that it has become relatively ineffectual as a stabilizing force. To compensate for this lack of stability numerous ligaments and muscles developed around the joint, which now do much of the heavy work of holding it in place. The problem is that if any of these ligaments and muscles get weak, strained, sprained or just tired, the ball and socket can slip out of alignment. A number of very painful conditions can result including these common shoulder disorders as described by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
- Instability: Sometimes, one of the shoulder joints moves or is forced out of its normal position. This condition is called instability, and can result in a dislocation of one of the joints in the shoulder. Individuals suffering from an instability problem will experience pain when raising their arm. They also may feel as if their shoulder is slipping out of place.
- Impingement: Impingement is caused by excessive rubbing of the shoulder muscles against the top part of the shoulder blade, called the acromion. Medical care should be sought immediately for inflammation in the shoulder because it could eventually lead to a more serious injury.
- Rotator Cuff Injuries: The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that hold the bones of the shoulder joint together. The rotator cuff muscles provide individuals with the ability to lift their arm and reach overhead. When the rotator cuff is injured, people sometimes do not recover the full shoulder function needed to properly participate in an athletic activity.
Fortunately physical therapy is highly effective at treating mis-aligned shoulders for the same reason that they are so often tweaked, namely that joint can be coaxed back into its correct position almost as easily as it can snap out of it. Here, for example, is a PT routine from a highly regarded book on sports therapy called “Peak Condition” by Dr. James Garrick. (Consult your doctor before you try doing these moves.) You can see that Garrick’s exercises involve simple repetitive motions that act to nudge the bones back into proper alignment.
Let’s say you have a shoulder condition and you’ve embarked on a course of physical therapy. Can you also do the Bar Method, and can it play a role in your recovery? Absolutely. The Bar Method’s arm exercises were designed by a physical therapist to be as safe and therapeutic for your shoulders as possible. In addition, both studio-based classes and DVD workouts offer you alternatives for doing the exercises without raising your arms higher than shoulder height, a motion that is usually painful to do if you’re nursing a shoulder injury.
Your best bet in this case is to modify the class in such a way that you avoid “bad” pain to a reasonable degree. Usually this strategy means keeping your arms as close to your sides as possible. Here are the basic modifications you would use:
- During shoulder walks, opt for raising your arms no higher than shoulder height.
- Do push-ups against the bar and keep your elbows pointing downwards.
- During the “fold-over” exercise (At right, top is Heather demonstrating the unmodified position; bottom is the modification) hold onto the bar with your elbows pointing downwards.
- Use a strap to hold onto during the “under-the-bar” exercises.
- You can place a few small mats under your back during the abdominal curl section to lessen the effort in your arms.
- Feel free to keep your arms at or lower than shoulder height when raising the arms is simply a matter of choreography.
- For “chair” and “water-ski seat” (exercises in studio classes only), substitute standing thigh and standing seat.
In the end you’ll be glad you stuck with exercising in spite of your condition. The strength you’ll gain will pay off in greater stability and less risk of injury going forward.
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.
“I will be 63 in December and have had two total hip replacements,” Mary Brauch, (shown right) a former marathon runner, emailed me this week. Mary is now training for a walking marathon and has discovered that The Bar Method, which she’s been doing at home in Chesterfield, MO with The Bar Method DVDs, is helping to get her in shape for the event. “It is very important to have strong legs with muscle (lean, strong) muscle,” she wrote me. “The Bar Method accomplishes that...I am addicted.”
Most Bar Method students like Mary with common hip conditions like hip replacements and arthritis find that the non-impact, controlled nature of the workout offers them an ideal way to get strong without jarring their joints. Other types of hip conditions aren’t as easily adapted to the Bar Method workout as Mary’s. Still, they won’t prevent students who have them from doing the workout provided they use a few simple modifications.
Hip Dysplasia and Labrum Tears:
One such disorder is hip dysplasia, a congenital deformity of the hip that causes the ball and socket not to fit together well, making it vulnerable to dislocation. Another condition is a tear in the “labrum”, a fibrous tissue deep in the hip socket. Students with either condition feel discomfort or instability when their leg moves inwards and upwards towards the center of their body. In order to take class in comfort, they should simply avoid exercises that move their legs in that way. In place of pretzel, which requires students to sit so that one hip is flexed and drawn inward, they can do standing seat. Instead of the “butterfly stretch,” a seat stretch at the end of class that requires students to cross one leg tightly over the other, they can do a “figure 4” stretch, thereby allowing their legs to remain slightly open
Inflamed muscles and tendons, usually due to overuse, are another source of hip problems. The hip muscles that are most likely to get tweaked in this way are the “rectus femoris,” a thigh muscle that helps elevate the leg, and the iliapsoas, which is actually comprised of two big muscles that join to flex the hip. Dancers as you can imagine are known for getting tendonitis in their hip muscles from repeatedly extending their graceful legs upwards. One such dancer, a beautiful Rockette named Jacey who is now a Bar Method teacher in New York City, developed sensitive hips from all the kicks she performed over the years.
During “flat-back,” an intense Bar Method exercise that works the hip-flexors, Jacey has found that sitting on a “riser” mat eliminates the problem (shown left). This solution works for any student with easily irritated hips.
As I’ve said in more than one blog, I believe that the overwhelming majority of students with limitations due to joint issues benefit from intense exercise as long as they can do it safely. The reason the Bar Method is a great fit for such students is, to put it in Mary’s words, “because of the results...especially for people who should NOT do high impact but want a good, worthwhile workout.”
Last week I looked into why knee pain is so common and how the Bar Method can help students who have knee issues. To recap, if your knees hurt because of ligament damage or moderate arthritis, The Bar Method workout can help you regain stability in the joint by strengthening and balancing the major muscles that extend across your knee, principally your quads, calf muscles, and hamstrings.
The cause of your knee discomfort could also be a matter of having leg muscles that are of uneven strength and length. In that case you will need to use some minor modifications during the workout in order for your knees to feel comfortable and get better. This problem arises when the muscles on the outside and front of your legs become very strong but those on the inside of your legs don’t, an imbalance that causes your stronger muscles pull your kneecaps off track towards the outside of your legs during exertion. Runners and dancers can both suffer from this problem for different reasons. Runners are prone to IT band syndrome, which involves a tendon on the outside of the leg becoming too tight and pulling on the knee. Both runners and dancers can suffer patella displacement by developing strong quads while letting their hamstrings and inner leg muscles remain relatively weak. If you think you have one of these conditions, here are some modifications you can try:
• Instead of the narrow V position, do “parallel thigh.” If needed, bend your knees to a lesser extent as I’m showing in the photo. This adjustment prevents your stronger outer quad muscles from over-engaging. In this position you can also squeeze a ball, small mat or cushion between your legs to help strengthen your inner quads (see last week's blog for details).
During standing seat-work:
• Instead of bent-knee standing seat, do straight knee standing seat. Under normal circumstances standing seat is a great stretch for the quad muscles, which have just been worked. The reason the exercise might be uncomfortable for you is because your outside leg muscles might be not only stronger but also tighter than those on the inside and so are pulling your kneecap outwards. Until your leg muscles regain more evenly balanced strength and length, simply keep both legs straight in this exercise.
Now we come to students who have more problematic knee issues, those that involve something going on inside the joint itself. Here are a few of these conditions:
Meniscus tears: You have two menisci in each knee. They’re a kind of cartilage but with a specialized cushioning and stabilizing ability. A sudden twist is what often tears a menisus, usually causing enough pain and disability to need medical treatment before you return to exercise. When you do come back to class, after your initial treatment the exercises can help you strengthen your knee if you take it easy at first.
Patellar tendonitis: Your patella or kneecap kind of floats inside your quad tendon, a big tendon that extends across your knee and fastens to your shinbone. (Your kneecap itself has a smaller tendon of its own.) Patellar tendonitis, which you get when these tendons become inflamed, is a stubborn condition that doesn’t go away easily. It causes pain and swelling in the front of your knee when you bend it. If you have this condition, some thigh exercises will be uncomfortable for you.
Hamstring tendonitis: You have three hamstring muscles, the tendons of which stretch across the back of your knee. These tendons can also become inflamed (another obstinate problem) and cause pain in the back of your knee.
Bursitis: Your knee has three bursae whose function it is to help lubricate the joint. When your bursa is inflamed, usually from kneeling for long hours, your knee will experience swelling, tenderness and redness. Excess swelling around the bursa will cause an accumulation of synovial fluid behind the knee, a condition known as “Baker’s Cyst.”
Obstruction in the knee joint: Your knee might have an obstruction in the joint due to a piece of cartilage, menisci or other tissue stuck between the bones. Obviously in this situation you wouldn’t be able to straighten your knee without a lot of pain.
Greater than average “Q angle”: Women’s “Q angle,” that is, the angle between the quad muscle and the patellar tendon, which is greater than mens’ due to a wider pelvis. Women’s knees are beset by this issue because evolving humans found it to their advantage to produce ever smarter babies with bigger heads. Women’s knees have as a result ended up with “a narrower femoral notch, increased 'Q angle,' and increased ligamentous laxity” according to James A. Nicholas, M.D., the founding director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, thereby making women’s knees inherently more vulnerable to injury.
The issues listed above of course require medical attention. Meanwhile, provided that you’re being treated and are on your way to recovery, can you take the Bar Method? The answer is a qualified yes. If your doctor says it is safe for you to do strengthening and stretching exercises you can take class by using some modifications during some of the exercises. Here are some substitutions you can try:
During thigh-work: Knee problems vary, so try the following substitutions and see which ones work best for you:
• Instead of parallel, leg-together and narrow V thigh work, do “chair.” This position keeps the feet flat on the floor and the knees right over the ankles. It’s also great for distributing the effort from your quad muscles evenly across your knees.
• Instead of “diamond thigh” and “second position,” both of which are performed in a wide turn-out, do “second position” with your feet flat on the floor. Like chair, this position allows you to keep your heels down and your knees over your ankles.
• When all else fails, you can always do leg lifts during thigh-work. Leg lifts work your thighs with no weight on your knees. You can do leg lifts both in a parallel position and with your legs turned out (always keep your leg directly in front of your hip, whether the leg is “parallel” or turned out).
During stretches that involve kneeling or bending your knee:
• Your knees might be simply sensitive, or you may not be able to bend them completely. In these cases, you can modify the leg stretches in a number of ways. Here are two modifications for example that you can use during the thigh-stretches.
• Throughout the whole class anyone with limited flexion in a knee can keep it straight during any stretch or perform the stretch standing while holding onto the bar.
In the long run, finding a way to workout rigorously without joint pain will help your knees. In my view the Bar Method is an ideal workout choice first of all because its tight structure enables you to anticipate each next position and adjust accordingly, and also because its modifications accommodate as many knee issues as possible.
Find Bar Method Exercise Classes near you.
Sample and buy Bar Method Exercise DVDs.
Read more about exercise and the human body: EXERCISE AND EVOLUTION: THE COMPLEX, MOBILE AND BEAUTIFUL SHOULDER
Look closely enough at the Bar Method’s technique and you’ll find a second Bar Method technique inside of it. This auxiliary Bar Method is similar to the original with the exception that it’s tailored to students with physical limitations or injuries. If you’re someone who is lucky enough not to have issues, you might be surprised at how many of your fellow students do.
Students have come to me about how to deal with inflamed joints, torn ligaments, strained muscles, exercise headaches, diaphragm cramps, bunions, vertigo, carpel tunnel syndrome, IT band syndrome, compressed disks, numbness in certain positions, diastasis split, plantar fasciitis, scoliosis, pelvic floor disorder, MS, whiplash, frozen shoulder and varicose veins. Others have consulted me about recovering from surgery and having immune diseases that cause weakness and pain. Don’t underestimate the frustration these students feel! They didn’t chose to have these problems, and I commend them for seeking an exercise routine they can do safely.
The first advice I give those who ask me how to adapt the class so that it works with their health issues is to consult a medical professional. I also let them know that most doctors recommend exercise to patients with most medical conditions since it’s an activity that strengthens both the immune system and the skeletal joints. By all measures the Bar Method would seem to an ideal choice for many of people with special conditions. It’s non-impact, rehabilitative and gentle --- not to mention tremendously effective at strengthening the muscles around joints – and it comes with a comprehensive set of modifications designed for students with a wide range of physical limitations.
Take for example one of the most common physical problems that students encounter while exercising: sensitive feet. Due to fashion’s enduring fondness for putting women in super high heels, many students have beaten up their feet by wearing them, and I’m no exception. I have legs that are on the short side, so throughout the 70s and 80s while living in Manhattan I stuffed my feet into high heel boots, clogs, pumps, strappy sandals, skin-tight jazz shoes – whatever made me feel taller. By the early 90s I was hobbling and in 1994 had to have a bunion operation. This experience finally wised me up, and I switched to wearing medium heels. People with foot problems didn’t necessarily get them the way I did. Students have been injured by falling down the stairs, being run over by a bicycle, spraining their ankle, rupturing their achillis tendon, running marathons on pavement, or simply stubbing their toe really badly.
In whichever manner students came to have their foot conditions, my own past experience gives me a personal reason for making the class totally doable for them. Here’s how I’ve tailored the workout, exercise by exercise, so that such students can do it with minimum stress to their feet:
-- During heel lifts, you can either raise both of your heels just an inch up and down, or alternate your heels.
• If you’re a student who takes in a studio: do “chair” in place of parallel and legs-together thigh-work. “Chair” is a thigh-work position during which the feet stay flat on the floor (the teacher will show you how to do it).
• If you’re a student who does the Bar Method DVDs, simply keep your heels low and bend your knees less than the DVD instructor is doing.
• If you simply have sensitive feet, try standing on a small Bar Method mat (shown at right), which you’ll be able to buy on our website starting this week.
• Whichever Bar Method workout you’re doing, feel free to substitute leg lifts for any other thigh exercise.
Whatever your foot issue, I hope these guidelines enable you feel the burn in comfort!
In the coming weeks: modifications for your knees, hips, back and shoulders. Stay tuned for the release of our new DVDs!
Click here to read how exercise can function as preventative physical therapy.
Find Bar Method exercise classes near you.
Sample and buy Bar Method exercise DVDs.
This morning while I was taking the 7 am class, I noticed two students, Raymonde and Rose, who were working across from me. The three of us are regulars at this hour, so I’ve had the pleasure of watching Raymonde and Rose develop from struggling beginners into students with good form. Their improvement has been especially satisfying for me to watch because their height could have interfered with their progress had they not been at the Bar Method. Both are on the petite side, especially Rose, and Raymonde also has delicate shoulders. Here their stature and joint sensitivity are not a problem due to the availability of “riser mats,” a piece of equipment that you can find in every Bar Method studio. Riser mats are two inches thick and filled with dense rubber. Students who are petite or have sensitive shoulders can sit on “risers” so that they can reach up to the bar from below without straining their necks and shoulders. Raymonde as you can see is also using a stretching strap to hold her leg elevated, which helps her do the exercise without running the risk of overworking her hip-flexors.
The idea to make riser mats an essential piece of equipment came from The Bar Method’s long-standing effort to make its workout as safe as possible. When your joints are comfortable, you can concentrate on your muscles, not to mention that you feel intrinsically safer. With this aim in mind The Bar Method has developed not only its risers but a variety of equipment that contributes to its goal of creating a workout that is gentle on its students joints, the better to be challenging to their muscles.
Rubber Underlayment: On first sight a Bar Method studio looks like a normal carpeted room. In fact, the flooring in the room is quite unusual. Under the carpet lies not regular carpet padding but rubber underlayment that is three-fourths-of-an-inch thick. Walk into a Bar Method studio in your socks and you’ll notice that your heels sink down slightly with each step. During class this underlayment gives extra protection to students’ feet, knees, elbows and hips.
Large Mat: Yoga mats are popular in many exercise studios but can feel uncomfortable during strengthening and stretching exercises. The Bar Method’s mats are filled with dense, inch-and-a-half-thick foam that protects students’ spines and hips during ab work.
Small Mat: During thigh-work students sometimes press The Bar Method’s small mat between their thighs to tone their legs. The main purpose of the small mat however is to protect two particularly boney parts of the body. First, students with sensitivity around the balls of their feet can place it under their feet during thigh-work. Second those with stiff or delicate backs can tuck it under their ribs as shown above during ab work. If you want a small mat to use at home, you’ll be able to buy one on our website in late October along with the new Bar Method DVDs, “Dancer’s Body,” “Beginner’s Workout,” and “Pregnancy Workout,” all of which use this piece of equipment.
Riser Mat: As I mentioned earlier in this blog, riser mats come in handy if you’re petite or have sensitive shoulders and you’re doing “round-back” (shown above) or “flat-back” (similar to round-back but with a straight, vertical back). Its biggest success however has been with students who have hip issues. When these students sit on one or two risers during “flat-back,” their feet drop lower down than their hips. This adjustment makes their legs easier to lift and their hips experience less strain – while still offering plenty of challenge to their abs.
Stretching Strap: The Bar Method’s stretching straps mainly make hamstring stretching more doable. Students with shoulder issues have also found them useful during “flat-back,” which Heather is demonstrating. By looping two straps over the bar and holding onto their ends, students can perform this challenging exercise while keeping their upper arms lower than their shoulders.
How much of a difference does all this equipment make? One student named Jen who emailed me awhile ago put it this way: “I have joint problems and arthritis from numerous sports injuries, and this is the ONE workout that actually makes my legs, hip and back feel better. Thanks again.”
Read here how exercise itself helps keep your joints safe: Why People Need Muscle
Find a Bar Method Exercise Studio near you.
Sample and buy Bar Method Exercise DVDs.
The theory that the knees should not go forward of the toes during exercise has long been discounted by fitness experts. Squatting, a form of which students practice during Bar Method’s thigh work, is actually one of the best and safest knee strengthening exercises we can do, according to many recent studies. One research center, Cambridge Consultants based in the UK, found that: “squatting actually often puts less strain on internal knee ligaments, compared with conventional and popular isometric and isokinetic knee-flexion and knee-extension exercises.” Doing non-impact, controlled quad exercises that bring the knees forward of the toes functionally strengthen and stabilize the knees.
I've been keeping track of students' feedback on how their knees do after taking class, and most Bar Method students with knee problems have reported significant improvement after taking class regularly for a few months. The reason the Bar Method helps most knee issues, including arthritis, is that its small, non-impact moves strengthen and balance the quads, hamstrings and calf muscles, which we methodically work in Bar Method. These muscles all extend across the knee joint and, as they become stronger, your knees do, too. A Chicago resident named Christina, for example, discovered that the Bar Method helped her to exercise without knee pain. “I’ve had problems with running and many other exercise forms due to a previous knee injury,” she wrote me, “and this has been pain-free for me.” (Read about how Bar Method sculpts a dancer's body
There are however several knee conditions that, if you have them, call for some modification of Bar Method's thigh-work, at least temporarily. You have a small chance, for example, of there being a slight malformation in your patella or knee cap, giving it a tendency to scrape against your knee cartilage during exercise. If you’re a Bar Method student and think you have this kind of patella, you’ll probably need to limit your thigh-work section to the following positions: “chair,” "second position," and "leg lifts.” (see below for details.) You can also restrict the thigh-work section to “holds” rather than the little down and up moves that are usually part of every thigh routine. These modifications will enable you to do the workout with no “bad” pain, plus they will add more strength and stability to your knees.
Another reason you might feel your knees during thigh exercises is that your outside quads are tighter and stronger than your inside quads. A lot of athletes such as former runners and tennis players develop excessively tight outer quads because they use them so much. As a result, bending their knees during thigh strengthening exercises pulls their knee caps out to the side and causes pain. Fortunately, this condition is correctable over time, and the Bar Method can help. If you suspect you’re one of these students, first go to your doctor and get a diagnosis along with a rehab routine. You can then speed up the healing process during your Bar Method workouts by squeezing a ball or a piece of foam between your legs during thigh-work, ab-work and “back-dancing.”
Whatever the reason for experiencing knee pain in or out of class, make sure to tell your teacher about your problem and ask her or him to help you to do the modifications that are right for you. If you use the Bar Method dvds, try holding the thigh poses rather than moving within them for a few weeks. You’ll know that the modifications are working when you start to feel intense muscle burn in your quads and no discomfort in your knees.
A note to dvd users: Watch for the upcoming thigh-work modification section on our website.
Bad habits come in many varieties. Some have straightforward consequences such as eating too much, exercising too little, being on time only occasionally, and habitually letting parking meters expire. Other bad habits are sneakier. They fuse themselves onto you and become invisible until years later when you’re hit with their adverse effect.
The habit of moving your body in deviant patterns – that is, out of alignment with your joints – is one of those sneaky bad habits that can inhabit you for years before you figure out it’s there. You might acquire these physical “ticks” in childhood, later on as a reaction to stress, or simply by letting your muscles get weak and lazy. Once these habits latch onto you, they become an invisible facet of your physical personality until for some reason unbeknownst to you, you find yourself with shoulder pain, lower back pain or arthritis in your knees. Finally the physical therapist you might visit opens your eyes to the fact that your every move is throwing your body off-kilter.
The beauty of The Bar Method as a corrective to these problems is that it is methodical enough to catch many quirky movement patterns before they become injuries. (To read about The Bar Method and specific special conditions, go to Exercise Tips
.) An example of such a problem is the “forward head,” an off-kilter stance I often come across while teaching the “seat-work” section of a Bar Method class. This upright seat-work exercise calls for students to stand at the ballet bar with their bodies as vertical and straight as possible. In this position they lift one leg and press it back against the locked stance held by the rest of the body. As soon as students begin to feel their muscles working, some typically drop their heads forward and down.
In a scientific study of the hazards of a “forward head posture”, 11 men and 10 women were made to raise their shoulders up and down, some with their heads properly over their shoulders and some with their heads held forward. The scientists found that moving the shoulders up and down when the subjects were also keeping their heads forward both put stress on the “trapezius” muscle (a major shoulder muscle) and turned off the “serratus anterior” muscle (an important shoulder stabilizer).
This is where Bar Method technique can help. Because its bar-work exercises last for minutes at a time, the teacher of the class has a chance to gently coach the students whose heads have dropped forward to focus on keeping their heads over their spines. As these bar exercises grow in intensity, students with an especially stubborn tendency to drop their heads forward get additional reminders from the teacher. The challenging nature of the exercises themselves contributes to the students’ kinetic re-learning process, since once they learn to keep their heads up during excruciating exercise sets, doing so in daily life becomes relatively easy.
The most common movement mistake I run across while teaching involves students’ inability to connect to their gluteal muscles. In the same Bar Method’s “seat-work” exercise I described earlier, many students not only drop their heads forward but also routinely arch their lower backs when the exercise calls for pressing back with their glutes. A number of scientific studies have looked at this phenomenon and reported the same tendency among the subjects they observed. Three studies of lower back pain (Nadler et al., Kankaapaa et al, and Leinonen et al.) pointed to weak gluteal muscles, especially in women, as a major cause of their pain. One of the studies discovered that the subjects who suffered from lower back pain were the same ones who tended not to use their glutes when swinging their legs behind them. Instead they arched their lower backs.
The Bar Method puts considerable emphasis on correcting this movement error in the students who display it. Teachers cue their students to “relax your lower back, “keep your hips still and move only your leg,” “feel the contraction in your glutes,” and “pull with your glutes.” Students then get about four minutes on each leg to mentally and physically work on re-wiring their connection to their lower backs and glutes. This re-training not only helps many students’ backs feel better. It also goes a long way towards creating gorgeous “bar butt” shape that is distinct feature of Bar Method bodies. To read more about the Bar's glute work, read Three Secrets Behind Shaping a Bar Butt