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.
Do you get a better workout in a class that uses a “see and do” or “Simon says Simon does” format, or in a class that includes teacher-student interaction? Competitive athletes routinely get lots of feedback from their coaches during their practice sessions. But when you’re simply working out, do you get any extra value from your exercise instructors interacting with you about your form and focus?
I decided to get an educated answer to this question by researching what regular teachers think about interactive teaching. It turns out that the world of teaching is in the midst of a major tectonic shift in its approach to this issue. Overwhelming evidence that the old-style lecture format doesn’t work very well is inspiring teachers to switch en mass to “active learning.” “Active learning may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years,” declared a Harvard professor last year. “Thousands of studies indicate that active learning," explained another Harvard expert, 'is the most effect thing,” One of these these studies took place at the University of British Columbia in 2011. A research team held two week-long classes on identical subject matter that were attended by two groups of students as closely matched as possible. The only difference was that one of the classes was in a lecture format, and the other in an interactive format, which engaged students in discussions and active problem solving. The results? After the course, the interactive class participants scored twice as high as those in the lecture-style class.
What’s more, women are turning out to benefit more from the interactive teaching style than men. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physiology professor, noticed this when he switched to an “active learning” technique, and his women students quickly closed the gap between themselves and their male counterparts. “The verbal and collaborative/collegial nature of peer interactions,” Mazur speculates, “may enhance the learning environment for women students.”
Can these discoveries about interactive learning be applied to exercise, especially to exercise favored by women? In my experience, absolutely! I give you that simple aerobics workouts, during which you just want to keep your heart rate elevated for a time can pay off without much focused concentration. Getting good results from a strength-work however depends on your level of mental alertness; how attentive you are to your form, how precise your movements are, and how well you gauge your exhaustion point. Without coaching, it’s hard not to lose focus on the challenge and allow your body to take the easy route and shift away from the effort. Competitive athletes for this reason use coaches to maximize their focus, and the Bar Method gives its students the same caliber of feedback and guidance. Teachers verbally coach individual students on their form, alignment, mental focus and individually acknowledge them when they improve. By means of this guidance, students continue to advance their skills and get the results they want.
The experience of being in a class where interacting teaching is going on is, at least for me, fun, exhilarating and collegial. My body reflexively responds to the verbal adjustments I hear my teacher give my fellow students. For example, when I hear “Sally, lengthen your back.” My back lengthens. “Gina, square your shoulders.” My shoulders square. “Nicole, come up less.” I come up less. These cues thereby become a conversation among all of us. The teacher talks to a student. The student responds by adjusting how she’s working. The rest of us get in on the tips by adjusting our own bodies accordingly. This back-and-forth not only gets me involved and “in the moment.” It gives me a deeper connection to my body and to the athleticism and power of the exercises.
Active learning in Bar Method workouts doesn’t stop at verbal interaction. Students are of course learning with their bodies, so Bar Method teachers are trained to interact with them on a physical level too. This “hands-on” guidance is essential in order for most students to get good workout, without which, try as they might, they would be unable to recruit difficult-to-reach muscles or to work safely. Here are a few examples of how students learn better form with interactive teaching.
The students in these photos are, from top to bottom:
1. Slumping due to habitual posture,
2. Leaning weight into the joints of shoulders and wrists instead of the triceps muscles, and
3. Bending at the lower back and neck rather than engaging the glutes.
By receiving this ongoing supportive feedback from their teachers, students develop better body awareness and alignment, as well as learn to target muscles instead of joints.
There’s simply no turning back the clock once innovations like “acting learning” demonstrate their power to enhance our lives. It's left up to each of us to take full advantage of the benefits.
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."
Tip #1: Celebrate!
To stay fit during the holidays, first of all, celebrate them! You -- and everyone else on the planet who works hard -- need recovery time. It's in our DNA to schedule ourselves some fun every once and a while. Otherwise, what kind of drones would we be?! Traditions drag us out of our work lairs and get us to the party so that we remember how to feel human. It’s no wonder we revere them.
Tip 2: Rethink holiday cookies.
Holiday cookies have been a way for people to appreciate and bond with each other since ancient times. In past eras they helped tide friends and family through the winter, but these days they just give us more sugar and bigger love handles. So take a fresh look at the true purpose of this tradition, which is really to share your holiday spirit with friends and family, and if you value your waistline, think of other ways to do it. Charades, monopoly, pageants, dancing and home movies are also holiday traditions, and you can always make up your own. Meanwhile, admire the prettily decorated cookies you're offered, and when you can, pass on them!
Tip #3: Carry yourself with great posture.
You’re seeing everyone you know, so let them know how you feel about life by standing up straight! What’s more, just keeping your chest lifted will make you look slimmer, even with a few cookies under your belt.
Tip #4: Zero out the extra sweets you do eat by foregoing your usual indulgences.
Weeks of eating party foods will result in most of those additional calories sticking to your body. Of course exercising will get rid of some of this excess, but it can't compensate for weeks of profligate merrimaking unless you're an Olympian-level athlete. So until January at least, take a holiday from whatever excesses you happen to get away with during the rest of the year, for example a daily caramel macchiato or jamba juice.
Tip #5: Eat regularly.
This is a well-worn piece of wisdom. I'm adding it onto this list because it’s easily forgotten when you’re frantically busy. A quick meal like one of hard boiled eggs and apples -- which comes in a convenient packet at Starbucks -- can safeguard you against the cycle of energy burnout and over-doing it.
Tip #6. Drink lots of water before attending parties.
Being well hydrated before a party will make your eyes and skin sparkle under the holiday lights, not to mention helping you moderate what you drink during the evening.
Tip #7: Pre-schedule your exercise for the rest of the month.
Put yourself down for at least three classes and/or workouts a week for the rest of the season. Then stick with them as much as possible, even when faced with present-wrapping and visiting relatives. In the end, you'll come out ahead with more energy and a calmer state of mind.
Tip #8: Exercise in bouts of at least one hour.
To stay lean while you might be eating a bit more than usual, exercise continuously for at least one hour each time you work out. The last half hour of your class or session will burn away stored fat so that you look your best in your party clothes and keep up your stamina for the hectic pace of the season.
Tip #9. Strengthen your back-of-the-body muscles.
Focus your triceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves during your workouts. Toned back-side muscles will make you look sensational in your silk, scoop-back party dress.
Tip #10: If you fall off the wagon, let it go.
Of course it's all too easy let exercise fall by the wayside during the holidays. If this happens to you, don't beat yourself up! The holidays are a time to be joyful and celebrate, come what may.
Happy Holidays to all!
My last two blogs featured testimonials by two of the three contestants in our San Francisco Marina studio’s annual 3|60 Challenge, Karen Dodge and Ryan Salma. To fill you in if you didn’t read last week’s post, the Challenge pits three beginning Bar Method students against each other for sixty days of class taking and testimonial writing. The contestant who turns out to be best overall new student in terms of attendance, enthusiasm and gains in health wins a month of free classes. The winner this time: the third contestant in the Challenge, Lianne Zhang. “The other two did well,” studio manager Mike Najjar told me. “Lianne won because she was here quite often, and she was so enthusiastic.”
Lianne, 26, is a brand promotion and event strategist who recently moved to San Francisco from New York City. She had worked 70-hour weeks during her four years in New York. Now that she was a San Francisco resident, she was determined to create a more livable pace for herself. “I wanted to embark on a new lifestyle,” she told us, “one ensuring me a good work/life balance – a concept foreign to New Yorkers.”
After a month of classes, Lianne noticed that the Bar Method was doing more than improving her appearance. It was also having a positive impact on the way she was experiencing her new, adventurous life in San Francisco. This is how she describes the differences she felt in her body during her travels around San Francisco week four into the Challenge:
SF MARINA 3|60 BLOG: LIANNE WEEK #4
I can’t believe four weeks have flown by. As I notice differences not only in my lifestyle choices but my body- I’m also noticing how useful Bar Method technique is to my everyday life.
Here’s a little guide to how Bar Method has improved this recent transplant’s daily life in SF:
1) It absolutely trains you for crowded places where hanging off various street fixtures is a necessity in order to gain full view of the event.
For example, I went to the Giants Parade and in the madness, the only available space that offered a decent view of the players’ float was to hang off of these metal gates. Because of the Bar Method, I was able to hang on for a full thirty minutes- it was all the Posey, Lincecum, Huff and Cain I needed to bring myself closer to being a San Franciscan!
2) It helps provide better balance on MUNI buses.
As a former New Yorker, I tend to ride subways better than buses. In fact I am not a fan of buses. Since I live in lower Pac Heights, I’m forced to take buses anywhere that I can’t walk to. I tend to tumble all over the place as I’m not used to standing on lurching vehicles above ground. However, ever since I started doing Bar Method, I found myself able to use my core muscles to stable myself much better. It sounds silly but it’s been extremely helpful. As for the lady that likes to booty shake at the front aisle of the 22,…no amount of Bar Method will remedy.
3) It strengthens my muscles, allowing me to have the confidence and capabilities to try things I never could try before.
I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing but because I have an embarrassingly low amount of upper body strength, I always put it off for fear of making a fool of myself. However, since I started doing Bar Method, I’ve realized that my arm strength has increased significantly and tonight I am going for my first session! Wish me luck! (Especially after five straight days of Bar Method!)
Congratulations, Lianne, for being our 2010 3|60 Challenge winner!
TEN NON-EXERCISE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR EXERCISERS
I don’t care what the skeptics say. I love making New Year’s resolutions. Coming up with a yearly list of life-enhancing projects gives me a fresh look at what I want out of my life going forward. Plus it reminds me that opportunity is always lying on my doorstep waiting if only I would walk over and take it.
Making my resolutions this year made me want to think of some for people who exercise. I decided that all my suggested resolutions would be non-exercise-related. If you’re reading this blog, you probably already exercise and so would not need a resolution to do it. Instead the resolutions would leverage the focus, discipline and fighting spirit you already have developed from sticking with exercise and carry those assets over into other spheres of life. After all, people who exercise know that change is possible. They’ve done it with their bodies, so they’re primed to make it happen elsewhere. With this idea in mind, I came up with the following ten projects that you might think of taking on in the New Year the same way you tackled exercise in past years.
THREE FOR YOUR BODY:
- For one day eat only foods with no added sugar. Whether you weigh more or less than you want or are just right, a day free of sugar will get you of the roller coaster of sugar rushes and crashes. You’ll gain extra mental stamina, energy and concentration, plus you’ll sleep more deeply.
- Ask friends, members of your family and your exercise teacher to give you feedback on your posture. The way we stand gets deeply engrained in all of us from early childhood. For this reason our perception of our stance may not reflect the way you truly look. Get a reality check in 2011, and if your posture is found wanting, consider making serious effort to improve it.
- On one occasion when you’re walking, sitting or standing for some time, try to keep your abs pulled in for 20 consecutive minutes. You already have strong abs from your workouts. Now train them to perform for you all day. This effort will challenge your concentration.
THREE FOR YOUR MIND:
- Banish one bad habit for 24 hours. Whether it’s biting your nails, swearing to yourself at other drivers when you’re driving, watching too much TV – anything – try to do without it for a day.
- Set your cellphone stopwatch to 20 minutes; sit in a chair, close your eyes and meditate until you hear the ringtone. Meditating, at least in my experience, is like Bar Method thigh-work for your brain. One session of meditating can clear out the debris in your mind and begin to firm up your cerebral muscles.
- Decide on one activity or skill you’d like to do better or learn to do. Mull over the idea of pursuing it. This is a purely mental resolution, so you can choose anything that excites your imagination. File it away in your mind where you can call it up later.
THREE FOR YOUR HEART:
- Let someone you have a relationship with win an argument even if you believe you’re right. Your generosity of heart will probably be repaid to you with dividends.
- Call up from your mind the skill or activity you picked out for resolution #6 and look on the internet for a class or a coach on that subject. Try one session. If you like the teacher, consider carving out the time to attend regularly.
- Learn the names of all the café baristas who make your drinks. If you don’t go to cafés, take it upon yourself to learn the names either of the clerks at your bank, the cashiers at your supermarket, or the servers at restaurants you attend. Research has found that people have an amazing capacity to learn names if they work at it. We Bar Method teachers know this is true since we’ve all developed the ability to learn as many as 30 students’ names during the 15 minutes before and after a class begins. If you make a project of collecting names, you’ll find as I did that people are always pleased to know that you remembered them.
And last but not least...
- One resolution carried out is definitely worth ten that have fallen by the wayside. To that end, my last suggestion is to pick out one of the nine above – or one you’ve created – and repeat.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
“I have grown bored at The Bar Method,” a student named Gabrielle wrote me a few months ago. “The Method has become too repetitive, too predictable, and I’ve lost most of the fun.”
Gabrielle started attending the Bar Method in the early 2000’s, lost inches around her hips and waist, and fell in love with the class. Gabrielle and I exchanged a few emails on the subject of her dissatisfaction with class, and I learned that her work schedule had limited her to taking classes at times where there were a lot of beginners.
Even so, I wondered if Gabrielle was missing out on what to me is most fun about taking the Bar Method whether or not beginners are present in the class: working towards mastery. This mind-set can mean one thing to you – possibly learning how to pull in your abs as you breathe – and something else to another student -- maybe achieving a dancer’s posture. Whatever your goals, if you perform the exercises with the objective of mastering them, the Bar Method’s consistent structure becomes anything but boring. It becomes the very thing that empowers you to push the limits of your potential for coordination, strength, beauty and mental toughness. Repetition + focus = practice, and focused practice, experts on learning tell us, is the ultimate key to achieving significant, long term change, in other words to gaining mastery.
The Bar Method is especially suited to the pursuit of mastery in the physical realm. Its tight structure, precise positions and small muscle isolations give you a chance to overcome movement habits such as tensing your neck when you raise your arms. The mirrors in the classrooms allow you to check your alignment and performance, and – most fun of all – the ever-present possibility of going “deeper,” “higher,” “lower,” or “farther” keep the door open for new change. Have you been reluctant to work lower in thigh-work because you’re not strong enough yet? Or are you really holding back because you’re afraid of the burn? If you stay focused, eking out the answer to this question in the heat of the moment can strengthen not only to your muscles but your mental toughness as well.
Focusing on mastery pays off as well by giving you a second wave of dramatic body changes well after the initial sculpting and slimming down have been achieved. Take posture for example. I often wonder why some advanced students who regularly take Level 2 classes don’t take advantage of the opportunity to work on theirs. If they would just focus on that one change, they could radically change their appearance. In the same way, students who hunch their shoulders whenever they lift their arms, who lean forward during thigh exercises, or who have trouble pulling in their abs could transform their bodies by using the hour to focus on their weak areas.
Next time you go to class, try taking it with your own customized set of challenges in mind. You might find that the class can feel as exciting as a triathlon. The almost 30 years that I’ve taken this method of exercise has taught me to love the the classes that I struggle through most or want to do better at than before. Here are some private goals I set for myself during the class: --During one-weight lifts trying to keep my arm parallel to the floor, --During push-ups, getting my chest down to elbow height while staying in good form, --During thigh-work maintaining a more intense burn than the last time I took class, --During standing seat-work keeping my back absolutely vertical, --During arabesque looking in the mirror and seeing my working foot above my shoulder, --During round-back keeping my working leg absolutely “ballet” straight, and --During flat-back, lifting my feet up towards the height of my knees (pretty impossible!)
If you’ve been bored by class lately, make a no-holds-barred list of every conceivable way the Bar Method could change your body and spirit for the better. Then see how close you come to making them happen!
Read about the Seattle Bar Method's fitness challenge and all the different ways people changed after taking The Bar Method for four months!
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!
I’m eating dinner alone in a little Italian restaurant in Portland after teaching at the brand new Portland Bar Method studio. I notice a young, blond waitress serving some other tables. She’s tall, slender and pretty, only she has a noticeable slump that mars her looks. My usual rant about people’s posture starts to kick in inside my brain, which goes something like “How can people in our country spend billions every year on cosmetics and so little effort on such a major beauty issue?” but I stop myself.
The truth, I realize, is that changing the way you stand and walk gets hardwired into your body from an early age, and changing it is easier said than done. Most of the students I teach understand that their posture is a big factor is how they look and feel, and they’d love to improve it. Many of you, for example, wrote me in response to last week’s blog on posture asking for tips on how to make yours better. Thanks for asking! If you decide to set your mind to making this change, the benefits are huge. You’ll look prettier of course. You’ll also suffer fewer joint issues in your neck, back, hips, knees and ankles, all of which are adversely affected by poor posture. Here are three steps you can take to get started on this project.
The first step is to develop strong “posture” muscles, which is the only way you’ll have a fighting chance of holding onto your new alignment. The Bar Method – or another well-designed bar class that uses mirrors and focuses on good alignment – is an excellent workout for developing stronger postural muscles because it requires you to stand up straight while you’re working your limbs, which mimics how you move throughout your day. Where are these “posture” muscles? They mainly reside in three places, in your back, in your abdominals and in your rear. Your back muscles, of course, hold your ribs upright. Your abs and glutes work as a team to hold your pelvis in good alignment. Make sure the workout you chose is safe and methodical enough to enable you to concentrate on how you’re standing and moving during the class.
The second step is to consciously work on your posture while you’re working out. Your perception of how you stand and the reality of how you really stand can be very different. For that reason, check your form in the mirror often during the standing bar work. Don’t assume that you’re standing up straight. Really look at the lines of your body. Is your head over your shoulders, or do you just assume that it is? Is your rib cage really upright, or does it sag backwards? At the same time, pay attention to any adjustments your teacher gives you. One adjustment you may get is what we teachers call “the shark bite,” which sounds scary but actually feels great, like a little massage. The teacher will place her or his on your upper back and press fingers and thumb inwards. The result is that your upper back will suddenly become straighter.
Your final step is to work on your posture during the day. This part of the process is the most challenging and usually requires that something or someone light a fire under you. The story of one person I know who successfully transformed her posture shows how hard this stage is even when you’re highly motivated. Becky Crabtree is currently a superb Bar Method teacher in Boulder, Colorado. As a teacher trainee, she proved herself to be uncompromisingly good humored and hard working. Becky was the kind of trainee who went home after every training session and spent hours practicing a skill until she got it right. The one drawback in her teaching was that she tended to carry her head forward of her spine. I’d mentioned this problem to her more than once, as had other Bar Method teachers. Nevertheless, Becky showed little improvement on this front. Then last month, I visited the Boulder studio and took Becky’s class. “Your class was terrific,” I told her afterwards, “but your posture is unacceptable.” Knowing Becky, I wasn’t surprised when she came in the next morning with perfect posture and has held onto it from then on.
Last week Becky emailed me this story about how the transformation in her posture has become an inspiration to her students: “Posture…is a hard thing to correct over night but it can be done,” she wrote. “I wanted to tell you that the other day a student came in after being gone in Africa for a month and she told me after class that she was inspired by my improved posture. She has always had bad posture and to see the difference in me meant she could do it too.” Becky added that she appreciated my feedback. “I guess I wanted to say that you not only affected me but our students as well.”
I just finished taking class, and I’m drinking some water from the water cooler outside the studio. I watch a group of my fellow students filling their water cups while chatting with each other. I was thinking that these particular students had had beautiful form during class. Now they were slumping, rounding their shoulders, and arching their lower backs. What happened to the great posture I noticed during the class? I feel the urge to jump into my teacher’s role, walk over, and manually upright their spines. A voice inside me says, don’t be an overzealous busybody. I stay put, this time.
This scene did not happen on one particular day. It has replayed itself again and again with one group or another over months and years. On some of these occasions my obsession for improving the world’s posture did get the best of me, and I imposed myself on a group of unsuspecting students. I’ve finally figured out that changing posture is simply hard both for the teacher and the student herself. You can sculpt your muscles by going to class three or more times a week. If you want to change your posture, it turns out, you need to do some additional homework. Your assignment: Stay aware of how you’re carrying your body as you go about your day. “You don’t have to focus on your posture every waking moment,” says to Rick Stebbins, a physical therapist who treats posture issues. “Just spend about 20 minutes a day thinking about it.”
I’m not one to talk about other people’s alignment issues. A few months ago I noticed I had one. I was rolling out on my heels, so much so that occasionally one foot would begin to fall outwards, and I’d have to catch myself to upright it. My problem might have been caused by having sprained my ankles a few times decades ago during dance classes. Whatever the origin, I started to practice stepping evenly on my heels during my daily walks with my Pomeranian, Pi. After a few weeks, I found myself rolling off my heels less often.
When you pay attention to patterns of movement that are off-kilter,
it can really make a difference in the way you look and feel. Here are some bad alignment habits I see in a lot of students that could benefit from some homework: carrying their head forward of their shoulders, rounding their shoulders, leaning their rib cage back, arching their lower back, walking with their feet turned out or turned in, and jutting their chin forward while talking.
Three years ago, I watched one Bar Method student dramatically transform the look of her body by setting her mind to changing her posture. This student was training to become a Bar Method teacher and was showing herself to be talented and hard-working. I noticed one problem however: she stood with her hips forward and her rib cage slumped back. I’d mentioned this issue to her, but nothing had changed. One day part way into the training session, I took her aside and told her that I was dropping her from the program due to her posture. The next morning, she returned to the studio and told me that she’d stayed up all night crying and practicing her posture. Would I give her another chance to prove that she could change? “Who knew?” she said. “My whole family stands this way.” I said yes.
In the years since that day, I’ve seen this teacher many times both at Bar Method events and at social occasions. I’ve never again noticed her slump, even when relaxed or involved in a conversation. The last time we were together, we were celebrating the opening of her beautiful new Bar Method studio. She was chatting and laughing with her students, unaware that I was watching her. Her posture was beautiful. It showed off her sculpted arms and her pretty face. Wow, I thought. That’s an accomplishment!