I started teaching bar fitness in Greenwich, Connecticut in May of 1992 when my husband and I became licensees of the Lotte Berk Method, the bar fitness pioneer based in nearby New York City. During my first few weeks as a studio owner, my students told me they loved the workout, but some of them mentioned that they were feeling some pain in their knees, backs and shoulders.
I consulted a physical therapist, Rick Stebbins, about these complaints. Rick watched a few classes. Then he gave me the good news and the bad news: The workout was generally terrific. As a physical therapist, he believed everyone should do strength-work to keep their joints healthy, and the Lotte Berk Method did that well. But, he added, some of the positions I was teaching could tweak joints.
I enlisted Rick to help me find safer ways to teach the exercises, and over the next months,
we worked together to rethink them. “One-weight lifts,” for example, an exercise for the back of the shoulder, was taught by the Lotte Berk Method with a rounded back. We repositioned the spine so that it was neutral. Reverse pushups were trickier. The Lotte Berk classes extended students’ bodies forward away from their arms, which Rick said put the shoulder and wrist joints at risk. We almost eliminated reverse pushups entirely, but both of us really loved how it quickly strengthened the triceps. Finally, we agreed that if students pressed their ribcages and upper arms together and maintained vertical arms, the exercise became sufficiently safe, as Amy illustrates at right.
The result of our efforts turned out to be better than either of us expected. The workout became safe enough to be rehabilitative for students with pre-existing injuries. What’s more, the class got harder and more targeted, and it was changing students’ bodies faster. One reason is that I could now give more reps with confidence that my students were in good alignment. By 2001, the workout had diverged so much from Lotte Berk’s that our two companies mutually agreed to part ways. We became the Bar Method.
Today, 20 years later, bar fitness is exploding. You can take a bar class at hundreds of studios around the country as well as at gyms and yoga studios. All I can say is, what took them so long to get here? Bar-based routines are fantastic at making bodies beautiful. They use weight loads (students' own bodies), so they shape students' muscles, and their strength intervals can last for enough reps to build stamina and burn fat.
These benefits, however, come with a caveat: bar workouts to be safe need to pay special attention to alignment. Take a closer look at what happens in a bar fitness workout, and you’ll see why:
Bar exercise is strength-work. Unlike purely aerobic exercise it loads a muscle with more weight than it’s comfortable supporting. Unlike classical strength technique however, bar routines require loaded muscles to perform up to 100 reps at a time. Strength training limits its sets to eight to ten reps that are performed with focus and under the guidance of spotters.
Bar classes give their students less weight than strength work does and fewer reps than cardio. But the fact remains: bar classes load muscles for minutes at a time, so they need to bear in mind the alignment of the underlying joints. Speaking for the Bar Method, I can say we do our best to make our bar exercises safe.
Bar Method students tell us that they appreciate this effort. “Bar has been invaluable to me over the past few years,” a student named Bernadette Collins wrote me. “I tore my hamstring a few years ago and it has helped tremendously with rehab and strengthening… I believe there are other 'similar' classes out there. However, having tried one or two, they aren't as well conceived or safe as the Bar Method, in my opinion.”
“All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it," Benjamin (played by Matt Damon) says to his son in the movie "We Bought A Zoo." A first class at the Bar Method is one of those acts that can take a bit of insane courage, and just as Damon's character promises, great things -- in this case getting a more beautiful, healthy body -- can come of it.
It's understandable that that walking into your first Bar Method class takes at least some courage. It has a reputation for being challenging, and friends are often so darned devoted to it that they can make you wonder. These friends are well-meaning, but their enthusiasm for the Bar Method can backfire and churn up inner cascades of self-doubting questions among the uninitiated: "Am I going to get addicted? Will everyone be, and look, better than me? Will I feel singled out when the teacher calls my name? Will I even get through the class!?”
If you're wondering how you'd do in your first class, I want to reassure you that the overwhelming majority of new students of all ages and fitness levels have a positive experience. Bar Method teachers are skilled at making their new students feel safe and welcome, letting them know what they're going to feel, explaining the benefits and mechanics of the exercises, and getting them into a focused workout "zone" that makes the hour go by fast. But don't just take my word for it! Hear about the first day experiences of three students who almost never got there, and were glad they did.
Rachael, Summit, New Jersey
For a long time Rachael walked by the Bar Method studio in Summit without going in. A single mom in her mid-40s, Rachael “dismissed it as an option for me,” she says, “because the word ‘bar’ implied ballerina and that was something I certainly wasn’t.” One Thanksgiving, her daughter came home from college, and the two of them decided to give the class a try. “I changed three times before I left the house,” Rachael recalls, “not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise…options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me. The instructor offered specific encouragement and suggestions to each student using their names! It was clear that each student was so involved in their own progress that no one had time (including me!) to notice anyone else.”
Mary Ann, Redmond, Washington
For two years, Mary Ann’s California-based daughter called her to talk about the positive effects the Bar Method was having on her body. Then a Bar Method studio opened in Mary Ann's area. She was placed on the mailing list but didn’t attend for another year. Finally Mary Ann signed on “and I might add without too much enthusiasm,” she admits, “because I was suffering from a lower back injury. However, once I began taking classes under the watchful eyes of Bev and Maika (the studio’s owners), I was nurtured with kind comments, disciplined corrections and happy faces. I got the message; this is working for me.”
Grace, Bernardsville, New Jersey
A busy mother of three young boys, Grace would not be dragged to a first class for a long time in spite of the persistent efforts of her best friend Margaret. “I can be a little sarcastic and a physical underachiever,” Grace says by way of explanation. At last Margaret prevailed. “As I entered the class,’ Grace remembers, ‘I was really impressed by the instructor’s desire to not just learn the names of students, but to engage and take a serious interest in each individual’s progress and development. Honestly, on that first day, I was a “D” student, but that did not matter. What struck me is how much and how often these instructors encouraged me and others and made constructive adjustments in order for proper form to be achieved. Also, every exercise is explained along with its function and benefits. It is fascinating to submit to this level of instruction. Not only did it stimulate my muscles, but a switch was flipped in my brain, too. This Bar Method became my Mt. Everest and I was hooked.”
Thank you, everyone, for you support this past year.
Happy New Year!
There are clear advantages to working out at home. You pay nothing, you get fit your way, and you save travel time. Most of all, you enjoy the unbeatable convenience of exercising at home. At the same time there are some downsides associated with home-workouts that are worth talking about. First, there's the well-known fact that most people find it a struggle to stay challenged day in and day out without being egged on by a teacher. DVD workouts can help by providing someone on video who can motivate you.
"DIY" workouts can also subject you to some less commonly known risks, especially if they're your chief means of staying fit and even if you use DVDs. At home, you can be tempted to pick and choose among an infinity of vaguely-recalled routines or pieces of DVD workouts, and these choices might not always be the safest and most results-oriented ones you could make for your body. In any case, there's no one at home to check your form.
Linda Greenberg, a recent Bar Method convert, is a good person to ask about what happens when you work out at home over the long term, something she did regularly for 40 years. Staying motivated certainly wasn’t one of her problems. At an early age, Linda came to understand that she possessed an abundance of determination. “If I believed in something,” she realized, “I could do it well.” Linda, 57, was born and grew up in San Francisco and always loved to work out. When she was a teenager, she spent her monthly $25 allowance on training sessions at her local Jack LaLanne, and during college at UCLA and Wharton School of Business, she biked, ran and lifted weights. By her mid-20s, she’d become a five-mile-a-day runner, and that’s when she ran into her first setback: her knees started to bother her. Not being one to give up easily, Linda pushed through the pain until age 30, when she finally gave up her long runs.
With a vengeance, Linda launched into a search for a perfect exercise routine that did not include running. She watched exercise channels and combed through fitness magazines for good exercise routines. She tried Pilates, but it was a little too mellow for her. She hired a personal trainer, but that turned out not to be the answer either. “He was this crazy muscle-bound macho guy,” she remembers. “We did a lot of squats and lunges, militaristic things like burpies. I expected him to take out a whip any minute. Why did I keep going back? To prove to myself how strong I was. I actually dreaded going, but I went for about a year. It was a kind of masochistic thing. I ended up putting on a bunch of weight and built bulk, the exact opposite of what my intention was.”
After that experience, Linda decided to forego assisted exercise and step up her home workouts, which she’d been doing all along, to two hours every other day. “I bought a Bowflex and committed myself to “hitting every hit every part of my body with 30-to-100 reps while wearing 5-pound ankle weights,” Linda says. Therein, for the next two decades as she built a successful career in the home loan industry and raised twin daughters (now 16,) Linda exercised on her own.” “It’s just what I did for years and years. I’d get on some music. My dog would be there. My husband would come in and think I was crazy with the weights. He would call me ‘Lucy.’”
Finally last summer, Linda suffered a game-changing ill effect from her workouts. She developed bursitis in her hips, a painful injury that brought home to her the extent to which she’d been overdoing it. “I’d been doing massive reps with massive weights,” she admits, “pushing my body. It was so stupid. I had to go to the orthopedist. He said it was because I was working too hard on the weights.” Ironically, Linda’s extraordinary willpower, which had first enabled her to exercise by herself, had ended up derailing her. She resolved to find some guidance, and her search led her last September to the Bar Method.
Linda now takes four to five Bar Method classes a week and uses the treadmill two days a week. She began to see changes after a few months. “My body is leaner now. My muscles have elongated for the first time ever instead of bulking up.” she says, “My kids say, ‘mom, you have no butt left.’ I’ve dropped some inches and feel better.” Another plus side to exercising at the Bar Method, Linda found, is its friendly environment. “I love all of the instructors,” she told me. “They’re enthusiastic, and they push you, but not in an offensive way, and I’ve made friends here. It’s a community.” Three months ago, Linda lost her mother, and her Bar Method classes became an unexpected source of support. “To be around cheerful people with upbeat music has helped me take care of me first while I’m taking care of all this other stuff.”
Does Linda have any plans to return to her home workouts? “I don’t miss anything,” she told me. “For the last 40 years I was bulking up when I wanted to be elongating. Finally I have the right combination of contractions and stretches." As for the future, Linda declares with her usual hutzpah, "I’m going to do the Bar Method until the day I go."
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!
Last week I shared with you a testimonial written by Karen Dodge, a first-time new mother and one of the three competitors in our San Francisco-Marina studio’s annual “3|60 Challenge.” This contest selects three new students and challenges them to make the most possible positive overall change in their bodies in sixty days. Karen told us about her first sore and shaky week of regular classes and her determination to lose her baby weight during the challenge.
This week Ryan Salma, another of this year’s three competitors, weighs in about his struggles and breakthroughs at around midpoint into the challenge. Before becoming a contestant, Ryan had lost 40 pounds over several years by running and eating a healthy diet. He is a real estate project manager, President of the San Francisco Frontrunners, and a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. His motivation for entering the challenge? “Increasing my overall endurance,” he told us. “I have been running in half-marathons for the past three years and it is my goal to break the 1 hour 30 minute mark.” Below is Ryan’s report on his fourth week of classes.
SF MARINA 3|60 BLOG: RYAN WEEK #4
I don’t know if it was the weather, the time change, or the fact that I ran a half-marathon this week but I have been feeling a little run down. This made getting to the Bar Method seem a lot harder than usual. I decided to take a level one class for the first time so that I would not be pushing my body too hard and as a way to mix things up.
I would not say that a level one class is easy, just different. You don’t do as many reps, but there is a lot more focus on form. You also hold some poses for a longer period of time, which can make the exercises just as hard as a mixed level class, if not even harder. Taking a level one class made me realize that focusing on technique will only help me to work harder and achieve results more quickly.
So, for my third class this week I actually did the beginners workout DVD again. What’s great about the DVD is that there is an instructional video on how to do each Bar Method pose properly. This was extremely helpful because I am a visual learner and it is hard to watch others in class to see what they are doing when I am trying to do a pose myself. Using the DVD in slow motion also helps to see how much or how little movement you should do to benefit from the exercises. Master Instructor Joey Decker leads a fun workout. He demonstrates good form, is energetic, and has just the right amount of enthusiasm to keep the workout entertaining even after multiple viewings. After taking it a little easy this week and focusing on form, I know that I will be able to “bring it “the next two weeks of the challenge.
Oh yeah – here is a fun little nutritional tidbit that I have found helpful in keeping the pounds off…if you love ice cream or frozen yogurt try getting a tub of fat free Greek yogurt instead. Greek Yogurt is thicker than normal yogurt but has less sugar and calories than frozen yogurt. To add a little flavor to your Greek Yogurt you could chop up some fresh fruit or use a low glycemic sweetener like agave!
Half way there! Four more weeks to go!
CELEBRATING THE BAR METHOD 3|60 CHALLENGE: KAREN DODGE
Last fall our flagship studio in the San Francisco Marina held its second “3|60 Challenge” (we held our first of these events in 2009). Three neophyte Bar Method students were chosen by our staff to take class free for 60 days and write about their experience. We asked the contestants to submit a 300 word statement about why they thought they would benefit from The Bar Method. The prize: an additional month of free classes, to be awarded based on a combination of overall results and enthusiasm. Our three finalists were Lianne, Karen and Ryan. What impressed me most about their stories is that each of the 3|60 contestants gained something unique and personal from their 60-day regime. In my view Karen’s, Lianne’s and Ryan’s very different experiences are testaments to the power of exercise to change not just people’s bodies in general ways but also the unique fabric of their lives.
Karen Dodge, 37, became a 3|60 contestant because she had just given birth to her first child, a daughter, just six weeks earlier and felt that the Bar Method was her best option for getting back in shape. “I used to be a competitive runner and swimmer, and the two classes I took at the Bar Method kicked my butt”, she wrote us. “I was sore with the shakes and never felt better about getting in shape.” Here is her blog about her first week into the challenge:
Bar Method SF Marina 3|60 Challenge: Karen Week #1
The Bar Method proved to be a challenge this week due to juggling both physical fitness and my daily routine. For the last six weeks I have been adjusting to motherhood and keeping my daily routine pretty simple. I have incorporated a hike or shopping trip when the baby sleeps, but I had not tried to schedule my day outside of her routine. Luckily, baby Kate is getting into more of a routine this week just in time for my Bar Method classes. The challenge was in coordinating childcare and getting out the door on time. As a new mom, all things breastfeeding are still awkward and time consuming, so getting out the door will require some practice and good planning. I think it will become easier in the coming week or two and I am excited to challenge myself in this way because The Bar Method is a great reward.
The Bar Method has been physically challenging this week for sure. My first class, I experienced cramping which made me panic a little. The second class, I did not cramp at all which is a small success. I read on the website that the thighs and glutes are the largest muscle groups and if I work them, I will burn more fat and thus loose the belly. I try to keep this in mind when my muscles begin to burn and shake. I remember when I was in labor and was eight centimeters going on ten centimeters and I began to shake uncontrollably. The nurse told me that trembling was “good” for the upcoming birth. I keep this in mind when I become uncomfortable or embarrassed that I am shaking.
I am so excited to have the Bar Method Beginner’s workout DVD! This way I can work on my form at home when baby Kate sleeps. The teachers have been very kind to correct my form in class and I want to do my own homework so I can get the most out of class. This DVD is very informative and fun to do at home.