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.”
In the 50s, women rarely exercised except when they bore children or were conceiving them. Exercise? To most back then, the idea was a bit embarrassing. Lotte Berk, the London-based dancer and exercise pioneer, wanted to change this. Her mission, she said, was to give women back their physicality by, as she put it, advancing the "state of sex" in her time. To this end, she invented an exercise technique that women could relate to, namely one that celebrated their sexuality; she packed it with the most sensual exercises she could think of; and she gave those exercises playful names that would help to embolden her students' spirits. The Bar Method’s “leg lifts" exercise was, for example, “the prostitute." "Back-dancing” was “naughty bottoms.”
Lotte was a true-believer in free love and carried on many love affairs, even while married. Later during her classes she used her experiences as material for nuggets of wisdom on men and love, and doled them out to her students as they worked out. Her discourses could be shockingly direct about the similarities between her exercises and sex. According to Bazaar Magazine who interviewed her in 1994, Lotte would say to her students, “If you can’t lift your bottom, how can you enjoy sex?” When I visited Lotte during the 90s, she gave me the uncensored version of what she really told her students, something more along the lines of “if you can’t tuck, you can’t f---!”
Like other innovators who happened to be born into the right era, Lotte came into her own when the time was ripe for her ideas. The sexual revolution of the 60s set the stage for Lotte’s more athletic kind of sexiness to catch on. Actresses Joan Collins, Britt Eland, Barbara Streisand and Lee Remick started to go regularly to Lotte's little basement studio where they got sex-ready bodies while listening to Lotte's delightfully frank, eccentric lectures on love.
In 1970, one of Lotte's disciples, Lydia Bach, opened “The Lotte Berk Method” on the Upper Each Side of Manhattan. No one in this country had seen anything quite like this kind of exercise class, and the press was all over it. “We’re talking about the Lotte Berk Method," Look Magazine wrote in 1971, "a body-toning system for women in London, now taught in a Manhattan studio…The exercises ostensibly improve a woman’s sex life and Mrs. Berk receives many thank-you notes from grateful husbands.”
Throughout the 70s, people continued to be taken with the notion that exercise's sole purpose was to make women sexier. Those people included Lydia. In a 1972 New York Times article she describes the Lotte Berk Method as “a combination of modern ballet,
yoga, orthopedic exercises and sex.” “Sex?” the Times asked. “Sex,” Lydia explained, was the name of one of her exercises (our “knee-dancing”).
The women's magazines, of course, loved this idea. During the 70s, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Women's Wear Daily ran articles titled “Exercise Your Way to a Better Sex Life," “Shape Up Your Pelvic Area and Shape Up Your Sex Life," “Exercises for Loving Making,” and “Sexercises” In 1979 Vogue showed a completely naked model doing the pretzel, round-back and other Lotte Berk moves. The women photographed in these pieces were gorgeously feminine in a way you don’t see today. These women wore their hair long, dressed in sheer, soft leotards, and exuded a mysterious dreaminess.
By the 80s the innocent idea that sex could be a path to freedom and enlightenment had run its course. Women had tasted strength and realized there was more to exercise than sex. They could be strong, stronger in some ways than men, and that discovery, I think, helped them launch the Women's Liberation Movement. The WLM had started in the 70s, and by the 80s was calling on women to seek empowerment and independence and no longer to be caught up with being sexual objects or needing men to be fulfilled. These enlightened women included Lydia who updated her message accordingly. “Women" she said in an 80's Vogue article, "…want to regain power and control over their lives. Exercise is the first step towards regaining that control.” Like Lydia, I'm committed to the Women’s Movement. Still, I wonder if in our zeal to be superheroes we might have sacrificed something in terms of our the way we view our femininity. Having become recently engaged, I'm not in the frame of mind to believe that men are superfluous, and when it comes to body image, I'd like to think it's not necessary for us to hone our bodies into, as Tom Wolfe put it in his novel on the 80s, "boys with breasts." We've shown the world that we're amazingly strong. Now it might be fun for us to do some playful remastering of that vintage sexy spirit from the 60s and 70s.
I was putting away my mat after taking class a few months ago and a student approached me. She was pretty and looked like she might have been a lawyer or worked in the corporate world. “Have you or anyone ever written about how great the Bar Method is for sex?” she asked me. Out of habit I gave her my usual answer: Yes, it’s great for sex, but we’ve always played down that feature. “Thanks for your answer,” she said, “but it really is.”
As the student walked away, it hit me that for 20 years I’ve been giving that same stock response to questions about the Bar Method’s connection to sex. My habit of side-stepping this issue started with my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990. That year I was studying in New York City to become a Lotte Berk Method studio owner, and my trainers wanted me to keep my approach to this subject consistent with theirs. “People might ask you about sex,” they told me. “Focus on other benefits.”
I went with their advice during my ten-year term as a Lotte Berk Method licensee. Now that license has been expired for ten years, and it’s about time that I formulate by own policy on this subject. So here it is: The Bar Method-type workout is absolutely great for one’s sex life, and let me tell you why:
First, exercise itself has been proven to increase sexual potency. According to researcher Mark Stibich “Studies have shown that women who frequently exercise become aroused more quickly and are able to reach an orgasm faster and more intensely.” Exercise gives you an especially powerful boost if you do workouts that focus on stamina, muscular endurance, strength and flexibility. Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise credits exercise with "physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function (specifically, enhanced peripheral blood flow),” which he says says “can all enhance sexual functioning.” Why? Paige Waehner ACE explains. “Sex also requires you to hold...er...occasionally unusual positions for short periods of time,” she says, plus, “Being limber can enhance anyone's sex life by making it a bit easier to get into your favorite position with a minimum amount of fuss.”
Do The Lotte Berk Method/Bar Method techniques have any advantages over other exercise forms in this arena? Most definitely! They build a fantastic degree of stamina; they make you more flexible; and most distinctively, they focus on strengthening and stretching the muscles around your pelvis pretty much during the whole class. The Bar Method’s “narrow V” thigh exercise, for example, strengthens the “pelvic floor” muscles, according to Physical Therapist Heidi Morton. Then of course there are all the glute and abdominal exercises such as “water-ski thigh,” and “water-ski seat,” and the other “seat” exercises, plus the curl work, which students perform with their pelvis locked in place by means of all its surrounding muscles. Finally we come to “back-dancing,” an exercise that looks almost embarrassingly sexual, but more about that later.
Considering that sex is probably our greatest natural high, you’d think these benefits would be worth mentioning. Even so, over the past 20 years, the hundreds of press articles written about my Lotte Berk or Bar Method studios have pointed out only the Method’s ability to make you look sexy. Nowhere in my memory has there been anything written or said about its effect on sex itself. The most direct reference to sex in connection to the Bar Method that I could find appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July of 2002. The writer speculated on what would happen if the "Sex and the City" characters moved to San Francisco. “Samantha,” the article said, “would be in to various trendy California pursuits like… the Bar fitness method.” Nothing, however, on how much more fun Samantha, um, might have had later…
This reticence hasn’t always been the case. In the early 70s, the press was all over the news that an exercise technique was improving people’s sex lives. Why then did my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990 tell me to zip my lips on this subject? The answer goes back a half a century to the workout’s inventor, Lotte Berk, who expressly and unapologetically designed the workout to enhance sex.
Next week: The rise and fall of Lotte’s sexual revolution (and why we can finally start talking about it again :-)