Monday, January 13, 2014

"Long, Lean Muscles of a Dancer:" Fact or Fiction?

"The Physique 57 workout, where arms, thighs, seat and abs get sculpted in the form of long, lean, gorgeous muscles."

"The Bar Method exercise targets the muscles that play the greatest role in body change, then keeps these muscles working intensely and safely long enough for them to change. It then intensely stretches each muscle worked to make it look & feel longer & more graceful."

"The Pure Barre technique is low-impact, protecting your joints by avoiding any bouncing or jumping. Each strength section of the workout is followed by a stretching section in order to create long, lean muscles without bulk." (In each case, emphasis mine.)

These are all quotes from various barre brands, all claiming their techniques will bring about "long, lean muscles." I've noticed a lot of people latch on to that phrase 'long, lean muscles.' Some people love it. It intrigues them and gets them in the door of a barre studio. Other people hate it and scoff at it as pure hype. Is it just a clever marketing ploy? Or do your muscles actually become 'longer?'

In The New Rules of Lifting for Women, author Lou Schuler rips into this one. His Rule #6 is 'No workout will make you taller.' He writes, "Workout advice for women is riddled with allusions to making muscles 'longer,'" which he decries as "nothing more than propaganda." Schuler goes on to explain that the shape of muscle is genetically predetermined and that muscles simply grow or shrink; you can't train them to be shaped in any particular way. He likens 'elongating muscle' claims to a workout promising to make you taller, since the length of muscle is constrained by the length of your limbs.

I see what Schuler is getting at. Obviously, doing regular barre workouts is not going to make my arms or legs longer. That falls firmly into the 'duh' category. But is that what barre people mean? And is that what most people are expecting?

If you were to cut my bicep out of my arm (please don't) and measure it, it will be the same actual length it has ever been since I grew to maturity in sixth grade. (Yes, I ate beans off all the boys' heads for many years hence.) But I've never read these claims that way. I never expected barre to make me actually longer. Does anyone? Really? So why do they say it at all?

What do you mean by 'length,' exactly?
I don't mean to be too Bill Clinton about this, but it makes a difference. Here's why: when I bend my arm, my biceps contract--which means they shorten. Muscles are made up of long, tubular fibers called sarcomeres. They pull together in a state of contraction, and when the same muscle is stretched, the sarcomeres pull apart to some degree--meaning they lengthen. The degree of togetherness your sarcomeres enjoy at rest can be altered by regular stretching, enabling you to be more flexible.

If you never stretch your hamstrings, for example, and you spend most of your day seated at a desk or behind the wheel of a car, your hamstrings will, in a sense, become shorter. This is a problem, because very tight hamstrings will result in postural imbalances and then all kinds of terrible things can happen. Ok, being a little dramatic, but why not have a stretch? It's good for you and it feels really nice.

The great thing about barre is the stretching is very much integrated throughout the workout--you first work the different muscle groups, making them nice and warm and increasing blood flow to the muscles--and making them shorter--then stretch, bringing length back to these same muscles. Stretching may not technically lengthen the muscle, but stretching will allow your muscles to achieve their optimal length. I'm just an amateur, but this is how I understand it works, and this is why you feel limber and lovely and lalalala after you finish a barre workout, and this is why barre is awesome.

Part of me wondered initially if this was just a semantics issue--the whole word 'length' tripping up the nay-sayers. Maybe there is some other word that would assuage the ire of people like Lou Schuler? So I discussed the issue at some length (whoops! there it is again!) with a physical therapist. Nope. Apparently they used the word 'length' in PT school. She suggested you could also say you're making the muscles 'looser,' but I can appreciate why the barre people don't want to use that word. Many of us exercise so we won't be so loose. What woman wants to be described as 'loose?' On any level? Umm, no. Not so much.

Anyway, stretching muscle right after working it is a great strategy. Studies conducted by Dr. Wayne Westcott, one of the big dogs in the exercise science world, found that exercisers who stretched the muscles they just worked experienced nearly 20% greater strength gains than those who did resistance training only. Stretching not only feels good, it aids in building muscle.

I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but this is why I figure the 'long muscles' claims are not bogus. The problem is when these assertions morph in someone's mind, making her think she's going to look like this after a handful of barre classes:
Umm, probably not. Dancers train for many years, often have very restrictive diets and most are genetically predisposed to look this way. From what I understand, the 'system' weeds out aspiring dancers who don't naturally have certain physical attributes. I've even heard of ballerinas wearing prosthetic arches in their toe shoes, simply because the dance master likes to see a certain type of arch in the foot.

The rest of us can experience greater strength and optimal muscle length from a steady diet of training and stretching. Barre isn't magic--it takes work, but the gains in strength and flexibility can yield big dividends both functionally and aesthetically.

1 comment:

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