Raising the Bar on Strength
The Bar Method borrows dancers’ secrets for sculpting fierce muscles.
By Ilsa Setziol 01/01/2010
For five years, Pasadenan Kate Kuo and Elizabeth Gayed of South Pasadena commuted to the Westside four days a week — and that was just to get a workout. The 28-year-olds took on two freeways because West L.A. had the only Bar Method studio in the area. Popular with celebrities such as Drew Barrymore and Kyra Sedgwick, the rigorous exercise regime is known for producing lean, chiseled bodies with derrières so defined that practitioners brag about their “bar butts.”
The two friends obtained training as instructors from Bar Method founder Burr Leonard at her sister Mimi Fleischman’s studio in West L.A. And in August, Kuo and Gayed launched the Bar Method Pasadena in a remodeled brick building across the alley from Old Pasadena’s Burke Williams spa.
“Opening our own studio was just to save gas,” jokes Kuo. A former escrow officer, Kuo says becoming a fitness instructor was an unlikely career path for her. “I hate exercise, basically, except for Bar Method. Before this, I was 40 pounds heavier. I dreaded [going to class] because it was so hard. I’d pray we’d hit traffic and wouldn’t make it in time. But it’s addictive. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop.”
Gayed and Kuo met in college — when they were only 13 years old (both were admitted into an early-entry program at Cal State Los Angeles). Now Gayed is a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches early-morning Bar Method classes before heading off to her other job as a student counselor for the Claremont Colleges. “Often, if people are not huge cardio fans, they really like this kind of exercise,” Gayed says. “It gives some cardio benefit, but you’re not out of breath all the time.”
The Bar Method delivers a potent combination of interval training and isometric exercises. It’s an offshoot of modern dancer Lotte Berk’s intense exercise program, which focused on building strength from the body’s “core.” Leonard, 62, taught the Lotte Berk Method in Connecticut before she launched the Bar Method in 2000. The course takes its name from the ballet barre used for support and resistance by practitioners performing tiny, precise repetitions that fatigue their muscles until they “burn” and shake.
Interval training relies on short bursts of high-intensity activity — just about any exercise performed full bore — that alternate with short breaks. In 2005, researchers in Norway concluded that interval training was more effective for improving fitness than more sustained, less intense workouts. One reason: Such vigorous activity prompts the body to build new muscle fibers.
The program also uses isometrics — a kind of resistance training in which muscles are contracted and held in place or moved in resistance to the weight of the body or a stationary object.
Leonard says the Bar Method is one of the few exercise programs to combine the two techniques. “Interval training creates an intensity in which you’re at the end of your body’s ability to perform an action,” she says. “The isometric work enables muscles to keep working even after they’re fatigued. Together, you get a more profound reshaping effect.”
Bar Method classes generally start with arm and other upper-body repetitions using free weights, then progress to isolations that work the thighs and gluteals, mostly at the bar. A signature move has students poised on the balls of their feet, squatting slightly, and pulsing up and down until their legs shake. In another exercise, students sit beneath the bar, gripping it overhead, and repeatedly swing their legs apart and together, an inch off the floor — if they can (beginners keep their feet on the floor). Killer abdominal curls round out the fast-paced classes.
Ballet and yoga-inspired stretches provide breathers between the high-intensity sets. “At the end of class, because there’s so much stretching throughout, people feel extremely relaxed,” Gayed says. “I think it’s a great stress reliever.”
Some aspects of the Bar Method are similar to Pilates — the focus on strengthening core muscles, for example. But Leonard’s program emphasizes large muscles on the back of the body. “These muscles play the greatest role in posture, control and balance,” she says. “They’re important to look good and move well. They tend to be larger — the triceps is the longest in the arm — and tend to make you look narrower when they sit up off the bone.”
Despite the intensity, Leonard says the Bar Method is a safe, no-impact workout. “It hits the muscles, not the joints,” she explains. Still, Kuo says she strives to make the hourlong classes as seamless as possible. “It’s very stressful to be in class,” she says. “We keep it moving so you never have time to stop and think about how painful it is, or how much your thighs are burning.” Pasadena Bar Method students — mostly women under 40 — say they appreciate the workout’s potential for transforming bodies fairly quickly. Kara Matchie says it took only three months of classes four times a week to achieve the sculpted look she was going for. “I’m shocked — I’ve never been this toned in my life,” says Matchie, a 28-year-old executive assistant. “This is the first workout I’ve been so consistent with. I love yoga for the relaxation, but it just does not tone or produce the results Bar Method does. I make all my friends feel my stomach.”
Her stomach must have been convincing — three of those friends were sufficiently impressed to become Bar Method devotees themselves.
Single classes cost $20; a discount applies to multiple class packages. DVDs are also available on the website. The Bar Method Pasadena is located at 32 Mills Pl., Pasadena. Call (626) 844-7888 or visit barmethod.com/Pasadena.