Lotte Berk's Tough Love For Legs
Health writer Deborah Hutton dedicated a chapter in one Vogue book to the Lotte Berk fitness method, and the facing images were of a streamlined figure – a mid-lifer with a stillness and grace that came through with every pose. It impressed me. You don’t always see this in fit people – not even in all of those who do yoga, and certainly not zumba freaks. Over the years I’ve tried both – zumba for a year, and it left me worn out, feeling old and alarmed at how my sense of coordination seemed to have disappeared with my age.
So I joined a class, and for the first time in my entire life I started liking exercise.
The catalyst to all this was a prolapsed disc which had begun to overshadow my life. My osteopath explained that the only way to make this situation better was to increase my core strength. I asked him if Lotte Berk and barre core exercise was the answer and he said yes if she was still going. She is, I said – well, the classes are, and they’re all about core stability and pelvic floor.
I didn’t know at that time that one of the reasons Lotte developed her method was because she also suffered with her lower back – she worked with an osteopath in the 1950’s to create the exercises, the idea being that they would target specific areas to improve core strength, general flexibility and sculpt body shape. She was a ballet dancer and incorporated much of this discipline into her exercises, which are small and concentrated, and done with great precision both at the barre and on the floor. By all accounts Lotte was a colourful character. Ballet dancer thin with a short dark bob and, undoubtedly, iron-like self discipline, she was born in Cologne in 1913 and came to London with her parents in the 1930’s to escape the Nazis. She set up her first studio in Manchester Street (ladies only), and taught into her eighties. Lotte died in 2003 but the method goes on.
My first experience was a one-to-one; then I joined a small class of slim and mind-bogglingly flexible pupils. The entire workout is done in a small space – either at a barre, on a mat or free-standing. There’s no charging about, no shouting or high fiving, and if you’re challenged with the coordinates they’re explained to you v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and firmly so you get it right, rather than rushing onto something else and forgetting that you couldn’t do the previous exercise.
The teaching, and graceful intent, recall childhood ballet dancing days, learning the red red robin in the village hall, trying not to be a fairy elephant.
You take every inch of your body through the method which, while done with great concentration and frequently gritted teeth, feels like the most natural and obvious thing to be doing. When, while standing on one leg with a hand in the air, I was asked to point and flex the free foot and remember to hold my core, the sensation was of relief and recognition. Hard, yes, but also exactly like what I needed to do at that point – being felt deep my calves and down to the soles of my feet. Curious and extraordinary. It’s tough, mind – you do want to stop, but it’s gratifying and boy does it make you aware of your body.
I’ll be back at the barre next week in my tired old leggings. I love that I’m learning something which is not a fad – developed and unchanged since the 1950’s, and age appropriate – it feels entirely natural at this stage in life. It gives me space in a busy work life, helps me feel centred and in better humour. For the first time I feel like I’m doing right by my body. It’s only taken 30 years.
LOTTE’S TOP 3 LEG SCULPTING EXERCISES
Toned hamstrings do wonders for the overall look of your legs. They curve outwards on the back of the leg mid-point up your upper leg, and then they curve inwards right under your bottom giving it lift and definition. The best LB exercise for your hamstrings is simply to stand, holding the barre, bending one leg in half and holding it behind you. Hold this position with your knee under your hip and after about a minute you start shaking like a leaf. You wake up the next day feeling sore but a bit more sculpted.
For this you bend your knees outwards when in a wide stance – lowing your hips down – to chisel a dancer-like curve down your outside leg. This graceful shape, by arcing up your outside thigh bone, pulls the side of your leg in, making it narrower. It shapes and hardens the outside thigh muscle (vastis laterals). The ultimate goal is to get your hips level with your knees (very tough) …
Lotte developed a barre method which works the lower quads with ‘eccentric’ contractions – smooth, mid-range pliés that stretch the muscles as they’re working. And one of the most targeted thigh exercises for slimming down around the knees, and slenderising the line above them, is the ‘narrow V’, a position that keeps your knees in a deep bend during the pliés. Ouch! It looks deceptively simple and basic, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when your lower quads feel like they’re on fire by mid-point into the exercise.