2013 Update: If you are looking for a DVD program to tone, tighten, and help you achieve a dancer-like body, I recommend trying Physique 57. See my review for more details.
The Tracy Anderson Method certainly has a lot of big celebrity supporters–Gwenyth Paltrow, Madonna, Courtney Cox, and Jessica Simpson. Tracy’s approach to exercise is unlike anything I’ve seen before and given all the endorsement of her program, I decided to give it a try for three months. I purchased her Metamorphosis DVD (hipcentric) as well as her post pregnancy DVD and read her 30-Day Method book. I followed her muscular structure work (aka toning) and did some of her dance cardio, although I mostly stuck to the cardio I enjoy (step class, running, cardio machines at the gym). I did not follow her diet, because I already eat incredibly healthy, but I did try to control my portions. After 90 days, I lost 5 lbs and 5 1/2 inches. I certainly have not achieved perfection, as she claims is possible with her program, but I am ready to fully review her method.
Before I dive into this review, I do feel obligated to provide my qualifications–unlike Tracy. I have a B.S. in Sports Medicine, used to teach Tae Bo, became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (NSCA) in 2003, and have been an avid exerciser for two decades. I’m a mother to three young children and I take my exercise very seriously.
Tracy was a dancer who used to struggle with her weight. She has developed a specific set of exercises with the intention of “strengthening the smaller muscle groups so that they can pull in the larger muscles, resulting in a lean, long, feminine figure that is not bulky.” I must admit that this philosophy does have its appeal. But her premise that she alone has discovered these wonderful “accessory muscles” that traditional trainers and exercise physiologists ignore in lieu of the major muscle groups is misleading. Not once does she name a single one of these accessory muscles. Nor does she convince me that her exercises actually work only the accessory muscles, nor that targeting them–if that is in fact what she is doing–will cause them to pull in the larger muscles around them. Has she actually placed electrodes on these accessory muscles, performed the exercises, and recorded their activity in producing the movement? The foundation of her Method is based upon faulty reasoning. Could it be possible that she is actually just working the good old fashioned major muscle groups in new ways at new angles, spurring change and toning because the body is not accustomed to these exercises? I find it much more likely that her low weight, high rep approach is training the muscle fibers responsible for endurance, which do not increase in size (that’s why you never see a bulky long distance runner), rather than training some small, unique muscles that only she knows how to work. She even says herself that “the reps and sequencing are designed to get to the large muscle groups, exhaust them, and then have the small muscle groups wake up and become engaged.” I would argue that the effectiveness of her moves lies in the former–exhausting the large muscle groups–more than the latter–suddenly engaging smaller muscles that normally aren’t used.
I do appreciate that Tracy “tested” her Method. However, her research involved a total of 150 women, only 20 of which actually did her specific dance cardio moves along with the muscular structure work. Anyone can perform “research.” If it is not statistically significant nor peer reviewed, it is worthless.
Tracy argues that lifting weights “is not healthy.” She says weight lifting builds “muscles that are more prone to injury” and “tears down your joints.” She also argues that running “makes you work the same muscles over and over again, so you’re just strengthening muscles that are already strong enough.” I completely disagree. Her muscular structure exercises also work the same muscles over and over (glutes anyone?) and she is in complete denial if she doesn’t think her dance cardio, like running, also works the quads, hamstrings, and calves–over and over and over again. In fact, that is the primary reason I did not do it daily. Its repetitive bouncing gave me shin splints and bored me to death.
What kills me the most about Tracy’s Method is that she actually says you need to stop all other exercise and do only her program. On page 30 of her book, she says “If you want to look tight and toned, you need to stop every other kind of exercise and only do my workout.” I think this is absurd. She argues that your muscles, especially your accessory muscles, adapt very quickly so you need to keep them on their toes. By only performing her DVDs, you eliminate the variety and change that are not only crucial to challenging your muscles–all of them–but to also challenging your mind and keeping you from boredom. Tracy believes that running, the eliptical trainer, biking, and all forms of cardio exercise–except for her dance cardio–bulk up the muscles you want to keep small. ”The typical cardiovascular exercises, like running, elliptical, biking and so on, work the same muscles over and over again, bulking up certain muscles groups, ignoring others, and causing stress on your joints.” Has she ever seen a professional endurance athlete? Runner? Biker? Marothoner? These are not bulky people. Telling her clients that they can never do any other cardio puts them at a disadvantage. And because none of her moves ever work your chest or back, only doing her program causes you to miss out on training important muscles. By completely skipping large areas like the fronts of your legs, inner thighs, chest, and back, you miss out on the calorie-burning, metabolism increasing effect of training all your muscles. And by discouraging people from attending cardio classes, where motivation from teachers and other students pushes you to try harder and perform (the exact thing she somehow believes you’ll do alone in your living room), you really miss out from pushing yourself past your comfort zone and into greater levels of fitness. I have never sweated at home like I do in a class.
So if her program is so faulty, why do people get results? I believe that she has designed some fantastic moves that are very unique and challenging (more so for the legs than arms). She really works the butt and outer thighs in ways I have never seen done before. I also think her strategy of completely fatiguing one leg at a time before moving onto the next, often resulting in hundreds of exercises on one side first, is brilliant. Why she doesn’t apply this principal to other areas of the body, like arms, I don’t understand. But after a month of doing her ridiculous number of leg lifts, I really could see improved endurance in my hips and glutes. Balancing on my knees and hands became easier and I even needed to add ankle weights. I think her lower body exercises can be very effective, although I find her ab and arm moves to be much less impressive. Five minutes of waving your arms in the air is not nearly intense enough to ignite real change. And her form for the abdominal moves leaves something to be desired. I also believe this is the reason why her stomach is not as flat as it could be if she pulled her abs in more during exercising to really target the transverse abdominus (something done in Pilates, a practice she believes results in bulky abs).
My last bone to pick is with what Tracy believes is the “perfect” body. Tiny arms, tiny legs, a lifted butt. She is afraid of definition and bulk. But I find those appealing. Of course, I don’t want to be totally ripped, but I would like a six-pack. And defined deltoids. I don’t want “tiny.” I want fit. I don’t want to exercise an hour a day solely to look a certain way. If I’m putting in that kind of time, I want to be fit. I want to know that I can hike a 14er or play soccer with my kids or do real push-ups on my toes. I want to feel capable and strong. Her program left me feeling wussy and dainty. In real life, I have to carry a 21 pound baby. If doing that doesn’t make me bulky, why should I only stick to 3-lb weights?