One of the hottest fitness trends right now is barre. If you don’t believe me, cross the street and you’ll probably find a barre fitness studio, usually in a trendy or up-and-coming suburban mall a few doors down from Starbucks or maybe a semi-gentrified neighborhood.
With the proliferation of studios popping up everywhere, most gyms capitalize on the trend that relies on ballet moves and isometric exercise, adding some version of a barre class to their current group exercise lineup.
Along with hype comes marketing hyperbole, usually directed towards women with all the hot buttons about their perceived body images. Some studios promise barre will not only lengthen and tone your muscles without adding bulk, but will also give you a dancer’s physique.
Many proponents say results come quickly and that barre becomes perfect for anyone regardless of age, size or level of ability.
But is this too good to be true? Let’s take a closer look at what exactly a barre workout involves and whether science substantiates those claims.
What Is Barre?
Barre fitness classes are basically ballet-inspired fitness classes. Barre also incorporates moves from other disciplines, including yoga and Pilates. While a barre class is usually lightly choreographed to upbeat music, there are poses held in an isometric contraction similar to yoga. Like Pilates, barre also places a lot of emphasis on your core, with isolated moves that help you stabilize your spine and improve your posture.
Often, barre focuses on small, repetitive bodyweight moves, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a class using small hand weights to add a little more resistance. What’s the rationale behind high repetitions and light weights? Proponents claim that is the best way to get that lean, toned look so many people covet.
However, please be aware that not all barres are created equal! One of my close fitness friends, Suzanne Bowen — founder of SBF (Suzanne Bowen Fitness) and creator of BarreAmped, which includes both classes and DVDs — mentions that many barre styles now exist, including some that have moved considerably away from its origins.
Barre originated with Lotte Berk, a German dancer who fled the Nazis in the 1930s to settle in London with her British husband. While rehabbing a back injury, Berk combined her therapeutic exercises with ballet barre routines. (1)
In 1959, she opened The Lotte Berk Method in her basement. She acquired several famous celebrities who she worked out but also entertained with bawdy humor and relationship advice.
Don’t you wish your current trainer could be that much fun?
Eventually, one of her American students, Lydia Bach, bought the rights to Lotte’s name and opened the first studio in Manhattan in 1971. Over the next several years, it continued to grow and evolve into its present day incarnation.
Suzanne was actually an apprentice barre teacher with Ms. Bach in Manhattan in the early 2000s and was featured in the first barre DVDs produced by Bach. Remembering those initial barre classes, Suzanne said she was “gym fit” but was “humbled” by these classes that demanded so much leg and core work. She became a convert of this style of barre, and she’s further developed her own style of barre training that contrasts pretty strongly with some other version on the market today.
“Women saw results [from Bach’s methods], but then somehow barre became synonymous with isometric movements,” recounts Suzanne. “That’s fine for beginners, but you eventually need to move more, get flexion of the joint and complement the natural curve of the spine.” She mentions this last part because some current barre styles want you to have a tucked pelvis during the movements, but Suzanne finds that both unnatural and can even lead to injury.
Who Can Benefit From Barre?
Whether you’re a beginner or looking to break out of your current routine, barre might be for you. While rooted in dance, the ability to pirouette or rock a tutu is definitely not a prerequisite.
If you’ve ever wanted to improve your posture and balance, a barre class could potentially help. If you’re just starting out, you can also benefit from gaining strength, flexibility and confidence.
While an overwhelming number of participants in barre are women, this is a gender-neutral workout. Banish any notions of being a lightweight workout: Barre moves become harder than they initially look!
“I find that they make a woman feel very feminine as well as better in their physique,” says Suzanne, who’s seen women make amazing changes in both body and mind after regular taking barre classes.
6 Benefits of Barre Workout
1. Improves mind and body concentration
Because of all the small, isometric moves (meaning the joint angle or the muscle length do not change during the contraction) associated with a barre class, increased muscle movement awareness becomes imperative. Establishing that neuromuscular (mind and body communicating together) connection helps activate underused muscles outside of class and complement strength-demanding daily tasks.
One set of muscles that tends to get underutilized are the glutes, less politely called your butt. We don’t use our glutes enough. Even people who work out and then sit at a desk all day don’t use them enough. By activating your glutes (2) you can significantly reduce your risk for injury and even alleviate back pain.
2. Strengthens your core
Typically when people think of their core, they immediately think about their abs. Your core is so much more than that: A complex group of muscles that act to keep you physically stable. When you think of the core that way, sit-ups and crunches are probably not the best way to work your core. (3)
No matter what specific group of muscles you focus on in a barre class, you constantly engage your core, which subsequently helps maintain good posture (essential for eliminating low back pain).
3. Develops a balanced physique and better posture
So many fitness activities and sports can develop certain muscular imbalances, leading to poor posture and either pain or injury. For example, many who lift weights or do certain fitness classes overtrain the front part of their body, including the front deltoids, chest, upper abs and quadriceps. “Meanwhile, they neglect their glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, lats and rhomboids,” explains Suzanne, who says a good barre class helps correct those imbalances by working the entire body.
3. It improves flexibility
Most of us don’t make enough time to work on flexibility. Increasing or maintaining flexibility as you age becomes crucial. (4) Without flexibility, seemingly innocuous things like picking something off the floor or even turning over in bed can result in an injury. Stay younger by staying bendy with hamstring stretches and barre-like moves.
4. It’s low-impact
Because low-impact exercises, like walking to lose weight, tend to be easier on your body, they become ideal for beginners, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, or joint and connective tissue injuries.
5. It’s a great way to cross-train
Cross-training simply means incorporating other types of workouts into your existing routine. If you are a runner, it is important for you to cross-train so that you strengthen other muscles that aren’t used while running. Cross-training is also a great way to give common running injuries a chance to recover.
Making a trip to the barre can be a great way to focus on other muscle groups while reducing stress on your joints from constantly pounding the pavement. (5)
Similarities and Differences Relative to Yoga and Pilates
While several similarities exist between Pilates, yoga and barre, a few subtle differences become worth mentioning.
- While barre incorporates dance movements and principles, holding a lunge variation in barre also resembles a warrior pose in yoga.
- Posture and proper breathing techniques inherent to Pilates also come into play with barre.
- While traditional Pilates relies on larger, complex pieces that can often be space- and cost-prohibitive, barre workouts involve minimal equipment.
- Unlike Pilates, barre incorporates more traditional strength exercises like push-ups and standing poses held for several minutes.
- Pilates and barre also place significant importance on engaging and strengthening your core area.
A Few Caveats … Depending on the Barre Style You Choose
While I advocate anything that gets people moving and becoming more health-minded, these considerations will help you benefit from barre without injuries and other problems. Check out these caveats if barre will challenge or bore you, and then perhaps choose a more challenging barre class.
1. How Much of a Cardio Workout?
For heart health, standard barre probably won’t provide enough of a challenge. If losing weight and getting into “skinny jeans” is your primary objective, barre alone may not be the answer. While barre involves some cardio, you probably won’t burn enough calories to burn much fat.
At the same time, an hour of steady-state cardio isn’t your answer either. (6) To get that lean, toned look, you’ll want to do burst training. Burst training (aka interval training) combines short, high-intensity bursts of exercise, with slow, recovery phases, repeated during one exercise session. Burst training is done at 85–100 percent maximum heart rate rather than 50–70 percent in moderate endurance activity. You’re not going to meet that in a barre class.
That being said, Suzanne’s BarreAmped classes are a different story, with strong elements of cardio (such as on her BarreAmped Cardio Fat Burn DVD) and bigger range of motions. “I believe in confusing the muscles all the time for maximum benefit,” she says.
2. Will I Develop Much Muscle?
With the exception of using five-pound weights, barre workouts incorporate no progressive overload, which means making your muscles do more work over time. (7) Without continually challenging your muscles, you will stop making progress.
If you are just starting your fitness journey, any type of exercise will provide benefits, but eventually you will stop noticing changes. As you adapt, your body becomes very efficient with your workout. That’s why a marathon runner will have a lower heart rate than the average runner. Becoming stronger and fitter demands challenging yourself. Once something becomes too easy, it’s time to increase the challenge.
Again, certain barre classes may challenge your muscles more, however. In Suzanne’s classes, there are mostly bodyweight moves, but “we also try to get them out of the 1-pound or 2-pound habit and to 4 and 5-pounders,” she comments.
3. Will I Get a Dancer’s Physique?
Some practitioners claim barre will lengthen and tone your muscles without adding bulk or that it will tone your problem areas and give you a dancer’s physique. That’s may be stretching it (pun intended) just a bit.
Because your muscles have an origin and an insertion, which are fixed and attached to bone, you can’t “lengthen” your muscles. Short of surgery, changing those fixed points becomes impossible.
“It can provide a great look. Does that mean a more striated, cut look? No. Most women simply want to be more feminine,” explains Suzanne, who also mentions that you can stretch and feel a stretch but that won’t make muscles longer.
“But I’ve seen amazing results among women who hate to exercise and lift. While barre is hard, it’s doable and addictive. They’re in a different place mentally when they leave,” says Suzanne. “It’s sure not a fad, for it’s been around for 45 years. And it’s been changing bodies for years.”
For Suzanne personally, she always loved the weight room but feel in love with barre. “It improved my posture, I felt better and there’s special about camaraderie that develops in the classes.”
Final Thoughts On Going Barre
Determining whether barre fitness becomes the most appropriate workout depends on your goals. If that involves losing weight, developing a balanced physique and increasing lean muscle, a barre class once a week or more could complement your wellness program, especially if you enjoy it.