Barre workouts—which combine bodyweight resistance exercises, Pilates, yoga and ballet-like moves—have become popular in the past few years.
It is an exercise trend borne out of necessity, says Patrea Aeschliman, owner of 15 to Fit, a barre and Pilates studio in Mooresville, North Carolina.
“When the recession hit in 2008, people still wanted Pilates-type movements and exercise regimens but could no longer afford the private sessions and expensive small group classes,” Aeschliman says. “Barre was reformulated to fill this need. It’s also popular because it’s effective, fun and has a large social component to it.”
The workouts that would become barre were first created during the 1970s in London by dancer Lotte Berk, who was recovering from a back injury. They use a handrail, or barre, at which participants perform isometric exercises, in which muscles are tensed without actual movement. (Tightening your abs is an isometric exercise.)
In addition, barre involves “large elongation movements such as battements (or controlled kicks and lifts) that ballerinas perform,” Aeschliman explains. “You lift your leg with control and get strengthening and toning effects without necessarily performing them like a ballerina.”
Barre practitioners can expect toned, sculpted muscles while adding flexibility and balance, says Jennie Gall, owner of Relevé, a Pilates studio in Ripon, California. “Being able to utilize the ballet barre offers stability,” she notes. “The classes are very effective and fun, with upbeat music. You can expect slow, torturous movements with added pulsing to chisel the body, but also dynamic movement with upbeat choreography for the cardiovascular benefits.”
Gall notes that barre’s low-impact nature makes it generally safe for most people, including pregnant women and those with injuries. However, “it is always best to notify your instructor right away with any information about your health that might be helpful,” Gall says.
Barre’s benefits extend beyond the physical, says Suzanne Bowen of Suzanne Bowen Fitness. “You experience a stress-reducing mind-body connection when you think less about your issues and more about where the body and breath are during the workout,” she notes.
Barre classes are usually 45 to 60 minutes and begin with a warmup in different planes of motion, says Gall. The class then generally moves into 20 minutes of standing exercises that lead into squats and plies, a squat-like ballet movement with the feet turned out: “We mix dynamic movements with tiny movements to ensure you feel the burn,” Gall says. Lastly, Relevé’s barre sequence includes a 10-minute upper body series, which leads to core work and finally a cooldown.
Some barre classes do not include a great deal of upper body exercise. “Although many barre programs do use light weights,” says Aeschliman, “they are only effective to build muscular endurance but do not impact bone density or build strength.” That means barre participants should incorporate traditional weight training into their fitness routines.
Be sure to dress in comfortable yoga-type pants or crops, suggests Gall, who adds, “Most classes have you lie on your back with legs up, and that isn’t always comfortable in shorts.” And while tanks and t-shirts are good options, body-fitting fabrics enable instructors to more easily check form and adjust posture or technique.
Gall says that three to four barre classes per week combined with a healthy diet will bring results. “Right around 10 classes in, you should be seeing and feeling changes. A barre class tends to never get ‘easier,’ but you will feel yourself get stronger with each class.”
If you think you might want to give barre a try, this simple warmup can give you a feel for the type of exercises you can expect:
• Bend knees and lower into a squat, keeping spine long and straight, hips square, hands on hips.
• Straighten legs as you rise up and lean towards the right, lifting up and tapping your left toe.
• Bend knees and lean to the opposite side and tap your right toe. Continue this pattern for two minutes.