SEPTEMBER 23, 2016
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
While barre has origins in dance, the rhythmically challenged shouldn’t worry: No tapshoes, leotards, or any fancy footwork are required. You don’t need any dance experience—you’re not going to be doing pirouettes. Instead, most barre classes follow the same basic structure: You’ll start with a mat-based warm-up full of planks and push-ups, do a series of arm exercises, and continue at the bar with a lower-body section to work your thighs and glutes. Finally, you’ll finish with a series of core-focused moves at the bar or a short session on the mat.
As for gear, the moves are typically bodyweight only, but you can use light hand weights (usually two or three pounds) or resistance bands to level up your arm exercises. For lower-body work, a soft exercise ball is often used to help engage leg muscles. And while most studios recommend wearing socks with sticky grips on the bottom, others let you go barefoot.
So what’s the difference between barre and a typical strength training class? Rather than larger, compound movements (think squats and shoulder presses), you’ll perform tiny, one-inch increments called isometric movements, says Burr Leonard, fitness expert and founder of The Bar Method. That’s why you’ll often hear, “Down an inch, up an inch,” repeated by barre teachers.For someone who’s used to HIIT or CrossFit, it may seem like you’re not working hard enough. But that’s absolutely not the case.In fact, you’re getting a killer workout because the one-inch increments are enough to fire up the muscle and make it more elastic, but not too big to tear the muscle.What’s wonderful about the one-inch movements is that you can hold a posture and benefit from continuously engaging the muscle, but you also get a mini-recovery with each pulse, so you can stay in the hold longer.
Considering that the basic equipment (ahem, a ballet barre) and many of the moves are based on classic ballet positions, it’s no surprise barre was developed by a ballerina. After injuring her back, Lotte Berk, a German dancer living in London, came up with the idea to combine her dance conditioning routine with her rehabilitative therapy. She opened her first studio in 1959 in her London basement, where famous faces such as Joan Collins and Barbara Streisand regularly came to lift, tuck, and curl.
Lydia Bach, an American student of Berk’s, brought the workout back to the states in 1971, when she opened the first Lotte Berk Method studio in New York City. Over time instructors began branching off to create their own variations of the workout, such as Physique 57, The Bar Method, and Core Fusion, among others. In fact, so many teachers eventually left the original Lotte Berk Method studio that it ended up closing its doors in 2005.
To say the barre trend has heated up in the last 10 years is an understatement. Barre has morphed from a class for nimble dancer-types to become the workout of choice for fitness fiends everywhere—and studios are springing up in droves across the U.S. (and internationally). In fact, Pure Barre has almost 300 locations, while The Bar Method just opened its 82nd studio. Several brands, including Barre3, Beyond Barre, and Physique 57 also offer online streaming and on-demand videos. Basically if your neighborhood doesn’t have a barre studio, it’s safe to assume it will soon.
So really, can the $20 to $30 spent on each class truly help lift your rear, tone your thighs, improve posture, and deliver a dancer’s body? Here’s what the experts say:
The isometric contractions that make up the bulk of a barre class occur when the muscle tenses without changing length. Think of these movements as the opposite of typical strength training moves (or concentric and eccentric contractions), which occur when a muscle stretches then shortens (as in a biceps curl). Isometric exercise is a great way to maintain muscle strength.
It’s a highly efficient workout since you’re doing two to four movements—holding, pulsing, stretching, for example—at a time in each move. For example, in Bar Method classes, you’ll practice the diamond waterski. While holding onto the bar with one hand, your legs are in a diamond-shape, heels raised, while the torso is angled (think of a water-skier leaning back). This move mainly targets your quads, but at the same time you’re also challenging the calves, hamstrings, glutes, abs, and upper-back muscles. Bonus: Working all these areas at once also helps raise the heart rate.
This happens most commonly in thigh work at the barre, as you’re spending an extended period of time in a muscle (quad) contraction, while performing an isometric hold to intensify the work. Shaking is a sign of muscle fatigue—your muscles are telling you they are feeling it. If taught and done correctly, this is a good thing. You may be tempted to pop out of the hold if you start to shake, but try to embrace the shake! Also, if you worked your lower body the day before or you’re dehydrated, this can increase the likelihood of muscles trembling.
The smaller movements in a barre class can bring a new level of awareness to the body that you don’t get in regular strength workouts. In this way, barre can improve muscular activation for frequently underused muscles by strengthening the neuro-muscular (mind-body) connection.
You just have to be aware of your body and figure out what’s best for you to lose weight. And it’s important to remember that what you eat can have a bigger impact on weight loss than what you do: Ninety percent of losing weight is about what you eat and how much you eat. (Hint: as little sugar as possible.)
Plus, as with any exercise, barre affects different body types in different ways. While a trained ballerina or 6’2” model can come in and see results in a few classes, someone struggling with their weight may not see change as quickly.
Depending on your body type and fitness level, you’ll see and feel changes in three weeks to three months, though making a major change in your body and losing a significant amount of weight could take more than a year. All that hard work will pay off, though.
You can do more reps with smaller movements like these, which fatigue your muscles in a different way. These higher-rep, low-weight Bexercises target slow-twitch muscles, which help increase endurance. In contrast, larger, compound movements target fast-twitch muscles, which help with power and speed (think running a marathon vs. sprinting). Plus, isometric movements can help strengthen muscles without straining tendons or ligaments, so there’s less risk of injury compared to more traditional strength training.
If you find barre classes fun and motivating, go for it! After all, you’re more likely to stick with an exercise regimen if you enjoy it. Consider it fine-tuning for your body. If you’re doing a lot of strength training and spinning, for example, it’s a good idea to incorporate the high-reps, bodyweight-only exercises of a barre class once a week. A combination of classes together creates the leanest, best body possible.Adding barre to your routine? On another two to three days a week, do some cardio to get your heart rate up, and add in two to three strength training sessions.
So, lift, run, jump, do yoga, swim, take a barre class, dance. Mix up your routine and keep your body moving while focusing the majority of your efforts on work that increases overall strength and endurance. Do that and you’ll be fit as a fiddle for life.