A woman with zero rhythm and not an ounce of coordination, I never once thought to try barre, a ballet-inspired workout class. But after hearing about the amazing benefits it reaps—namely, stronger, leaner muscles—I decided to put my sneakers down and head to Manhattan’s Pure Yoga to give my inner dancer a little time in the limelight. Thinking of doing the same? Here’s a primer.
What is Barre?
Contrary to what many believe, barre isn’t only for dancers. (And contrary to what my father believes, it also isn’t practice for the Bar Exam either). “Many people want to know if they need dance training or if they need to be flexible,” says Pure Yoga’s Figure 4 Creative Coordinator Madeline Day. “The answer is no. Coming to classes can actually help with coordination and flexibility ,so even if those are your weaknesses, this class may be perfect for you.” Barely able to touch my toes and enough scars on my knees to prove my clumsiness, this sounded like just the workout I needed. But if barre isn’t a full-on dance class, what exactly is it?
A combination of ballet poses, core training, and hand weights, barre targets the four major muscle groups—the thighs, arms, abdominals, and glutes. The workout was originally invented in 1959 by German dancer Lotte Berk. After injuring her back, she decided to create an exercise program that combined her physical therapy exercise with ballet technique to give people the sculpted body of a dancer without the injuries. “Zero impact is one of the major principles behind the method, as in using your own body weight and lots of isometric repetitions to create the lengthened muscles we all want,” says Day.
What are the benefits?
After only taking a few classes, I could see the benefits. My body toned faster and more efficiently than it ever did during 12 years of running. And that’s because the poses use every muscle in your body. “Barre classes focus on intrinsic muscles, rather than superficial ones,” says Day. “You are using your own body weight as resistance, and targeting the ‘core’ of each muscle. This is what keeps you from bulking up, and trains your muscles in a long, lengthened (and lifted!) way.”
Kara Liotta, master instructor and co-director of the FlyBarre program (part of the Flywheel franchise), explains that the goal isn’t to burn calories: “[It’s] to develop leaner muscles that in turn allow your body to burn more calories throughout the day.” However, Day says you can expect to burn between 400 and 600 calories within a one-hour Pure Yoga barre class. And because the classes are anaerobic, your metabolism will be boosted for hours after.
What clothing should you wear?
“Any comfortable clothing you can move in works,” says Day. “Wearing something tight fitting will help the instructor see your alignment and form.” Liotta agrees adding, “Tight, comfortable clothes allows you to be aware of your body alignment and posture. The room [as well as most dance studios] is lined with mirrors so that you can see the shapes the instructor is making and check your own form from all angles.”
So, just how hard is it?
Let me preface this with the fact that I am a marathon runner. To me, slow and steady wins the race. I prefer a long, steady workout, as opposed to quick intervals. A barre class is similar, but it’s much harder than a steady run through the park. It’s a constant burn, whether at the legs, core, arms, or glutes. “It’s a muscle endurance workout where you are challenged to stay in the exercises as long as possible in order to fatigue and sculpt the muscles,” says Liotta. One thing first timers can expect (and I even experienced after four or five classes) is shaking. “First-time barre goers often experience their muscles shaking or vibrating, which may be a new experience for them,” says Day. “This is a good thing. It means your deepest core muscles are fatiguing.” So don’t let the shaking discourage you. During my first session, I was surprised at how weak I felt. Running every day, I figured my thighs and calves were at their peak strength. And yet, my legs burned so much I had trouble getting through the exercises. It’s not that I wasn’t in good shape, it was that my muscles were being used in a completely different way.
“The idea is to stay in the exercises with little to no weight for a high number of repetitions. You can expect to work through all muscle groups using various props such as the ballet barre, a ball, bands, small hand weights, and a mat,” says Liotta. Throughout a session, one muscle group is targeted at a time. The thighs are pushed to the limit with plies, the core with focused crunches, the arms with two or three-pound weights and hundreds of reps, and finishing with kicks that target the bum. However, after each muscle group the body gets rejuvenated with muscle-lengthening stretches.
How soon will you see results?
“Generally we suggest three to five times a week, depending on what else you’re doing,” says Day. “The more you come, the better it feels. So taking more than two days off in between sessions can actually make it seem harder. Many people take classes every day, but I would suggest working up to that.” Although results will be different for everyone, Day says you can expect to see changes in your body within 10 classes. “You may lose inches, see your muscles become more defined, your butt get perkier, and/or gain flexibility. The focus on the core and using your own body weight really strengthens your support muscles that keep you moving around healthily all day.”
Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Spinning