As its name suggests, barre class is inspired by ballet. Although the workout may leave attendees feeling more confident in their Lululemons, barre class alone isn’t likely to make you look like a ballerina. Here’s the lowdown on this popular workout and what experts say is also required to attain a long, lean, toned look.
At boutique studios, classes generally cost $12 to $25 and last 45 to 60 minutes. (Prices vary depending on whether you buy a single session, a punch card or a membership; some gyms also offer barre as part of their roster of workout classes.)
Most studios require pants or capris (no shorts allowed) and socks. If you’re going to make a habit of barre, it’s worth buying a pair of barre socks, which feature rubber grips on the soles. While not required, snug-fitting clothes make it easier for instructors to spot any flaws in your form. Mirrored walls can help you self-monitor, but if you prefer not to exercise with your reflection, consider showing up early to stake out a spot near a strategically placed column.
Expect a warm-up to elevate your heart rate and engage your core, followed by several sets of exercises, each set aimed at a target area, including shoulders/arms/back, core, thighs and seat. Each segment concludes with stretching the muscles worked before hitting the next muscle group.
While most of the moves rely on gravity and body weight for resistance, some require accoutrements such as exercise balls, resistance bands and light (one-to-five-pound) dumbbells. Common exercises include variations on planks, push-ups, pliés, lunges and fire hydrants. To the rhythm of music with a strong beat, you’ll pulse, lift, circle and hold nearly every part of your body until it trembles and burns. While teachers bring their own playlists and personalities, the vibe tends to be dance club meets aerobics class.
Though you might not sweat during a traditional barre class, expect it to hurt (during and afterward). Despite regularly lifting barbells and occasionally riding my bike up a mountain for fun, I have yet to escape a class without experiencing burning, shaking muscles. I also have yet to raise my heart rate beyond 110 beats per minute during a traditional class; I never feel even slightly out of breath. (The cardio classes, featuring bigger, faster movements, are designed to be more intense.)
Benefits of barre
The goal of the classes is to “create those longer, leaner muscles through muscular endurance,” not to build muscle mass, according to Michelle Risinger, a barre instructor with Balance Gym in the District who holds a national certification in group fitness and two barre certifications. She says that happens through “dozens and dozens and dozens” of repetitions, featuring pulses at the end range of a movement (a.k.a. isometric contractions), many repetitions of lifting light weights, and moving through limited ranges of motion (i.e., assuming a plié and flexing your knees up and down an inch until your quads are on fire).
According to Jill Dailey, founder of the Dailey Method, a barre and cycling studio franchise, barre improves postural alignment, flexibility, core strength and functional fitness, while the low-impact format minimizes the risk of injury: “It’s very relatable to the rest of your life.” While she acknowledges that pulsing a two-pound weight until your triceps scream for mercy won’t make it any easier to lift, say, a 100-pound barbell, Dailey says the benefits of barre class enhance your ability to safely move everyday items such as groceries.
For those who like to suffer among friends, barre also offers a sense of camaraderie. Dailey says the community is “one of the biggest draws” for her students. Risinger says that sense of community helps create “a very empowering environment in our class.” And it’s that desire to feel empowered — not the wish for a leaner body — that has led studios such as Barre3 to focus on how barre makes participants feel rather than how it makes them look. Barre3’s social media campaign, #MyPresentTruth, promotes body positivity and mindfulness.
Barre can be an excellent complement to the repetitive, single-plane motions characteristic of workouts such as running and cycling. For example, you’ll work your quads while standing at the barre in second position, where your stance is wide and your feet are turned out. This position, which mimics a sumo-wrestler stance, opens your hips and awakens “muscles you didn’t know you had,” Risinger says. Similarly, exercises such as “pretzel,” which, as the name suggests, challenges your body to become a pretzel (and is just as hard as it sounds), engage “smaller muscle groups that have been dominated by major muscles,” she says. “If you have underdeveloped muscle groups because of the type of training you’re doing, barre can [target] those spots and bring you back to a more balanced state.”
Gentle movements and a focus on alignment make barre a great choice for pregnant and postpartum women. Dailey says that as pregnant women’s bellies grow, their weight naturally shifts forward: “If they don't strengthen their seat, if they don’t strengthen their back muscles, they’re going to start feeling sore.” Focusing on the posterior chain can counter those imbalances.
And barre might be the perfect prescription for injured athletes. Caitlin Barritt is a Boulder, Colo., physical therapist who has been attending barre classes twice a week since her chronic back pain escalated into a herniated lumbar disc in 2016. “It helped me learn to reengage my core,” says Barritt, who credits barre with her safe return to work, running, cycling and skiing. And when her patients report attending barre classes, she’s confident they already know how to engage their core for functional movements, which allows her to focus on hands-on physical-therapy techniques.
If you’re hoping barre class will completely change your physique, however, you should adjust your expectations — and your workout — says Holly Roser, a San Mateo, Calif., certified personal trainer. While she considers barre “perfect for an active recovery day” and a good choice if you’re “already in shape,” you won’t find in it the kind of cardio and weightlifting regimens that, along with nutrition, promote weight loss and a toned look, she says.
Roser recommends strength training three times a week, including three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, the final repetition being “near impossible.” While women might fear that lifting heavier weights will create bulk, “that’s a myth,” Risinger says. For most women, she says, “to create bulk you would have to be on a particular type of programming.” Roser says this would include very specific weight-training workouts most days of the week, avoiding cardio, consuming 50 percent more calories than usual and eating about a gram of protein per pound of body weight, per day.
Lifting heavier weights than in the typical barre class does more than strengthen muscle — it also has the benefit of enhancing athletic performance. According to Jim Heafner, a Boulder physical therapist: “Since barre postures are typically small, low-impact and slow movements, the strength a participant gains may not directly translate into quicker and bigger movements. In other words, toned muscles from a barre class may not translate into making you a faster runner.”
To create the lean-muscle aesthetic, according to Roser, your regimen should include cardio workouts such as swimming, running or spinning two to three times a week, with the goal of getting into a heart-rate zone where you feel out of breath. Keep in mind that ballerinas don’t just work at the barre – they dance up to eight hours a day, five to six days a week, as star Misty Copeland told The Washington Post.
If a longer, leaner physique is your goal, experts seem to agree, nutrition is key. Dailey says she’s seen people who use barre as their sole form of exercise make “significant changes” to their figures “regardless of [their] size or body type.” But she adds: “Everybody is different. Some people have slower metabolisms, and to truly lose weight they may need to add more cardio work into their regime.” Also, she says, “intake is a huge component of success at weight loss for any exercise program.”
Risinger, too, says that “most aesthetic changes happen through healthy eating.”
Roser recommends a diet made up of about 80 percent “fresh healthy foods and then 20 percent ‘fun foods.’ ” Think lots of whole foods (e.g., foods that don’t come in a package or contain preservatives). For barre devotees in search of a long, lean body, the emphasis needs to be on your plate as well as your pliés.
Pam Moore is a freelance health and fitness writer and speaker in Boulder. Visit her website at pam-moore.com.