WTF Are Barre Workouts and Are They Actually Worth Doing?
This story first appeared on Greatist.com.
Locke Hughes—Visit any barre studio’s website and you’ll find plenty of appealing promises: “Develop long, lean muscles without bulk.” “Sculpt a ballerina’s body.” “Enhance flexibility and improve balance.” Many say that after only five classes, you’ll see changes in your body, gain strength, and tone those hard-to-target muscles in your core, arms, and legs. And the best part: Anyone—no matter their age, weight, or fitness level—can hit the bar and get results. With claims like these, who wouldn’t want to plié their way to a stronger body?
As with anything that sounds too good to be true, we had to investigate. Here, we dig into the science behind the ballet-inspired workout to find out exactly how (and if) it can actually transform your physique.
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.
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,” says Nicole Bushong, DPT, a former dancer and physical therapist at the Center for Advanced Orthopedics and Advanced Medicine in Auburn Hills, MI.
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, Leonard says. “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.”
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:
1. Those tiny movements can help you get stronger.
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.
“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,” says Sadie Lincoln, fitness expert and founder of Barre3.
Bushong agrees that there’s a physical payoff from these tiny pulses. “Isometric movements help isolate specific muscles,” she says. “You can do more reps with smaller movements like these, which fatigue your muscles in a different way." These higher-rep, low-weight exercises 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 injurycompared to more traditional strength training.
2. You’ll target multiple muscle groups at once.
"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," Leonard says. 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," Leonard says.
3. You’re going to see your body shake like a bowl of JELL-O.
“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," says Kira Stokes, trainer and creator of the Stoked Series and StokedC3BarreMAX. 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," Stokes adds.
4. You’ll improve your mind-body connection.
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, says Greatist Expert Jessi Kneeland, founder of Remodel Fitness. “In this way, barre can improve muscular activation for frequently underused muscles by strengthening the neuro-muscular (mind-body) connection,” she says.
5. You may lose weight.
“We’ve had students who have lost 100 pounds or more doing The Bar Method, but it’s so individual," Leonard says. "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,” Leonard says. (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,” Stokes says.
Depending on your body type and fitness level, you’ll see and feel changes in three weeks to three months, Leonard says—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: “Our students develop a natural youthfulness, power, and grace, and wonderful, natural posture and a lifted derriere,” Leonard says.
The Real Deal
Other fitness experts, however, aren’t so sure that barre is the end-all, be-all fitness miracle it’s touted to be. “Of course anything that gets people moving is fantastic,” says Adam Rosante, founder of The People’s Bootcamp and author of The 30-Second Body. “And barre classes can help improve postural alignment, core strength, and enhance mobility—especially if you spend most of your time sitting at a desk.” On the other hand, there are a few downsides:
1. You may not gain functional strength.
"You’re not going to build great functional strength through the methods employed in barre classes alone,” Rosante says. Barre classes can lack compound movements, like squats, lunges, bent-over rows, or clean-and-presses, which involve multiple muscle groups and joints. These functional exercises help you gain strength for moves you’re likely to encounter in everyday life, like walking up stairs, picking up boxes, or carrying groceries. “Plus, compound movements recruit maximum muscle fibers, which in turn drive your heart rate through the roof. This translates into greater fat loss,” Rosante says.
Many brands, including Barre3 and The Bar Method, are adding functional, aerobic movements to their repertoire. After fatiguing the muscles in isometric holds, Barre3 students, for example, follow with functional movements (think full-range squats following small pulses at the bar), which also add in some cardio. “We don’t want to train your body to dance—we want to train your body for life,” Lincoln says.
2. You're not challenging your heart enough.
The cardio you'll do in typical barre classes isn't enough for cardiovascular health and post-exercise calorie burn, Stokes says. Even though you do some low-level cardio in barre, Stokes estimates you’re only working at 40 to 50 percent of your maximum heart rate in a typical barre class, as evidenced by the fact you can often head straight to dinner after class (without needing to shower).
Translation: If your goal is to burn fat, you need to consider the lack of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)—what's commonly known as afterburn—when it comes to barre, Rosante says. “Any calorie burn that’s happening in class is going to end when it’s over.”
3. You may plateau.
Your body will get used to barre class, and without hefting heavier weights (barre class weights typically max out at five pounds), you’ll tap out your potential to get stronger, Kneeland says. “Since consistent progressive overload and challenging your body is the key to consistent progress, you’ll most likely see results for a little while, then plateau.”
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,” Stokes suggests. 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," she says.
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, Kneeland suggests. (We like to make our workouts super efficient with metabolic strength training like this high-intensity workout you can do at home.)
To quote the cereal commercials of your childhood, “It’s all part of a balanced breakfast,” Rosante says. “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.”