What is barre? The popular low-impact workout can sculpt your muscles

·9 min read

Barre weaves together elements of dance, Pilates, and yoga into one workout, so it’s not only great for improving posture and flexibility, but also strengthening your entire body. While barre might look intimidating to those who don’t have a dance background, it’s actually an accessible form of exercise and caters to people of all fitness levels.

“Barre exercises are primarily bodyweight, and we target each major muscle group at a time, working with high repetition and light resistance, so we fatigue each muscle group. And then we combine some stretching in between each section of work, so we’ve got flexibility, mobility and strength training in every single class,” said Katelyn DiGiorgio, Pure Barre’s director of training and technique.

Barre’s history dates back to Lotte Berk, a German ballet dancer in the 1940s who created the method to help her recover from a back injury, explained Alexis Sweeney, a barre instructor at Equinox. Berk left Nazi Germany and opened a barre studio in London, where she fused her dance training with physical therapy.

Fast forward to today, barre’s movements are still based on postures from ballet but are much more approachable for non-dancers, Sweeney said. In fact, today’s barre classes are so accessible that it was the fifth most popular workout in 2021, according to ClassPass’s 2021 fitness trends report.

And given that the popularity of other forms of low-impact exercise like Pilates and yoga are on the rise, we predict that barre’s popularity will continue to soar. If you’re thinking of signing up for a barre class, here’s a breakdown of barre’s benefits and what to expect at your first workout, plus three moves to try at home.

The benefits of barre workouts

Wondering why you should give barre workouts try? Here are four good reasons.

It’s easy on your joints

Whether you live with arthritis, are recovering from an injury or are pregnant, barre’s low-impact nature makes it a great strength workout for anyone who wants to take it easy on their joints while fortifying their muscles. Barre relies on high reps and light resistance: an excellent way to build muscle endurance and strength without taxing your joints.

“It’s become a gateway into working out and strength building for a lot of people because it’s so manageable with the light weights, and you can see change in both strength and actually physical definition,” DiGiorgio said.

What also makes barre an excellent choice for strength training is that it targets tiny muscle fibers that you normally wouldn’t in a workout, Sweeney said. Just because barre is low-impact doesn’t mean it’s not intense. The dance-inspired movements, pulsing and stretching will get your heart rate up and fatigue your muscles to the point of a quiver, or “little shake,” she said.

It can help your improve posture

If you spend most of your day hunched over a desk, barre is a great workout for strengthening muscles that have been weakened from sitting, such as your chest, shoulders and hips.

“In a barre routine, there’s a lot of focus on strengthening the muscles in the chest and shoulders, as well as your core, which helps to support your back and a stronger posture,” said Nadia Murdock, mindset and movement coach and founder of Nadia Murdock Fit. “The movements focus on posture alignment while improving your core strength and the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders and hip girdles.”

And because barre has influences from yoga, Pilates and ballet, it also helps reinforce proper alignment of your joints.

“In every single class, you will hear me say, ‘shoulders back, chin up, and pull your navel into your spine,’ at least two or three times as a constant reminder to create as much length in your spine as you can,” Sweeney said.

Standing tall in this way helps relieve pain in your neck, back and hips from poor posture. This type of mindfulness and body awareness also carries over to daily activities so good posture becomes engrained into your muscle memory, she said.

“For someone like me with severe scoliosis, practicing barre consistently has not only re-trained my posture, but it has increased the mobility in my spine, as well as my mindfulness when it comes to how I stand and enter a room.”

It can help enhance your flexibility and mobility

Barre’s dance-based exercises and stretches can help boost the range of motion in your joints and muscles.

“Stretches are woven throughout the class to compliment the strength exercises. You’ll hear me say in almost every class, ‘the recovery is just as important as the strength,’ because stretching is the best way to keep our bodies mobile and young,” Sweeney said.

The strengthening exercises you do throughout class also help stretch your muscles at the same time. For example, when you’re doing a wide second, which is essentially a sumo squat, you’re stretching your hips and inner thighs as you lower down into a squat, DiGiorgio said.

“I love this position because you have to stand tall, engage your core, and hold your posture as you squat down. Then, you’re doing squat pulses. But while you’re building the strength in your legs, you’re also building mobility through the joints and flexibility because it requires you to stretch,” DiGiorgio said.

It supports your recovery after an injury

Aside from its low-impact benefits, barre is a good option for those recovering from an injury because it deepens your mind-muscle connection. This is needed to train your body in certain movement patterns that help strengthen the injured area and condition it to move more safely.

For instance, “if you’re in physical therapy to rehab your ankle, you’re doing a lot of exercises where you’re channeling all your brain power into various movement patterns of your ankle to try to rehab it,” DiGiorgio explained. “In a barre class, you’re drawing attention to each major muscle group and really focusing on the brain-body connection to move in a really specific and targeted way, which can be really rehabilitative.”

What to expect at your first Barre class

Walking into your first barre class can be intimidating.

“I find that a lot of students feel they need to know everything before taking a class, which is one of the reasons why they don’t commit to taking a class," Murdock said. "Although barre may have an intimidation factor, please know that you don’t have to know everything when walking into the studio. Some of the moves you might already be doing and not even realize it!”

It’s important to sign up for classes geared toward beginners because the instructors will cover foundational exercises and you’ll be around others who are new to the workout. For the best results, Murdock recommends doing barre two to three times a week and weaving in other forms of exercise and rest days in between.

Equipment: Most of the moves you’ll do in class are done with your own bodyweight (in socks, so you don’t need shoes) on a yoga mat, but you may also use light weights, a Pilates ball and ring, resistance bands, yoga blocks and gliders.

Class structure: The flow of a class will vary by studio and instructor, but generally, you’ll start with a warm up stretch and then do some arm work, which can be done at the bar or on your mat, Murdock said. Then, you’ll do some exercises at the bar, followed by mat work, which includes ab and lower-back exercises. To finish things off, you’ll do some stretches, like pigeon pose, seated side bends, flexing and pointing toes, and a kneeling quad stretch.

At Pure Barre, DiGiorgio says you’ll target each major muscle group by section, starting with core work and moving onto your arms and upper body. Then, you’ll do some stretches and transition to your lower body, and finish with more core work and stretching. This is all done in a flow.

Although all the exercises will be thoroughly explained during class, it’s helpful to know these signature barre positions.

First position: Also known as a “small V,” this position involves standing tall with your hands on your hips, your heels together and your toes turned out to the sides at 45 degrees. “Be mindful of not exaggerating the turn-out and have it come from your hips,” Mudock said.

Second position: In this position, your feet are wide apart — wider than hip distance — with your toes and knees turned out. Keep your hips aligned with your shoulders and your spine neutral so your back is straight, Murdock said.

Tuck: Stand with your legs together, squeezing your glutes and pulling your abodminals in. This creates a slight curvature in your lower back, Sweeney said.

Chair: Face the bar and place both hands on it. Bring your feet close together so that your ankles, knees and thighs touch. With your toes pointing forward and your heels directly behind them, bend your knees and sit your hips back as if you’re sitting into a chair. Make sure your spine is neutral and avoid arching your back, Murdock said.

Try these 3 sample Barre exercises:

Want a taste of barre class at home? Here are three moves you may see in class demonstrated by Sweeney.

Parallel lunge pulses barre exercise
Parallel lunge pulses barre exercise

Parallel lunge pulses

Get into a lunge with your right leg forward and your left leg behind you. Bend both legs to form 90-degree angles. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand and bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Standing tall with your torso upright, lower your back leg down one inch while bringing the weights up in front of you so that your elbows are in line with your shoulders, then lift the back leg up one inch and return arms to your sides. Do 16 reps and repeat on the other side.  

Attitude back extensions barre exercise
Attitude back extensions barre exercise

Attitude back extensions

Press your palms together in front of your chest to help engage your abdominals, and then shift your weight forward into the ball of your front foot, both legs are in external rotation (turned out). Lift your back leg toward the ceiling into an attitude bent-leg balance, and lower. This balance challenge not only activates all your muscle fibers in your front standing leg, but it strengthens your glutes and core as well, Sweeney said.

Triceps press barre exercise
Triceps press barre exercise

Triceps press

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand by the sides of your head, forming 90-degree angles with your arms. Exhale as you press the weights above your chest, straightening your arms. At the same time, dig into your heels to lift your hips off the ground. This is great for strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, abdominals and triceps all in one move, Sweeney said.

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