Call it the Black Swan effect, but after Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis danced across movie screens in 2010, it seemed like everyone was doing ballet-inspired barre workouts. You may have heard of The Bar Method, Pure Barre, barre3, and other boutique studios’ variations on this workout, but the good news is you don’t need to have access to a ballet barre and a dance studio in order to reap the body benefits of this exercise.
Even though Lotte Berk began the barre movement in 1959 in London, participation in barre classes has exploded across the country in recent years. One reason? The workout is doable by all fitness levels. “This total body workout provides a way to move the body naturally to improve core strength, posture, flexibility, and body awareness, leaving participants feeling graceful and strong,” says Alex McLean, an American Council on Exercise-certified master trainer for BarreWRX USA and Japan. He says the main principles of Barre stem from Pilates and focus on centering, using core stability, while incorporating balance and coordination.
Barre classes are popular because they’re safe and quickly shape the body, adds Sadie Lincoln, founder of barre3. “People love that they get good muscle burn without the hard-hitting high impact of other workouts,” she says.
Barre workouts create nice muscle tone and increased flexibility, Lincoln explains. “These classes are universally known for building strong, shapely legs,” she says.
When you do barre exercises, you might be surprised that you’re getting a cardio workout and building a strong core through the movements. “We always follow controlled isometric holds and small range of motion strength training with large functional movements that give clients more cardio than they realized,” says Lincoln.
Who Should Try It
If you’re afraid to take a class because you think it’ll be made up of lithe dancers, yogis, and Pilates enthusiasts, you’re wrong. “Women of all sizes and ages are coming to barre for the toning and tightening workouts,” says Lincoln. “People come to our barre class looking for a challenging workout without the risk of injury and pain in their joints,” she says.
Barre workouts are for all fitness levels and ages, ranging from beginning exercisers to elite athletes, from teens to the active aging. “The beauty of barre is that each exercise can be tweaked specifically to the individual, enhancing the dynamics of the group experience with personalized attention,” says McLean.
Where to Try It
For your first few workouts, you might want to try a barre class at a studio or at your local gym. This will help ensure you’re getting help from an instructor while mastering the technique and doing the range of motion exercises without injury. After you’ve taken a class or two, consider doing a barre DVD at home or subscribing to online barre workouts through a streaming service. Some companies like barre3 or The Bar Method have online subscription plans that give you access to their videos for a monthly fee. For most home workouts you can hold on to the back of a chair—no ballet barre or fancy equipment required.
When You’ll See Results
Try one to three barre classes per week and balance out your fitness routine with other workouts that include cardio, resistance training, stretching, and foam rolling, suggests McLean. “Diversify and switch up workout routines every few weeks to keep seeing and feeling the benefits of your hard work,” he says.
Two Exercises to Try at Home
Try these moves from Sadie Lincoln of barre3:
Side Plank With “Thread the Needle”:
The side plank works the obliques, adding the twist helps trim the waist.
- Beginners: Hold a full side plank on each side for 30 seconds, keeping feet stacked and hips off the floor for the entire time.
- Advanced: Add this “thread the needle,” movement to a forearm side plank, performing three to five reps on each side. How to do it: To "thread the needle" and work your side waist, start in a forearm side plank, with right forearm on the floor , hips off the floor with left foot on the floor in front of right foot for balance. Inhale, and extend the left arm outstretched over your head, in line with the right arm. Exhale, and slowly tuck your left arm under your right side body as if your left arm is the "thread" and the space you've created between your right hip and the floor is the "eye of a needle" that you are threading. Inhale back to the starting point with the left arm extended at the top. After 3 to 5 reps, switch to the other side.
- Tip: You can do the "thread the needle" movement at your kitchen counter as a modification. Once you've mastered the forearm side plank and "threading the needle," add variations by starting from a full side plank (extended arm on bottom) or stacking the feet on top of one another (and rotating more during the movement) in order to challenge the muscles.
This pose works the abs and upper back muscles.
- Reps: One minute. If layering on movement, then 5-8 reps during that minute.
- Set-up: Sit on the floor and grab onto the back of the thighs. Anchor your hips and lift toes away from the floor so that your shins are parallel with the ceiling. Keep your hips heavy as you pull your abs in.
- Movement: Release your palms from thighs and reach arms out to the side. Stay here, or straighten your legs pointing at a 45-degree angle, and lower your upper body down towards the floor a few inches. Your thighs and torso should be angled about 45 degrees from the floor. From the side your body should look like a "V." Pull your abs in, and draw back to your starting position (in a modified boat with bent knees/shins parallel to the ceiling).
- Tip If you have low back pain, or any discomfort when layering on the movement, then work in a smaller range of motion and/or keep knees bent the entire time.