Raising The Barre: A Beginner’s Guide To The Ballet Workout

Have you ever happened upon an episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” and been held spellbound while a dancer did something truly amazing? Dance, particularly ballet, is one of the most expressive art forms, but it’s a bit of an enigma: When done well, it looks utterly effortless, but it takes an enormous amount of strength and discipline to get to an elite level.

You don’t have to be built like a prima ballerina to work out like one. Barre classes have exploded in popularity over the past decade, and they provide a balanced workout that will help you build strength and improve your muscle tone while sculpting your figure like a lithe dancer instead of a muscle-bound wrestler. It’s a great companion to other kinds of sports training or as your go-to gym membership on its own. It’s also just as great for men as it is for women.

So how can you get started? Here’s everything you need to know about barre to enjoy this unique new way to get in shape.

A Short History of the Barre Workout

“Barre” is French for “bar,” and it refers to the long closet pole attached to the wall — or mirror — in any dance studio in the world. Ballet dancers of all ages and levels use it to stretch before their rehearsals and practice dance exercises with support for proper form as they’re learning the basics. The idea of working out at the barre is not new at all, but ballerina Lotte Berk was the first to harness the simple piece of wood’s true potential in the exercise world. She opened her studio in London in 1959 after recovering from an injury. Her big idea? Combine rehab exercises with classic barre routines for the ultimate workout.

These days you can find a studio just about anywhere, so if you’re interested, a quick Google search should turn up something near you to try. Many dance studios now offer barre classes for non-dancers, and you may also find classes at your local gym or YMCA. Of course, you can always seek out a specialty studio like Pure Barre, which has locations across the country.

The Benefits of a Barre Workout

A good barre class is unique in that it targets every muscle group for a well-balanced workout. Specific physical benefits include the following:

  • Core Strengthening: Barre is considered to be one of the single best ways to build core strength, which can also lead to flatter, more defined abs. The secret to its success is that your core abdominal muscles are engaged in every aspect of the class, and these compound movements are twice as effective in building both strength and endurance.
  • Better Posture: Precision is the name of the game when it comes to barre, and the careful attention to your body’s mechanics means that you’ll find yourself standing up straight and lengthening your spine without prompting after a few classes. Stronger back and abdominal muscles assist as well, making it easier for you to stand tall and look more statuesque.
  • Increased Flexibility: You know how dancers can fold themselves in half to touch their toes? You might not be that bendy, but your muscles will lengthen and loosen as you warm up. Regular stretching is typically sprinkled throughout the workout, making flexibility training more than just an afterthought.
  • Low-Impact Workout: Because barre is largely made up of isometric movements (that is, muscles are held in a position to “feel the burn” instead of being burdened with additional weight), it’s a safe workout for your joints and a good way for just about anyone to start exercising. You also won’t be prone to injuries that runners face as they pound the pavement day after day. In fact, many athletes with previous injuries take barre classes as a rehabilitative workout to help restore the body.
  • Attention to Body Mechanics: A good barre instructor will critique your positions (nicely!) and help you adjust your poses. This allows you to work even the smallest of muscles that you didn’t know you had, and it’s a big reason to go to class. Barre exercises are hard for beginners to do correctly without guidance, so it’s best to join a group. Though you may be able to work out at home once you know the drill — and if you’re willing to install a barre of your own!

What You Need for Barre Class

Your first time out at any new gym or exercise studio can feel intimidating, but it definitely helps to know what you need so you can feel prepared. You don’t need any dance experience at all for barre, and most studios offer an introductory or beginner’s class to help you learn the moves — it’s a good idea to seek these out before jumping into an intermediate class with people who have been around the block a few times. You’ll also need the following items:

  • Comfortable Clothing: You’ll need stretchy leggings or yoga pants that you can really move in. A sports bra is always a good idea for women, and you’ll also want a tank top as a cover. Fitted clothing helps your instructor assess your form, so no baggy t-shirts!
  • Sticky Socks: Though some people are comfortable working out in bare feet, you may find yourself sliding around. Socks with sticky grips on the soles function like a yoga mat you wear on your feet as you move around the studio during your class. Some die-hard barre enthusiasts have quite a collection!
  • Water Bottle: It’s a workout, after all. You’ll definitely get thirsty!

What to Expect During a Barre Class

Though each instructor does things a bit differently, a typical barre class consists of warmups on the mat or floor, arm exercises, barre work that targets your legs (think pliés and touching your toes) and core-focused exercises. Most instructor play music to keep things fun, too. Though you may use light weights to add intensity, most movements are done only using your body weight. You also won’t experience much cardio, as movements are based on very small, incremental movements — but they’re challenging enough to make your muscles shake when you’re doing them correctly!

For newcomers especially, barre class can feel meditative. It takes your full concentration to focus on the moves you’re doing and to hold them for extended periods, which means you won’t have time to think about anything else during your class. This leaves many people feeling mentally refreshed after a barre workout, even though their muscles are sore at first.

If barre sounds like the low-impact workout you’ve been looking for, give it a try! If you stick with it, you might even begin to feel like a dancer yourself.