Love a good barre workout? Don’t overdo it. Experts say you should only take one or two classes per week. (Photo: Kalie Nine LLC/Getty Images)
Ballet-inspired barre classes are a fitness trend that’s become mainstream, with studios popping up all over the country and major gym chains adding barre as a staple on their group fitness schedules. The workouts focus on performing small, targeted movements, such as calf raises, or “pulsing” at the bottom of a squat, for a high number of repetitions. The promise: If you train like a dancer, you’ll look like a dancer.
But how many of the claims you’ve heard about these popular workouts are true? Read on to learn the facts behind the hype.
Claim: Barre exercises will sculpt the long, lean muscles of a dancer
It’s true that the type of exercise you do will influence how your muscles respond. That’s part of the reason an ice hockey player trains differently from, say, a marathon runner, explains certified corrective exercise specialist Eric Beard. Over time — and depending on your genetics, diet, and a bunch of other factors, Beard tells Yahoo Health — your training will also influence how you look.
But only to a point.
It’s important to realize that the main reason that dancers look a certain way is because of self-selection, says fitness expert Nick Tumminello, personal trainer and owner of Performance University. “You’re never going to see a guy who’s built like a ballet dancer be a running back in the NFL,” Tumminello gives as an example. “That’s not saying to just give up — we can certainly work on reaching our potential.” Focus on reaching your own potential, which might not mean looking like a ballerina.
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And we know this claim typically refers to long-looking muscles, but just for the record: There is absolutely no way to increase a muscle’s length through exercise. “Where a muscle starts and ends can only be altered by surgery or serious injury,” Beard says.
Claim: The burn you feel means you’re burning fat
No. Just … no. “These are all what I call zombie ideas, no matter how many times they’re killed they keep coming alive again,” Tumminello tells Yahoo Health.
The burn is actually triggered by the metabolic byproducts that naturally accrue during challenging activity that lasts from about 30 seconds to three minutes, Beard explains. Most barre workouts call for about 20 reps of each exercise, or holding or pulsing a position for 30 seconds to one minute — right within the window where your muscles will feel like they’re on fire.
Working through the burn can improve your endurance for that movement, Beard says, and the benefits may carry over during similar activities.
Claim: You should do barre workouts if you want to look “toned”
Getting a lean, athletic look usually involves some combination of losing body fat and gaining muscle. Contrary to what experts once thought, research has now shown that it is possible to build muscle with a high number of repetitions and light resistance (as you do in barre). It’s just not the most efficient approach.
“Time is valuable, and we all want to make the most of our time,” Tumminello says. “If your goal is to elevate your metabolism and burn as many calories as possible and to get the most benefit, then doing these isolated, small-muscle-type movements is not very metabolically demanding.”
Claim: Barre workouts are worthless
Not so! In addition to the muscle endurance benefits mentioned above, “the focus on core activation and posture can be effective for many participants as well,” Beard says. Plus, they can be a lot of fun, especially if you enjoyed taking ballet or other dance classes as a kid or teen. The more you enjoy your workout, the more likely you are to stick with it, which will improve your results.
To have a safe, effective, and enjoyable barre class, experts offer a few key pieces of advice:
- When the instructor introduces a new exercise or sequence, start off a count or two behind, recommends says Marc Santa Maria, national director of group fitness for Crunch gyms. “That way you can see what the routine is and gradually increase your intensity and range of motion as you become more familiar with the exercises,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Ease into the exercises.”
- A good group fitness instructor will give options to make moves easier and to work around physical limitations, Tumminello says. If an exercise is too difficult or just doesn’t feel right to you, wave the teacher over and say something like, “Can you give me a modification for this?” Don’t feel discouraged if you end up modifying a lot of the exercises. “Most of us have do not have the joint mobility or postural alignment to execute the barre movements properly right out of the gate,” Beard says.
- Limit yourself to one barre workout per week — at most two if you really love it, Beard recommends. Many of the repetitive movements found in barre can possibly lead to overuse injuries, he cautions. Specifically, he says, “sacroilliac joint dysfunction (just below the low back) and knee pain are what I most commonly see from my clients and patients who lack a well rounded fitness program and focus too much on barre.”
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