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The Best and Worst Barre Exercises

Worst: Grand Plié

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This exercise—which is a combination of a deep squat performed with your feet turned out, heels raised, and pelvis tucked under—is problematic from many perspectives, says Keli Roberts, an international fitness educator and master trainer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

“Squatting in an extremely externally rotated position places high stresses on the sacroiliac joint in the pelvis, and it also places the glutes in a position of insufficiency.” To “fire” effectively, they need to be stretched before they are contracted, as in a regular squat, she explains, but the stance for a grand plié shortens the glutes.

Roberts adds that squatting with the pelvis tucked places greater stress on the lower back. A neutral spine should be maintained when bending at the hips, as that position not only keeps the back safer, but it also contributes to the stretch of the glutes and thereby enhances muscular recruitment, meaning better work for your backside.

Best: Ball-Squeeze Parallel Squat with Calf Raise

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Whether you choose to perform this move holding onto the barre or not, keeping the feet pointed forward and squeezing a small sponge ball between the thighs helps work the glutes and calves while protecting the back and knees, says Leslee Bender, a functional training specialist and creator of the Bender Ball and Bender Barre None® program.

How to do it:
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and toes pointed forward. Place a small sponge ball between thighs. Engage core and, keeping spine neutral, hinge at hips and lower into a squat, gently squeezing the ball throughout the movement.
B. With control, rise back to starting position and then extend legs, lifting up onto toes for a calf raise. Do 12 to 15 reps.

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Worst: Pulsing in Attitude

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“Small repetitive leg movements in an attitude position allows for so much potential to use the lower back to initiate the movement rather than the glutes and the hamstrings,” says Shannon Fable, owner of Balletone® and director of exercise programming for the Anytime Fitness franchise. So chances are you won’t challenge the muscles you intend to but could end up with back pain.

Best: Leg Lift in a Reach-Back Position

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To protect the back and better challenge the glutes and hamstrings, Fable recommends performing full leg lifts from a reach back position in which the standing leg is bent and the lifting leg is outstretched behind you. Keeping the core engaged and the spine in a neutral position will help to keep your back pain-free while strengthening and sculpting your “seat.”

How to do it:
A. Stand in first position with heels together and feet turned out, hands on hips. Step right foot behind you, aligning heel of left foot and arch of right foot as you bend left knee.
B. With weight in left leg, lift right leg behind you with control. Lower right leg almost to the floor, then back up again. Do 12 to 15 reps, then switch sides to complete set.

Worst: Pulsing Plié

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This small up-and-down movement performed in a wide turned-out second position is one of the most common and deceptively ineffective exercises you will see in barre class. It only strengthens the muscles of the lower body in a small range of motion around the hip and knee joints, says Julz Arney, a world-renowned group fitness instructor and creator of BarreWRX.

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Best: Squat to Lunge Combination

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Instead of pulsing away, Arney recommends adding greater movement to the squat to better engage the muscles of the lower body and core. “Because you are using more muscles in this exercise, you will burn additional calories, build strength and balance, and feel like a dancer.” [Tweet this exercise!]

How to do it:
A. Stand with feet just wider than hip-width distance apart with toes turned out slightly to the sides. Hinge at hips and lower into a wide squat position, drawing arms in front of you.
B. Rotate body to the left, lifting right heel and shifting into a lunge with arms outstretched overhead. Rotate back to center and return to starting position. Repeat on the right side. Continue alternating for a total of 20 reps.

Worst: Seated Leg Lift with Back to Barre

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Holding the barre behind you and lifting and lowering your legs while seated comes with great potential for injury, Bender says. “The shoulders are in an externally rotated position, and you’re utilizing only the hip flexors to perform the movement, which is bad for your lower back,” she explains.

Best: Grand Battement

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When performed with control and good posture, this classic movement can offer great benefits, says Fable, as it focuses on both strength and flexibility. “I love the dynamic, active stretching component of this long-levered lift.”

How to do it:
A. Stand tall with feet in first position with heels together and toes turned out. Keep core engaged and place right hand on the bar and left arm bent in front of you.
B. Brush leg foot along the floor and lift leg in front of you no higher than 90 degrees, keeping pelvis neutral to avoid curling tailbone. Lower left leg by using inner thighs to squeeze the feet back together, landing softly in starting position. Do 12 to 15 repetitions, then repeat with right leg to complete the set.