You hear that phrase all the time in barre class—but is it really possible? Here's what you actually have to do for that long, lean look

By Liz Doupnik
December 18, 2015
Corbis Images

Ever heard your barre instructor preach about how you're just one plié away from looking like the next Victoria's Secret model-all you need to do is lengthen your muscles? Hate to break it to you, ladies, but there's no such thing as "long" muscles.

While your muscle fibers do naturally have elasticity that allows for them to stretch and shorten in order to move (and these fibers can hypertrophy, or grow larger), you actually want to avoid overly stretching before a workout. When your muscle is overly relaxed, it can't produce the force needed for various exercises. (By the way, You Don't Need Big Muscles to Have Strong Muscles.) Imagine trying to sprint uphill after hitting the spa all day-that's what it feels like to your muscles when you get into a deep stretch pre-sweat.

So why does it seem like every barre instructor talks about lengthening your muscles? Well, for one, we all have an idea of what that looks like: ballerina-worthy posture and muscular definition in your legs, arms, and abs. And these classes do emphasize the muscle groups that help achieve this physique-it's just not done by literally lengthening your muscles.

But you can get that long, lean look. Here's how.

1. Keep up your Barre routine. Workouts that emphasize high reps of light weights help to strengthen muscle fibers that specialize in endurance (compared to power or all-out strength). These muscle fibers tend to help you sculpt a slimmer look too. Moves like soft sumo squats or standing reverse leg lifts are what you want to focus on. And limit your rest time when you're doing exercises on your own. Staying below 30 seconds for recovery time will keep your heart rate elevated and you'll continue to burn calories-even as you sip your water. (We've rounded up The Best and Worst Barre Exercises.)

2. Up your cardio. It takes more than one type of workout to produce total-body toning. After all, as your body becomes familiar with moves, your muscles don't have to work as hard. Enter the dreaded plateau. The more you mix it up, the harder your muscles have to work (causing a higher calorie burn).

Target at least three days per week as cardio dominant. Cardio can help improve muscular definition by beginning to transition your body composition from a higher percentage of body fat to more lean muscle mass. Prioritize 20-minute high intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions over long slogs on the treadmill-these will elevate your heart rate in brief spurts and bump up your body's after-burn (the amount of calories you continue to torch long after you stop exercising), AKA your fat-burning BFF. Those higher intensities are also where you trigger fat-slashing hormones like growth hormone and epinepherine. When you cardio-up, your body will use fat and stored carbohydrates called glycogen as fuel. This process is sped up by the higher intensity of work and can set in as early as thirty seconds into your session. After around three minutes, you'll turn to fats (and some carbs) to keep going. The more you do this, the more your body learns how to create energy from these sources-and your body will say adios to pockets of fat.

3. Consider your diet. You can squat, plié, and cycle all you want, but better muscular definition isn't accomplished without prioritizing your food. But instead of cutting carbs (or one major macronutrient), make small, simple changes. (We'd start with these 12 Tiny, Expert-Backed Changes.) Increase your water intake by taking a sip of water every time you send an email or choose one meal a day to incorporate another vegetable or lean protein. By devising an attainable eating plan, you're able to maintain a healthier diet. Then, try your best to steer clear of refined sugar and complex carbohydrates. Your body won't bloat nearly as often.

4. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Your body needs an appropriate amount of time to rebuild muscle fibers that were torn during your workout. While we snooze, our bodies have less to focus on and can thoroughly regenerate. Resting up and relaxing also promotes speedy recovery. On a weekly basis, think about taking one day off entirely and another day of light yoga, meditation, or even a massage. Shoot to sleep for about eight hours a night to allow your body to totally reset and gear up for the next day and workout. These little shifts in behavior will contribute to the larger, healthier picture. (Find out Why Post-Workout Muscle Soreness Hits People at Different Times.)

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