Your Comprehensive Guide to Barre

Wondering "what is barre?" or "are barre workouts actually beneficial?" Here, two instructors give the low-down on the workout method and all it can do for your health.

Woman Doing Barre Exercise
Photo: Getty Images

When you think of barre workouts, you might imagine ballerina-like individuals holding a handrail and performing small movements, such as pliés and leg lifts, ever so gracefully — but that mental image often couldn't be any further from the truth, says Natalie Sanders, an IBBFA-certified virtual barre instructor in Austin, Texas. "[Barre workouts] can be literally the opposite — you're out of breath and trying to catch up," she says. "You can be huffing and puffing and sweating your ass off because it's hard."

In other words, barre isn't as effortless as it may seem, and it offers plenty of health benefits that make it worth including in your fitness routine. Ahead, instructors answer all your questions surrounding "what is barre, anyway?" spelling out what the workout style entails, its key perks, and the equipment commonly used. Plus, you'll find a round-up of barre workouts that'll help you get a taste of the method from the comfort of your own home.

What Is Barre?

Barre is primarily a mixture of Pilates, yoga, and strength training, but it also has elements of ballet, high-intensity interval training, and mobility work, says Maya Bryant, M.P.H., a certified personal trainer and barre instructor. Thanks to this mash-up, you're able to have a well-rounded fitness routine by taking part in just one workout style. If you were to primarily do strength training, on the other hand, you'd still need to get in cardio, endurance training, and mobility work separately just to check off all your boxes, she explains.

Typically, barre workouts are low-impact, meaning they're gentle on your joints, low back, and feet, though they're still upbeat and high-intensity, adds Sanders. "You use light weights or no weights at all to basically just burn your muscles out to fatigue, sometimes through very small movements, with high repetitions," she says. For example, you might do eight full reps of plié squats or biceps curls, followed by eight pulses, then an eight-second isometric hold, she explains. Then, you might repeat that process with a different move (think: a lunge or hammer curl) that targets the same muscle group. By focusing on just one area of the body at a time, you'll work on improving your muscular (not to mention, mental) endurance — but more on that later.

While some instructors offer mini classes online that target one area of the body (say, the glutes), traditional in-person barre workouts get your entire body working, says Sanders. You could do multiple variations of squats, lunges, calf raises, clamshells, planks, push-ups, biceps curls, and shoulder presses, often with a ballet-inspired twist. "You might do some work in your first position, which is basically if you were standing with your feet in a 'V,'" adds Bryant. "You might have some work with adagio, which just means to extend your leg out either to the front, side, or back of you."

Both before and after a barre workout, you may also move through some yoga-style stretches that help increase mobility and flexibility, says Bryant. To lengthen your hip flexors, for instance, Bryant recommends her clients perform a tree pose, during which you extend your knee as far as possible to the side, and a saddle stretch, during which you rock side to side.

Barre Equipment

While barre workouts can be totally equipment-free, you'll often use a few props throughout the workout to build strength, says Sanders. One staple: a light set of weights (or soup cans if you don't have access), which you'll use to up the challenge of curls and presses. You may also place a yoga block (or a book) between your knees while you're doing abs work that involves lifting, lowering, or holding your legs to fire up your core, she says. Looped resistance bands, 9-inch Pilates balls, and, of course, a ballet barre may also be incorporated into barre leg exercises. (BTW, you can use the back of a chair as a DIY "barre," but you won't be able to do any of the exercises in which you hang your weight off of it, says Sanders.)

The Benefits of Barre Workouts

Now that you know the answer to "what is barre?" you may still be wondering why it's worth incorporating into your routine in the first place. Get ready to experience the benefits of barre firsthand; after your barre workout, you'll be left with shaking muscles and a few potential improvements in your endurance, functional fitness, and posture.

Build Muscular Endurance

Since barre workouts involve light weights and high repetitions, the training style can help build up muscular endurance — the ability for your muscles to work for an extended period of time, says Bryant. The more muscular endurance you have, the longer you can perform without feeling totally winded, Corinne Croce, D.P.T., a co-founder of Body Evolved and in-house physical therapist for SoulCycle, previously told Shape. And this perk can have IRL benefits: If you improve your muscular endurance in your arms and shoulders, for example, you may be able to carry your heavy Trader Joe's bags the entire way home without needing a breather.

Train Functional Fitness

Speaking of IRL benefits, "barre increases your stamina, strength, and endurance so that you can walk or run farther, swim longer, run around with your kids easier, be able to carry all the groceries in one trip," says Sanders. "It's building all of that strength and stamina you need to be able to fuel your life."

Even specific exercises mimic movements you'd carry out in your day-to-day life: A calf raise with an overhead arm reach, for example, is the same movement pattern you'd do to grab a can off the very top shelf of your pantry, she adds.

Improve Posture

One of the biggest focuses in barre is strengthening your core muscles, which can help improve posture over time, says Bryant. Reminder: Your core consists of muscles that run along the front, back, and sides of your trunk (re: it's not just your abs), and it plays a key role in stabilizing your pelvis and spine, which, in turn, helps you maintain proper posture, Michelle Razavi, a fitness and yoga instructor at Equinox and co-founder of ELAVI, previously told Shape. By strengthening this muscle group, you'll help improve your core stability and, in turn, improve your posture, according to the American Council on Exercise.

Barre vs. Pilates

Although barre draws on aspects of Pilates, they're still distinctly different workout methods. During a Pilates class, you'll work through specific exercises (think: lunges, planks, glute bridges) designed to stretch, lengthen, and balance the body, all of which are paired with focused breaths, according to the Pilates Method Alliance, a non-profit professional association.

Barre workouts may also include these types of moves, but they're usually performed at a much quicker pace, says Sanders. "One of the things I love about Pilates is that you're really slow and deep in the movement — I've never been to a Pilates class that's counting down at a quick pace that matches a 130 beats-per-minute song," she explains. "Barre is more dance music-focused, more upbeat, and sometimes I add cardio elements, which I don't really see in Pilates." What's more, the barre exercises often have ballet-inspired features (as seen in the feet and hand positioning) that are missing from Pilates, says Bryant.

Breathwork also isn't as much of a focus in barre, and you'll be able to breathe to the beat of your own drum, adds Bryant. "In Pilates, you're exhaling and inhaling [in sync] with a lot of different movements and you're instructed to do so," she explains.

The Best Barre Workouts

Ready to test out the low-impact workout style and start building up your muscular endurance with barre? Consider incorporating these barre workouts into your fitness routine, or check out Sanders' Instagram, where she holds free monthly classes. No matter which workouts you test, expect to feel stronger (and maybe even a bit taller) in no time.

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