In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype
If you have two left feet but crave a workout inspired by ballerinas, barre class may be for you. Studios exist across the country, including the Bar Method in Vancouver, Studio Équilibre in Montreal or even your local GoodLife Fitness (some now offer ballet fitness classes). I sweated through a barre class at Barre3 Toronto (325 King St. W.), and brought along my mom and best friend Emily, since three reviews are better than one. Plus, it's more fun to plié with friends.
According to Barre3's website, instructors "guide you through a specific sequence of movements that tone and lengthen all major muscle groups, rev your heart rate, and strengthen your body."
What to expect
I have tried several barre studios across North America, and while each offers its own flavour, the format is similar. At Barre3, participants use small weighted balls or weights (one, two or three pounds), the bar, a mat, resistance bands, their own body weight and a small squishy ball to mimic the calisthenic, flexibility and strength exercises typically done by dancers.
Participants rotate among the middle of the room doing exercises such as pliés and overhead triceps extensions, the mat doing planks and leg lifts and the bar doing exercises like push-ups, pliés and squats.
Did I mention that every barre class I have ever gone to includes squats? Lots of squats.
My friend Emily is 33, works a desk job, and aims to get in her daily 10,000 steps and works out two or three times a week. Her first words after the class: "All the squats … so many squats … I am going to feel my legs for days."
My mom, who's 63 and active, also felt her legs "no longer worked." Both meant this as a compliment.
During one of the many leg segments, we did a plethora of variations on the squat: squat and pulses, squat and ball squeezes, fast, slow, at different heights and with varying foot positions. It felt like we were squatting for 10 minutes, although it was probably more like three.
If you like peppy music, you'll enjoy listening to upbeat songs as you sweat. Emily thought it made the time go quickly. My mom enjoyed the class despite the louder music; she often can't hear instructions over music but loved that the instructor was clear despite the noise.
My mom and Emily thought Barre3 delivered on its promise; they both felt the class had given them a better overall workout than other classes, and that because the instructor offered appropriate form tips, they had worked their muscles as they were supposed to. Emily liked the class because she looked forward to going and felt better after, which is really all you can ask.
Go ahead and try the class – it is a great workout and tons of fun – but don't buy into the wording on the website that barre classes will give you a dancer's "long and toned" body. Dancer's bodies are a product of their genetics, their lifestyle, their volume of training and impeccable nutrition. No workout – especially done once or twice a week – will get you Karen Kain's body if you don't have her genetics and diet.
That said, I really appreciate that in most barre classes the instructors not only pay attention to form, but offer detailed ways to ramp exercises up or down. This is rare. Too many fitness instructors say participants should "work at their own pace" but don't actually offer detailed options.
At Barre3, the instructor offered specific variations. For example, planks could be done with our hands on the ground or the bar. Emily has a shoulder injury and my mom finds that getting up and down makes her dizzy, so they both loved the bar option. "The class was challenging, but since the instructor gave options, it felt possible," my mom said.
I also appreciate that barre promotes flexibility and joint mobility, which most of us need since we tend to sit too much. When we do move, it is often in set forward-movement patterns (walking, biking, elliptical, running), which can cause stiffness and certain muscles to become stronger than others. If you sit a lot or your current routine includes repetitive activities like running, barre might complement your lifestyle.
My mom also found that it was a great "destination" class for mothers and daughters or friends – something active and fun to do together. As she said, "Motivation comes at many levels, and sometimes moms need to be motivated by having a daughter to meet them." I love meeting someone to exercise with; it makes the workout more fun and I never cancel if someone is waiting.
The class unfortunately is not for everyone. It involves possibly hundreds of deep knee bends. If your body can't handle that, steer clear; even with the modifications it would be almost impossible to get through a class without some squats and lunges.
Another huge negative is that barre doesn't have much potential for long-term progressive overload. Unless you wear a weighted vest or bring heavier dumbbells to the class, the overload that the balls, the band and your body weight can provide is limited. To continue to progress, you have to constantly challenge your body.
So no matter how much you love barre, don't make it your sole method of training for a sustained period of time. Mix it up: lift heavier weights, run, bike, try a team sport or do some swimming.