What is a barre workout and is it effective?

Words by Jess Bell

Barre workouts are fast popping up at fitness studios all over the country. But what is barre, and is it worth the hype?

The good news is that even if you don't know your plié from your pirouette, barre is a great workout option for everyone, not just ballet pros.

Combining techniques from yoga and pilates with classic ballet moves, a barre class is great for building long, lean muscles. Typically classes are slightly faster paced than yoga and pilates, using a routine of exercises to isolate and target hard to reach areas throughout your body.

What is a barre workout?

Where did barre workouts come from?

The workout was invented by former ballerina Lotte Berk after she injured her back in 1959. She merged the concept of rehabilitative therapy with her barre routines to create an enjoyable yet challenging class for dancers and non-dancers alike. The same year, Lotte opened the first barre studio in London and the craze soon caught on.

Over the years her students have included the likes of Barbara Streisand and Joan Collins. Other famous faces like Madonna, Natalie Portman and Dakota Fanning also swear by a tough barre workout to help them stay in tip top shape.

Even Victoria’s Secret Angel goddess Candice Swanepoel raves about the positives of a ballet-inspired workout. And judging by her toned physique strutting on the catwalk, something must be working.

In the last decade the workout style has become more well-known, particularly in the US, with hundreds of studios offering their own style of class. But here in the UK too, barre classes are increasingly being added to the timetables of boutique fitness studios as well as big-name fitness chains.

barre workout

How does it work?

Ballerinas are known for their incredibly toned physique thanks to their rigorous training, and it's those core balletic moves that make up a barre class.

Most barre workouts focus around isometric exercises, isolating one part of the body while keeping the rest still. Repeat those exercises slowly with your muscles tensed, and you'll soon start to feel the burn. The exercises are performed barefoot - you certainly don't need ballet shoes!

The reason barre is particularly good for those looking for lean muscles is because many of the exercises activate the fast-twitch muscle fibres in our bodies. Different from slow-twitch fibres - usually developed through endurance exercise - the fast-twitch variety helps to build defined muscles.

And how do you know if your fast-twitch muscle fibres are working?

If you're tensing your quad during a workout for example and it starts to shake, that's a sign the muscle is tired and the fast-twitch fibres are beginning to work.

Using the principle of time under tension, which works the muscles with slow, small, controlled exercises, barre might look easy - but it's no walk in the park. Our best advice is to embrace the shake if you want to tone up your physique.

Barre workouts are also a great way of targeting your core - since that's what gives ballerinas their perfect posture. So if you're bored of endless planks and sit ups, why not give barre a go.

what happens in a barre class?

What can I expect in a class?

As the name suggests, most of a session is taken - you guessed it - at the barre.

Some instructors will include exercises on the mat too, or they might incorporate equipment like a Pilates ball, flexibility bands, wrist weights or small dumbbells. Using low-level weights at high reps will help target the arms and abs, while squeezing a ball between your legs during certain exercises will have your inner thighs crying in no-time.

While the name of the class can be daunting for first timers who have never danced before, the great news is you don’t need ballet experience to take on barre. Most of the exercises that make up a barre class are very similar to those found in other workouts, so the principal movements will feel familiar.

For example, a plié (pronounced plee-ay), is similar to a squat but with the feet turned out and the pelvis tucked under. Variations include performing a plié with your knees together, or on tip toes to really get the calves firing. Other exercises include a variety of leg lifts, lunges and bends.

Posture is hugely important for ballerinas, so the instructors will also be on hand to correct any hunched shoulders or flexed toes.

In terms of what to wear, the best items are similar to those you'd choose for Pilates. We recommend a low impact sports bra, a comfortable pair of high waisted leggings and a sweat-wicking tank top.

Most of all, the key to any dance-inspired workout is to enjoy it. Barre is a fun, yet challenging, way to tone your body all while unleashing your inner ballerina.

Inspired to learn a new fitness skill? Why not check out our top 7 tips to learning the splits >