Most workouts that are focussed on strength require heavy equipment like dumbbells, but a barre workout is slightly different — you use a stationary bar (or other object) for balance and little to no weights beyond your own bodyweight. During a typical class, you're not doing explosive exercises but rather small, deliberate movements repeatedly until your own limbs feel almost impossible to lift. You'll likely feel the burn, but does moving your body just a few inches at a time actually build muscle? We asked two experts to find out.
What Is a Barre Workout?
"Barre is a combination of Pilates and ballet that is designed to lengthen your whole body and help you find your centre. It also includes targeted bursts to the core, arms, and booty," Jacqui Kingswell, founder of The Pilates Class, told POPSUGAR.
And while the movements in barre classes are inspired by ballet, they're made to be more approachable so you don't have to be a trained dancer (or even have taken a dance class) to do them. Beginners are welcome, too. "Barre is an effective low-impact workout, and it helps with toning, balance, deep core strength, and lengthening, so it's really for everyone," explained Ally Love, a Peloton instructor who teaches Peloton Barre classes. Because you're able to modify the movements, it can also be a safe pre- and postnatal workout. "The only prerequisite to take a barre class is a willing mind," Love said.
In a barre workout, the moves have a shorter range of motion in order to fatigue the targeted muscle groups, which strengthens the local and global muscles deeply. For example, during a barre class, you'll often do squats in first or second position — known in ballet as pliés or grand pliés. From the squat position, "you're going to do a lot of pulsing with two inches up and two inches down, which limits the range of movement," Love told POPSUGAR. "Instead of thinking of a leg lift or a rainbow, think about smaller, shorter range of motion movements that fatigue the muscle groups."
Kingswell added that, because the moves are smaller, they teach you control, precision, and balance, as well as help you increase strength and flexibility and improve posture. "Barre classes have fluidity with every movement, so it's almost as if you're moving through water throughout the entire class," she said. "You'll get a full-body workout in a barre class; it's a class that requires a lot of focus and control so the mind also benefits from this, too."
So, Does Barre Build Muscle?
Most of the time in barre classes, you're using your own bodyweight and a barre or chair for balance. And when you do pick up free weights, they tend to be light ones. That doesn't mean you're not getting stronger, though; try holding one- to two-pound weights while doing repeated arm movements, and you'll see how quickly those weights start to feel much heavier. But if you're worried about bulking up with barre, it likely won't happen.
Traditional strength training involves adding weight and resistance to a muscle, but barre is different because "you're toning and strengthening a muscle group, which isn't necessarily building muscle," Love said. "It recruits muscle strength, requires intrinsic muscle stability throughout core work, and allows you to increase your range of motion, allowing you to deeply tone those muscles and work smaller muscle groups."
Kingswell agreed, adding that because the classes have high repetition and low-weight movements, your muscles will get stronger, but you won't see muscle gain like you would with lifting heavy weights at the gym. By using your own bodyweight, you'll tone and lengthen, rather than build muscle.
Beyond increasing your overall strength, there are other benefits to barre. "You really learn how to switch on your muscles and how to work them properly without having equipment assist you," Kingswell explained. "The body awareness barre gives you is like no other training because you carry the principles and technique on and off your mat and apply it to your day-to-day life. Most people that watch a barre class will most likely think it looks easy, but once you've tried it, you'll realise how hard you have to work to make it look effortless. It's not just a physical practice, it's a mental awareness and insight into your body."
How Do I Know If I'm Getting Stronger With Barre?
You may have experienced or heard about people shaking in barre class, which is both normal and a great thing. "Shaking during a barre class shows muscle fatigue and means that what you're doing is working," Love said. "It's a good indicator that the movement is affecting your muscles and that in that moment, you're creating little micro-tears in your muscles, which you're then able to rebuild over time with recovery and nutrition." The repair of the micro-tears is what helps make your muscles stronger.
Kingswell said she loves it when her clients feel the shakes and encourages them to work to that point of exhaustion. "It means that their muscles are working really hard to hold the movement, and it's where the real strength and change happens within the body," she said.