by Katherine Pett
Barre is a fun, challenging, joint-friendly way to get a workout. But don’t buy into the hype; barre classes can’t make you look like a dancer.
If CrossFit was the workout of 2014, then surely 2015 is the season of “barre,” a workout women everywhere are flocking to. In Boston alone, you can take a barre class from PureBarre, FlyBarre, The Bar Method, and Exhale Core Fusion Barre. Not a member? Barre classes have been added to the schedules of yoga and dance studios all over the city.
The pricey classes draw ladies in by promising to “tone” problem areas and help participants develop a dancer’s lean physique—claims that have caused controversy. Having taken (and enjoyed!) a number of barre classes myself, I wanted to understand the science behind the advertisements.
Barre is a strength-based workout focused on tiny, repetitive movements. Classes feature some traditional conditioning like push-ups and supported pull-ups, but most of the class is spent holding one body part very still and then moving it “up an inch, down an inch, up an inch, down an inch,” until your muscles are screaming. Participants may find themselves struggling to keep two or three-pound dumbbells at shoulder height, watching helplessly in the mirror as their arms start to sink to their sides.
The workout is challenging, but those who took ballet in childhood will recognize only the barre and the mirror. Barre is more like a Pilates class with extra equipment than a traditional ballet class.
However, clever marketing for the classes constantly references the coveted dancer “physique.” Exercises done in barre classes are meant to do things like “sculpt arms,” “tone thighs,” and “flatten abs.” While a Swan Lake body is not explicitly guaranteed, it is directly implied. For example, PureBarre’s site says:
“Each strength section of the workout is followed by a stretching section in order to create long, lean muscles without bulk. The technique works to defy gravity by tapering everything in and lifting it up!”
And a promotional article from The Bar Method states that the exercise “… Intensely stretches each muscle worked to make it look & feel longer & more graceful.”
Unfortunately, barre’s claims to create the dancer body are dubious. How does one promote lean over bulky muscles? How do tiny weights create long muscles? The answers are: you can’t, and they don’t.
How Does Barre Prevent “Bulk”? By Not Building Much Muscle
The idea of “bulky” muscles is a pervasive one, especially in the world of women’s fitness. Heavy weights are for men who want to build huge muscles whereas pink dumbbells and stretchy bands are for women who just want to “tone.” My mother, a medical doctor, advised me to avoid lifting weights a few weeks before my wedding to prevent my arms from looking too big.
But I learned that heavy weights do not create “bulky” muscles while light weights create “lean” muscles. As it turns out, muscle is muscle.
To understand the science behind this, I spoke with Dr. Rivas Donato, an exercise scientist at the Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. He explained that as you get stronger, you build muscle, but you don’t control whether that muscle is “lean” or “bulky.” “Your genotype is going to determine what your muscle looks like,” he said.
In traditional resistance exercise, muscle is built by lifting uncomfortably heavy weights. This causes microscopic tears in the muscle as you contract it. Then, your body uses protein from your diet to repair these muscles and cause something called “hypertrophy,” or an enlargement of the muscle mass. During typical resistance training using a weight circuit, free weights or barbells, you build muscle and strength by progressively increasing the weights you use. If you wanted to “shape” any part of your body, building muscle mass is one way to do that (the other way is losing weight).
Increased muscle mass provides benefits in addition to strength Dr. Rivas explained, “Larger muscles mean you’re more insulin sensitive, so you allow your muscle to use fuels that you brought in from your diet more efficiently… [It] also increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (the energy your body burns at rest) which allows you to absorb fuel from your diet more effectively so you’re not storing fat subcutaneously and becoming obese.”
So women definitely can and should build muscle, but most women couldn’t look like professional body builders or Olympic weightlifters even if they tried. Putting on muscle that could be considered “bulky” is a lot of work; it’s almost insulting to assume it could be done by accident!
So what happens when you hold tiny weights in a class like barre? Because the weights are so small—only two to five pounds—they don’t cause much or any hypertrophy of the muscle. So while you’re working hard and burning some calories keeping your arms in place, you don’t form muscle that will keep burning calories even after the class ends.
At first, participants could make modest strength gains, especially if they are new to push-ups, pull-ups, or the deep squats used during class. But because the class doesn’t progressively get more challenging and the weights are too light to cause hypertrophy, once someone masters the movements, she is unlikely to create new muscle mass. Once that three to five pound weight is manageable, you won’t build any more strength, even if you’re sweating while you work. So the secret of barre classes’ “lean muscles” is to not build muscle at all.
But what about toning? Dr. Rivas weighed in: “To me, I think muscle toning is having less subcutaneous fat so you can see the muscle itself.” In order to do this, you have to watch what you eat in addition to working out.
So there you have it: toned thighs are made in the kitchen, not at the bar.
Can Barre Create “Longer” Muscles? Actually, No.
A repeated phrase in all barre class advertisements are that muscles will become longer through stretching. I asked Dr. Rivas for his opinion:
“No, that’s not true. I don’t think that would ever happen or could happen. The muscle doesn’t lengthen… the length of your muscles is determined by the length of your bones, by your height.”
Your muscles attach to your bones in set places, depending on their function. While they can become stronger or weaker, they don’t ever become “longer,” and you wouldn’t want them to; it would probably indicate that something was very wrong.
Fitness Is Not About Looking Like a Ballerina: Women’s Fitness Culture
As I delved deeper into the hype surrounding barre classes, I was lucky to meet Emily Socolinsky, a professional trainer and dancer and former barre class instructor. In 2012, Emily published a popular blog post that’s still getting comments. It’s called “Why I don’t believe in Barre classes.”
Emily, a long-time professional dancer, began her fitness career giving barre classes at her studio. She promoted the class as one that was easy on the joints, and she quickly realized she loved giving classes for adults.
“I marketed my class as a class to feel good, not a class to tone your thighs, not a class to develop ‘long,’ ‘lean,’ muscles, not a class to look like a ballerina.”
As she continued on her journey as a fitness professional she decided to banish the barre class. She didn’t like the aura it had taken on. Instead, she wanted to focus on teaching women functional fitness. She now runs her own gym where she teaches strength and conditioning classes and despite her own experience as a dancer, she won’t bring back barre class.
“I don’t have a problem with barre classes; I don’t have a problem with any exercise class that gets people motivated or gets them moving because not everybody likes to lift weights, and I understand that… My problem with barre today is how it has become so popular through misleading advertisements and misleading marketing.”
She made the salient point that the women at barre classes are a self-selected group. This struck me as surprisingly true. I recalled the classes I attended in an upscale, spa-like gym and realized that most of the women I saw were of similar age and body type (and clad in similarly branded workout apparel).
“The women who are taking these classes already look like the teacher teaching the classes. And the teacher is a former dancer, and they are genetically gifted with certain bodies. That’s why prima ballerinas have those legs… That’s why weightlifters, the best weightlifters in the world, have really long torsos and really short legs… that’s why basketball players are gifted who are 6’5”.”
She’s had clients who take barre hoping they will see their bodies change to be more like the women they see in classes, but those other women “came in with those legs.”
In Emily’s opinion, it’s not productive to tell women it’s important to look like a dancer or to be “lean” like a dancer. This attitude is reductive and even offensive. Why does a woman need narrower thighs or tinier arms? To Emily, it’s important to empower women to love their bodies by building strength.
“I believe there are better ways to get a woman stronger and to make her feel better about her self… and it’s strength training because it does more than just give you a better body, it gives you confidence.”
Barre! What Is It Good For? Actually, Something!
No, barre is not going to make you look like a dancer, and no, it is not the fastest way to “sculpt” your body. But just because the ads are misleading, it doesn’t mean you should ditch your sticky socks and head for the hills.
For anyone reading who has tried barre, you know you’re working hard. If you’re not building muscle or strength, why is the class so challenging? When you hold your muscles static for so long, you probably build muscular endurance, Dr. Donato informed me. Also, the work will slightly raise your heart rate, so you’ll burn a more calories than you would if just stayed home!
More importantly, barre is less intense on the joints than many other forms of exercise, so it could be a good choice for people with previous injuries. And despite the lack of heavy weights, the push-ups and pull-ups in class are plenty challenging for most participants. Plus, any exercise can help participants lose some weight if they carefully monitor their diet at the same time.
At the end of the day, any workout that gets you to exercise is worthwhile. Just be wary of the hype.
Katherine Pett is a first year in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @smarfdoc