The Barre Boom Bonanza
Barre programs are spreading like wildfire. Why is barre capturing so much interest, and what makes a safe and effective barre program?
Susan Grimm, 60 years old, in Orlando, Florida, says, “When I opened the door of the 1 Body Studio, managed by Leslee Bender, I felt at home. I had been turned away before from an expensive local barre studio. After two C-sections and much weight gain, I felt horrible about myself. I tried health clubs but always felt out of place. In 1 Body Studio’s barre class, I could go at my own pace. I try to come three or four times a week. I’ve lost 40 pounds, but the weight loss is icing on the cake. I feel stronger now. I hear my body more now than ever.”
Grimm’s story points to one reason why barre classes are growing in popularity: While participants can train together, they receive individual coaching and work at their own pace. Another reason for barre’s success? Using a prop helps many students feel confident they can accomplish exercises that otherwise would be too intimidating. Bender noticed that this was true in Grimm’s case.
“People can feel success doing barre,” observes Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, professor of exercise science and a researcher at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Montgomery, Alabama. “It’s not over-the-top cardio like HIIT, which is demanding. Barre classes use positions, postures and exercises that target muscles in the trouble-zone areas such as legs, glutes and abdominals, making people feel satisfied that they’ve challenged those ‘challenging to change’ body areas.”
Tricia Murphy Madden, co-creator of Barre Above™ and fitness director at Denali Fitness in Seattle, says, “Barre is a current fitness obsession because its focus is muscular endurance. Bodies respond rapidly, because for many people it’s their first time doing endurance training. And it’s low impact, upbeat and easy to follow.”
Statistics support the noticeable barre boom. Barre and Pilates are the top two group exercise activities among women, according to the Fall 2014 IRHSA Health Club Consumer Seasonal Trend Report. Barre has grown so quickly that the Sports
Fitness Industry Association began collecting data on it in 2013. From 2013 to 2014, total participation in barre across the United States rose by more than 10% (Sports
Fitness Industry Association 2015). Currently, barre programs are providing the boost to the fitness industry that CrossFit® stimulated a few years ago. Fitness facilities are adding programs to avoid losing members to studios.
Barre Training From the 1950s to Today
The original barre instructor, Lotte Berk (1913–2003), a German-born modern dancer who relocated to London, developed a combined barre and mat exercise technique that was popularized when she trained celebrities in Vidal Sassoon’s London hair salon in the 1960s. One American student, Lydia Bach, bought rights to the Lotte Berk name, trademarked it, and opened The Lotte Berk Method® studio in New York City, in 1970 (Saxon 2003). From these early roots, barre-styled training has exploded throughout the United States and is growing internationally.
Today, barre programs can include anything from specific balletic movements taught only by former professional dancers, to “hot barre,” to programs that offer functional cross-training for athletes and people of all ages and abilities. Some programs focus primarily on lower-body training; others work the whole body. Some highlight cardiovascular exercise; others focus on muscle endurance and strength training. Most involve a combination of ballet, Pilates, yoga and muscle-conditioning exercises.
Some programs, like Pure Barre—which ranked #211 among the top 500 growing franchises in
magazine’s 2015 Franchise 500® list—are designed for stand-alone studios (Harold 2015). Others, like Balanced Body® Barre™, Barre Above, Fluidity®, LTS™: LeBarre™, and Total Barre™, can be offered in fitness facilities. “Barre studios typically cater to the young, affluent female,” notes Madden. “A much bigger range of participants are in health clubs, YMCAs and the like, where an average age of 45–55 in classes is not uncommon.”
See the Web Extra, “Program Selection: How to Decide?,” for more on the different programs out there.
Benefits and Risks of Barre Training
Barre training can provide numerous benefits—including targeted lower-body training, neuromuscular reeducation, core strengthening, and improvements in overall alignment and function—
instructors modify the traditional exercise approach of holding a tucked pelvis and, instead, emphasize neutral alignment and intelligent use of repetition and range of motion. If instructors
take an up-to-date approach and don’t modify moves for the untrained dancer, barre exercises may harm joints and connective tissue and can lead to injury.
Benefits of Barre
“Effective barre training increases local strength, muscular endurance, core fitness and, likely, balance,” says Olson. “It’s good for the brain and coordination and can help someone round out a traditional exercise routine.”
It can also restore functional neutral alignment. Peter G. Gorman, doctor of chiropractic, president of Microgate USA, in Mahopac, New York, and a movement analysis specialist, assessed 18 people before and after they completed the Fluidity® Method barre exercises. “We found that all subjects showed improvement with balance, timing, coordination and mobility and the exercises provided corrective movement to restore proper alignment.” Gorman thinks this improvement was due to the emphasis placed on neutral alignment and proper engagement of the core, including the pelvic floor.
“The barre is very good for making sure that you only move correctly,” he continues. “Looking forward, I think we will quickly realize that pelvic-floor weakness and incontinence are early signs that balance ability is diminishing and the risk of falling is steadily increasing. In other words, dysfunction is rising. The good news is that with corrective exercise, we can restore proper function. In essence, we are performing true neuromuscular reeducation, and the benefits will be profound to all.”
In its floor-work segment, the Barre Above program incorporates the Bender Method of Core Training, which uses an 8-inch mini stability ball as a conditioning tool and as a way to ensure proper alignment and engagement of pelvic-floor muscles. In a study of 46 subjects at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, researchers found that this training method reduced lower-back pain, increased range of motion and improved core muscle strength by 26% when participants did the exercises three times per week for 1 month (Petrovsky et al. 2008).
Bender says, “Using the Bender ball for core work diminishes overusing the hip flexors, which can be common in barre. And placing the ball between the thighs during standing work helps to activate the pelvic floor vertically against gravity.”
Risks (and Limitations) of Barre
Barre may involve two isometric-style training elements: pulsing and static holds. Isometric training has benefits, but also limitations and risks.
—contracting a muscle in a range of motion up to 2 inches—is close to an isometric contraction, and the burning sensation means the muscle is primarily using anaerobic glycolysis to fuel contractions, explains Olson. With pulsing, increased strength occurs
at the precise range where pulsing occurs.
is an isometric contraction that improves the ability to hold a position longer without reaching muscular fatigue. For example, when you hold a crouched position in an activity like gardening, you’re maintaining a static hold.
Pulses and static holds should be done for 10–30 seconds after the muscle has been prefatigued with full-range-of-motion exercises—which is very challenging.
Risks of isometric-style training include lightheadedness or dizziness, explains Olson. Deep exhalations that release a lot of carbon dioxide reduce lactate levels, which can make participants light-headed until they adapt. People are also prone to holding their breath during long isometric contractions; this can cause blood pressure to rise and then fall quickly, leading to dizziness, light-headedness or “seeing stars.” Reminding students to breathe is essential.
There are other risks to barre if proper form is not maintained: People can develop or exacerbate lower-back pain, and they can place too much stress on joints (hips, knees or ankles) and connective tissue. Externally rotating the legs or doing toning exercises on the balls of the feet can worsen this. Bender says, “Participants should work in their personal neutral alignment so they can move in and out of exercises without restricting the lumbar and thoracic spine. People should also avoid doing excessive external rotation, overusing hip flexors and tucking the pelvis.”
Olson agrees: “Extreme positions are unnecessary and unadvised. Tucking [the pelvis] is overtaxing on the low back and sacrum, and it pushes soft tissues and spinal alignment into ranges that cause too much compression and shear force.” Jenn Hall, Atlanta-based director of education programs for Lebert Training Systems™, in Canada, and creator of LTS LeBarre, recommends teaching all exercises initially in parallel and then introducing them in external rotation when people have developed sufficient strength to maintain good alignment.
“More and more people are suffering from barre injuries because they are not training in proper alignment,” says Michelle Austin, creator of the Fluidity® Method and CEO and founder of Fluidity Management, LLC, in Indialantic, Florida. “. . . They’re often using posterior tilts and training small muscles before large muscles. If people train in misalignment, they make their pelvic floors weaker, their balance gets worse and [they develop more] back issues.” Some experts think it is essential for barres to be height adjustable and able to support a participant’s weight in 360 degrees for a workout to be effective. Other experts think portable barres and wall-mounted barres can be equally effective for training. To learn more about different types of barre programming and equipment options, see the Web Extra.
The Future of Barre
Barre programming is likely to grow as long as safe and effective programs continue to provide people with results. Michelle Jernigan, group exercise coordinator for the Alpharetta YMCA and master trainer for Barre Above, in Atlanta, says, “In the past year and a half that I’ve been teaching, the [barre] workout has added function and movement to enhance my students’ lifestyle and correct postural deviances. . . . My students have lost weight, feel longer through active stretching, move better, feel better and love the low impact combined with the power of working smaller neglected muscles.”
“Life knocks you out of balance,” says Gorman. “Proper training can knock you back into balance. Let’s create the perfect ‘pit stop’ of corrective exercise and restore balance, control and fluid movement before dysfunction turns into something permanent. We can help people move more efficiently in life; and we’re all in the game of life.” n
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“Barre classes use positions, postures and exercises that target muscles in the trouble-zone areas such as legs, glutes and abdominals, making people feel satisfied that they’ve challenged those ‘challenging to change’ body areas.”
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