Many strength routines call for big movements: deadlifts, squats, presses. But that can leave some of your smallest muscles out of the fitness equation. Enter barre.
A combination of moves derived from ballet, yoga, and Pilates, barre uses minimal equipment — often just a wooden ballet barre. This provides balance as exercisers “lift, tuck, and curl” their way to improved coordination, muscle endurance, and core strength, says Meredith Butulis, DPT, a Twin Cities–based physical therapist, dancer, and Life Time Academy instructor (pictured here).
It focuses on isometric strength training (holding your body still while contracting a specific set of muscles) and high repetitions of small movements, Butulis explains.
This combo can be hugely beneficial — but also problematic, if not coached well. A common complaint that Butulis hears from barre aficionados is chronic lower-back pain and injury.
“Feeling the burn is OK,” she says, “but listen to your body and rest as needed to avoid pain, pinching sensations, or muscle cramping.”
Butulis designed the following take-anywhere barre workout with a practical goal in mind: Break down common exercises and cues so you can get the most out of your workouts, in or out of a class setting.
Try to keep these tips in mind during every barre workout:
- Brace your core muscles to support your lower back.
- Root your standing leg to the floor by engaging your glutes during single-leg movements.
- Maintain good alignment when bending at the knees by tracking your knees in line with your second toes.
- Position your toes flat on the floor and keep your weight between your first and second toes to keep your ankles stable when you’re on your tiptoes. (You don’t go en pointe to the very tips of your toes as in ballet.)
Once you have these cues down, barre is an outlet for utility and creativity. “Give yourself permission to play and explore!” Butulis says.
The following movements are keystone barre exercises. Try doing them to your favorite music — upbeat songs ranging from 125 to 140 beats per minute (bpm) are typical in barre classes (Katy Perry’s “Firework,” for example, is about 125 bpm, while Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is closer to 140 bpm). Perform each of the movements to an eight-count beat, making small, controlled pulse motions on each beat. Count the beats in your head. Using one hand to hold on to a barre or the back of a sturdy chair for balance, practice each exercise two or three times a week following this progression:
- Week 1: 1 set of 8 reps for each move
- Week 2: 2 sets of 8 reps for each move
- Week 3: 1 set of 16 reps for each move
- Week 4: 2 sets of 16 reps for each move
- Week 5: 1 set of 32 reps for each move
Why it’s great: Strengthens and tones your glutes and inner thighs.
- Keep your shoulders stacked over your hips and brace
- Set your feet wider than shoulder width and turn your toes outward.
- Keeping your torso upright, lower into a wide squat. Keep your heels down and your knees in line with your second toes. Pulse.
- Arch your lower back.
- Let your knees cave inward.
Make It Easier:
- Start with your toes only slightly turned out.
- Shorten your range of motion and bend your knees only slightly if you feel a lot of pressure on your kneecaps.
Why it’s great: Strengthens and tones your glutes and hamstrings and improves balance.
- Stack your hip over the foot of your standing leg.
- Engage your glutes to lift one leg.
- Engage your core and lift your leg higher. Either slightly rotate your spine or lean forward a bit to avoid crunching your lower back.
- Pulse your raised leg up and down by squeezing your glutes.
- Overarch your lower back. If you feel your lower back pinching, engage your core more tightly and lower your back leg slightly.
- Pull or push excessively on your chair. If you find your grip on the chair tightening, you might be off balance. Reposition your standing hip over your standing foot to help regain your balance.
Make It Easier: Practice a smaller motion while focusing on engaging your core and glutes, instead of lifting the back leg high right away.
Why it’s great: Strengthens your feet, arches, and calves and improves balance.
- Keep your toes flat and press them into the floor.
- Keep most of your weight over your big toes and second toes.
- Press down into the floor to lift up onto the balls of your feet. Pulse up and down.
- Claw your toes into the floor.
- Roll your weight onto the outer edge of your foot.
Make It Easier:
- Shorten your range of motion and go halfway up as you build more strength in your feet.
- Take breaks to stretch your calves or feet. Don’t try to push through pain or cramping.
This originally appeared as “Barre Basics” in the September 2018 print issue of Experience Life.