In the pantheon of a “man’s workout,” barre would probably rank slightly below yoga but just above Zumba. And until you actually try a barre class, the stereotypical misconception of pirouetting to “Nutcracker”-like music will more than likely remain.
But if you have the guts to give barre a shot, and still expect a less-than-challenging workout, especially when your meathooks are handed a set of tiny dumbbells and instructed to begin “pulsing,” be warned: With Bruno Mars blasting through the sound system, no one’s gonna hear you gasping for air, but the female-dominated class grooving to the uptown funk will most certainly see you flail.
But then some may take compassion toward your coordination fail and lend a helping hand, so don’t be too discouraged. Embarrassment is a common male theme for a barre class, but it’s a visual that never gets old for New York City health guru and barre trainer Rachel Donohue.
“Watching guys burn out so quickly doing arm circles makes me laugh,” Donohue says. “It happens so quickly. Normally I’ll have ‘em use 4-pound weights because they’re, well, guys, and I’ll tell them to keep their hands up for two songs – about eight minutes. But they’re like, knocked out in about a minute. Then I just hand them the 2-pound weights.”
Short version: Barre can be difficult, but it works. More associated with the lean European look than a powerlifting accessory tool, this full-body, ballet-themed hybrid of yoga and Pilates uses short pulsating movements to target muscles not normally hit during a normal weight-training workout.
So what is barre, anyway?
Barre is a low-impact, dance-based blend of yoga and Pilates, that focuses on stretching and breathing, and posture improvement. It was created in the 1950s by a German dancer, Lotte Berk, after she fled the Nazis during WWII and relocated to London. She used her ballet expertise as therapy for a back injury, and went on to open a studio on her basement.
Today, a typical 60-minute barre class burns about 200 calories. It’s a full-body workout, but barre especially hits your glutes and adductors (inner thigh) in ways that those “in and out” machines can’t quite replicate. This translates into better lower-body mobility, which can come in handy next time you hit the squat rack, especially if you’re one of those whose glutes don’t always fire on leg day. Barre will fix that.
“After a barre class, you’ll feel exhausted,” Donohue says. “You may not want to lift your arms, or you’ll feel weird muscle soreness in your glutes. Muscles you didn’t know you had will ache,” Donohue says.
There’s also the social aspect to barre. If your phone isn’t lighting up on date night, a typical barre class’s lopsided girl-to-guy ratio has the potential to fix that as well. And it’s no surprise considering today working out has become much more attractive than hitting the bar, as millennials are ditching the happy hour and the alcohol and instead gathering at boot camp workouts or barre studios such as Pure Barre or even Donohue’s private Manhattan and Hamptons classes.
“Walking out girls are very moved and open to meet new people after class, so Barre is a great way to meet after class,” Donohue says.
An additional barre bonus is that little to no equipment is really needed — a mat, horizontal bar (or you can use the back of a chair) and optional light dumbbells are all you really need – making it a workout that can be done at home in the park, even at your desk at work. But if you’re taking a class, “you’re going to sweat,” Donohue says. “And since having flexibility is a key, it’s good to stretch a little before class. And just remember to prepare mentally to focus on breathing and your posture.”
NYC health guru Rachel Donohue demonstrates an Allongee Propeller (provided)
The barre workout
Unless you’re aiming for that clueless, novice look when you first try a barre class, Donohue (RachelDonohue.com) suggests trying these five essential moves at home or at the gym. You can eventually incorporate them into a preworkout warmup or even as accessory exercises on leg day. Try each for one round at first, then gradually work your way to five rounds or more. Soon you’ll see your squats increase, and maybe even your date calendar will fill up – if you can survive the workout.
"I haven’t seen a whole lot of love connections," Donohue admits, "only because the men are in such pain and are distracted by the awkwardness of the poses."
Arabesque Pulse: Your glutes will hate you now, but thank you when you get under the squat bar. An arabesque is a posture in which the body is supported on one leg while the second leg is extended backward in a horizontal position. With your hands lightly holding a bar or chair, fold your body at the hips, then extend your right leg out behind you. Keep the leg straight behind you and your toes pointed toward the back wall, in line with your hips. Begin “pulsing” your leg up and down slightly. Do 12 reps then repeat with other leg.
Allongée Propeller: Lightly holding a bar or chair, bend your right leg then bring your right knee to your chest. With your left leg, stand high on your toes or just with your heel off the ground to get a full range of motion. Hinge at your hips, then bring your right knee to the ceiling with your heeling bent at 90 degrees. Keep your back flat before returning to start position. Do 12 reps per let.
Plié Pulse: A great move for your adductor muscles (inner thigh), think of plies as a squat (although Donohue emphasizes they’re not) but with your toes pointed outward. With your hands lightly holding a bar or chair, spread your feet wider than hip-width, toes pointed outward. Sink your butt down into a low squat, then lift your right heel up 10 times. Then lower yourself about another inch, this time lifting your left heel 10 times. Drop another inch and this time, lifting on both toes and pulse into your glutes for 10 reps.
Plié with Arm Work: In a plie position (feet hip width, toes pointed outward), lift onto your toes, holding 2- to 3-pound weights in each hand. Do small arm circles, forward then reverse, 20 reps each. To add difficulty, add a pulse while doing circles.
Table Top Knee Lift: Grab a mat and a light dumbbell. Start in tabletop position (flat back, hands and knees on ground about shoulder-width apart. Place 2-pound weight behind right knee, and hold in bent position. With your core tight, bring right knee with toes pointed come into chest then shoot up to the ceiling, for 10 reps. On the final rep, begin lightly pulsing for 30 seconds. Return to start then switch legs.