For many of us, the introduction to Pilates is a life-changing event. If you come from a background of typical gym workouts that center on strength and cardio training, the Pilates focus on bodyweight training and micro-movements comes as a surprise. Pilates enables you to focus on specific muscles to move fluidly at a controlled, disciplined pace while building that invigorating burn in the muscles that results from a challenging workout.
Maybe you're thinking: I get a total body workout from Pilates; can it possibly get any more challenging? The answer is Barre Pilates.
Barre Pilates (sometimes called "Barre Fusion") introduces signature moves that are informed by ballet conditioning and dance movements. Isometric contractions, where we hold the body in challenging poses such as Plank or single-leg balances, are ideal, functional moves for men and women, at every age. These moves improve balance, our sense of mind to muscle connection, proprioception (where the body is in space) and coordination - skills and strengths that enable strong, lean, healthy bodies at every age, for life.
“What is most important to me is that the students discover a quality of elegance in their posture and a grace in their movements,” says Pilates Anytime teacher and former professional ballet dancer, Diane Diefenderfer.
Barre Pilates classes are not your typical ballet classes. Barre Pilates classes take the basic foundations of Pilates and combine them with ballet-inspired moves, like plies and attitudes, as well as incorporating elements of dance, yoga and strength training.
“I base my classes on the basic fundamentals of both Pilates and classical ballet - the use of breath, correct spinal alignment, a neutral pelvic placement and constant awareness of the core as stabilizer,” says Diane Diefenderfer.
Just like Pilates, Barre classes commonly involve high-repetition bodyweight exercises that hold the muscles of the legs, abdominals, glutes and arms under tension for extended periods. This type of training leads to enhanced cardio fitness. It also strengthens the muscles that are required to maintain posture, stability through the joints and enduring balance.
For those of us who have watched a Barre Pilates class, or attended one, it's likely you've observed the trembling legs that are common in these classes. This is a result of putting the muscles under load as you build strength. This trembling is a sign of muscle fatigue and certainly not a sign of weakness. In fact, even the strongest of us are likely to experience this shake as the muscles use up the available glycogen (energy) stores.
Even though barre Pilates classes are tough on the muscles, they are gentle on the joints. By maintaining controlled, smaller movements, there is less pressure on your joints, tendons, ligaments and spine. Ultimately, this prevents and reduces injuries and leads to a taller, more graceful posture.
If you’re attending a Barre class in a studio, it’s likely you’ll use a ballet barre either attached to the wall or free-standing. It’s not necessary to have a barre if you want to practice at home though. We’ll come to that soon. You may also use a Pilates ball, elastic resistance bands, Pilates Circle, a Mat, and light weights. Different studios and teachers embrace various methods of training, which means that through trying different classes, you’ll find the teachers and methods that most appeal to you.
Just like Pilates, Barre Pilates enhances your posture through focusing on core strength, optimal alignment of the joints and improved balance. Barre Pilates can be practiced alongside Pilates, yoga, dance and any other physical training you do. It’s designed to be a full body workout that prepares your body for all strength and cardio challenges.
“I incorporate a lot of spinal articulation throughout the class - forward flexion, rotational moments of the spine and hyperextension,” says Diane Diefenderfer. “Correct use of external rotation of the legs, or turn-out, is of paramount importance in ballet and I use it in the barre class to facilitate many of the exercises. This allows for greater movements of the legs from the hip. Inner thigh work is constantly emphasized as well.”
Like Pilates, Barre Pilates is founded on awareness of the core stabilizing muscles that support long, balanced posture and enduring energy and strength. These are your abdominals, pelvic muscles, back, glutes and hips. Barre Pilates classes require you to balance on one leg, to externally rotate from the hips, to move forward, back, laterally and in rotation so that you are working the muscles from all angles. This develops a harmonious and balanced body, one that is able to move with confidence and mindfulness. No two classes are identical either, so by maintaining a regular barre Pilates practice, you will progress over time to be able to maintain your form under pressure with more ease, reach further, plie lower and lift higher.
As with most classes, there will be a warm-up that introduces the sorts of moves and muscle actions that you’ll rely on in class. From there, depending on the type of barre class and whether it’s more classical or energetic (as in Tracey Mallett’s Bootybarre classes), you will do some standing work, balance, plies and lunges which coordinate with graceful, strong arm moves. You may use dumbbells, elastics, weighted balls or no equipment at all.
Expect to find it challenging as your body adapts to these new methods of movement, but also expect your heart rate to rise, the muscles of your belly and legs to fatigue and even shake, but also expect to learn a lot from your teacher and to have fun. Really!
The larger the muscles you're working, the more calories you burn. Since Barre Pilates works your thighs, glutes and abdominals to fatigue, you'll definitely be burning through some serious energy during and after your workout. As you continue to do barre Pilates classes, you'll build long, lean muscle. This increase in lean muscle means you'll be burning up calories even at rest because your resting metabolic rate increases. More importantly than weight loss though, are the improvements you'll see in your posture and muscle tone. This will enable you to both feel and look longer, leaner and more confident.
When it comes to footwear, Diane believes that practicing barefoot is okay, although a ballet slipper can offer a little more support to the ball of the foot. "Jazz shoes or dance sneakers are good too. Some older students would probably be most comfortable with some kind of a support instead of bare feet." Beware of socks as slippage can be a problem. "They also do not allow for the best articulation of the foot if the student is sliding on a hardwood floor," she adds.
Tons of repetitions are not recommended, nor are they necessary if the class is structured correctly. According to Diane, "A variety of exercises can target the inner thighs, for example, without repeating the same exercise 100 times."
Lastly, Diane suggests finding a good instructor who addresses the WHOLE body throughout the class is paramount. "And please no quick, out of control 'squats,'" says Diane.
So, you’ve decided to give Barre Pilates a go. Find your plie, and feel the shake. You're a ballerina already.