Take a quick scroll through Instagram's #barre feed and you'll see pros, novices, models, and celebrities alike all taking part. But what is a barre class, and what exactly can it do for the body? The low-impact conditioning class is a total three-for-one: It combines the movement of ballet, the strengthening of pilates, and the stretching of yoga (all within one 45-minute class).
The actual “barre” in class is used as a prop to help you balance, leaving you to focus on isometric strength exercises (i.e., holding your body still while you contract a small and specific set of muscles). The movements might be small, but trust us—you’ll feel the burn. To learn all the ins and outs of a barre workout, we consulted with two barre pros: Julie Erickson of Endurance Pilates and Yoga as well as Leah Willoughby, instructor and personal trainer at Ten Health & Fitness.
Meet the Expert
Here’s everything you should know about barre classes and the benefits of the ballet-inspired workout.
What Are Barre Workouts?
Barre fitness is a super-energizing whole-body workout that’s great for everyone from beginners to pros. Each class works to build alignment, strengthen your core, and tone and elongate muscles. Think of it as offering all the body benefits of a ballet dancer—without actually having to attempt a plié.
"A barre workout combines traditional elements of a classical ballet barre workout with Pilates and contemporary leg exercises to offer a low-impact, challenging workout focusing on the lower body," explains Erickson. "A barre workout will tone the glutes, hamstrings, and calves creating that long, lean dancer look." The workout itself is appropriate for most students with proper supervision and cueing by an instructor, with the exception of students with serious lower body injuries.
What is a Barre Class Like?
Most barre classes will start with a short warmup, some using small weights and others starting at the barre. The teacher will demonstrate the movement and then provide encouragement and corrections for the students to get the most out of every movement in every exercise. "All classes will hold a portion of their exercises at the barre and on the yoga mat," says Erickson. "The exercises are fun to perform and it’s wonderful to 'share the pain' with the group in your class while you work at the barre."
Erickson notes that it may take a few weeks to see results (hello, looser-fitting jeans). "Most dedicated students will see results in their overall leg and abdominal strength, including a decrease in the circumference of the thighs and a lifted tush in about four weeks," she says.
What to Wear to a Barre Class
Part of the fun of picking up a new workout is choosing clothes and gear to accompany it. Ericskon recommends wearing form-fitting clothing, such as leggings and a fitted top. "This will allow your teacher to see your form and provide corrections that will make you perform the exercise correctly to get the most out of each move while protecting your back," she explains.
More than likely it will be suggested to take your shoes off for your barre class. To prevent yourself from slipping, be sure to wear socks that have grips on the bottom.
The Benefits of Barre Workouts
1. Improves posture
“There’s a big focus on strengthening the muscles through the chest and shoulders in barre practice, which in turn prevents us from slouching,” Willoughby says. After just a few sessions, you’ll feel yourself standing taller with a sense of elongation throughout your body.
A 2020 study investigated postural angles on participants partaking in ballet barre exercises for 50 minutes twice per week for 12 weeks. The results found that barre significantly improved head, shoulder, and pelvic posture.
2. Strengthens glutes
Sure, this extra toning is a win for us in the peachy rear department, but Willoughby explains that there’s more to it than a tightened bum. “More importantly, working on your glutes helps to strengthen all the muscles that stabilize the pelvis. This can in turn help to alleviate pressure on the back, hips and knees,” she says.
3. Tones stomach muscles
Because barre focuses heavily on balance and strength, your core is an integral part of training. “As you use the abdominals to hold the body in a correct alignment, barre classes will give you a heavy core workout—perfect for keeping toned tummies in check,” says Willoughby. This can be especially helpful for postpartum mothers looking to bounce back.
4. Increases flexibility
The combination of stretching and the focus on posture allows your flexibility to be pushed to the limit. This means fewer potential injuries and improved physical performance. By no means do you need to be the most graceful, swan-like prima ballerina at barre (the movements are easy to adapt for all levels). Give yourself a few weeks and you’ll be surprised at how your flexibility increases.
5. Reduces stress
We all know that exercise, in general, helps to reduce stress, but whereas yoga quietens the mind and HIIT “gets it all out,” barre sits somewhere in between. Barre is a mental challenge, as each movement requires a level of mindfulness to stay engaged. It’s almost like a form of meditation, as your brain remains intensely focused on each small movement. You’ll leave each class feeling lifted and calm.
6. Better mental focus
You might find yourself being quick on your feet when it comes to thinking and problem solving after your barre session. Similar to stress, exercise in general releases endorphins that keep your mind sharp. Research has shown the combination of pilates and yoga specifically (which is ultimately what barre is) may improve mental clarity and keep you thinking positively.
7. Increases overall strength
Not feeling like lifting heavy weights, but want to improve your strength? No problem. With barre you're often using only small hand weights (or none at all), resistance bands, and stability balls. You also don't have to worry what day of week leg day lands on. Barre exercises are full-body workouts, strengthening your arms, legs, and core all in one session.
If you're a newbie, try the class without weights for the first go around. It might seem easy, but trust us, you'll likely still feel the muscle aches the next day.
8. Improves endurance
Endurance is more than being able to improve your stamina for future workouts, it also impacts important organs. The American Heart Association states that your heart, lungs, and circulatory system stay healthy when endurance activity, like barre, is incorporated in your routine. When you stay consistent with these exercises, you can reduce the risk of developing diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Barre Workouts vs. Traditional Cardio
Unlike more obvious (read: sweaty) workouts like HIIT, boxing, or spin, barre workouts are different. "Depending on the low-impact cardio class format (I’m assuming a choreographed class) there can be lots of choreography and quick changes as well as memorizing of moves to coordinate," says Erickson. "A barre class is more static, focusing on the tiny movements to work each muscle to its absolute edge."
And while weight loss isn’t the main focus of a barre class (you’re unlikely to shed the pounds as quickly as you might from spin or HIIT), you’ll definitely feel slimmer thanks to your improved posture and alignment. Your muscles will feel toned, your limbs will look longer and you’ll be standing taller. Trust us—once you start barre, you’ll spot a sloucher a mile off.
Barre Workouts vs. Pilates
According to Erickson, mat pilates is a specific regimen based on the work of Joseph Pilates that utilizes the muscles of the core to stabilize portions of the body to increase strength and flexibility. "Joseph Pilates called his regimen Contrology, as control of the muscles is the most important factor in his sequence of 34 body weight exercises performed on the mat," explains Erickson. "He also created an apparatus like the reformer in order to assist students in their pursuit of achieving mastery in all of the mat exercises."
The Best Items for Barre
Below, we’ve rounded up a kit of essentials you’ll need for any barre workout.
These fashion-forward biker shorts are form-fitting without being restrictive, and they feature a stretch waistband for total comfort.
Though it's designed for medium- to high-impact workouts, this compression sports bra is comfortable enough to wear to a barre class—it keeps you in place and ensures you stay cool with its mesh paneling.
Grip socks are a must for stabilizing your body and holding certain movements. We dig the fun colors of these (though they're available in all-black, too), and the breathable fabric.
Get the most out of your workout with a good yoga mat like this one by Lutava, which features antimicrobial natural rubber and a non-slip cushion for a comfortable workout.
Gone are the days of gargling down room temp water in between reps. This double-insulated water bottle keeps your cold drinks cool for up to 24 hours.
Jiwoo C, Hyunjun K. "Effects of ballet bar and elastic band exercise on body composition, physical fitness and postural correction in middle-aged women." Journal of the Korean Society of Integrative Medicine. 2020. 109-119.
Harvard Health Publishing. Exercising to relax. Updated July 7, 2020.
Lim E J, Park J E. "The effects of pilates and yoga participant's on engagement in functional movement and individual health level." Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 553-559. 2019.
Cleveland Clinic. Everything you want to know about Pilates. Updated August 20, 2020.