by Meagham Harwood, DPT
Whether the boom in viewers of shows like Dancing with the Stars have been a factor or not, there has been a definite increase in the popularity of barre classes. It seems that we all want to “tone up” our tummies, arms, and thighs to get that sculpted dancer’s physique. Although that might not have been the reason I went to my first barre class, it does come to mind whenever I walk into the studio and see everyone lined up in front of the mirrors at the barre. Before we discuss these popular group classes, let’s briefly address the idea of getting “toned”.
Although it is true that you can strive for optimal balance of muscle strength and length, it is a bit of a misnomer that you can target tone one area. In order to see changes in a specific area such as your abdominals or buttocks, you have to lose overall body fat. You can work your abdominals all day every day and you will not have washboard abs unless you decrease your percentage of body fat. Moreover, most of us were not graced with the genetics for the body composition of a ballerina or elite athlete. So please, do not come in and ask, “How can I tone my tush?” Which brings me to those barre classes and their claims to “tuck your tummy and lift your seat”. There are many versions of these classes but they all take concepts from ballet, Pilates, and yoga with most utilizing some version of the traditional ballet barre as a prop along with weighted and unweighted balls, and yoga blocks and straps. The premise behind these classes is grounded in a solid foundation – a stable core – along with high repetition low impact or isometric strengthening sequences (those small pulsing movements that make your legs shake). Most of these classes also use some version of the “tuck”, which again is based on the important idea of a neutral spine with good body alignment and postural stability.
There are a few things to consider before jumping on to the barre bandwagon. First and foremost, if you have a history of low back pain, you may want to be evaluated by a physician or physical therapist to rule out significant pathology, as well as get a full postural assessment. The “tuck” that is repeatedly addressed in these classes is typically a combination of a posterior pelvic tilt and rounding of the low back with tensing of the nearby muscles in hopes of attaining alignment with subsequent engagement of core musculature for stability. Focusing on alignment and stability sounds perfect, but we are all individual when it comes to what this actually means for us in practice. Although many could benefit from a posterior tilt in order to assume a neutral spine, it is not the case for all. In fact, some people will actually exacerbate low back issues with a posterior tilt, particularly if it is excessive, or with a rounding of the low back putting unnatural stress on the joints of the spine. In addition, it can be remarkably difficult to engage the core. And even harder to engage the core without simply holding your breath, squeezing your gluts, and hoping that somehow you can keep this rounded position at the barre without passing out before the song ends! When I refer to the “core” I am not just talking about your abdominals. Your core encompasses muscles that are both superficial and deep from your spine along the back around to the front of your torso as well as lumbosacral and hip muscles that are interrelated. Therefore, it takes more than tucking your bottom to obtain your optimal spine position and engage your core muscles while carrying out the various movements during class. If done correctly, the strengthening activities in these classes can be very beneficial, but it is not as simple as it might seem at first glace. Listen to your body. If you start to experience low back pain during class, do not just work through it. Depending on the severity, change your body position, take a break, or simply stop participating.
One last point, the various barre classes available have a very short and very quick stretching routine at the end of the class. Be cautious and pay particular attention to your body at a time when you are ready for the hour to just be over! Research indicates that stretches should be held for 30-60 seconds several times for optimal benefit. Again, I suggest listening to your own body. It takes at least 30 seconds for muscle fibers to elongate and reach the desired length. If you have a trouble spot, stay in that position and stretch it a bit longer. Personally, I always do my own few stretches at the end of class while the instructor rapidly moves the rest of the class through a routine that just barely hits all the major muscle groups. No reasonable instructor will find fault in you listening to your body at the end of class and targeting your specific restrictions. So, do you dream of the long lean lines of a dancer?
Well forget the pink tutu, but grab a water bottle and head to a local barre-based class and see for yourself what all the buzz is about. Overall, I like these classes and think they are a big improvement on some other versions of group exercise. So, go take a barre class and enjoy the burn, but keep some of these considerations in mind.
Dr. Harwood is a physical therpist at Boston Sports Medicine