Posted on May 03 2016
Where can you find beautiful people doing graceful arabesques in a sweat-breaking fitness class on a Thursday evening in NYC?
In a barre studio of course!
If you are active in the fitness community, or frequent the blogs of those who are, then chances are you've heard/read about barre classes before. They are famous for their ballet-inspired exercises that promise a slew of benefits such as muscle toning, weight loss and rehabilitation from injuries.
So I decided to join Emily Zuzelski at the popular NYC studio Physique 57 to try it out for myself. Here's an inside look at my experience.
Our blogger Michelle and Emily in Studio 1 at Physique 57
My First Encounter With Barre
Going into the class I wasn't too sure what to expect. Yes I had read all the PR plugs on its origin, its focus on isometric movements as a form of strength training and the amazing results people have seen, but what I would actually be required to do I couldn't fully imagine.
Did I have to twirl around to Swan Lake? Do I need perfect balance and a graceful stature? Should I go in tutus...? I tried ballet briefly as a kid and fell more times than I was able to stand upright so yea, I was pretty nervous. Also I'm generally skeptical of ANY form of exercise that promises to do X in Y amount of time. It just sounded too good to be true.
Turns outs my concerns were completely unfounded. There were clear traces of ballet present in the workouts, but there was definitely zero dancing involved (phew!). The best way to describe it is a blend of yoga, Pilates and ballet done at the pace of an interval training session (but much longer and with way less breaks) all while blood-pumping hip hop music is playing in the background.
Here's the shocker for me, it was also incredibly challenging. Granted I did the full 57-minute class in Physiclo tights which probably upped the intensity quite a bit, but I know even without them the workout would've been tough.
I'm not the most devoted fitness fanatic or anything but I've been active all my life and do a variety of exercises on a regular basis. I'm also not a stranger to body weight-only workouts which is what barre is. Yet this was the first "beginners-level" class I couldn't completely keep up with from start to finish; I had to take plenty of breaks.
Emily started the class with a 5 minute warm-up. They were pretty standard upper/lower body workouts with light free weights, squats, planks and stretches. 10 minutes into the core barre exercise however I was seriously struggling. From there my goal quickly shifted from killing the workout to just being able to survive it.
Two things that I found particularly difficult (but also super rewarding after I did it!):
1) The high reps and the "double whammy" positions
Aside from the stretching and push-ups, all of the exercises started with a base position, say a plié pose on our toes, and then added an extra movement on top, such as squeezing a small exercise ball repeatedly using our knees or going all the way down for a full 90-degree squat. Another example would be a doing regular plank (base position) and then lifting each leg in turn and pulsing up and down (secondary movement).
We went through at least two 10-rep rounds of each exercise. My thighs were literally twitching during some of the moves and it was incredibly difficult to maintain good posture for the "base" positions. Now one or two of these would be no problem on their own, and are common in strength training, but this was the ENTIRE class, all 57 minutes!
2) The intense concentration on each muscle group
You know how doing high knees or burpees are hard cardiovascular-wise but also satisfying because you’re activating the whole body? Barre is the exact opposite. It focuses on one limb at a time and then one muscle at a time.
We started with thighs, then moved on to arms and lastly core. For each target area the right side would go first then the left (and different muscle groups for core). We spent at least 10 minutes JUST on exercises targeting the right thigh. It was both physically and mentally challenging as all I wanted to do was stretch my legs out, but I had to really push myself to finish the reps.
Emily doing a perfect arabesque and my poor imitation of it...
This was where Emily's coaching skills really stood out. She made sure to learn everyone's names at the beginning of class and called us out individually throughout the session to encourage us to keep going. Several times I wanted to give up but didn't because she saw I was struggling and cheered me on.
A Little Background on Emily (@emilyzuzelski)
Emily started teaching at Physique 57 six years ago following an extensive career in dance and musical theater. She saw it as a natural fit as "the technique was originally developed to help dancers build core stability and recover from injuries."
Since then barre has become her go-to workout. In her words, it has made her a stronger and more confident woman being surrounded by amazing coworkers and clients who inspire and empower her everyday. She recommends taking four to five classes per week for the best results.
The venue itself was also top notch. Welcoming reception area, big locker rooms with towel service, showers and toiletries. The dance studios were well-lit, spacious and well-equipped. Above all the place smelled sooo good.
As tough as it was I would definitely try barre again and recommend it to anyone who’s curious. I can't attest to its claims as I've only taken one class, but I will say it's very stimulating both in form and experience. I also wobbled all the way home and was sore for two days afterwards so that tells me it did a good job tearing up those muscle fibers!
And no, you don’t have to wear a tutu. Normal workout attire is just fine.