Barre classes have become quite the thing. Harper’s Bazaar, Time Out and Huffington Post are among those who’ve raved about it, and celebrity fans include Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Eva Herzigova and Madonna. So, with my colleague Rosanna, off we trot to Barrecore, five minutes from the High50 office in Cavendish Square in Mayfair.
What is a barre class?
A barre class is a total body-toning workout, not a ballet class; it’s ‘inspired by’ the movements of ballet, Pilates, yoga and functional training (e.g. the ‘legs, bums and tums’ classes). There are some standing exercises, some using the barre, and some on floor mats, such as the stomach exercises. It’s rhythmic, done to music, and quickly flows from one sequence to another to keep you moving,
The movements are small and repeated several times, squeezing and pulsing the muscles, which tones them. This is combined with isometric stretches, where you hold the position to contract a particular set of muscles, which strengthens them. Light handweights may be used.
Benefits of ballet barre
It is low impact, with small controlled movements, which reduces pressure on your joints, spine, tendons and ligaments. The weight-bearing exercises, using your own body weight, help to protect bone density and prolong the health of our bones.
It strengthens the muscles, pulls them into shape by toning them, and strengthens and tones the abdominal muscles. A stronger core area improves your posture, enables other muscles to move more freely and with less strain, and helps to prevent mis-use and overuse of the lower back muscles and means less stress on other joints.
The stretching exercises are a counterbalance to the contraction of the isometric stretches, and develop flexibility. Developing this combination of strength and flexibility (many of us tend to have one but not the other) is what keeps a body healthier and stronger for longer, and more resilient to injury and wear and tear. Which any age group needs, but especially ours.
Before the class
Jacqui: I’ve watched Barrecorre’s online videos so I’m expecting lots of small movements of the legs, hips and abdomen. Barrecorre’s basement premises on Cavendish Square are tiny and the changing room can barely fit four people. But the welcome is friendly and the instructor, Charlotte, comes to introduce herself, check on our fitness and any injuries, and put us at ease.
Rosanna: As I have very tight hamstrings, a stiff lower back and inflexible legs, this will be a big challenge. I can never touch my toes so I am hoping this class will loosen me up. It’s done in non-slip socks (not ballet shoes), which I buy at reception as I forgot mine.
What the class is like
Jacqui: With about ten of us in the studio we are comfortably spaced, but there’s no hiding as three of the walls are mirrored. Eek! The workout music is fun but not too full-on and you can clearly hear the instructions.
First up are standing exercises, knees bent and lifting the arms in various directions, and I soon feel my triceps, biceps and shoulders working. Then we add handweights and after 15 minutes I am definitely warmed up and feeling it, and I have to drop my arms a couple of times.
Next are floor exercises, such as lying on your side propped up on one arm and lifting the legs in a scissors movement. This is about accuracy in the movements, which are subtle but lethal. It’s tough but as I can feel the muscles working and that keeps me going.
Then come postures at the barre that runs around the room. We hold on to it for balance, stand on tiptoes, then squat low, lower, then very low. The movements are teeny-tiny, and tough. I can go very tippy-toes and squat low (from all the yoga-doing) but I can’t stay there long before my quadriceps burn and I have to release. It feels great to feel my muscles working hard, but more practise is definitely required.
After 45 minutes the lights are dimmed and we lie on our backs for the stomach exercises. I’d have happily finished at 45 minutes, but this is the part I really need so I dig deep for my last bit of determination. There is enough variety in the sit-ups and twists to keep me going, and despite the supreme effort it because it feels good to be working the body part I need to work.
Rosanna: I am quite nervous heading for the studio as it’s Pancake Day and I have just eaten one filled with Nutella. Luckily we start standing up but it’s much faster than yoga and each position is repeated with a small pulsing movements. It is easy to follow the instructions and I can feel my biceps working hard. The weights are not too heavy but after a while my arms feel quite weak.
The positions of the floor exercises are similar to yoga but you lift your leg 20 to 30 times on each side while lying on your side rather than staying in the position. I can feel it in my legs and bum. I stifle my jealousy that Jacqui is able to do the splits while I am still in the standing position. So annoying.
The barre exercises are tiring and my legs are shaking like an old woman’s, though the instructor says this is good; apparently it happens when you’re making the muscle work when it’s not used to it. I’m rather relieved to notice that all the 25-year-olds’ legs are shaking too!
I am relieved (only for a second) when we lie on our mats: having had twins I have few stomach muscles and I find sit-ups challenging. But the music keeps me going and I am determined to do all the exercises. I can already feel how stiff I will be in the morning. I like the feel that I’ve been burning fat and definitely think it is worth the pain.
Related: Top five fitness trends for over-50s
Jacqui: My legs are already like jelly as we leave and when we laugh at ourselves the girls on the front desk grin in recognition and assure us it gets easier.
Catherine Rose strikes exactly the right note of encouragement; she helps you to go that little bit further, and always seems to get a “just ten more” out of you, but she respects that we all have different bodies and levels of ability.
The only thing I didn’t like about the studio is that it’s carpeted, with harsh overhead lighting. A wooden floor and comfortable lighting would go a long way to making it a nice space.
Fun factor Jacqui: 8/10. Rosanna: 8/10.
Would you do it again?
Jacqui: Yes. Next day we were emailed an offer of £175 for a month of unlimited visits, which is a good deal if you go a few times a week. Per class, it’s £28.
This suits all ages and all levels of ability, and although everyone in the class was younger than us I wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t been writing this. You can instantly feel the benefits, which encourages you. I think this is perfect exercise for over-50s.
Rosanna: Yes. I like this; it’s similar to The Lotte Berk Method, which I used to do and has a huge affect on sculpting women’s bodies. I should go to a class each week but find it difficult to commit at £28 a class.
Where to do barre class
Xtend Barre, huge in the US and Australia, is opening a flagship central London branch this spring.
Also: Barreworks in Richmond, Paola’s BodyBarre in Fulham, Triyoga, Camden (see schedule), BARREtoned in Chepstow Road, London W2, Frame Shoreditch or Queen’s Park, Heartcore (west and central London).