Head to the Barre

Tone and strengthen “hard-to reach” muscles

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Barre instructors Story Balcom, Zoey Cane Belyea and Carolina Vanessa Rivera of Barre B in Medford. Photography by Denise Baratta.

In a world of workout fads that come and go, one of today’s most effective fitness trends combines three more traditional, proven approaches. Take equal parts of yoga, Pilates and dance; add them together and you get one of today’s most sought-after workouts: barre.

A low-impact strength, flexibility and endurance-building workout, barre adds some basic ballet movements to isolate various muscle groups. The workout targets both large muscles and smaller “accessory” muscles to help produce a long, lean dancer’s body. But no actual dancing is required.

Just a few years ago, you couldn’t find a dedicated barre studio anywhere in the Rogue Valley.

Story Balcom aimed to change that. Working in Hawaii as a piano teacher and barre instructor on the side, Balcom began looking for a barre studio upon moving to Medford last year.

“I had seen real results from doing barre,” she says. “I was looking for a barre studio in Medford, but found there were none located between Sacramento and Eugene. A lot of people here were waiting for one to come to the valley, so I decided to open one on my own.” Six weeks later, Barre B opened, “And so far, the response has been great.”

Nikki LaFord, owner and fitness instructor at Verve Pilates+Fitness in Phoenix, added barre to her gym’s offerings three years ago. She’s been teaching Pilates for 10 years and saw the benefits of barre early on.

“I brought barre in because I saw a majority of clients were having pelvic instability troubles,” she says. “Some were post-injury or post-natal; their hips and pelvis were weak and unstable. I saw that Barre can help strengthen the pelvic floor, transverse abs, inner-thighs and glutes, and brings everything into balance.”

What makes barre different

Balcom, who earned her barre certification while living in Hawaii, says opening the studio was fairly quick and easy because, unlike traditional gyms, barre studios don’t require expensive weightlifting machines. And that’s what separates barre from so many other workouts. All of barre’s prescribed exercises are based on small movements done in specific positions, with very light 3- and 5-pound weights.

“Barre uses mostly bodyweight based exercises, where you’re moving your own weight and pushing and pulling resistance bands,” says Balcom. “And anyone can do it.”

LaFord says she fell in love with the mind-body connection fostered by barre. “It provides excellent core strengthening, which helps support good posture, and flexibility to support long, lean muscles. At the same time, the nice part of barre is that it targets the hard-to-reach places.”

Because barre focuses on small movements that improve muscular endurance, mobility, flexibility and stability, Balcom says it provides good functional training. “It’s helping you to be able to move better and carry out your daily functions, while you’re toning, burning calories, gaining muscle and not injuring yourself. In barre, we’re not training you to be fitness models or Olympic athletes; we’re training you to live your best life.”

Raising the ‘barre’ on your fitness

One of the keys to barre’s effectiveness is the focus on isometric movements. “We get the body in an isometric hold where you’re using your muscles, but you’re moving very little,” says Balcom. “It may sound easy, but it’s very effective for toning.” She adds that big muscle movements using lots of momentum to move heavy weights may be preferred by bodybuilders, but they’re inefficient.

At Barre B, a typical 45-minute barre class works the whole body. Classes follow a basic outline beginning with a brief warmup, followed by floor exercises focusing on the abs, planks and pushups. These are followed by working the arms with weights, then moving to an actual ballet bar to work the lower body, including thighs and glutes. A little stretching on the bar leads to a second segments of abdominal and glute work, and finishing by stretching on the floor.

There’s not a whole lot of cardio, though Balcom says, “Some people sweat a lot; as you get better, you shouldn’t be sweating.” And, in case you’re intimidated by the prospect of having to perform dance moves, Balcom says not to worry. “The only dance-related thing about the workout is using the ballet bar, but there’s no actual dancing and no choreography.”

At Verve Pilates+Fitness, LaFord begins barre sessions by working the core and pelvis. Classes include a cardio component, light weights for both the upper and lower body, and thigh resistance bands. “Many of the moves are short-range of motion and pulsing, isometric pulls, while holding your body in good alignment,” says LaFord. “The technique is great for athletes because it helps to balance out the body.”

LaFord observes that many athletes are very strong in one or two particular ways, but over time they can develop injuries because of an imbalance. “I start them with Pilates to support symmetry, and then advance them to barre for a more heat-building, higher intensity challenge.”

LaFord emphasizes that because it’s so low-impact, barre is good for exercisers of all ages and levels since any of the moves can be modified for those dealing with injuries or chronic pain. Verve even offers a free consultation for beginners to find out whether they’re a good fit for either Pilates or barre.

“For beginners, I typically recommend Pilates as a place to start,” says LaFord. “Beginners can can use the Pilates reformers lying down, and they provide a lot of body support.” Barre, she says, is better for people who can move while supporting their own body weight.

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“In barre, we’re not training you to be fitness models or Olympic athletes; we’re training you to live your best life.” – Story Balcom, Barre B, Medford

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