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Does Pure Barre Work? Getting Fit with Barre Classes

In this episode of undercover-fit guy, I once again dig out my fake nose and moustache to infiltrate the workout craze known as Pure Barre. My goal: to find out what Pure Barre is, how it works, and whether or not it is a good way to get fit.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #409
Photo of a woman's foot on a barre

If you want to be humbled in a hurry, try putting your leg behind you and then draw imaginary circles in the air with your toes, rotating your leg from your hip, for 60 seconds or so. Now tie your legs together with a resistance band or strap on an ankle weight and try it again! Right?

So yes, suffice to say that although I wasn’t all that challenged by the upper body work (the “Sculpt the Arms” section) or the core exercises (the “Flatten the Abs” sections), the hip and glute work (called “Lift Seat”) was over-the-top for me.

During my second class, I was able to glance around the room occasionally to get an idea of how things were going for other attendees and not surprisingly, everyone had a strength and a weakness. Where cranking out the pushup section of the Classic Workout class was a piece of cake for me, many people struggled with that part. Where I fell apart doing (seemingly endless) reps of “seat lifts,” others were completely rocking it, with little to no effort required.

Critique #1: Diminishing Returns

One thing I did notice was that there were a few people, clearly regulars, who moved through the class with extreme ease. While I was sweating all over the carpeted floor (gross, but it is their fault for having carpet) they hardly had to even glance at the instructor to know what was coming next. And this is the first thing that concerns me about Pure Barre workouts.

In a nutshell: as you become fitter, the amount of improvement drops as you approach your genetic limits.

When an unfit individual begins a training program, their fitness level improves quite rapidly. But as they continue to do that workout and become fitter, the returns they get from that workout diminish. In a nutshell: as you become fitter, the amount of improvement drops as you approach your genetic limits.

You can think of it like this: as your fitness levels increase, you need to do more work to continue to make gains. When I am designing a training program for someone I coach, I keep in mind that my client’s fitness levels will not continue to improve at the same rate as they become fitter and fitter. I need to continually challenge them by increasing the length of the workout, the intensity of the workout, the speed, the resistance, the distance, or any number of other variables.

The reason I bring this up is that the Pure Barre classes are a set length (45-50 minutes), the weights only go so high (five pounds for the dumbbells and two for the ankle/wrist weights), and there was only one choice of resistance band available. So although the class kicked my butt (and I do mean my butt) this time, I could see myself plateauing in the not-too-distant future. To continue to improve I would need to sneak in heavier weights, tougher resistance bands, or do back to back classes.

Critique #2: Functional Movement

My other concern with Pure Barre workouts is their lack of functional movement. For the same reason that I am not a fan of increasing your flexibility beyond the range that is necessary to move and keep moving through this world, I am not a fan of perfecting movements that are so out of the norm that they serve no practical purpose.

Doing a full squat movement is something that I encourage everyone to do on a daily basis. This is due to the fact that we humans will always want to be able to pick objects up off the ground, get down to the eye level with a child or animal, or simply get ourselves on and off the floor. On the other hand, the squatting that we were practicing in these Pure Barre classes were aesthetically pleasing but functionally incompatible with everyday life. How many times per day do you squat halfway down, stop and pulse twice, pop your heels off the ground, and come back again?

The squatting that we were practicing in the Pure Barre classes were aesthetically pleasing but functionally incompatible with everyday life.

Now, as someone who has been seen doing bicep curls—speaking of not particularly functional movements—I get the idea that sometimes we do an exercise simply for vanity’s sake. I know that a pull-up works my biceps pretty darn well at the same time as maintaining the important ability to lift my own body mass up and out of danger, but damn if I don’t appreciate the way my arms look when I am done with a bicep curl complex. So, I won’t harp on this point too much. I will just encourage anyone who is doing Pure Barre more than once a week to ensure they are getting some good functional movement outside of the class. The same way that I make sure to do a few pull-ups every time I pass under the bar in my office doorway.

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