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Belly Up to the Barre

I tried my first barre class over the summer after my bestie became certified as a barre instructor. She was telling me about barre: up an inch, down an inch; shaking muscles, toned abs and areas of the legs and butt (oops, I mean “seat”) that only barre could transform.  I wanted to be able to “get it” when she told me about the routines she created for her classes and asked for music ideas. Since her class is in New Jersey on weekday mornings while I’m on my way to work, I decided to try a barre class here in Philly. I went to Focus Barre and Yoga on Chestnut Street. I immediately realized this was going to be very different from my usual workouts when I saw the carpet, everyone in little matching black grippy socks and the mini two pound weights. I approached the instructor to let her know this was my first class and ask if there was anything special I needed to do. She asked if I ever did barre before. I responded with my fitness resume that included power yoga and body pump, not realizing at the time that neither of which resemble barre except maybe in planks and push-ups.

I now know, having done Pure Barre, that the bar workout I did at Focus was not quite the same as PB (a lot less tucking at Focus).  That said, both have the same format (warm-up, arms, legs, seat, abs) and much of the same concepts (an inch up, and inch down; up and hold, up and freeze). Since I had off from work for a couple of weeks in December, I decided it was a great time to get a one-month pass for PB and do a mini PB challenge: as much Pure Barre (plus a couple of my friend’s barre classes) as I could fit in over winter break and through January. I made it to about 16 classes over the four-week period (plus some of my usual workouts: body pump, body combat, and power yoga). I was pretty surprised by the difference four weeks could make in my mind and body.

Physical Changes

The first thing I noticed, after only 10 days, was increased strength in my legs. I’ve been doing body pump for two years now and have worked up to 44lbs on the squat track. The fact that 10 days of barre created a noticeable change in strength shocked me.  In early January, I did my first body combat class after three weeks and was worried about how difficult it was going to be (due to winter break group classes were cancelled). I could not believe how much easier the lunge track felt. Not easy as if it wasn’t a workout, but with ease, I was able to get really low in my lunges, and stay with it to complete the entire lunge series without breaking. This was a first for me! I am assuming that my barre workouts increased my leg strength – particularly in those muscles that lunges target: glutes, hamstrings and quads. I also suspect that my barre workouts trained my mind to be stronger, in that I could suffer through the burning and trembling because it would be over soon. More on the mental changes soon.

At the end of the four weeks, I could feel that my abs were noticeably stronger in both my barre workouts and non-barre workouts. Some of the ab-work at the barre (drag, lift, circle, tuck) were still challenging but do-able at the end of four weeks (plus, I could feel by abs working, while in the beginning I’m sure my legs were doing the majority of the work). In combat, I was able to do the dreaded “jaguar” move on my toes, without dropping to my knees for much of the track.

I couldn’t imagine that barre would do much for my arms being that both body pump and body combat focus so heavily on the arms, and in power yoga I’m chaturang-ing til the cows come home. Well, first shoulder track in body pump after winter break rolled around and I did the entire set of push-ups on my toes. Another first.  Shocked.

Most excitingly, my clothes fit better!!

Mental Changes
For the first couple of weeks of my challenge, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t look forward to going to barre. During the class, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. In my other classes I feel more present. I just go when it’s time to go (no dread or emotion, I just go sometimes even looking forward to it), and while in class I think about my form, how I’m feeling and if I can push myself harder. I assumed it was the newness of barre – that the difficulty level for me compared to my usual workouts was giving me that dread.

Then, I took a very different barre class. My barre-instructor friend, mentioned above, teaches a class regularly that is not your typical Rittenhouse Square barre. Her class, while fluid and en pointe, was also strengthening and empowering… maybe even a little bad ass. Fun music (“nothing says barre like a little Ozzy Osbourne”), her commentary (“how does body combat feel now?” directed at me during the biceps track), and her motivation (“no other exercise shapes you entire body like planks -come on…  only 15 seconds more!”).

Aside from the fact that the workout was really a great combination of barre, pilates, strength training, and empowerment, I realized that most of the instructors I had in my barre classes up until that point lacked the personality that I need to get motivated. Now, I don’t doubt the impact of the workout nor the need for consistent instruction style particularly for a franchise like PB. That said, why do all the instructors have the same voice? I’m not sure if it was because I’m not a regular, but it felt really impersonal – almost robotic. The instructors did come over to help me adjust my position and technique so it’s not that I felt neglected. Oddly enough I’m not also someone who needs a lot of positive reinforce  and atta-girls. My motivation comes from getting stronger and how I feel before during and post workout. So I wasn’t sure why I was feeling the need for this personal connection that I don’t think that I usually need. Did I feel vulnerable since it was a traditionally female class and expected nurturing? I guess in body combat it would be strange to get a compliment on the fierceness my “street brawl…” But no, I don’t think that was it.

At brunch after my second of barre-friend’s class I asked her. “So what’s with the instructors in Pure Barre?” “I mean, they like all have the same voice and count the moves the same way (up up hold up up freeze) and its so creepy how they all sound the same and like we’re a bunch of step ford wives robots.” She thought for a moment when my rant was done, then pointed out that this is a ballet based workout and that ballet teachers just tend to be bitchy. On my drive back to Philly, I thought about it some more and it was starting to make sense. If I am a ballerina, I guess I don’t need to hear what this workout is going to do for my muscles or my body – I do these moves to get stronger, lengthier and better at ballet.  So having the amazing ballerina body just comes from being a ballerina not from the exercises to look like a ballerina.

This realization was such a game changer for me! I approached my last two weeks of classes as a ballerina (at least in my head) and with the understanding that I’m not going to get a lot of motivational pep talks, compliments on getting low or my good form. But what I am gonna get… is an amazing ballerina body (haha, or at least as ballerina-esque that this body can get).

From that point on, my mind changed in class. I realized that the key to barre success and improving in class would be to force my mind to allow my body to feel the shake and burn. To not give up when there’s only 10 seconds left, but to push on because there’s only 10 seconds left. Those 10 seconds were the key to getting stronger.

So yeah, my mind changed. Instead of “how much time is left?” It started to become, each segment is short, so of course I can do this for such a short time. I wanted to shake there so I didn’t jiggle later.

I miss barre. My last class was a couple of days ago (last class at PB… for now) and I immediately started to worry that my muscles will forget what they learned, and it would be really hard when I came back. That said, the experience of trying something new was invaluable and I have plans to do more of it. This weekend I am signed up for a Lithe class, and the following weekend its Fly Cycle. Next month, I’ll be taking “Naughty Bits” at Ploome and promise to report on that, too.

When was the last time you tried something for the first time?

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