The concept of maintaining a healthy body is something we all encounter on a daily basis. You only have to open the Yahoo! Home page and browse through the top stories to find the latest diet, exercise, or product tip for weight loss and physical fitness. Although it may seem overwhelming to find ways of incorporating the cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility training of a complete exercise program, there are numerous group exercise options out there that are both fun AND effective.
Eager to try something different and change up my workout, I recently attended a Barre fitness class, which incorporates dance (specifically ballet) and Pilates concepts into a total body workout. After a quick search online for local places offering Barre classes, I found the Xtend Barre® Bel Air studio under the ownership of Deb DeVoe. An Xtend Barre® client turned studio owner, Deb is a personal advocate of the Barre technique and its results. Her success story includes the visible physical benefits, such as toned muscles in the hip and thigh region (which, let’s be honest, we all strive for!) but most importantly, the management of her osteoporosis. After having all previous bone density scans show continual bone loss, Deb’s latest scans were the first to show no additional bone loss. “The weight bearing, lean muscle developing exercises of the Xtend Barre® fitness program helped me to achieve that”, shared Deb.
Anyone who has taken a ballet class before, or knows someone who has, understands the physical demands to execute even the most basic of movements correctly. Professional dancers working outside of the ballet market often participate in ballet or Pilates classes for the development of core strength and stability that is rooted in the exercises. The Xtend Barre® technique is great in that it takes the concept of a ballet class warm-up, the Ballet Barre, and enhances it with Pilates technique(s) to create a 55-minute fitness program targeting all of the muscles groups of the body, while also working on flexibility and balance. The program is inclusive to all physical fitness seekers since a dance background is not a pre-requisite to participate in the class, or reap the benefits of the exercises. Sure, if you know ballet terminology and technique it will make some movements easier to understand and execute in your first class; however, our instructor, Amy, kept everyone in the class smoothly transitioning from one exercise to the next while subtly incorporating dance terminology throughout. (Besides, I’ve included a couple of exercises / tips below to practice at home – to prepare your form for class!)
Now, for those who think that the benefits of the class sound great but need heart-pumping music and a quick pace to get inspired for exercise, this class is still an option. Unlike a classical ballet class, an Xtend Barre® fitness class uses upbeat music – most songs averaging 132 beats per minute (bpm) throughout the workout. The song selection varies from class to class, but I was fortunate to have an ‘80’s mix – so when “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” gave way to “Eye of the Tiger” during the upper body workout, I was moving my weights with purpose! For the remaining skeptics unsure as to whether you will feel the results of the workout, stop by Xtend Barre® Bel Air and give it a shot. Deb offers each client a complimentary first class. I would love to hear from those who attend a class … let me know which of your muscles were sore the day after!
In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises to challenge you at home and prepare your form for class:
This is a tip for a common ballet fundamental, the plié (which means “to bend” – more specifically, the bending of the knees when in a ballet class). The key for executing a plié is body positioning. First, there is the verticality of your spine (refer to the red line in Figure 1). You should have your neck, shoulders, ribs, and hips all stacked in a straight line on top of one another, vertically. It is common, (for those who are new to the movement or when you are experiencing muscle fatigue), to allow your hips to extend behind you when you bend your knees (plié). In a plié exercise, that lack of verticality is detracting from the physical benefit of the exercise, as well as placing unnecessary stress on your knees. Second, there is the alignment of the leg in what is called a ‘turned out’ position. The thing to remember with turnout is that it must happen as a result of opening in your hips (i.e. flexibility). If you force turnout from the ankles or knees, you are again placing stress on your joints. If during a plié, your knees are not comfortably in alignment (i.e. moving in the same line of direction) with your toes, you are attempting a level of turnout that your body is not ready to execute and need to return your toes to a more neutral (parallel) position. So remember … keep your lower abdominals engaged (verticality of spine), your knees in alignment with your toes, and use your muscles to control both your plié, as well as your stretch back to neutral position, in order to effectively, and safely, execute a plié.
Many of us have tried, or at least seen, an exercise or two that focuses on engaging the gluteus muscles (such as ‘donkey kicks’). The great thing about the exercise shown in Figure 2, as well as others within a Barre class, is the usage of an exercise ball to target the desired muscle group(s). To perform this exercise, place a small, non-slip exercise ball behind your knee and hold in position by bending your leg at a 90 degree angle (as demonstrated in Figure 2). This is your “neutral”, starting position.
While maintaining your hold on the ball (as shown), press your leg back and slightly up (think of pressing your heel towards the ceiling), then lower back to the neutral, starting position. To focus on the muscle group even more, be sure that your upper body stays vertical over your standing leg during each repetition – meaning that you do not lean your chest/shoulders towards the barre when you press your leg backwards. This will require you to engage 1) your abdominal muscles to hold your upper body in place, and 2) your glutes to lift your leg as opposed to leveraging your body weight to “throw/push” your leg behind you. Try two sets of 15-20 repetitions on each leg to start. Really concentrate on your form to perform controlled movements with each repetition, and your glutes (and hamstrings) will feel it!