Is your barre class making you bulky?

Over the past few years, women who’ve never danced a day in their lives have been lining up at barres across America. The most common reason for taking these ballet-based classes is the desire for a long, lithe, ballerina-like body. But as barre’s popularity grows with studios popping up like Starbucks, a somewhat troubling problem has emerged: Many women are finding themselves (gasp!) bulking up—especially in their quads.

So what exactly is causing such unwelcome results? Marnie Alton once taught barre classes at a barre school that was part of a national chain, but decided to open her own studio, Barre Belle in Los Angeles, to free herself from factory-standardized routines— and the bulk results. The training from the chain of schools had an antiquated technique that produced a particular look, says Alton. “I was seeing dominating muscle groups—like the glutes—being overworked, creating an increased muscle mass in those areas,” she explains. Simone De La Rue, owner of Body by Simone in New York City and Los Angeles and trainer to Anne Hathaway, Naomi Watts, and Camila Alves McConaughey, shares a similar sentiment: Barre classes typically focus on small movement strengthening and toning, but “if you spend an hour in pliés and squats, you’re contracting the hamstring and glutes and putting too much energy into the quads, essentially overtraining them,” she adds.

Both former professional dancers, Alton and De La Rue are accustomed to long practice sessions. However, over-repetition of exercises can cause swelling, warns De La Rue:. “A lot of these classes are almost exactly the same Monday through Friday so you’re constantly working the same muscles,” she explains. “You’re not getting the long, lean look you want. Instead it’s making your jeans too tight.” 

Along with variation in exercises, many barre classes are also missing a cardio element. According to Alton, you need a cardio element that diminishes calories to maintain balance. And De La Rue adds that you must get the heart rate up to a level that burns calories to drop weight and look lean, taking the exercise beyond toning. 

Then there’s the question of teachers and technique. The basis of barre classes comes directly from dance. The first wave of boutique studios offered classes taught exclusively by those with a dance background. But some gyms and studios are now accepting teachers after a mere week-long training session. “Someone could have great personality and energy but not the skills to correct your form,” warns De La Rue. 

If going to a barre class—any barre class—is inspiring you to exercise when you wouldn’t otherwise, that’s great, says Alton. And we agree. But to make sure you’re going to get the results you’re looking for out of your barre workout—chain or otherwise—here are some keys to look out for: variety in the exercises from class to class, dynamic movements that create cardio bursts to raise the heart rate, and teachers that are well-trained and skilled in the method so that they can pass that specific body knowledge on to you.

Now grab your leg warmers and get to (properly) toning!