Barre may burn, but does it build muscle?

The benefits of barre go beyond the feeling of burning muscles. This is how the pilates-style workout can build muscle endurance and strength. 

Barre was the workout we fell in love with during lockdown. For good reason – all of that pulsing makes the muscles burn. In fact, my quads were on fire for over 48 hours after finishing a 25-minute barre session that included multiple leg extensions. 

However, building muscle – known as hypertrophy – is associated with using heavy weights for sets of 8-12 reps. Given that barre is a bodyweight workout that usually involves contracting and relaxing muscles for sets that tend to last anywhere from 30 seconds to multiple minutes, can it really help our muscles adapt? 

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According to barre instructor Aimee Long, the workout can help you get stronger. “You won’t necessarily be building bigger muscles, but you will be working on how long the muscles can withstand being under tension,” she says. This is called muscular endurance (literally, how long the muscles can endure the activity). 

But barre also helps to build strength in specific muscles that, often, don’t get a look in during your training. “In lots of other workouts, you’re targeting the global muscles – these are the big muscles, such as your shoulders, the biceps and the glutes. By doing high repetitions of small movements, you’re isolating the local muscles. These are the muscles underneath those big muscles, that surround your joints, and are important but usually take less of the load.” 

This is important for a lot of reasons. Namely, your joints will have more stability. “You’re building the foundation of your body, which helps with injury prevention and rehab,” says Aimee. But the strengthening benefits of barre can also “apply to your functional training, so you can get more benefits from those exercises.”

How, you ask? Well, by strengthening your supporting muscles, you will have some extra help in getting a get a few more reps out of your compound lifts. For example, strong and elongated hip flexors will support you when you squat, even though that’s a move we tend to associate with quads and glutes. Plus, barre trains the muscles to be used to spending longer periods of time under tension, meaning that you can squeeze more reps out of your weight training. These things will translate into more muscle over time.

So, while barre might build muscle endurance rather than muscle mass, it doesn’t mean it won’t help towards your strength goals. It’s further evidence that the best training programme is one filled with variety and doing things you enjoy. Although it’s fair to say that my quads were simply not enjoying those two minutes of leg extensions. 

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