Summer 2015

Behind the Promise of Ballet Workouts

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Photo: Antonio Diaz/Stock photo

Women everywhere are flocking to barre workouts. Most of the time is spent holding an arm or leg very still and then moving it up an inch and then down an inch, until your muscles are screaming.

These ballet-inspired classes promise to help you develop a dancer’s physique by creating long, lean muscles without bulk that look and feel more graceful. But take that with some skepticism.

Donato Rivas, Ph.D., an exercise scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, explains that you build muscle by progressively increasing the weights you use. Most barre classes use light weights, so once those two-pound dumbbells are manageable, you won’t build any more muscle mass, even if you’re sweating while you work. So the secret of the barre-class lean muscles is to not build much muscle at all.

But what about toning? In Rivas’ view, “Muscle toning is having less subcutaneous fat so you can see the muscle itself.” To do this, you have to watch what you eat in addition to working out.

As for lengthening muscles, Rivas says that your muscles attach to your bones in set places, depending on their function. They don’t ever become “longer,” and you wouldn’t want them to; it would probably indicate that something was very wrong.

The barre does have benefits, though. You probably build muscular endurance, Rivas says, allowing you to keep doing those leg lifts over and over. If you find the class challenging, the work will slightly raise your heart rate, so you’ll burn some calories. Barre is also less intense on the joints than many other workouts.

It’s good, safe exercise. Just be wary of the hype. —Katherine Pett, N16

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