I'd never been in an exercise class where the goal was to shake—from muscle fatigue. But that was exactly what Kate Arnold, owner and instructor of The Bar Method studio in downtown Washington D.C., encouraged. "Everyone should be shaking," she shouted throughout class, as me and 10 other women stood on our toes, lifting our legs into various ballet-inspired poses while holding onto the barre—our thighs and calves quivering as under-used muscles awakened.
The idea is that fatigued, warm muscles are more malleable and can be stretched and shaped into longer, leaner muscles that give the overall toned look of a ballerina. The "Bar Method," however, is based only in part on traditional ballet, borrowing from poses (such as the plié) that use the barre to support the body. Other exercises draw from isometrics and weight-training—emphasizing light weights and repetition. In an hour-long class, you exercise your shoulders, biceps, triceps, calves, thighs, and glutes—never working any one area for longer than two minutes at a time—and importantly, stretching after each segment when muscles are still warm.
"It's like personal training in a group setting," says Arnold. While most students are women in their 20s and 30s, Arnold says she gets everyone from marathon runners to those who haven't exercised in years at her studio. "So many are grateful to find the first type of exercise they love."
Arnold was one of those people, four years ago, when she walked into her first bar class in Chicago. "From the day I walked into the studio, I never wanted to do anything else. I loved how it made me feel. I was pushing myself in a way that was kind to my body."
A litigator who also has her MBA, Arnold was so taken with the method that she decided to quit practicing law and open a bar method studio when she and her husband moved to D.C. a year ago.
One of Arnold's students, Stephanie Kagan, also quickly fell in love with the class and recently became an instructor. The class helped Kagan lose weight and become "a calorie-burning machine," since lean muscles boost metabolism. She's also stronger. "I've gotten to the point where I can do sets of 25 to 35 push-ups—all of them on my toes," she says. "I also don't feel I look like a body builder. It's a very feminine strength."
And, it's safe. Designed in part by a physical therapist to rehabilitate injured dancers, the bar method works your muscles without hurting your joints. Founder Burr Leonard, a former dancer, calls it "a more mindful way of approaching exercise." Burr's flagship studio is in San Francisco, but Bar Method studios are popping up all over the country, with 70 total expected by year's end. "People love it—and it's something they can do their whole lives," says Burr.
"Beyond Barre." The Bar Method is one of many ballet-inspired classes on the rise. "Beyond Barre," also known as "cardio ballet," incorporates the "glide," a yoga mat-sized device with a smooth surface that allows you to glide back and forth, mimicking a speed skater's side-to-side glide. "If you're not in shape, the glide is going to take you down," says Ulrick Rosemond, a Beyond Barre instructor at Potomac Pilates, a small studio in the suburbs of D.C.
And in fact, Rosemond's class took me down—from the moment he insisted I wear ballet shoes, and told the class that once the music started, we wouldn't stop. I consider myself something of a fitness buff—having run a dozen or so half marathons and sworn by spinning a few times a week—but this class was the best workout of my life. The high-energy class uses light weights, abs work, and ballet exercises that define the leg's muscle without bulking it, Rosemond explains, adding, "If you can do this class, you can do anything."
And anyone can do Beyond Barre, he says, although his own class tends to attract a very fit clientele, from speed skaters to field hockey players. One of his students, Emily Moldavo, was a competitive gymnast during high school. Now the recent Harvard Law School grad takes the class a few times a week to take a break from studying for the bar exam. "It gives me a lot of energy and clears my mind," she says. "It does for me what yoga does for some people."
Other Beyond Barre classes more closely resemble ballet. Molly Shutt, another teacher at Potomac Pilates, says she designed her class around the classical ballet she grew up practicing. And in Shutt's class, I actually began to feel like a ballerina: We spent nearly a half an hour at the barre, lifting our legs in and out of first and second positions, doing pliés and demi-pliés—while focusing on good posture and balance. "The idea of ballet is to never be off center," Shutt explains, adding that her class builds the inner thighs and lower abs, while strengthening the spine and shoulders—especially good for people, like myself, who sit all day in office jobs. I've definitely found my new fitness fix.