Ballet Fitness: Will It Make You into a Ballerina?

Traditionally, ballet has appeared as a super-hard discipline, requiring years of cruel training, harsh diets, and bleeding feet. But these past few years have seen a rise of ballet-style workouts, all promising a lean, long body and dancer's grace - all just by standing at a barre! How do these claims stand up to reality?

Image Credit: FatCamera / istockphoto.com

The pioneer of ballet fitness was Lotte Berk – a German ballerina who fled the Nazis to London and created the first ballet barre routine for non-dancers in the 60’s. Her students carried the discipline to the US, and eventually it transformed, giving rise to various barre classes and even Core Fusion.

The isometric magic

What makes ballet fitness special is the use of so-called isometric movements. The wide, fast movements we are used to do in a gym – lunges, squats, jumps, etc. – all require the muscle to either lengthen or shorten. This generally involves fast-twitching muscles – thicker but less oxygenated muscle fibers that are used for bursts of intense activity. On the contrary, isometric movement is one that requires the muscle to contract without changing its length. It involves slow-twitching muscle fibers, which are thinner but better oxygenated and can sustain limited activity for a long time (for more on these two types, see here).

Isomertric moves can be small but very hard and tiring, as anyone who has ever done a plank knows well. Keeping the muscles contracted and pulsing repeatedly can really make you feel the burn. (And even if you don’t like ballet, you can still benefit from isometric workouts, such as this one). Standing at the barre in a plie (a ballet squat which you do with your feet wide and toes turned out), repeatedly going a bit down and a bit up, can make your legs tremble; and port-de-bras arm exercises, where your whole core is engaged as arms are lifted and lowered repeatedly, can build great resistance.

What’s the caveat?

Many are attracted by barre workouts because they don’t make you sweat or destroy your hairdo. However, herein lies the issue: while ballet will build up your deep strength and resistance, it doesn’t make your heartrate go up or build large muscle. Ballerinas’ arms are resistant, but rather weak; and their quads aren’t great, either. In fact, ballet dancers practice running, swimming and weight workouts to supplement the barre. And so should you; if not, eventually your progress will stall.

Those fast-twitching muscles need to be worked on, too: therefore, do a strengh training session once a week, be it weight-lifting, power yoga, or rock climbing. And don’t forget about cardio! Some lunges and squats or zumba will go a long way.

Try it now!

Barre classes are not cheap, costing on average 30 dollars per session. But even if you can’t afford that, you can still incorporate ballet workouts into your home fitness routine, using exercises (like this). And though most of us don’t have a barre at home, in most cases a well-chosen chair will do!

Remember, though, that apart from standing at the barre, ballerinas do watch what they eat; and so should you! A lean and graceful body is not just the result of a special workout: it reflects your whole lifestyle. And genetics does play a role, too – even with training, not many of us can sculpt a dancer’s body. What is really important is to keep working on the body that you have.

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