There are endless exercise options out there, but only so many hours in a day. How are you supposed to know which workout will meet your needs—especially, when some are so similar? Take, barre and Pilates. Both are low-impact, combine strength and flexibility, and have connections to dance. But which is right for you? Despite their similarities (of which there are many), there are a few distinct differences that may help you decide which one you should try.
What is barre?
Barre classes have expanded to a variety of studios and methodologies over the years, but each stems from the late German-born dancer Lotte Berk. After navigating injuries related to her professional performance career, Berk had the instinct to combine her ballet barre routines with her rehabilitative therapy. Thus a new method of low-impact exercise was created—The Lotte Berk Method. In the ‘70s, the modality was brought to the United States by Berk’s student Lydia Bach. Since then, others have expanded on the methodology, and it has evolved into various franchises like The Bar Method and Pure Barre.
While each subset of the “barre world” is unique, they all center around high reps of small, low-impact movements derived from ballet, yoga, and Pilates. Portions of class are held at a classical ballet barre, while others are done in the center of the room using either light weights, or just your own bodyweight.
“It’s interval training,” says Lara Meehan, co-owner of The Bar Method Noho in New York City. “We use short, intense spurts of targeted muscle work, immediately followed by stretching to lengthen the muscles.”
Each exercise is meant to be done to fatigue. For example, in one exercise Meehan has attendees hold the barre, rise to the balls of their feet, bend their knees into a squat position, and pulse to music for six minutes. “Everyone’s legs shake like crazy because their thighs are bearing their full weight,” she says. After that, she guides the class in various thigh stretches. “We move through the body systematically, get the muscles warm and pliable, and then we stretch them.”
How it works in the body:
Barre strengthens muscle groups through repetition. “We do up to 70 push-ups in intervals throughout a barre class, something I could never have imagined doing prior,” she says. Working in tandem with physical therapists, Meehan says The Bar Method exercises in particular are meant to protect client’s bodies overtime. “For example, most people’s hip flexors are tight from sitting in a chair all day,” she says. “With the guidance of PTs, we make sure to only include one flexed hip position exercise per class, and always follow it up with a stretch. This process strengthens rather than breaks down the body.”
Feel what a barre workout is like for yourself:
What is Pilates?
Pilates was developed by German bodybuilder Joseph Pilates while working as an orderly during World War I. It’s said that he utilized the resistance created by his patients’ hospital beds to strengthen their muscles along their road to recovery. Though he himself was not a dancer, the workout has appealed to the dance community as a way to strengthen and lengthen their muscles, improve strength, and recover from injuries. Pilates can be done in group classes as well as through private instruction.
Like barre, Pilates is low-impact, and centered on strength/flexibility exercises. Unlike barre, it is typically done on a mat, a chair, and a variety of apparatuses including the popular Pilates reformer. It emphasizes the use of breath during the practice, and focuses on the connection between the mind and body as you move with incredibly close attention to form.
Classical Pilates adheres to the original structure set by its creator, while more contemporary forms have evolved to include faster flows, transitions, and accessories like bands and ankle weights.
“It’s a bit more athletic and challenging yet still controlled and precise,” Forma Pilates founder Liana Levi says of her contemporary Pilates studio. “We still embody the nine Pilates principles of breathing, concentration, control, centering, precision, balanced muscle development, rhythm and flow, body movement, and relaxation. We just make them a little spicier.”
How it works the body:
All Pilates exercises start from the core. “You are working it 100 percent of the time, and engaging deep inner muscles that you don’t typically work in other types of exercise,” Levi says. Yet Pilates is a full-body workout, utilizing large ranges of motion, and strengthening the glutes, the pelvic floor, transverse abdominals, and more. The exercises aren’t meant to be done to full-body fatigue (though contemporary Pilates may push the line further than classical Pilates.) “It provides better alignment, posture, and longer, stronger muscles,” Levi says.
Go ahead, give Pilates a try with this 10-minute routine:
So which one should you choose?
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to barre vs Pilates, both Meehan and Levi feel their form of exercise is ideal for everyone. “I have clients in their late 70s as well as clients in their 20s,” Meeham says. “Whether you’re rehabbing a specific injury, or just looking for a good workout, it’s applicable to the needs of most people.” Levi says Pilates benefits those who are hypermobile, tight, or injured, as well as those who are healthy and fit and just want to improve their core strength.
Both barre and Pilates are meant to develop strong muscles and good posture, while protecting the joints, and both can be done in group or private settings with an instructor nearby to correct you.
Ultimately, your choice of exercise is going to come down to preference. Do you prefer smaller pulsing movements that are done to fatigue? (Barre) Or, do you like a workout that involves a wider range of motion? (Pilates) Do you like to move to music? (Barre) Or do you prefer following your breath with more of a mind-body approach? (Pilates)
The best way to find out which you like best: Give both forms of exercise a try. It’s as simple as that!