It turns out that taking the ballet barre into the fitness studio was a smart move. Barre studios have become the most prevalent (and fastest growing) type of workout on the boutique fitness scene, with some barre brands pulsing their way past 100 locations.
While pretty much all of the barre studios use similar props—like the ballet barre, toning balls, and free-weights—each brand has its own vibe, ethos, and method to get you long, lean limbs.
Here’s our coast-to-coast guide, in no particular order, to the sculpting-and-toning barre studios that will hook you up with a dancer’s body (with some effort and sweat). —Melisse Gelula
This 55-minute workout is growing at lightning speed, and many studio franchisees and teachers were formerly obsessed students. From her barre HQ in Colorado, founder Carrie Rezabek Dorr issues new moves and music to accompany classes across the country. Each follows a standardized strengthening sequence—upper body, thighs, seat, then abs. Pure Barre uses the heck out of props—we even pinched a padded yoga mat between our thighs instead of a ball while doing crunches. Still, Pure Barre is probably the easiest barre class for beginners, according to Rezabek Dorr, who says if you can hold onto the barre, you’ve got this. (200+ locations) www.purebarre.com
Founder Jill Dailey is a Swiss watchmaker of movement. If you thought you knew plank, for example, think again. She will likely tick off five-plus things you didn’t even know you needed for a great “foundation.” Ditto, pretty much every other exercise you might do in class. The workout includes tough arm- and core-strengthening moves, like lying on your back with outstretched arms and pressing your hands into free-weights to lift yourself up. (Good luck with that one.) And at the barre, the constant focus on “hugging muscle to bone” (or activating the muscle) makes you break a big sweat. Dailey, who studied kinesiology and taught Pilates for a decade, says in-depth cueing is like a working meditation. “You’re getting to know your body, where your shoulder blade is supposed to be, where your pelvis is supposed to sit,” she says. “The workout gets harder each time, not easier, because you can go deeper and deeper.” (48 locations, including France and Mexico; none in New York) www.daileymethod.com
Little subtle movements, not flashiness, rule this popular bicoastal method, where the well-coiffed work hard on their body awareness and nailing the punctilious practice. The instructors are geeks about alignment and safety, whether they’re teaching flexibility or lifting light weights. A Bar Method no-no? “Squatting all the way down to the heels and back up, which puts the knee joints at risk,” says founder Burr Leonard, who drew from physical rehab, plus isometrics and dance conditioning when creating the workout. It’s a satisfyingly efficient workout when you can get the hang of it. And we love multi-tasking moves like the Standing Seat, “a favorite because it lifts your seat, elongates your thighs, flattens your abs, and improves your posture—all in one exercise,” says Leonard. (81 locations, including two in Canada) www.barmethod.com
Core Fusion, which you’ll only find at Exhale, was one of the pioneering methods that took barre from the ballet studio to the fitness studio, and made people obsessed with the workout. Its co-founders Fred Devito and Lis Halfpapp are both first-generation Lotte Berk Method teachers (Berk is the barre’s pulse-and-point fairy godmother). In class, you’ll get your heart-rate up in the center of the room, lift some weights, then spend a lot of time at the barre—then under it with core-activating moves. Overall, expect demanding flexibility work, and long range-of-motion moves that might make you swear under your breath. A signature of Core Fusion is its slow-burn: “When you speed things up, you sacrifice form,” says Devito. He’d advise taking another of their innovations, like Core Fusion Cardio, Sport, or Bootcamp, if you want a good sweat. (22 locations) www.exhalespa.com
Sadie Lincoln’s white-hot workout builds strength, flexibility, and balance in your body—and your brain. It pulls more from “the alignment and wisdom of yoga” than the other barre workouts, so you feel Zen, not frenzied, during and after class. That said, you’ll be working hard from the get-go. After barre push-ups and taxing your big muscle groups, you’ll focus on harder-to-reach ones, like the transverse abdominals and inner thighs. (A head’s up: You’ll put the core ball to use as a toning tool in ways you’d never creatively imagined.) The workout choreography feels fresh, fun, and cool (a factor of its Portland, Oregon, roots?). And there’s a smart mix of dynamic movement and isometric holds—some hail from dance and Pilates, some are uniquely Sadie Lincoln genius. (26 locations; 4 in the works) www.barre3.com
This super-athletic barre class, created by Flywheel, shares the indoor cycling workout’s belief in motivating music and an energetically upbeat instructor to entertain and push you. And you’ll be glad for it. FlyBarre includes a lot of upper body work—push-ups, plank variations, and triceps dips, plus a section called Dynamic Arms, a dance-cardio-esque sequence that distracts you when your 3-pound hand-weights start to feel like 10. Then, you’ll lie on your back, tuck your feet under the barre, and do curl-ups with the weights for Barre Abs—a novel move we’ve never seen elsewhere (and still can’t complete a set of). Of course, in addition to all this strength and stamina training, there are plenty of tiny isometric “pulses” that you do over and over at the barre and on the mat, often with a toning ball pinned between your legs. Bonus: You can book your preferred spot at the barre. (11 locations; 2 in the works) www.flywheelsports.com
With a best-selling DVD called “Butt School,” you might not think Pop takes barre very seriously. But it does, and you’ll have to work hard to get an A at this California-based barre brand. The hour-long class is fast-paced yet graceful, and owes something to the ’80s music video vibe. You’ll spend a lot time squeezing your seat, with an overall class goal of maxing out your glutes and thighs. For extra credit: Use your breath to make shush-ing sounds to “help activate your core.” And at this institution of higher (booty) education, the music, the ‘80s Flashdance-meets-American Apparel branding, and the hip crew of teachers and students make studying at the barre super fun. (14 locations, none in New York) www.popphysique.com
Dancer/choreographer Richard Giorla borrowed from his ballet and classical training when creating this barre class that famously tones and tightens. Fortunately for you, no Julliard application is required. To get a lean dancer’s body without pointe shoes, you’ll practice and repeat ballet poses (some literal, some modern riffs). Class kicks off at the barre—expect thigh-quaking, quick-tempo relevés and flexibility training—then zaps you with cardio, light weights, and floor work. And a celebs page lists nearly 100 Hollywood darlings as its clients. (14 locations with two in the works; none in New York) www.cardiobarre.com
This Greenwich-based brand dominates the southern Connecticut landscape—its studios are where commuting professionals and hedge-fund wives tuck and tone. Founder Cindy Sites’ Figure Method features more classical ballet moves than the average barre class, and you’ll need slightly more grace and agility to perfect them (which regular classes will help you do). Sites is also a stickler about posture, so you’ll get lots of cues and exercise to help you straighten up. In addition to mat work with a ball and light weights, painful pulsing at the barre is amplified with props like resistance bands that make it nearly impossible to lift your leg. (11 locations; none in New York) www.gofigurestudio.com
In the fitness world, Physique has serious cache. Studios feel like the place to be, and they have a fashion editor following. Their tiny frames testify to the results of the intense thigh-and-glute sequences, followed by elongating stretches. Classes have an amazing momentum, with super fast transitions, and stand-out music that’s mixed by a DJ and sound quality. Instructors are charismatic and follow founder Tanya Becker’s sequencing, which draws from her Lotte Berk and jazz dancing background. It’s a fun-loving method that mixes in push-ups and heavy weights with sexy yet super challenging Thigh Dancing. Another testament of its innovation, Physique also has more barre class variations than most, including a new cardio class. (5 locations) www.physique57.com
You’ll be breaking a sweat during this full-body workout, offered at Pilates ProWorks, where the spunky instructors alternately coach you on getting a dancer’s flexibility and a gym rat’s stamina. They’ll break you out of plié squats and barre pulses for “dynamic bursts” of jumping jacks or other heart-rate-ramping moves. It builds a kind of strength that comes in handy for a series of balance poses. The toughest? A standing split with one hand on the barre, and the other on a ball on the floor. (Six locations, with two in the works) www.barrepro.com
Former prima ballet dancer Kate Albarelli, who created Figure 4 for Pure Yoga, is a barre brainiac. Proof: Classes start with the biggest muscle group—quads—to get your heart rate up, so you get a bigger caloric burn, and slim down while you sculpt. Alignment cues galore keep you moving smartly, and a high-energy playlist drives you along. Many of the instructors are from ballet or Broadway, wouldn’t you know it, every move is done on the beat. (And many of the moves, we’ve noticed, attack the glutes.) To perfect your personal posture, the studios have three barres at different heights and Memoryfoam bolsters for core Cushion Curls, or crunches. Hot-yoga-lovers rejoice: Figure 4 is also offered in a 105-degree room. (2 locations in New York City, at Pure Yoga) www.pureyoga.com