Photo by Tatjana Plitt

How to up your game at the barre

Words: Melanie Dimmitt

Comfort zones are called so for a reason. They’re familiar, effortless to function in and, much like a cushy, deep-set couch, can be hard to hoist yourself out of. But great things don’t happen in comfort zones. And believe it or not, that zoning can extend as far as your barre class. “If you aren’t stopping for breaks or coming out of exercises early, and if the ‘shakes’ are becoming a little less prevalent, you might be ready to extend yourself,” says Melbourne-based Barre Body instructor Elyse Nicole – who doesn’t shy from giving her clients a (loving) push when they’re plateauing. Here she shares her tips on how to up your game at the barre:


“Definitely make sure you are not hungry before class,” says Elyse, who recommends snacking on something light and nutritious like a banana, green apple or protein ball. “Be well hydrated too, as you’ll be breaking more of a sweat or at least building more heat in the body, especially for the first few times.” Elyse also suggests doing some release work, such as easing your muscles with a roller, spikey ball or tennis ball, or gentle stretches before or after you hit the studio.


De-stress by breathing naturally and being present. “Leave the mobile phone in your bag and come to the mat a few minutes early to meditate and focus on your breath before class,” says Elyse – because once class kicks off, it’s time to start challenging yourself. “Choose the full plank and side plank positions, take balances on one leg and try taking your hands off the barre to test yourself and get a sense of where your centre is.”


Say sayonara to those 1kg weights – at least for middle-back and bicep work, says Elyse. “Then challenge yourself to do the whole arm set with 2kg weights. It’s completely doable!” You can also lift your heels when stood in parallel, Pilates V or Second Position Plié, (“great for strengthening ankles and intrinsic muscles of the feet”) and tip your torso further forward when inclined. “Take the full-plank position in push-ups and lift your pelvis off the mat in tricep dips.” Feeling that burn yet?


Unless you’re in a position that requires a grip, most thigh work can be done without holding the barre. “This is a great way to check you’re not using your arms to help take the load from your thighs,” says Elyse. “Lifting your heels or, where appropriate, your toes off the mat can change the intensity on your thighs – sometimes even just changing the sensation in the thighs can be a way to up the ante,” she continues, adding that lunges can become floating lunges, while a vertical or chair position can be done on one leg.


“In standing, try doing a whole exercise on the ball of your foot,” says Elyse, who also advises taking one or both hands off the barre, going for a full fold-over arabesque rather than forearms on the barre and, when on all fours, tucking the toes on your supporting side to hover that knee off the mat. “In side-lying positions, try lifting your underneath hip away from the floor into a side kneel to work both sides of your waist and glutes at once!”


For abdominal work, go for full planks rather than modified, says Elyse. “Aim to lift your shoulder blades off the mat in all supine curl variations, and taking your legs lower – drawing your thighs further away from your abdominal wall in exercises with a lower abdominal focus – will challenge the core more.” During core (and every other set, for that matter) Elyse encourages us to embrace the burn. “Stick with it and persist through that burning sensation to advance your practice, your strength and ultimately your workout results.”

As always, if ever unsure, call on your instructor – and be prepared to feel a little sorer, stiffer and more tired than usual. “However, after a few classes where you are giving yourself the extra push, you might notice that you feel more energised, your posture will improve, you’ll feel stronger and maybe even a little tighter in all the right places,” says Elyse, pointing out an added bonus that comes with upping the ante. “You’ll get addicted to the feeling of achievement you receive when trying new positions and extensions in class – and might surprise yourself by wanting to come back for more!”