I’d been going to the Bar Method religiously for two years when a few weeks ago, right before class started while we were all zoning out in the lobby, another woman turned to me and said, quietly, “I have a question: Do you think this stuff works?” My eyes went wide.
“Uhhh,” I said. Finally! This was all I wanted to talk about, and I couldn’t believe it was coming up with a stranger only a few seconds before class began. “I think so,” I said, “but it depends on what you’re measuring?” I was looking for the right words, but I knew what she meant. Does it help you lose weight? Does it make you hotter?
I’d initially signed up for the class to humor a friend who’d read in a book that going would give you a better butt. She ended up dropping out, but by the time I signed up for a real membership after the one-month introduction, I was going because I enjoyed it. The teachers were surprisingly nice, and if I kept it up, I figured it would make me “hot by summer.” Which it didn’t exactly, or at least not in the way I had in mind, but by the time summer came around, I liked the class for other reasons.
Scientific American recently outlined all the known ways exercise benefits the brain. (It’s good for memory, creativity, and cognitive ability, and it prevents disease, fights depression, and enhances circulation and brain-cell regenesis.) A recent Time story highlighted how exercise boosts the immune system, and a study published recently in Neurology found that aerobic exercise improves “executive functioning in adults at risk for cognitive decline.” But no matter how long the list of “good reasons to exercise” was, it never really computed for me, or got me to care or try, which is why I keep marveling at how it is that I have been going to this admittedly incredibly expensive and occasionally ridiculous-seeming barre class for so long and with such devotion (the branch I go to costs $230 a month for unlimited classes).
Anyway, does it work?
The Bar Method, and other barre-based studio workouts, are instructor-led classes where you do small, graceful, repetitive, and clench-driven movements, in theory getting deeper into each muscle group as you go (arms, legs, abs, butt), while also focusing on posture and alignment. The instructors often use your name to correct you (or encourage you), and sometimes they come around to physically realign you too (gently), which in my opinion is usually really nice. You use tiny weights during the arm-exercise segment, and there is a ballet barre, which you use for various stretching and thigh/butt/ab exercises. The studios are carpeted, the standard class is an hour long, and before I started a full-time job, I was going four or five times a week (I go about three times a week now). There was a month when I went almost 30 times, but that was because they were having a competition.
In response to the woman asking me if I thought it “worked,” I said something about how it seems objectively great for flexibility, if not so much for aerobic strain. Also that it’s “worked for me,” and that it really does help you get stronger mentally. She said something like, “Yeah…” And then she whispered, “But then, I look around, and — you know?”
Ultimately, I think it does work, on flashy but also less flashy levels. I wanted flashy when I signed up — I wanted the class to give me a tiny waist and amazing arms, as suggested by the company’s stock photos — but instead I got this weird emotional sustenance and source of community, mental stimulation, and humor (via the little absurdities of the classes, the quirks and non sequiturs of the instructors, and making eye contact with other attendees).
It works because it makes me feel better. It works because they know my name and because I was lonely when I signed up. It works because it really does make everyone more flexible, and it feels good to be part of a group, moving in synchronicity. (And of course, there is also its secret sexual history.) It works because it instills discipline and routine, and it gets me more “in touch” with my body. It works because it separates me from my phone for an hour. But I also knew what she meant, and no, I wouldn’t say it always works. But, it works.
I also like how the movements seem easy but unfold over time. For instance, it feels like I’ve only recently begun to understand what a plank really is. Or like the “seat” exercises (the butt ones) took a while to click for me, but now I love gripping my butt and doing little pointed-toe leg lifts (sometimes I pretend that I’m training to be a ballerina).
Whether or not it “works” it’s sort of like the advice they give you for looking at the night sky — if you want to see a given star, look somewhere near it, and the stars you want to see will begin to emerge in your peripheral vision.
Maybe that’s too loopy, but to get myself to exercise, it’s been helpful to focus on the easy and obvious sources of pleasure that come with it, like the sense of belonging and being known, the relief of having an additional mindless routine, and how fun it is to gossip about the instructors — and how good it feels to lie flat on my back on a carpeted floor for five minutes.