“You’re water skiing!” shouts my peppy instructor.
I am not actually water skiing. I have been water skiing, and this does not remotely feel anything like water skiing. I’m in my first Pure Barre class — and this is much, much harder than water skiing.
Every muscle in my body is shaking uncontrollably as I squat down with my thighs parallel to the floor, leaning back while clutching the ballet barre as if my life depended on it. I glance over at my friend, whom I dragged to this class with me, and can see that he is also shaking like he’s gripping an electric fence, his eyes closed and face scrunched up like a prune.
“Relax your face,” I hear our instructor tell him.
Just when I think I might be off the hook, she walks over to me. “You can do this, Lizzy. Stay strong,” she says, adjusting my form ever so slightly and bringing me to a whole new level of shaking. And the pain! It’s the kind of all-encompassing pain that’s almost meditative in that it forces your mind to focus. I just keep repeating these words to myself: “Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go.”
We’re at Toronto’s new Pure Barre studio, part of an uber-trendy chain of barre classes that has over 375 locations. I’m sure you’ve heard of Pure Barre by now — it’s attracted a loyal following of A-list celebs ranging from Amanda Seyfried to Zooey Deschanel, because their clients see results fast. With classes revolving around tiny isometric movements — small strength-training exercises that keep your joints stable and muscle length static — Pure Barre promises you’ll see changes in your body in as few as 10 classes. “A healthy diet and regular cardio helps clients see results even faster,” says Toronto studio owner and instructor Paige Carper.
At this point, I’m shaking so much that it feels like I might rip the barre right off the wall, Carper assures me that the shaking is actually a good thing. It means I’m working my muscles to fatigue — the whole point of Pure Barre. Sorry to break it to Pure Barre newbies, but don’t expect your barre classes to get that much easier as you get a few under your belt. “Embrace the shake!” says Carper. “Four-plus years later, my muscles still shake in every exercise.”
As a runner who always winds up with joint injuries, no matter how much I adjust my stride or change up my shoe game, I’m drawn to Pure Barre because it’s low-impact. Carper tells me she got into Pure Barre when she was pregnant and looking for a safe, low-impact fitness class to try.
“I loved the challenge of it,” she says. “I’m a former endurance athlete, but my first class, like most others, was so hard that I knew I had found the next thing I wanted to conquer!”
My first class left me so sore I was struggling to climb the stairs to my apartment for a few days afterward, but like Carper, I was hooked.
So what’s the science behind “the shake?” Isometric training can increase both your isokinetic muscle strength, the type of strength you need to power through a spin class, and your isometric strength, which you need to hold positions like plank, according to a study in the Journal of Sports Science. But gaining strength this way requires a lot of willpower. The truth of the matter is: Pure Barre classes are pure agony, but they’re also incredibly addictive. They give you that good pain that comes from getting stronger each class.
Having tried my fair share of barre classes, Pure Barre feels like one of the toughest ones out there. Who knew that what feels like a million reps of tiny micromovements could make your muscles so exhausted!? It feels like we’re working literally every single one of our muscles to fatigue. We move through a series of mat-based warmups, followed by arm exercises that are surprisingly challenging given that my weights are only two pounds, then we hit the barre to work our thighs and glutes, followed by an intense core workout just when I’m ready to give up and grab a smoothie. We wrap our legs around themselves like pretzels, pulsating up and down on our toes. We lift our heels rhythmically with our feet in ballet’s first and second positions until I want to crumple in a heap on the floor. As if that weren’t enough, we hold plank position so long that I practically forget my own name.
Of course, if the pain ever gets to be too much, there’s no shame in taking a break — for a few seconds that is. “Take a small break, then jump right back in,” says Carper. “Listen to your body and know that you’ll get stronger with each class!”