Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Floor barre

As someone with a history of injury, I'm pretty familiar with cross training.  In the depths of an injury, you tend to focus on cross-training that is a substitute for running - i.e. pool-running, elliptical, instead.

Well, it turns out that ballet dancers have something similar.   It's called "floor barre," and it's essentially ballet maneuvers performed while lying on one's back or side, instead of standing -- practice for ballerinas who can't stand on their feet.  It's plies, first position, second position, etc, all while laying on a mat.

You may have noticed it in my weekly training log -- I first tried this class during a rest week about half a year ago, and fell in love.  While formally aimed at ballet dancers, I believe this class works really well for runners for injury prevention. It targets the traditional runner weak spots of glute engagement and ankle strength and flexibility.  And, since it's focused on alignment and muscle engagement, rather than strength, it works well as a recovery/injury prevention workout.  You can take a class without concern about interfering with recovery from a hard workout, or compromising tomorrow's hard run.

The class starts with a series of simple leg raises and abs while on the floor, as a warm-up, followed by a series of ankle circles and pointing and flexing the feet.  All of this while lying on your back.  The foot exercises are excellent prevention for anyone with a history of foot/ankle tendonitis (raises hand foot).

The above video, starting at 1:50, is a good illustration of the foot/ankle exercises that are part of floor barre (no, thankfully the class I take doesn't impose classical music on us -- I'm not sure I could take the class, were that the case).

From there, it moves on to an ever more challenging series of posture exercises (again, all on the floor), as you attempt to balance on your side on a padded mat while doing different things with arms, legs, and head.    The exercises are not overly challenging from a sheer strength perspective, and don't look all that impressive to an outside observer.  But they are difficult in their own way -- it's impossible to maintain your balance on your side unless you maintain ABSOLUTELY perfect posture, including relaxed but active and engaged glutes and abs.  Lose your engagement for a second, and you roll onto either your rear or your stomach (and laugh a bit).  And much of the work is done while moving one leg in isolation.

Here's an example video of some of the side exercises (some of which are more difficult then what we do in the class I take).

See how that works -- focusing on keeping your abs and glutes engaged and firing correctly while one leg  moves independent of the other?  Makes it obvious how useful this class is for runners, especially those with glutes that like to turn off.

The majority of the class focuses on ballet maneuvers on one's back or side, but there is a 10 minute "intermission" (my term) in the middle where we focus on ab strength, in what most people find to be an extremely challenging ab workout -- certainly more difficult than any special "abs" class or "abs section" in Baptiste-style yoga.  The sequence starts very simply - you breathe in and out, while alternately engaging and relaxing your abs.  Then the sequence progresses, first adding arms, then legs, then rotation, then straight legs, then bicycle motions, and so on.  All while being sure to maintain proper breathing technique and good posture.

Generally, only about 2/3rds of the class completes the abs section, with some of those modifying the workouts in order to complete.  It's not an easy abs workout.  But a strong core is essential for good running, and this abs section, which ignores standard crunches (which are useless) in favor of stabilizing your core while your legs do different things, seems tailor made for runners.

Then it's back to the ballet, doing "plies" while lying on the mat -- great for opening the hips and improving hip rotation, which is a personal bugaboo.  Follow up with some planks and stretching, and you're done.  And a bit closer to being a strong, injury-minimizing runner.

The one problem with floor barre is that it can be pretty difficult to find -- you have to search for a dance studio, rather than a gym or yoga/pilates place.  But it's worth it.  I'm pretty lucky in that my gym, Mint, offers the class as a perk to members on Tuesday evenings (6:30-7:25).  However, this class also open to non-members for a fee (I don't know the exact pricing, but I do know it's competitive with local yoga studios).

If you want to find me on Tuesday night, this is generally where I am.


  1. That looks fun! I was a dancer and never heard of this, so I wonder if it's something new.

  2. My sister-in-law offers this at her dance studio. I tried a class, and figured for the $12/class I would stick to the Pilates classes at my gym, but perhaps I should give it another shot.

  3. We used to do floor barre as a special treat when I danced as a kid, and I loved it. I'd actually forgotten all about it until I took a Ballet Body class at my local Crunch last week and we did about 15 minutes of floor barre at the end. It felt so great, and also I felt so bad at it.

  4. I would love to try this. Maybe after the marathon!

  5. I'm actually really interested in trying this, although I have no idea how to fit it in my schedule. But thanks for the detailed explanation - I've been curious about this one.

  6. Floor barre was around as early as 1976 in NYC. Zena Rommett used to teach it. She may have been the first. Every dancer should do floor barre. I'm not a runner, but I'm sure that it is great for runners too, although you might not want to work on hip rotation, but rather stick to parallel legs for the strength that runners need.
    On another note - The Bolshoi Academy Summer Intensive is looking for people to run and fundraise for them in the ING NYC Marathon. Any ideas on the best way to find five runners? Thanks for your help! Brenda

  7. The floor barre is an awesome exercise! I’m going to start my session tomorrow. As a dancer, I believe that these techniques and alignment ideologies provide valuable information, which I can use to improve my movement. Yey, I can’t wait for my class to start! :]

  8. What's so wrong with classical music?