Health and wellness

Victoria’s Secret supermodels use ballet-inspired barre workout – where to find classes in Hong Kong and China

Demand increases in Hong Kong and China for barre workouts that combine dancers’ conditioning with Pilates and strength training for a strong and elegant physique as seen at the recent Victoria’s Secret show in Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:32pm

More than 50 of fashion’s most sculpted bodies were on display at the first Victoria’s Secret show in China this week, held at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Pudong, Shanghai. The show’s biggest draw, its models, have been working out to maintain their lean frames.

Some of those Angels use ballet-inspired workouts to tone up, including Lily Aldridge, Martha Hunt and Stella Maxwell. They are among a growing number of global fitness enthusiasts who work out at the barre, a horizontal handrail used by ballerinas in training.

Barre workouts reimagine ballet warm-up moves for the masses, blending dancers’ conditioning with Pilates and strength training. The key to achieving the enviably elegant but strong ballerina’s physique is through many repetitions of tiny, isometric movements, where a muscle tenses without changing length. “Pulse”, “drop an inch” and “hold” are common phrases heard at barre class, where you work your muscles by doing a much higher number of reps, using only your body weight or light weights, within a small range of movement.

Developed by ballerina Lotte Berk in London to rehabilitate her own spine after an accident in the late 1950s, the workout soon developed a cult following, with the likes of Joan Collins rushing to her door to plié their way to longer, leaner bodies. In 1971, a former student of Berk’s took the workout to the United States, where it spread across the country, then around the world. Barre arrived in Hong Kong and China around a decade ago.

One of the first studios to run barre classes in China, boutique fitness space Z&B began offering barre-based workouts in 2010 in Shanghai. They currently teach MYbarre, a variation on the barre workout that co-owner Siri Nordheim, 29, developed with personal trainer and group fitness instructor Ann MacLellan, 37, earlier this year. Combining barre with functional fitness training, MYbarre promises a “unique and elegant quick-paced cardio and sculpting workout, high in energy and low in impact”.

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Inspired by the efforts of the models visiting Shanghai, I sign up to try an hour-long MYbarre class with MacLellan at Z&B’s studio in the Former French Concession. Any thoughts of resembling a lean and graceful ballerina, however, are dashed five minutes into the hour-long class, when I am halfway into the energetic warm-up and sweating profusely while jumping rapidly between lunges and squats.

The strength portion of the workout follows, and I pick up an innocent looking pair of 500-gram dumbbells as MacLellan starts calling for front bicep curls. “This is manageable,” I think to myself, until rep 64 comes calling. By the time we move onto middle and back shoulder raises, the dumbbells are starting to feel more like 10kg. After the 10-minute weight session, I have learned to never underestimate high reps of minute dumbbells.

Next up is the barre portion of the workout, where the focus is on isometric exercises targeting the legs and core. A particularly memorable sequence involves standing side on to the barre, one leg lifted to the front with a slight knee bend in attitude position, before we are instructed to lift the toes up on our standing leg and hold, then draw small circles with the attitude leg for 32 counts. I feel the burn of this during the whole of the following day.

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I’m ready for class to finish when MacLellan tells us to each grab a mat, and before I knew it, she has us doing side planks, mountain climbers and ab bicycles, ensuring our hearts remain racing while working on our abdominals.

When every muscle feels like it’s been put to test, including ones that have not been used since ballet class back in primary school, the class mercifully ends with a quick stretch and cool down. Although I leave looking like a drowned rat, I feel energised from top to bottom for hours afterwards. Running on an endorphin high, I sign up for my next class a few days later, one more convert jumps aboard the barre bandwagon.

Z&B runs 45 MYbarre sessions in two studios in central Shanghai each week; Nordheim says it is their most popular class. In addition to leading classes, MacLellan and Nordheim began training fitness instructors in MYbarre in the summer; these have gone on to teach thebarre workout at other studios in Shanghai as well as in Beijing and Changsha in Hunan. The pair hope to roll out a training programme taught in Mandarin by 2018, to reach a wider fitness audience in China.

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SpaceCycle, whose four studios in Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai run an average of 130 Space Barre classes each week. One of a handful of licensed Xtend Barre studios in China, demand for barre has been steadily growing at its locations to the point where extra classes are regularly worked into the schedule, says Robyn Wexler, director of education and programming. Anticipating the need for more teachers to meet the increasing popularity, they are also running an instructor training programme with one of Xtend Barre’s master trainers in Shanghai in January 2018.

Karen Lim and Mylène Mackay opened specialist studio Barre 2 Barre in Hong Kong in 2012, teaching classes using the BarreAmped method where emphasis is placed on a neutral – as opposed to tucked – spine to protect the integrity of the body’s natural alignment. As teacher trainers in BarreAmped, Lim and Mackay offer certification courses yearly in Hong Kong as well as their second studio in Singapore; a further course in Thailand is planned for 2018.

Also in Hong Kong, Flex Studio offers several Xtend Barre classes each week; studio co-director Anna Serafinas Luk is an Xtend Barre master trainer. Defin8 Fitness founder Trixie Velez runs her own modified form of barre, adding a dynamic fitness element to the workout at her Central fitness studio.

Four MYbarre moves

MacLellan and Nordheim have put together a six-minute taster of MYbarre for those who are short on time but curious about the barre burn. These exercises are designed to be done with light weights and a high number of reps, so try as many repetitions of each movement for 30 seconds. Go for three rounds.

1. Plié tendu (warm-up and cardio)

Keeping your feet turned out, bend the knees into a plié position and draw the hands down to the low 5th position. As you extend the legs, point one toe to the side of the body and bring your hands to the 2nd position. Repeat the plié and point to the other side. Work up to a faster rhythm to raise your heart rate.

2. Bicep curls (arms)

With your arms extended, draw the hands in towards the body while keeping the elbows high, then extend back out. Control the movement and increase the challenge by holding bottles of water. This can be done to the front or side of the body.

3. 2nd position plié (legs)

Turn your feet into the 2nd position, with one hand on the back of a chair or table. Keeping the back straight, bend the knees and extend the legs back up. This can be done with feet on the ground, or with the heels lifted.

4. Chest lifts (core)

Lying on a mat with your legs straight, cross one foot over the other and begin with gentle chest lifts, using the abdominal muscles to lift the chest and shoulders. Then do the chest lifts with the leg variations shown.