The Workout That Turned Me From A Couch Potato Into A Fitness Believer

Boot Camp: Barre3

Over the summer, when we decided NYLON's (not generally super-athletic) digital staff members would test out high-octane cult workout classes for a series called Boot Camp, I didn't intend to participate in my chosen activity for more than a month. I've never been able to incorporate exercise into my busy adult life. I barely have time to sleep enough. But I had recently found myself a few inches squishier than usual thanks to a happy new relationship and the revelation that the impending end of my 20s means cheeseburgers have tangible consequences. As such, I figured a month-long commitment to movement might do me some good. I arbitrarily chose to test out Barre3, knowing literally nothing about it. 

Six months later and I'm still going three to five times a week. But let me start from the beginning. 

Barre3, as it turns out, is a combination of yoga, pilates, and ballet, none of which I've ever really done, because why would I do any of those hard, horrible things when I could just... not? Attitude aside, I entered the Barre3 studio in the West Village of Manhattan nervous but with an open mind. I was greeted warmly at the front desk, and after revealing that I was a first-timer, an enthusiastic instructor explained the idea of modifications: Through the class, she'd be offering different ways to do the moves, so that if something felt bad, I could figure out how to make it work for my body. 

The small studio itself is mostly windows and mirrors, full of late-afternoon light and gazelle-like attendees in Lululemon. I grabbed one pound weights (I'm not crazy!), a ball, and a stretchy band, and went to the furthest corner where I'd hoped to be invisible. (Actually, it's hard to hide in a room full of mirrors, but.) The hour-long class, I'd eventually learn, is different every time, as the founder of Barre3, Sadie Lincoln, works with physical therapists, a chiropractor, dancers, and yogis to improve it. It begins with some deep breathing and then moves into a warm-up. My first class, the warm-up was "toe taps," which involves squatting, standing, leaning to the side and then extending one leg out, tapping your toe, coming back through center and squatting, and then alternating legs, all to a beat. This—supposedly the easiest part of the class, during which you're just trying to get your heart pumping—was my first challenge. I don't even know what I did. 

After a warm-up combination of toe taps, sumo squats, and arm movements, the structure of a Barre3 class takes you through each major part of your body—legs, arms, butt, and core. The idea is to isolate each muscle group through very small motions, followed by large-range motions. The movements themselves aren't too complicated, though through modifications you can layer up to get as complex as you feel up for. Those small motions are where the Barre3 "magic" happens: Squatting while on your toes, arms up in the air, you pulse up and down forever while your whole body shakes and an instructor rhythmically urges, "Down an inch, up an inch. Down an inch, up an inch. Smaller! Tinier! Smaller!" It is incredibly difficult, and very painful, but doesn't last very long, and before you know it, you're doing long-range motions which feel weirdly relieving, and suddenly you're on to the next body part. The ballet barre is there for balance; very few of the moves require it, but it's definitely helpful when you're on your toes, getting low to the ground, throwing your weight in a direction it's never gone before. 

It took me about two weeks before I could even get deep enough into the positions to start to work out effectively. But then, a weird thing started to happen: I'd have to focus so hard on what I was doing, in order to do it correctly (and also not fall over—a lot of Barre3 happens while balancing), that 20, 30 minutes would go by and I hadn't looked at the clock, or thought about work, or ruminated about something I said five years before. As an anxious and creative person, I'm used to my mind spiraling in every different direction at once. But as the weeks went by and I got more and more into the workout, it became the only hour of my day during which my thoughts quieted. An ongoing to-do list was replaced by "Down an inch, up an inch." As my muscles shook and burned, I found the first true calm I'd felt in years. 

Mind aside, the results on my body were astounding, pretty quickly. An interesting thing about Barre3 is that even when you get the hang of it, it never gets easier: In fact, the stronger I felt, the more I shook. The more confident I felt during class, the more my legs felt like Jell-o as I tried to walk down the single flight of stairs to leave the studio. After a couple of months, if I didn't feel super sore the day after a class, I'd feel guilty, like I didn't give it my all. And while planks stayed hard as hell, I switched my thinking to "I can't fucking do this" to "there's only a minute left," and suddenly was able to get through each set without giving up. Meanwhile, my pants started to fit again. I eventually graduated to two- and then three-pound weights. Arm muscles appeared, the shadow of abs started to form, the backs of my thighs smoothed out, and parts of my body that I hadn't even noticed had thickened—my lower back, for example—turned lean. My butt morphed into a, how do you say, booty. I also became more aware of how what I ate and how much I slept was impacting my body and my mind: There's nothing like trying to do an hour of tiny squats after a night of drinking. 

Several months in and I was totally hooked. I tried a few other kinds of ballet barre classes so that I could have something to compare it to, but nothing was as good: No other studio I tried encouraged me to listen to my body or spent as much time on each muscle group. 

Eager to get to the bottom of why Barre3 is just so effective, I got Lincoln on the phone. "I think we've been trained to be pain junkies," she says, of the no pain, no gain culture of other cult workout classes. "We've been brainwashed to think pain equals success. What we found is that pain actually sabotages results. When you work your body to that much strain, stress happens, and it's not good. It doesn't help you metabolize fat well, and it prevents you from using your body in an optimal way." Barre3, she explains, is the opposite: Founded because of her own disenchantment with fitness, she and her husband sought to design a workout that was all about balance, not pain.

And, apparently, my initial experience of not even being able to get deep enough into the positions to complete the moves is not unique. "A lot of times people come to Barre3 and won't ever come back because they thought it was easy," Lincoln says. By the third class, if they stick with it, she says, they usually figure it out. And as for the fact that it's never gotten easier, even though I'm getting stronger? Yeah, that's a thing, too: "I think with Barre3, what we've built into this, is truly a practice, similar to yoga, where there are thousands of opportunities to go deep into the body. So much of it is about the mental part of it and being focused. The more focused you become and the more open you become in your body, the more challenged you become."

Lincoln doesn't claim that Barre3 is a be-all, end-all workout. In fact, she refreshingly expresses skepticism that any fitness routine can be. She says, "Exercise is a catalyst, it's a place to practice and learn about yourself, so you do everything else better." And she's right. Things I've done better since becoming addicted to Barre3 include but aren't limited to: sleeping, eating, thinking, relaxing, feeling good about my body, running up and down subway stairs, standing up straight, and—most importantly—feeling like there's an actual connection between my mind and my body that I want to control, nurture, and improve every day. It's a little woo-woo for the results of something that was supposed to be akin to "boot camp," but hey: If just moving up and down an inch for an hour a few times a week is enough to change my entire outlook on life, consider this former fitness skeptic converted.