By Michelle Duvall • Modeled and photos by Kristin Johnson
Classically speaking, a Pilates mat class begins with the students lying down on the mat. This is considered the most supportive place for the body to begin challenging the core.
On the other hand, barre classes typically start standing at the ballet barre, since it’s considered the place where the body can be most supported when standing. Working at the barre builds strength, balance and flexibility before heading to the center of the room with no support. Standing is also where we should be spending the majority of our time, as opposed to sitting.
Although the Pilates method includes some leg-strengthening exercises, it’s not the primary focus in the classical method. Fusing barre exercises with Pilates can help build strength in the legs, hips and feet while increasing the ability to balance in an upright position and challenging the core.
Below are five barre exercises, which can be seamlessly added to any Pilates mat class for improved balance and strength.
Where to add into mat class: This exercise can be done at the beginning or end of your workout. It’s a great way to check in with the core connection and balance.
Start: Stand in Pilates stance (heels together, toes apart) on the mat. Hold onto a foam roller, or push-through bar on the Tower/Cadillac with the chain attached to the top hook, with both hands for support.
Relevé: Lift both heels, allowing them to separate (or keep them together for more stability), and then lower. Do 8 reps. On the last one, keep your heels up.
Plié: With your heels still lifted, bend your knees and straighten for 8 reps. On the last one, straighten your legs and lower your heels back to Pilates stance.
Relevé/Plié: Putting these two movements together, lift your heels, bend your knees into the plié position, and then rise up with straight legs. Lastly, lower your heels. Do 8 reps.
Tips: Maintain your abdominal connection. Keep your weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet.
#2 Thigh Dancing
Where to add into mat class: This can be done before, after or in between sides of the Kneeling Side Kicks exercise.
Start: Kneel upright on the mat with your hands on your hips.
Thigh Dancing Full Range of Motion: Sit back until your bottom is hovering 2 inches over your heels, or as low as you can go, while keeping your torso upright. Then lift back up to kneeling. Do 8 reps.
Thigh Dancing Small Range of Motion: Sit back, until your bottom is hovering 2 inches over your heels, or as low as you can go, and hold. From here, curl your tailbone under and bring it back to a neutral pelvic position. Do 8 reps.
Tips: Avoid if this causes any knee pain. Keep your shoulders over your hips as best as possible.
#3 Bird Dog
Where to add into mat class: Add before Leg Pull Front. It can also be done instead of or in addition to Front support.
Start: Get into a quadruped position on the mat with your shoulders over your hands and knees underneath your hips.
Bird Dog: Lift your right hand and left knee 2 inches and hold, keeping your spine and pelvis neutral. Then, reach your arm and leg in opposite directions until both are straight, and the return to start. Do 8 reps. On the last one, hold the extension. From here, lower and lift your arm and leg 1 inch for 8 more reps. Repeat the entire sequence on your other side.
Tips: Imagine that there is a glass of water on your back, and try not to spill it as your arm and leg reach out and in. Draw your abdominals in and up your spine to create a more stable core.
#4 Hello Sailor (Modified)
Where to add into mat class: Add before or after Mermaid. It’s also a great variation to do instead of Side-Lying Kicks.
Start: Sit with your right leg bent and externally rotated on the mat; bend your left leg behind your body, making a figure-4 or pretzel shape. Place your right forearm on the mat to prop your body up, and place your left hand behind the base of your neck.
Hello Sailor: Lift your left leg up and down for 8 reps. On the last one, hold your leg up. Then, keeping your leg bent, bring your knee forward toward your nose, and press your thigh back behind your hip. Do 8 reps, and hold your leg in line with your hip on the last rep. Finish by lifting and lowering your leg 1 inch for 8 reps. Repeat the entire sequence on your other side.
Tips: Avoid flaring your rib cage forward. Evenly lengthen both sides of your body.
#5 Seated Barre Battement
Where to add into mat class: This can be done before Leg Pull Back, or as a way to prep for the exercise.
START Sit on the mat and prop your body up on your forearms, as if your body is in a recliner, with your legs straight out on the mat and feet in Pilates stance.
Seated Barre Battement: Kick your right leg up toward your face, and resist to place back down on the mat. Do 8 reps. On the last one, hold your leg lifted. From here, lower and lift your leg 1 inch (bend your knee to modify), for 8 reps. Lower your leg on the last one. Switch legs and repeat on your other leg.
Tips: Keep your pelvis neutral when kicking your leg, and avoid tucking your pelvis. Push into the forearms to avoid sinking in your shoulders.
MICHELLE DUVALL is an expert movement teacher who finds joy in motivating others to make connections through mindful movement. She holds a BFA in Dance, PMA®-CPT, 200hr Yoga certification, and trained in The Roll Model Method by Jill Miller. She is a co-founder and Education Director of a former barre method company. She spent years teaching barre, and training other barre instructors how to teach. Taking her knowledge, Michelle wanted to create a method and community that was inclusive, creative, and backed by proper biomechanics. With her rich background in various movement styles, Michelle created Barre Variations. A manual, method, and video library with an expanded syllabus of choreography and technique.