Joint hypermobility and barre classes – 4 Tips to play it safe and get the most out of your workout.

Barre workouts are one of the best types of mainstream exercise you can do for joint hypermobility. If done correctly, barre workouts are incredibly effective for strengthening all of the tiny accessory muscles that often cause problems for us. Accessory muscles are especially important for sitting, standing, or doing anything different from our normal daily activities.

Because normal activities use both our big muscles and our small accessory muscles, when we sit, our big muscles get a break and our tiny accessory muscles have to pick up the slack and keep things stable. (See “My Butt is flat! Why sitting too much causes muscle atrophy, chronic pain and problems moving around“). This usually isn’t a problem, unless your joints are hypermobile, or you do nothing but lay on the couch all day long. Hypermobile joints include the knees, shoulders, neck, ankles, fingers, wrists, the pelvis and more.

Joint hypermobility is usually due to a genetic mutation to one of the components of our connective tissues. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a connective tissue disorder that causes joint hypermobility. There are a 6 main types of EDS, numerous less common types, and even more that have yet to be genetically identified. EDS is a group of heritable connective tissue disorders involving mutations to the collagen protein, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – Hypermobility Type is suggested to be the most prevalent connective tissue disorder in the world. While there is still so much more to discover and understand about Hypermobility EDS (HEDS), a few genetic mutations have been identified and HEDS is appropriately coined as, “more than just the joints.”

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Many who have later been diagnosed with HEDS, were first told that they have Benign Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (BJHS)/Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS), or “loose joints.” The first sign or symptom of HEDS is usually joint hypermobility. However, the same has proven true for other types of EDS, and even other connective tissue disorders. There are many people who have multi-systemic issues from birth, and even more who have very little issues other than “loose joints” until later in life. Presently, it’s widely accepted that BJHS/JHS and HEDS are one in the same condition, with symptoms ranging on an extremely wide of scale of severity.IMG_2108

What is recognized by those within the EDS community, but has yet to be fully acknowledged and accepted by the entire medical community, is that HEDS is a multi-systemic condition that is far more than “just the joints.” Not one person with any type of EDS presents the same, and HEDS is especially subjective. Components of connective tissue can be found everywhere in our bodies, not only supporting our joints.

This information is critical, because when you are hypermobile, you muscles do the work that your connective tissues cannot. Hence, why it’s imperative to keep moving and keep our muscles strong. When our muscles are strong, they do not have to work nearly as hard or exert as much effort to keep our joints stable, as when they are weak.

Here’s why barre workouts can be so helpful at keeping our muscles strong:

Barre workouts integrate principles of pilates, yoga, and natural movement principles, as well as common physical therapy exercises into one class.  Keep in mind that not all barre workouts are the same, and you have to find the barre method that works best for you. Additionally, there are many videos online, Barre3 is one of the ones that offers a subscription for a minimal fee. Most online videos have a trial period, and there are also a ton on YouTube.

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Barre class at The emBody Shop in Easton, MD

I love barre classes. They are by far one of my most favorite types of workouts hands down. They mix so much of what I love to do into one class, and doing barre exercises has always felt very good to me. When I danced in college and even as a kid, my favorite part of class was working at the barre. There’s something about really working your glut and upper leg muscles that feels so good. It’s always felt like a good thing for my body. These type of exercises have also always helped me with leg pain. When I’m having a bad day with leg pain, I love working my legs muscles through a barre workout. It’s not too intense and it’s not like I’m running 10 miles, or going crazy in a cycling class. It’s the perfect amount of working my muscles the way I need to, in order to help the pain and muscle spasms. However, I’ve comes across a few things repeatedly while taking barre classes at various barre studios in my area.

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“The Shake”

Below are a few tips to be mindful of when attending a barre class, when attending a barre class: 

  • Remember that not all instructors are educated on the various ways hypermobility can effect the body. Not their fault – only a fact that training on the hypermobile client is not the norm in most mainstream fitness classes. Or, not yet anyway.
  • Many times, you will know more than the instructor, or your gut instinct will tell you if a position isn’t good for you. Listen to your body & don’t make adjustments or do movements that don’t feel correct, even if the instructor is insistent. Sometimes, it’s a matter of building up enough muscle to make proper adjustments. Other times it’s a matter of learning the ways that each of us has adapted to various ways of moving because of being hypermobile, and then understanding how to make proper adjustments to correct our positioning.
  • Proper form is key, but not all adjustments are correct for us. Because most instructors are not familiar with the various ways to help someone who is hypermobile, they usually will not be aware of how specific positions may cause issues with safety or comfort for us.
  • The Shake” isn’t always a good thing, especially if you start shaking right away and cannot keep proper form during the entire exercise sequence. If you start an exercise and you shake right away, try a modifying position for the same exercise instead – one that is, safe, effective and more comfortable. If you can maintain focus and proper form with a bit of shake, great. If not, stop and adjust your form, even if it means lowering your heals. See quote below from post by Fuse Pilates.com:

Although a shaking muscle isn’t necessarily a bad sign, it could be a sign to slow down and take a break. Your muscles don’t shake naturally, so this is an indicator that all may not be well in the workout world.

Although many people think that the shaking they feel during a really intense workout is their body getting stronger, this may not always be the case. Like that awkward eye twitch, a physiological response to muscle fatigue in the body is represented by shaking muscles. This also is not necessarily a sign that muscles are in the growth process.

While working yourself to the point of exhaustion is never a great idea, the shake you feel is a good indicator that you have reached your maximum limit. Working your body to this point of exhaustion may help improve overall fitness, but working through that exhaustion is never advised. Oftentimes, elongated strain and fatigue are dangerous to the body because it could lead to serious injury.”

For contrast, here’s a quote from the article by Pop Sugar.com on “10 Tips for your first Barre class:”

Shaking is good: In a barre class, your goal is to start shaking almost immediately after starting an exercise. Many students get nervous and think they are doing something wrong when their muscles start to tremble. This is actually the goal, and you might even hear your instructor say, “Nice shaking.” When your body shakes, you are exhausting that muscle and forcing it to tone, so embrace the shake!

While I’m sure there is some science to back this specific aspect of barre classes, I would argue that fundamental science and research on exercise physiology would state otherwise. I think it also can be quite confusing to anyone who is not used to working out regularly, not to mention the possible issues that I mentioned above for those who are hypermobile.

Next time you participate in a barre class or other exercise class, make a point to be mindful of how shaking right away affects your own ability to execute an exercise correctly. Pay attention to other class participants who start shaking right away as well. You will probably notice that most look uncomfortable, their form is often jeopardized, and they barely can’t make it through the entire exercise sequence.

Here are 2 things I often come across over and over again, especially in barre classes:

  • Many times, instructors try to correct the curve in my lower back, and they get flustered when I shake my head no, or when their adjustments don’t fix the sway in my lower back. It’s not there due to incorrect form or lack of core muscles, it’s just another example of how I was built special (AKA – hypermobile). A curve in the lower spine is called Lordosis or “Swayback,”  and it’s another common spine abnormality associated with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Physical therapy/physiotherapy can help, but there is no way to correct this curve through minor adjustments when in the average fitness class, especially if an abnormality is fairly pronounced. That doesn’t mean it can’t get better, but the average fitness instructor doesn’t have the education on how to best help. I’m sure some do, but most do not.

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  • The 2nd point is about “the shake.” While working your muscles hard enough to feel them shake (AKA – muscle failure) can be effective for building muscle, it’s not always best for those with hypermobility, especially if your muscles start shaking right away. Shaking can cause your brain to lose focus on proper form, which puts you at a greater risk for injury. Again, read this link by Fuse Pilates.com to understand why shaking isn’t always good, especially from the beginning of an exercise. Besides, who cares if lowering your heels is not the most effective position for a certain exercise, as long as your position is correct and does not hurt, then that’s perfectly fine. You can’t gain strength, if you are pushing your body and muscle improperly from the beginning.

If you have questions, ask someone who can help you figure out how to help yourself. If a studio or an instructor is not willing to allow you to adjust your form and continue with an exercise in a position that is most comfortable and safe for you, then that studio or barre workout is probably not the best fit for you. Personally, I had this experience with one of my local barre studios more than once. In the classes that I attended, the instructors would not allow me to continue taking the class, unless I adjusted my form to their required position. Their required position caused me pain and was not the best for my body, so I naturally adjusted to another variation of the same exercise that is often taught in other barre classes, or by other barre workout brands. Barre workouts are not new to me, nor is working out, and I was more than confident that the position that I chose was a safe and effective variation. I was told that unless I adjusted my position to the “(insert barre studio name) required variation,” that I could not finish taking the class. So, I left in the middle of the class. I was horrified, especially after this happened a second time.

After emails back and forth with the studio owner, I was told that even though I was doing a safe variation of a certain exercise, the reason I that I was asked to leave the class was because I IMG_7659refused to adhere to that specific barre studio/brand’s variation of this specific exercise – “one that is more effective and sets (insert barre studio name) apart from other barre workouts.”

I then came home and did a Physique 57 video – using the same variation of the exact exercise that I was doing in the barre class that I had left. And this variation was what the instructor in the Physique 57 video was using as well.

Last, I often do barre exercises while I’m standing in place. Doing exercises while I’m standing in place, helps with symptoms of POTS and helps me manage chronic leg pain. It’s also an easy way to keep muscles strong, while doing every day activities. See link below.

Ballet Barre Exercises while standing for “Just 5 Minutes” a day

Bottom line, listen to your body and do what you know is right, even if it means leaving in the middle of a class. One rule does not apply to all of us. One variation of exercise is not safe and applicable to every body type. And barre workouts may not be the best workout for everyone either. Find what works for you, especially if it keeps you moving.

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My BFF doing a barre workout with me at home

Below are a few of my favorite barre workouts – online and studios that you can go to. Some are national brands and others are local to the Washington, DC area. 

Pilates by Lisa.com

The emBody Shop in Easton, MD 

Booty Barre by Tracey Mallett Fitness

 Physique 57

Barre 3

Pure Barre

Fly Barre

Apps are another great way to try barre workouts and find the method that works best for you. Trying new videos and classes as you get stronger, is great for optimal cross training. Below are a few workout apps that I love:

ClassPass​ – offers a monthly “membership” and you can try a variety of classes at several studios each month. They offer various classes, not only barre, but cycling, Pilates, yoga, cross-training and more. Pure Barre​ is just one of the barre studios that participates with class pass in the Washington, DC/Bethesda area.

Cody​ app – offers studio level classes on video. You purchase a series and it’s yours forever. Cody App also offers a variety of types of workouts, including barre.

Links to Barre Swag on Amazon.com:

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Barre Ball

Tracey Mallet’s Booty Barre VideoIMG_5723

Tracey Effinger’s Barre Video

Physique 57 Barre Video Series

Pilates/Barre at-home reformer combo (This is on my Christmas list!)

You can also join me in one of my online living with EDS active support groups! Click here to learn more. 

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