Side leg lifts. Clamshells. Bridges. Wait, is this physical therapy or a barre class? The answer: both! "There's crossover between physical therapy exercises and barre classes," says Rachel Scrementi, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist at Cherry Creek Wellness Center in Denver.
Female runners typically end up in physical therapy due to weak hip abductors and hip rotators—the very muscles worked throughout barre class, says Scrementi. Building up these muscles helps you learn to control your hips and prevent your knees from caving when you're out for a run. As a result, you'll protect yourself from common running injuries like hip impingement, ITB syndrome, and hip, knee, and ankle pain.
Physical therapy moves for injured runners also tend to focus on the trunk—specifically the deepest layer of belly muscle called the transverse abdominals. "This is your natural weight belt and is vital to back and pelvic stability," says Scrementi. A strong, solid center helps propel you forward while keeping your middle relatively still so you're not rotating side to side, which can increase the wear and tear on your joints and tendons. That focus on the core comes up in barre class, too— when the instructor reminds you to tuck your tailbone and pull your belly button back toward your spine. (Related: What the Eff Is a Barre Tuck?)
So, should you blow off your PT sessions and just hit the barre studio instead? Depends. If you're near the end of your PT treatment and have perfected the exercises, then you're in the clear to swap, says Scrementi. But if you're recently injured and a PT newbie, you'll get a lot more from one-on-one sessions with a physical therapist.
Healthy runners, on the other hand, are encouraged to attend barre classes on days when they're not hitting the pavement. "Barre classes can be a great way to cross train and focus on core strength and stability," says Scrementi. Most importantly, runners should focus on core and hip-strengthening exercises. "It doesn't matter what type of cross training you are doing—weights or barre—but that you are sticking with a program that you enjoy."
If pain ever enters the picture, pause on barre classes altogether. Muscle burn isn't the same thing as soreness or pain. "Most of us compensate without even realizing, especially if we have weakness," says Scrementi. "Strengthening should never be painful." When other muscles step up to deflect the pain, it can worsen the injury and might put you back in physical therapy. As with any exercise: pay attention to what your body is telling you.