Why Those Micro-Movements in Barre and Pilates Classes Burn Like Hell
You can crush indoor cycling classes, lift heavy at the gym, and run 5 miles like it’s NBD. (We get it—you work out.) Then you sign up for a barre, Pilates, or Lagree Fitness class. Suddenly, you’re shaking, sweating, and silently cursing the instructor as you pulse, hold, and lift basically only your bodyweight.
Ever wondered why even fairly fit people seem to flounder at the barre or flail around on a megaformer? You’re not alone. While those workouts may not seem as demanding as high-intensity interval training classes or intense cardio sessions, one more set of those micro-movements can feel way more painful than running another mile or eking out another set of push-ups.
We asked the experts to explain what’s going on—and if there’s any way to make it easier.
There are a few key differences, on a muscular level, between these types of micro-movements and other classic strength-training moves.
Comparing a barre, Pilates, or Lagree Fitness class (the patented, Pilates-based workout using a megaformer) to a typical strength or cardio workout is like comparing apples to oranges. Traditional resistance training exercises—such as a leg extension, squat, or push-up—move your joints through a full range of motion, Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, tells SELF. On the other hand, signature moves in these types of ballet-inspired classes—such as planks or single-leg balances—are known as isometric contractions, which means they involve little to no joint movement. “Rather than compound movementstypically found in strength training, these moves [focus on] specific muscles, usually using only your own bodyweight as resistance,” Fred Devito, co-creator of Exhale Spa’s Core Fusion classes, tells SELF.
Barre and Pilates-style workouts also recruit different types of muscle fibers. Isometric contractions and high-rep, low-weight endurance exercises activate type I, or slow-twitch, fibers, which provide a low force output but can keep working for an extended period of time, Crockford explains. “We use type I muscle fibers all day long to maintain posture, joint position, and even walk for long distances.”
On the other hand, traditional resistance or high-intensity interval training workouts typically activate type II, or fast-twitch, muscle fibers, Crockford explains. These fibers contract quickly and are responsible for powerful, dynamic movements and increasing muscle size, but fatigue more quickly than type I. (Type I fibers also can increase muscle size, they just do so less effectively than type II fibers.)
Since you perform many reps of the same movement involving specific muscles in barre or Pilates, you’re working those muscles to exhaustion, Amy Selig, a personal trainer and co-owner of Stellar Bodies in Atlanta, tells SELF. Which means you’re going past your comfort zone—and you’re going to feel it.
While you may not see serious gains from these types of classes, activating those slow-twitch muscle fibers can improve your overall fitness in a number of ways.
“Barre and Pilates are great modes of exercise that can result in better posture, improved stability, and muscular endurance,” Crockford says. Muscular endurance can help you be better at things like running, or simply climbing the stairs to a fifth-floor apartment without feeling your quads burn halfway through.
In addition, many of the moves you’re doing in barre classes require serious balance as well as flexibility, which typically isn’t involved in your standard cardio or strength workout, Michael Jonesco, D.O., a sports medicine physician at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and lead head physician for BalletMET, tells SELF. Plus, you’re recruiting your core muscles to help stabilize your entire body, making it a true total-body workout, he explains.
If you’ve ever wanted to cry in one of these classes, you know how painful they can be. But your instructor is right: You should embrace that burn.
That burning sensation isn’t your muscles ripping or tearing; it’s actually caused by a byproduct that’s released when your body breaks down fuel to use it as energy.
Incessant pulsing and other small isometric movements that you repeat over and over again in a barre class tap into the body’s lactic acid energy system (anaerobic glycolysis)—it’s the energy system you use for anaerobic exercise that’s done for an extended duration of time (approximately 30 to 60 seconds). The body uses glycogen—stored carbohydrates—as energy in this scenario.
“If a specific section of a muscle works for an extended period of time, it will exhaust its supply of glycogen,” California-based exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., tells SELF. When glycogen is broken down and used, hydrogen ions and lactate are produced. The body recycles lactate back into another energy system, and “hydrogen is buffered and removed as waste,” explains McCall. But first, the hydrogen ions accumulate in the bloodstream and makes the blood more acidic, a process called acidosis. This increased acidity is what burns. And the more you keep that muscle contracted as you make it work, the more hydrogen ions you’ll end up with.
In comparison, when you’re doing a compound exercise that involves multiple muscle groups, the workload is shared amongst all of them, McCall says. This means the energy usage is spread out, so you’re not completely exhausting one specific muscle’s glycogen stores the way you do when you’re working one targeted muscle to exhaustion.
Many of us may have also started to shake or tremble at the barre or on the megaformer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just a sign your body is becoming fatigued, Crockford says. Essentially what’s happening is that the muscle contraction is being interrupted because there isn’t enough energy available to keep your nerves firing properly and sending uninterrupted signals to your muscles.
Again, even though it hurts, it doesn’t mean you’re hurting yourself. “Pushing through this trembling, within reason, is a type of muscle overload,” Crockford explains. This is what your muscles need to enact change, so basically, it means you’re making progress. (Just be careful not to push past your limits and risk falling or injuring yourself. If you’re using proper form, injuries shouldn’t be an issue—but ask an instructor if you’re not sure.)
Even the strongest among us can experience the shake. “No matter how strong you are, you’ll eventually start to quiver and muscles will reach their point of failure if you’re using proper form,” Devito says. Even NFL lineman he’s taught are shocked when they start to quiver after their first 10 reps at the barre.
The good news: There are some ways to help push through the burn.
For starters, make sure you’re breathing deeply, Crockford says. Next, take control of your thoughts—which we know is easier said than done. “That’s the hard part—when your ego starts to talk to you,” Devito says. His advice: Concentrate on your form, focus on your breath, and just try not to think too much.
Staying present and focusing on your working muscle can also help you tap into your strength, Selig says. And remember, the burn is just temporary—and means that you’re stimulating your muscles enough to trigger changes.
Being consistent will also help you find your groove and reduce how hard the moves feel over time. Devito suggests attending three classes per week. And stick with it for at least three weeks, Jonesco suggests.