If you’ve been to a barre class, you know what I’m talking about. That burning sensation in your muscles, arms or legs on fire, uncontrollable shaking. That’s what’s called “The burn”. This is something you can experience during your workout, especially with barre.
It’s a challenging feeling that often triggers discomfort which turns your workout into a mental training. I get asked all the time about it after class. Many people think it comes from muscle weakness. But it doesn’t.
So let’s talk about ‘The burn’. What it is and the science behind it.
What is a barre workout?
First, a little background about barre. Further to a back injury, Lotte Berk, a German-born modern dancer, combined ballet barre routines with rehabilitative therapy to create a fitness system we know now as ‘Barre’. These workouts incorporate ballet, yoga, and Pilates-inspired elements and focus on low-impact, high intensity movements.
The results are serious: a sculpted lean and strong body.
A barre class is a full body workout. With small, targeted movements, isometric holds and pulsing techniques using light weight or resistance the muscles of each group are fatigued to the point they’re hitting overload. The aim is to get the muscles to their tightest point of contraction where the muscles max out. Muscle fibers start breaking down and enter a new repair process. That’s the point at which the fibers get to grow, strengthen, and lean out.
So, the burn or shake isn’t a bad thing at all! It’s simply a sign that the body’s becoming fatigued, that it gets out of its comfort zone. Which also makes barre a mental workout increasing resilience and stamina.
As with all workouts, Barre classes come in different tastes. I personally love including cardio blasts into my classes because they raise the energy and give endorphins’ high. Making it fun to feel that burn helps get through this challenging sensation and ensures we keep showing up class after class. That’s how in just a few weeks of regular classes results are there! Energy is boosted, you get fitter, your balance improves, and your body starts to tone.
Alright, now we’re about to get into more details and the science behind the famous burn. So, if you have no time or are bored by science, no worries, I got your back. Scroll down to the recap at the bottom of this post. Otherwise stick with me.
The science behind the burn
Understanding what’s happening to your body, can reassure you that such feelings (burning, shaking) are part of the process of getting fitter and stronger. So, here’s the science behind the burn.
There are two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch (Type 1), fast-twitch (Type 2) which divide into two sub-categories. With barre we mostly workout our slow-twitch (Type 1) muscle fibers, building endurance and strength with pulsing techniques, high repetition of small, targeted movements.
Slow-Twitch vs Fast-Twitch Muscles
To function the body needs movement. Not only workouts. Respiration or eating are movements too, contraction of our skeletal muscles. These muscles are made up of the two types of fibers mentioned above. The difference between these is the way they create energy for their contractions. The more efficient Type 1 fibers are fatigue resistant and focused on sustained, smaller movements and postural control. Type 2 fibers fatigue quickly and are therefore better for short bursts of speed and strength.
Running a marathon or maintaining posture, for example, both require efficiency over time and mainly use slow-twitch muscle fibers. Highly vascularised they have many mitochondria. These are tiny cells producing energy using aerobic respiration (meaning with oxygen). Simply put, aerobic respiration is a process through which energy is created in the form of ATP from amino acids, carbohydrates and fatty acids. The energy provided by aerobic respiration is steady and large, it increases the oxygen capacity of the muscles so they can keep going for longer periods of time. Because of their low threshold, these fibers are activated before the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Sprinting or heavy lifting, require short, powerful bursts of energy which are provided by fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are activated when the slow-twitch fibers have reached their threshold and can’t meet the level of energy needed. Their contraction is quick and strong because their energy is created by anaerobic respiration (without oxygen). Fast-twitch muscle fibers divide in two sub categories.
Type 2a is a sort of hybrid and uses both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, they are less efficient and fatigue quicker than Type 1 fibers but produce more force. Type 2b produces the most force very quickly. They are highly inefficient due to their reliance on anaerobic metabolism. Fewer mitochondria are present in these fibers, ATP’s form quickly from glycogen, the stored energy inside the contracting muscle cells. This process is less efficient and builds up lactate and hydrogen ions.
Embrace the shake!
Let’s bring this all together now. Getting back to our barre class, at some point we all feel our arms on fire, uncontrollable shake in the legs. Been there?
Here’s why. The body creates energy through one of these three processes: phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative. Although these systems work together simultaneously, depending on the needs of the moment, one of them will predominate.
Fast-twitched (anaerobic) muscle fibers are activated during short term intensive exercise. They use energy stored into the muscles (Phosphocreatine or PC, is a high energy phosphate stored in the muscles) combined with glucose to form ATP. This is called the phosphagen system or ATP-PC energy system.
This system provides energy for high intensity efforts and is limited to about 10 seconds after which the glycolytic system is activated. This second system provides energy for only a few minutes and results in an accumulation of lactate and hydrogen molecules. The accumulation of hydrogen ions decreases the pH and causes a state acidosis disturbing muscle contraction. The muscle hits the point of overload. This is the burn, the shake.
At that point the oxidative system kicks in which creates energy from fats and carbohydrates.
What’s in it for you?
Now you know more about the science behind the famous burn you’ll be able to embrace it in your next classes. Seeing it under a new perspective! No, it’s not a weakness but a necessary discomfort leading you to growth, physical and mental strength.
So, to recap, slow-twitch muscles contract with steady long-lasting energy created using oxygen. They are engaged during high repetition of low-impact movements (typical in barre classes) to the point of exhaustion.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers’ energy is generated anaerobically (no to very little oxygen) for quick, explosive, short bursts of effort as the one needed for sprinting or powerlifting. Their activation results in a release of hydrogen ions which accumulate and cause a state of acidosis interfering with muscle contraction. There! You feel the burn.
Recent studies show the benefit of an aerobic workout followed by an anaerobic workout resulting in the release of triglyceride stores, a.k.a. fat burn. Barre classes, especially energetical ones, include both. They also increase cardiovascular endurance and metabolism (quick burn of calories), they improve posture, increase flexibility, and tone the body, think six-pack and lifted bum.
Tips to ease the burn
If you’ve been to one of my classes, you know the breath’s my thing and you probably heard me say it’s your superpower. Because it is!
Now remember the build-up of lactic acid and hydrogen create acidosis which the burn/shake comes from. So, to optimize clearing these out the most efficient tool at your disposal all the time is your breath. 85% of body waste removal goes through the breath. Full and complete exhales will definitely help.
The mental aspect of your workout is huge!! First thing is showing up, right? OK, you’re here. Heading out of the comfort zone. Sweating, heartbeat pumping and feeling the burn . . . Where’s your attention? Well now you know every time you feel it, you’re in the zone! Your muscles are getting stronger and you’re growing your resilience. You’re taking care of your body and your mind. That’s self love.
You also can gradually increase the volume, intensity, and duration of training, incorporating rest days and easier training days, and fueling your body properly to help the body with more love and care.
Don’t fear the burn! See it for what it is.
So no need to avoid or fear the burn. See it for what it is (read this blog again): a sign your muscles get out of its comfort zone and enter into growth territory. Use it to train your mental strength, breathe through it.
One last thing, the fun factor is highly important because it gets you to show up for your workout, time after time. So keep it fun. Choose a workout where challenge meets fun! Keep breathing. Smile from time to time, and be proud of yourself for showing up.
Consistency is what will get you where you want to be whether you’re looking to feel fitter, to tone into a bikini body or to build up strength further to an injury. You’re whole. Doesn’t matter which part you want to work on, you train it all! Body, mind, breath and ultimately self love.