The Method

How Barre Exercise Changes Your Muscles

January 8, 2014

If it’s long, lean muscles you want, The Bar Method definitely delivers. But how exactly do barre workouts sculpt your muscles? From dense cellular biology to basic physiological facts, we’re revealing what really happens to your muscles when you exercise. Keep these facts in mind the next time you’re in the midst of a challenging Bar Method class, and you may just find that they give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of your workout routine.

Isometric Exercises vs. Strength Training: What’s the Difference?

When you think of building muscle, you likely think of strength training exercises like squats, lunges and lifting heavy weights. While strength training is a phenomenal way to build lean muscle mass, it’s not the only way to carve out a stronger, leaner physique.

At The Bar Method, we use isometric movements as opposed to traditional strength training to help you burn body fat and define your muscles. Isometric movements are essentially small, controlled moves that are deceptively challenging and effective. When you lift heavy barbells or cycle through reps of squats, you’re using larger-range movements to contract and lengthen your targeted muscles. With barre, however, you’re using smaller contractions to work your muscles to fatigue. These small movements don’t significantly change the size of your muscles, but they do build strength, add definition, and increase flexibility for a total win-win.

Muscles 101: Slow-Twitch & Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers

To understand how exercise makes you stronger, it’s important to know the difference between “slow-twitch” and “fast-twitch” muscle fibers.

Red muscle fibers, or “slow-twitch fibers,” are dedicated to keeping us moving indefinitely, and we use these endurance-oriented fibers when we walk and run long distances. Our neck muscles have a lot of slow-twitch fibers so that we can easily hold our head erect all day, while our deep calf muscles have a lot of them so that we can run around from dawn to dusk. Look at “slow-twitch” fibers through a microscope and they’ll appear dark red (hence the name). That’s because slow twitch fibers are filled with capillaries, giving them a rich blood flow that, along with muscle cells, provides continual energy.

White muscle or “fast-twitch” fibers are specifically designed for power and speed. They have less blood flow than slow-twitch fibers, which makes them lighter in color. Fast-twitch fibers ultimately have the biggest impact when it comes to reshaping your muscles. Do strength training, and these fibers get firmer. Keep training, and these fibers undergo “hypertrophy,” which means they’ll get larger. Women’s muscles don’t increase size very easily, so women can use heavy weights and still not see a lot of hypertrophy. (Which is why it’s true that lifting weights won’t make you bulky.) Regardless if you’re male or female, the manner in which you work out helps determine the body shape you achieve. If you use heavy weights with few reps for several months, your “fast-twitch” muscle fibers will increase in size. If your routine employs lighter weights with lots of reps, the result will be muscles that are firm and shapely but not significantly larger.

People have both types of these fibers in their muscles in varying proportions, and each of our muscles has a different amount of “slow-twitch” and “fast-twitch” cells according to what that muscle does. For example, your hamstrings and arm muscles have a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers for power and speed, while your glutes have a lot of both types. Studies have shown that elite marathoners tend to be genetically endowed with a higher-than-average percentage of slow-twitch fibers, while Olympic sprinters have more fast-twitch fibers that give them strength and speed.

Fitness Fact: The majority of your largest, most powerful muscles are on your backside. Think the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in your torso; the triceps, the largest muscle in your arm; and the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle that moves your legs and the most massive muscle in your entire body. That’s why it’s important to not let your backside be “out of sight, out of mind” when you workout. During your Bar Method routine, try imagining your back in your mind’s eye and focusing on feeling each movement. By doing so, you’ll use more muscles and burn more calories while improving your overall posture.

How Does The Bar Method Benefit Your Muscles?

Both fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers get stronger from exercise. That’s because working out causes “micro-tears” in your muscle fiber. These torn muscle fibers then heal themselves, building new fibers that are stronger than their predecessors. The more intensely you exercise and the heavier the weights you use, the more micro-tears you’ll create — and the larger your healed fast-twitch fibers will become due to hypertrophy.

The Bar Method’s practice of performing several reps with light weights targets slow-twitch muscle fibers and produces just enough hypertrophy to sculpt muscles without bulking them up. By doing lots of aerobic exercise, you’ll build your endurance while infusing your slow-twitch fibers with even more capillaries. Slow-twitch fibers happen to burn a lot of calories, which means you’ll also burn more fat. Alternatively, traditional strength training hones in on fast-twitch fibers for more powerful muscles and increased speed.

Fitness Fact: You know you’ve had a good workout when you get “delayed-onset soreness” 24 to 48 hours after your routine. This soreness is caused by your fibers’ healing process, not from lactic acid as is commonly believed.

RELATED: Why The Bar Method Creates Muscles That Are Supremely Firm, Lean and Shapely

Synchronous Activation: The Bar Method’s Secret Weapon

There’s actually an additional and lesser-known type of strengthening that happens after exercise — one that’s been found to give women most of the results they get from working out. Exercise physiologists call it “synchronous activation.” What this means is, in effect, improved mind/body coordination. The idea is that focusing on precise movements during exercise helps you better connect to your muscles. In turn, this makes you work them more intensely and yields better results over time.

Here’s how it works: An untrained muscle is weak in part because the message it gets from the brain and nerves is disorganized. A new Bar Method student may not have the neural connection between her brain and certain muscles to perform various exercises effectively. Mark A. W. Andrews, an associate professor of physiology, explains it this way: Exercise, especially when it focuses on form and precision, gives you “the ability to recruit more muscle cells – and thus more power strokes – in a simultaneous manner.” Andrews adds, “This neural adaptation generates significant strength gains with minimal hypertrophy and is responsible for much of the strength gains seen in women and adolescents who exercise.”

The Bar Method workout is especially focused on this fitness component due to its emphasis on precision. Most students initially struggle to perform different exercises with proper form, but this struggle actually builds the neural pathways that enable you to engage your muscles more efficiently. Even better, our program doesn’t just focus on the main muscle groups. We also incorporate smaller supporting muscles that are less frequently used, strengthening your entire body in the process.

RELATED: The Bar Method’s Top 5 Transforming Secrets

Why Sticking with The Bar Method Gives You Incredible Results 

When it comes to Bar Method classes, persistence definitely pays off. It’s very common for new students to struggle with coordination. Most newcomers have a hard time engaging “harder-to-reach” muscles at first, simply because they haven’t yet developed the neural pathways they need to execute these moves with precision. Fortunately, Bar Method instructors are pros at helping you fine-tune your form to ensure you target the right muscle groups.  By sticking with our program, you’ll dramatically improve your mind/body connection — and that means you’ll start seeing results fast!

Ready to take your first barre class? Find a Bar Method studio near you to get started, or sign up for online classes here.