Indoor cycling might be all the rage right now with the rise in popularity of boutique studios like FlyWheel and SoulCycle and countless celebrities attributing their fit figures to these classes but they have actually been around for decades. In the 80’s, the famous (famous in cycling and group fitness circles, anyway) outdoor cyclist Johnny G (Johnny Goldberg) got hit by a car while cycling at night and started training indoors. Necessity breeds invention and Spinning® was born. Now there are several brands of quality indoor cycling bikes and many companies offer instructor training programs so ‘Spin’ class refers to a specific brand while cycling encompasses all indoor cycling classes.
The Benefits of Indoor Cycling
Weight Loss Fat Burning Potential
Cycling is cardio at it’s best – low impact and high calorie burn…if you work hard enough. According to cycling instructor and wellness expert, Angela Leigh, who has led cycle instructor training, cycling is an ideal form of cardio because there are so many ways to work and because of it’s low impact nature. “It is a low impact sport with vast capacity for cardio output,” Leigh says, “You can go breathless if you want without the impact of sprinting on pavement.”
The double-edged sword of cycling is that you control your own resistance and speed. Your instructor will make suggestions to help you get to the appropriate resistance level and pace but it’s up to you to implement these recommendations. Sometimes, the instructor will tell you how you should feel or give you a perceived rate of exertion (usually a 1-10 scale or a zone from 1-4) or, if the bike allows, your instructor will give specific resistance levels. Some bikes even color code the console so a light will shine in different colors to reflect your work ‘zone.’ As far as resistance, your instructor should give a cadence range or suggest you get on beat with the music and if they do teach to the music, he or she should still provide a RPM (revolutions per minute) suggestion since not everyone ‘hears’ the beat.
The key for calorie burn is to focus more on resistance than speed. While pedaling as fast as you can might seem like hard work, it’s inefficient and only sustainable for short periods of time so speed work works best for intervals. If the speed your instructor suggests seems too slow, crank up your resistance and fight the urge to out-pace the rest of the class. If you ever feel like you’re on a chain-less bike, speeding downhill or going faster than 120 RPMs, you’re going too fast and wasting your time since that causes wear and tear on the body with negligible calorie burn.
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
While pure cycling falls into the cardiovascular exercise category, it provides tremendous leg, glute and even core strengthening when you sit properly on the bike and no matter how much time you spend in the weight room, you need a balance of strength and cardio to reveal a trim and toned physique. “Where cycling may not be the one sport to create muscle definition, it is certainly a start and a gateway to incorporate other resistance training methods into your program for a well rounded approach to fitness,” says Leigh.
Some of the boutique studios offer classes that combine strength-training and cycling but for safety, a bike should really only be used for riding so classes like barre/cycle are great options since you use the bike for balance but you aren’t trying to balance on the bike. Ideally, you should even complete most stretches pre- or post-clipping or strapping into your bike.
Instructional Videos and Training Tips
There are several cycling fitness videos on the market and this is a great option if you are strapped for time and have a quality bike at home. Online videos are also an option if your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend group fitness classes. If you tend to hit the gym at off hours, just bring your phone, plug in your headphones and let your virtual instructor lead you through a ‘class.’ While you won’t get the camaraderie of an actual in-person group class, you’ll likely still push yourself harder than you would while riding completely solo. Grab a personal trainer or gym attendant to help you with your bike set-up to get maximum calorie burn without joint pain or discomfort.
Classes: What to expect; Should I take them?
If you’re comparing a solo indoor cycling workout vs a group class, your best fit will likely rest on your schedule and whether you enjoy the group setting but if you’re comparing indoor and outdoor cycling, it’s apples and oranges. Some outdoor riders supplement their road training with classes or head indoors for the winter but, for some, nothing can replace the fresh air and experience of actually going somewhere on the bike. It’s just like comparing treadmill and outdoor running. Some like one, some like the other and a few runners enjoy both.
Either way, outside of a studio, you might be able to get a quality workout on your own. It just depends on your personality and self-motivation. According to Leigh, a few reasons to at least try an indoor ride include consistency since it isn’t weather-dependent, community and the fact that “it can be fun!” There’s something for everyone in indoor cycling these days. If you happen to ride outdoors, you can find classes that simulate an outdoor ride (and some even have screens that show sample rides) and if you have no interest in setting foot (or wheel) outside, there are classes that feel like a party with a DJ-quality playlist and an instructor who might dance, sing or provide you with a motivation quote for the day. For the average indoor rider, there’s everything in-between these two extremes.
At the end of the day, no matter what’s popular or how many benefits you might experience, you’re only going to stick with a class you enjoy. To increase your chances of success, Leigh offers the following tips for any indoor cyclist:
- Breathe and Relax. It is like riding a bike. Kidding. Show up to your first class at least ten minutes early to meet the teacher and ask for a proper bike set up.
- Ease in. Take the first class for half the total time. Then come back a couple days later for three quarters of the class and work your way up to a full class.
- Bring a friend. Fitness is always more fun with a friend, and it keeps you accountable and motivated.
- Find a teacher you love. Motivation and connection are key. Find a teacher you will inspire you and captivate their audience with an experience and extraordinary coaching.
Show up early to class to get an individualized bike set-up. This will help you maintain proper form throughout class and prevent common complaints of joint pain but here are some basics to get you started if you’re running late to your first class:
- Align your seat with the top of your hip.
- Jump on and align one of your thighs parallel to the ground. Your knee should be right over your toe box. Adjust your seat forward or back if needed.
- Handlebars should be within reach and allow you to maintain good posture. If you have to slouch or round to reach, adjust the handlebars forward or back.
- Handlebar height is a matter of preference but should be comfortable and at least seat height.
Clothes and Proper Attire
Just like any other popular sport, activity or class, there’s plenty of gear available but you’ll find all styles in any indoor cycling class – everything from the student wearing an old cotton t-shirt to the guy decked out in what looks like sponsored cycling gear from head to toe but here are a few basics that will keep you comfortable:
- No loose pant legs: You can wear running tights, shorts, capris, a cycling skort or even shorts made for cycling but just make sure you don’t have loose pant legs from the knee down so they don’t get caught up in the pedals.
- It gets hot: Although your gym or studio will probably have the fans on high, keep in mind that indoor cardio produces a lot of heat. You might wear full-length pants for barre or even a long-sleeve shirt in TRX but you might want to dress down for cycling and wear layers until you figure out your comfort zone.
- Cycling shoes: while not a requirement, cycling shoes that clip into the pedals are worth the investment if you become a regular because your feet can relax while your legs take over. Test out your first few classes in your regular cross-trainers and just look for a bike with ‘cages’ which are straps that hold your foot in place. Some studios like FlyWheel even offer shoe rentals for free with the purchase of a class so it’s smart to check things out before you shell out for new footwear.
- Water bottle: Choose a water bottle that fits in the cup holders on your bike. If the cup holders sit at a sharp angle, skip bottles with straws that will leak. Worst case scenario, your water bottle sits on the floor. You won’t have as much easy access but any water bottle is better than arriving empty-handed.
- Towel: Most gyms and studios will have towels handy and might even drape them over the bike. You’ll quickly figure out if these are for sweat or for cleaning your bike post-class and you should comply with the standard. If you encounter a stingy towel situation or you tend to sweat a lot, bring your own small towel to avoid breaking any unwritten rules or splashing your neighbors.