Busting Through an Indoor Cycling Plateau

It May Be Time to Change Something to Kick-Start Your Fitness Results.

Two men who are regulars in my indoor cycling classes ride fairly hard but don’t understand why they’re not getting the results they’re looking for. One, in his late 40s, consistently pedals at a brisk pace with moderate resistance on the bike, partly because it feels good to him and partly because he has a mental block against pushing his resistance beyond a certain point. He consistently focuses on the bike’s computer readout for distance traveled and calories burned to gauge the intensity of his workout.

The trouble is, he has been using this approach for so long that the benefits he's reaping have basically plateaued and he hasn’t lost weight the way he’d hoped to.

The other man, an outdoor cyclist in his mid-80s, is proud of himself (as he should be!) because in the last two years indoor cycling classes have become considerably easier for him. When we discussed this recently, I explained that this is because his body has adapted to the challenge and he’s fitter than he was, which is great. But he’s craving more challenging workouts, so I explained that if he wants to take his physical fitness to the next level, he should add more resistance and/or pedal faster in the classes. He looked at me as though I were mildly insane.

The truth is, both men have hit fitness plateaus by doing the same old, same old cycling intensity, class after class. Just as you can hit a weight-loss plateau if you’re trying to slim down, you can reach a fitness plateau where your body becomes more efficient at doing a certain form of exercise (in this case, indoor cycling) that you end up gaining fewer fitness benefits and burning fewer calories than when you began doing the workouts.

Complicating the picture, doing the same intensity of workout for weeks or months can lead to boredom and burnout, which could erode your motivation to keep doing it.

The Plateau-Busting Fix

Remember this fitness mantra: Adaptation then progression. It’s a fundamental concept with resistance training and it applies to other forms of exercise, too.

Here’s what it means in practical terms: When you embark on an exercise program, you choose a format, as well as the length, intensity, and frequency of the workout, that will challenge you safely where you are now. (Recovery between workouts is also an important part of the equation.) As you get stronger and fitter, these variables need to change in order for your strength and fitness levels to continue to progress. Simply put, you need to make your indoor cycling workouts more challenging if you want to continue getting the fitness results you want.

The good news is, this progression can happen at any age. In a 2010 study at the University of Sao Paolo, researchers had healthy younger women (ages 20 to 35) and healthy older women (ages 61 to 75) ride stationary bikes for 20 minutes at an intensity of 65 to 75 percent of their heart rate reserve then do a series of resistance training exercises twice a week for 13 weeks. Whenever the participants adapted to the workload, the aerobic exercise intensity was increased by 5 percent; a similar progression was added to the resistance exercises when the women adapted to the weight load.

Now for the inspiring part: By the end of the Sao Paolo study, both groups went through similar progressions in the cycling part of the workouts, as they got stronger and fitter—and there was a significantly greater workload increase from the first to the last session among the older women. 

The adaptation benefits can kick in fairly quickly with a short-term training program. In a 2010 study at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, physically active younger men (ages 18 to 28) and older men (ages 61 to 75) trained on a cycle ergometer at 70 percent of their VO2 max three times per week for 45 minutes at a time. Within three weeks, both groups adapted to the regimen and increased their cardiorespiratory fitness. 

The Potential Payoffs of Progression

All of this relates to one of the most important principles in fitness, called overload: When you stress your body by asking it to push a heavier gear or lift a heavier weight than it’s unaccustomed to, this will trigger physiological changes that will make you better able to handle that challenge the next time it occurs. Similarly, with cycling and other forms of cardiovascular training, if you push your heart, lungs, and endurance muscles to handle progressively more challenging workloads, they will rise to the occasion and become better able to handle that task next time. This is how you can get stronger, faster, and more physically fit with regular exercise.

To continue to reap gains in these respects, however, you need to keep upping the challenge (within reason, of course) with progressively more intense workouts (such as increased pace, gear, or maximum heart rate), more frequent cycling workouts, or longer sessions.  Just as there’s the use-it-or-lose-it principle for maintaining physical fitness, there’s a continue-to-increase-the-challenge principle that applies to continuing to boost your physical fitness. If you don’t do it, your results are likely to plateau. But if you do it, your fitness level will have no limits. It’s really that simple.



Journal of Applied Physiology. March 2010; 108(3): 621-7. Time course and mechanisms of adaptations in cardiorespiratory fitness with endurance training in older and young men.

Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. November 2010; 24(11): 3023-3031. Age Does Not Affect Exercise Intensity Progression among Women.

Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise. April 2004; 36(4): 674-88. Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription.

“Principles of Physical Fitness”, Chapter Two. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013. </sub> 

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