Indoor Cycling

An Overview of Indoor Cycling

Indoor cycling classes are practically a staple at large fitness centers, and in big cities, specialized cycling studios are usually just a stone's throw away. But while indoor cycling is ubiquitous in modern fitness circles—there are even reality TV shows chronicling the shenanigans of cycling studio trainers and owners—the first indoor cycling class, Spinning, wasn't actually created until 1993.

After its inception, though? Oh, how the program has grown and changed. What was once viewed solely as an indoor training tool for serious cyclists now boasts mass appeal with beat-based choreography, killer playlists, and celebrity-like trainers whose clientele follow them from studio to studio. 

The result is a form of fitness that has serious staying power—not just because of its ability to morph with each new generation of fitness enthusiasts, but because it offers health-boosting results that keep participants coming back for more.

What Is Indoor Cycling?

Indoor cycling is a form of cardiovascular exercise—often delivered in a group setting—that mimics road cycling. Indoor cycling features a specific style of stationary bike that's commonly referred to as a "spin bike," although "Spinning" and "spin bikes" are actually trademarked brand names.

Indoor cycling is most frequently offered in a group fitness setting, but many gyms do provide spin bikes that members can access for solo rides. That said, because this style of indoor cycling is different from other styles of stationary biking, it's a good idea to take a few classes before trying the activity on your own.

Cycling instructors can teach you how to set up your bike and make the most out of each ride.  

Top 10 Things to Know About Indoor Cycling

Indoor cycling, and especially instructor-led group cycling classes, are an excellent way to enhance your cardiovascular fitness and improve your lower body strength. As with all forms of exercise, though, it's not right for everyone. Here's what you should know before you head to your first class. 

1. Indoor Cycling Bikes Are Functionally Different From Traditional Stationary Bikes

It's already been mentioned, but it's worth mentioning again: The design and "feel" of indoor cycling bikes are different from traditional stationary bikes, and these differences can impact your workout experience. 

For one, spin bikes are designed to mimic the full experience of cycling outside. As such, the seat is narrower than a traditional stationary bike, and the handlebars and seat can be adjusted vertically and horizontally to better accommodate your body shape and riding posture.

These basic features also make it possible for you to sit or stand while riding, just as you can on a road bike.

Most significantly, though, are the differences in how the bikes are powered. Traditional stationary bikes feature motors and computerized settings with preset workouts and resistance levels that you can adjust as you ride. While handy, the result is a "clunkier" experience that removes some of your control as a rider.

Spin bikes, on the other hand, feature a heavy flywheel at the front of the bike that's connected directly to the pedal. This mechanism is similar to a traditional bike, placing the power of the pedal in the rider's hands—literally. The rider controls the speed of each pedal stroke, as well as the resistance of the flywheel, which is manually adjusted with a knob or handle. The result is complete control over your ride. You can switch in an instant from no resistance at all—where the flywheel rotates freely, as if you were riding down a hill—to heavy resistance that makes it next to impossible to rotate the pedals, as if climbing a steep mountain.

 

One other difference worth noting is the ability of indoor cyclists to "clip in" to pedals on a spin bike, just as road cyclists can clip into pedals on their road bikes. You do, of course, have to own your own cycling shoes (or borrow them from a studio) to take advantage of this difference, but if you do, it changes the riding experience.

Think about it: If you're pedaling on a stationary bike at the gym, you're probably focused more on the downward "pushing" action of each pedal stroke, because that's the action you can control. Your feet simply "ride" the upward motion of the pedals because you would literally lose your footing if you lifted your foot away from the pedal.

If, however, your feet are clipped into a set of pedals, they're now affixed to the bike, making it possible for you to fully engage through an entire pedal rotation—both the downward pushing motion and the upward pulling motion. The result is increased power and more hamstring and hip engagement throughout your ride.

2. Classes Are Intense...and Sweaty

If you're not a fan of high-intensity workouts, group cycling classes may not be for you. These classes are specifically designed to take you on a "hilly" ride as instructors call for regular changes in resistance and intensity, coaching you up and down a series of virtual slopes often to the sound of blaring, heart-pumping tunes. The experience is a combination of challenge and excitement that leaves you with aching legs and a sweat-soaked body. And all that sweat? It's often exacerbated by a large number of bikes packed into a confined space, then loaded with bodies emitting expired air and even more sweat, all contributing to a muggy experience. 

It's an experience some people love, and other people hate. 

If you find you love it, there's good news: You may be able to burn between 400 and 600 calories per class due to the challenging nature of the workout. Some studios claim you can burn even more than that, but take those estimates with a grain of salt. The actual number of calories you'll burn is highly individual and varies based on your height, weight, sex, muscle mass, and age, as well as how hard you push yourself during a workout. Try using an online calorie burn calculator to get a better estimate for your height and weight. 

3. Studio Classes Can Be Spendy

Most large gyms offer group fitness classes as part of a membership or for a nominal additional monthly fee. The same can't be said for cycling-specific studios. Because group cycling classes are these studios' only form of bread and butter, they charge a premium for each class, often between $20 and $35, depending on the studio and location.

If the thought of spending $60 to $100 a week on your indoor cycling habit makes you cringe, there is good news. Most cycling studios offer some form of a "first class free" benefit so you can test-drive an instructor or location before laying out a lot of cash. And if you decide you're in love with this type of cardio, there are ways to save money on studio classes.  

4. Proper Form Is Critical to Performance

Believe it or not, there's a right and wrong way to ride a bike, and this is doubly true when you're riding a bike at high intensities. For instance, poor posture can lead to knee pain; leaning too heavily on your bike can diminish calorie burn as you reduce muscle engagement; and failing to breathe properly can limit the flow of oxygenated blood to working muscles, causing performance deficits, dizziness, and other unpleasant symptoms. 

It's pretty normal to be unaware of some of your own mistakes, which is why it's important to listen to your instructor's notes on form. You can also check your form for bad habits, such as allowing your hips to wobble while riding, and brush up on proper pedaling anatomy, the right way to master standing position, and the proper way to manage your cadence.

5. There's a Right and Wrong Way to Set Up Your Bike

One of the benefits of indoor cycling is the ability to adjust a bike's handlebars and seat to fit your body's frame. Since not all bodies are the same, even minor adjustments to the seat height or the forward/backward positions of the handlebars can make for a more comfortable and safe ride. Correctly making these adjustments, however, isn't always intuitive. This is one of the reasons it's a good idea to take a few classes before starting to ride on your own. A group cycling instructor can help you adjust your bike the first few times you ride, providing you with pointers and tips for finding the right fit on your own.

One big pointer: When you stand next to your bike, the seat should be roughly the same height as your hip bone. This allows for a full extension at the knee during each pedal stroke. 

6. Saddle Soreness Is Normal

If you haven't been on a bike in awhile, you may be surprised to discover a bruised-like feeling through your groin on the days following a class. This is normal. While initially uncomfortable, you'll discover that you no longer develop the same bruised feeling as your body grows accustomed to the workout, which will take a few classes. If, however, you'd like to avoid feeling saddle sore altogether, you can try a few strategies for avoiding the pain

7. Indoor Cycling Etiquette Is Real

Just as there is proper gym etiquette, there's also proper indoor cycling etiquette, particularly when it comes to group cycling classes. For instance, it's considered bad form to answer your cell phone during class, or to leave without wiping down your bike. Brush up on the basics before you take your first class, and if you're heading to a new studio, ask the instructor if there are any studio-specific rules you should know in advance.

8. Indoor Cycling Offers Many Benefits

After your first indoor cycling class, you'll have no doubts about the activity's ability to increase your heart rate while making your lower body burn. Classes and workouts are seriously tough, and as with all forms of cardiovascular exercise, cycling can enhance heart and lung function and help improve body composition. The benefits don't end there. Indoor cycling can also:

In short, if you enjoy the workout and are prepared to stick with it (consistency is really the key in any exercise program), cycling can pay off big time when it comes to total health and wellbeing.

9. Not All Instructors or Studios Are Created Equal

With the rise of the indoor cycling trend came a flood of cycling studios, styles, formats, and instructors. As in all things, some studios and instructors are better than others, and sometimes "better" is a matter of personal preference. For instance, some studios rely on loud music and beat-based, almost dance-like choreography, while others focus more on traditional cycling form based on heart rate, RPM (rotations per minute), or watts. Likewise, some instructors provide clear and crisp cuing and modeling, while others have a more "fluid" approach to riding a bike (and still other model poor form and poor instruction). It's a good idea to try several studios or instructors before settling on your favorite or deciding cycling isn't right for you.

10. It's Possible to Overdo It

Cycling, obviously, is exercise. It's a voluntary form of physical stress, and more specifically, it's a voluntary form of high-intensity physical stress. This means injuries are possible, particularly if you push yourself too hard, fail to use proper form, or ignore the importance of rest and recovery. It's always important to listen to your body and avoid overdoing it, especially if you're new. Here are a few tips and solutions to prevent muscle imbalances, overuse injuries, illness, and post-workout soreness:

Quick Tips to Prepare for Your First Indoor Cycling Class

If you're ready to give indoor cycling a spin (pun intended), consider these tips before your first ride.

1. Reserve a Bike in Advance

Cycling classes tend to fill quickly, especially at popular cycling studios. Ask about your studio's bike reservation policy—some have a first-come, first-served policy, while others allow participants to reserve bikes up to a week in advance. If you're committed to taking a particular class, go ahead and sign up early. Not only will this prevent you from missing out if the class fills up early, but it will enable you to choose which bike you'll ride during your class. This is nice if you're new—you can opt to hide out in the back row if you're feeling self-conscious, or you can pick a seat front-and-center if you'd like to see the instructor more clearly.

2. Ask if You Need to Bring Anything to Class

In most cases, you needn't bring anything more to a cycling class than your own body and a bottle of water, but it's always a good idea to ask the studio if they have suggestions for newcomers. For instance, they might suggest you wear padded shorts or bring a small sweat towel to stay comfortable and dry.

3. Fuel Up Before You Go

You don't want to attend a group cycling class on an empty stomach. Your body needs fuel to power itself through tough workouts, and if you fail to eat before class, you'll probably end up feeling weak and tired.

About 30 minutes to an hour before class, make sure you enjoy a small meal that incorporates carbs and proteins. For instance, you could eat half a peanut butter sandwich, a protein bar, or a banana and piece of string cheese.

While you're at it, don't forget to hydrate. Aim to drink one to two cups of water in the hour leading up to class, and take a water bottle with you so you can keep sipping as you ride. It's a good idea to drink several ounces of water every 10 to 15 minutes during high-intensity exercise. 

4. Pack a Change of Clothes

Remember how indoor cycling classes are sweaty, sweaty affairs? There's nothing grosser or more uncomfortable than driving home from the cycling studio wearing sweat-soaked clothing. Bring a change of clothes with you to put on after your ride...and don't forget clean underwear!

5. Introduce Yourself to the Instructor

Instructors are there to help. They want to get to know you. They want to know if you're new to class. They want to make you feel comfortable so you'll want to keep coming back. If you show up to class a little early and introduce yourself to your instructor, your entire experience will be better. You can ask for help setting up your bike and whether there's anything you should be aware of before you ride, and you can communicate how you feel about personal feedback. For instance, if you don't want other classmates to know you're new, you can ask the instructor not to draw attention to you or correct you during class.

A Word From Verywell  

Indoor cycling is an excellent way to enhance cardiovascular fitness and increase lower body muscular endurance, but it's a good idea to mix in other forms of training for a well-balanced workout routine. By adding yoga, strength training, or other group exercise classes to your schedule, you'll reduce your likelihood of overuse injuries while enhancing other areas of fitness, such as flexibility and muscular strength.

Sources:

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Lambourne K, Tomporowski P. "The effect of exercise-induced arousal on cognitive task performance: a meta-regression analysis." Brain Research. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20381468. 2010.

Peterson B, Hastings B, Gottschall J. "High intensity interval cycling improves physical fitness in trained adults." Journal of Fitness Research. http://fitnessresearch.edu.au/journal-view/high-intensity-interval-cycling-improves-physical-fitness-in-trained-adults-151. Volume 5 Number 1. 2016.

Szabo A, Gaspar Z, Kiss N, Radvanvi A. "Effect of spinning workouts on affect." Journal of Mental Health. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09638237.2015.1019053. Volume 24 Issue 3. 2015.

Valle V, Mello D, Sa Fortes M, Dantas. "Effects of indoor cycling associated with diet on body composition and serum lipids." Biomedical Human Kinetics. http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bhk.2009.1.issue--1/v10101-009-0004-z/v10101-009-0004-z.xml. Volume 1, Pages 11-15. 2009.

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