Is Your Indoor Cycling Class Too Hard or Too Easy?

Here's how to tell if your rides are appropriately challenging.

When I first started teaching indoor cycling classes years ago, the group exercise director, who was new to the club, asked members for feedback about which classes they liked and which they didn’t so she could fine-tune the schedule. They had a lot to say on the matter. The good news for me was that most people liked my style, loved my music, and enjoyed my cycling classes; however, two regulars in my 6 a.m.

class asked the director to ask me to make my classes harder—a request that mystified me. When my boss and I discussed this, I figured out who was behind the comment and I asked her advice, “These two women don’t turn up their resistance enough when I tell the class to add it on. When the rest of us are climbing a steep hill, they’re barely above a flat road. What can I do about that?”

The director was sympathetic and supportive. She reminded me that while it’s my job to create a ride that’s appropriately challenging, it’s up to each and every rider to do what I ask. If they don’t heed my instructions and add the right amount of resistance or increase their pace when I ask them to, there isn’t anything I can do about that.

Naturally, I appreciated my boss’ support but I wasn’t content to let it go. When I noticed that certain riders weren’t adding enough resistance, I started giving specific cues such as “This should feel very challenging—like riding through mud!” or “If your legs are moving much faster than mine are, you need to add resistance!” I also reminded classes that while I would give them cues about how hard something should feel (“This should feel like an 8 on your scale of 1 to 10 in terms of difficulty”), it was their responsibility to add the right amount of resistance.

I couldn’t do it for them (and it would be inappropriate if I did).

To one of the women behind that initial request, I said privately, “I’ve noticed that you don’t increase your resistance as much as I ask people to. You seem more focused on maintaining a certain pace. Why is that?” She said that for health reasons, her goal was to keep her heart rate in a particular zone (based on her heart rate monitor) and she needed to maintain a certain pace to get it there.

I explained that she could also get it into that target zone if she pushed more resistance at a strong pace and it would be a better workout for her muscles and overall conditioning. (This turned out to be a great opportunity to correct a common misconception.) I begged her to give this approach a try for two classes and see how it affected her. Sure enough, she found it to be a much better cardiovascular and overall workout—and from then on, she consistently followed my instructions and relished the challenge.

In fact, cyclists in my classes often tell me that I push them to achieve new heights in RPMs, watts, or other measures of performance, which is what a good instructor should do. At the end of a class, you should feel like you got a great workout, challenged your body and mind, and expanded your comfort zone. That's the sweet spot for training.

The point is: Your cycling instructor is your guide and coach but only you can do what it takes to make your rides appropriately challenging, whether it’s by exerting the right effort, pushing your pace, or increasing the resistance on the bike.

You, and only you, are in charge of these elements so the onus is on you to adjust them accordingly.

The same principle applies if what an instructor asks you to do feels too difficult or unsafe. If you feel consistently winded, nauseated, or like you’re seriously overexerting yourself, or if you have so much resistance on the bike that you can barely turn the pedals, it’s your responsibility to dial down your effort, pace, or resistance. In other words, you need to modify the ride to suit your fitness level and your goals, each and every time.

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