Can I Lose Weight in a Spin Class?

SoulCycle is fun, but does it really burn enough calories for weight loss?

SoulCycle calories burned
Is your spinning workout really effective?. PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

How has your indoor cycling class worked out so far? You've probably burned calories in SoulCycle, Cyc Fitness or one of the other boutique cycling classes to slim down. The wildly popular indoor cycling sessions have long waiting lists and fiercely loyal fans. But do the indoor biking classes provide the workout you need to lose weight?  They might not. Here are 11 reasons that you might want to rethink your boutique cycling class if you want a lean, fit body.

11 Reasons to Skip Boutique Cycling for Weight Loss

  1. Boutique cycling is not the same as cycling. If your goal is to get the strong, tight body of a cyclist, you'll be wasting your time in a boutique cycling class.  Cyclists shape tight quads, strong hamstrings and lean glutes by spending hours on the bike, doing sport-specific drills and perfecting an efficient pedal stroke. Indoor cycling was originally founded as off-season training for riders, but boutique cycling has morphed into something that no longer draws on the athletic drills used by cyclists. 
  2. Heat masks intensity. Some boutique cycling studios jack up the heat in class.  The added challenge might make you feel like you are working harder during class, when in fact, the sweat dripping off your body is a response to the temperature, not to your effort.  And the heat could prevent you from working as hard as you need to to burn mega calories
  1. Unbalanced lower body training. Music drives the movement when you burn calories at SoulCycle and other studios. That's what makes them so much fun. Instructors cue choreography so that clients move in sync and in rhythm on the bike. But this may lead to an unbalanced workout. For example, riders come out of the saddle (usually leading with the right leg) on the beat of the music. Unfortunately, this means that throughout class, during dozens of repetitions coming out of the saddle, you'll load one leg more often than the other. 
  1. Ineffective strength training. Most boutique cycling classes have added weight training to their class formats. Riders do bicep curls, lateral raises or triceps extensions with 1-3 pound weights.  While this might seem like an efficient way to blend cardio and strength training, it's not.  To build muscle or improve muscular endurance, you need to lift 70-80% of your one rep max. For almost all riders, that will be much more than 1-3 pounds. 
  2. Unbalanced upper body training.  Balanced weight training while riding on a bike is difficult, if not impossible. Seated riders can only move in limited planes of motion - which is a fancy way of saying that you'll train the front of your body more than the sides or the back of your body. 
  3. Too much activity in too little time. Time flies by during each 45-minute session because riders participate in arm choreography, jumps in and out of the saddle, different hand positions, weight training, movement around the saddle and other activities like handlebar push-ups. But riders rarely do a single activity for a long enough to generate specific muscular fatigue. 
  1. Momentum minimizes power. Boutique cycling bikes operate by engaging a flywheel.  This feature was originally meant to simulate the resistance of cycling on a road.  The problem is that a weighted flywheel creates momentum. Have you seen instructors bounce in the saddle? That means that the momentum is driving the ride, not power generated by his/her legs. In order to really create strength, your muscles need to control the ride.
  2. No core work. Some boutique cycling instructors claim that you can "engage your core" during class.  But to effectively train your core, you need to flex or rotate your torso against resistance (or gravity) or you need to put the torso in an unstable position.  This is nearly impossible to do from a seated or standing riding position because the torso is bending forward with gravity not against gravity and the handlebars provide stability.
  3. Poor alignment compromises effectiveness. Choreography in indoor cycling classes is fun but it can easily compromise spinal alignment. Cyclists on the road use proper alignment of the ankle, knee and hip to drive a strong pedal stroke, create power, and burn more calories.  But boutique cyclers miss out on that benefit when they dance, shift their hips and do other choreography on the bike. 
  4. Speed + Momentum = Risk  For riders with knee problems, boutique cycling may involve too much risk. Not only is hip, knee and ankle alignment compromised, but it is done so in a locked and loaded position.  Riders' feet are locked into pedals while they spin at speeds of over 110 RPM with 40+ pounds of momentum. 
  5. SoulCycle calories may be exaggerated.  Cycling at SoulCycle is fun. But the studio reports that according to research you can burn 500-700 calories during class. But the folks who developed Spinning® report different numbers. They report a typical calorie burn of 200-600 calories depending on the size of the rider and the length of the ride. Numbers from both SoulCycle and Spinning® are probably based on "best-case scenario" exercise sessions completed in a research setting where the intensity is tightly controlled. This is very different than a real cycling class where you can easily change the resistance when you get uncomfortable.
    The bottom line is that how many calories you burn depends on many factors. It may not be safe to assume that you burn the maximum calories in cycling class and your weight loss plan may suffer if you depend on those numbers.

Should I Ever Go to Cycling Class to Lose Weight?

Even though there are flaws to the rationale behind boutique cycling, it doesn't mean that the SoulCycle trend has no merit.  There are a few reasons that you might want to give it a try.  Many of the instructors are great motivators and even better djs. If you want to have fun for 45 minutes while you burn a few extra calories, then this is definitely the workout for you.  And the people-watching and camaraderie in class is unrivaled in any other class format.  Boutique cycling is seriously fun.  

But if you have taken these classes and you're not seeing the results you expected, the reasons listed above could be why. Unfortunately, many people pay $20-40 for these classes with the expectation that they are a guaranteed ticket to fitness and weight loss.  They are not. The bottom line is that if you want to look like an athlete you need to train like an athlete. So, if you love SoulCycle, go once a week for fun. Then do your serious training to build muscle and burn calories at other times during the week. 

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