The Benefits of HIIT Indoor Cycling Workouts

Here's the inside scoop on the hot trend with indoor cycling.

It’s all the rage in the fitness industry these days but most people think of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as something that’s done in a group exercise class, a CrossFit workout, or a running regimen. The truth is, you can do HIIT with a variety of exercise modalities including indoor cycling. In case you’re not familiar the concept, the basic idea is to alternate short bouts of a very high intensity activity (in this case, cycling) with slower or easier recovery intervals for a total of 20 to 30 minutes.

(This, of course, is in addition to a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down period.)

During the high-intensity bouts, the goal is to work at 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR, very hard!), whereas during the lighter, recovery bouts, you’ll be working at about 60 percent of your MHR. Some HIIT workouts have a 2:1 ratio of recovery time to high-intensity bouts; others have a 1:1 ratio. Either way, you can get a huge bang for your exercise effort with HIIT. It can bring excellent fitness benefits including greater performance in a given activity, better cardiovascular health, and a revved up metabolism (including greater fat-burning capabilities) that can translate into considerable weight loss. Plus, it’s super efficient since it allows you to exercise at a high intensity (and burn lots of calories) for a shorter amount of time than most workouts.

Want proof? Consider this: In a 2015 study, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, assigned overweight men to two different styles of HIIT: 10 1-minute bouts of peak power output, followed by 1-minute rest intervals, or 5 2-minute bouts of 80 to 100 percent maximum intensity, followed by 1-minute rest intervals.

The participants did these time-efficient workouts three times a week for three weeks. Both HIIT groups gained lean muscle mass and their insulin sensitivity improved—after just three weeks!

Similarly, a 2014 study from the U.K. had postmenopausal women do either six HIIT cycling sessions for two weeks—in this case, the sessions consisted of 10 1-minute intervals of cycling at 100 percent peak power output, followed by 1-minute active recovery intervals—or perform six sessions of moderate-intensity continuous cycling at 65 percent of their peak power output for 40 minutes at a time.

The researchers found that those in the HIIT group had greater gains in aerobic capacity than those in the moderate group after the two weeks, even though the HIIT participants spent only half as much time exercising.    

One particular flavor of HIIT called Tabata training is making its way into indoor cycling classes in the form of high-intensity drills that are interspersed with other drills. Tabata is not for the faint of heart or anyone but the super fit. As intense as indoor cycling workouts are naturally, Tabata intervals are like indoor cycling on steroids because the recovery intervals are even shorter than with traditional HIIT! A typical pattern might include 20 or 30 seconds of maximum effort (or sprints on the bike), followed by a 10-second recovery period, and so on for four to five minutes (a total of 8 to 12 repetitions that add up to one circuit). A super-challenging indoor cycling class might include three or four Tabata-style segments in the class—but it shouldn’t be 45 or 60 minutes of this.

The reality is, while Tabata-style drills and HIIT sessions can be incredibly effective at helping you crank up your cardiovascular fitness and weight-loss results, these styles of training can be risky. Because they’re so intense, only seasoned indoor cyclists who are in very good cardiovascular shape should do them—and even then no more than three times a week. Otherwise, you risk setting yourself up for injury, overtraining syndrome, burnout, and/or exhaustion. The first few times you do a HIIT workout on a bike, don’t go full throttle on each circuit; work up to that gradually over time. Your body will thank you later!

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