What’s the Difference?

Mystified by an instructor's orders? Find out what they really mean.

It’s time for true confessions: Are you fluent in indoor-cycling speak? Or does your instructor sometimes shout out cues that leave you scratching your head? If you chose the latter response, take heart: You’re in good company. Some of the terminology that’s used in an indoor cycling class is downright confusing and because things move so swiftly throughout the workout, there isn’t usually time for elaboration or clarification.

Complicating matters, some instructors use certain terms interchangeably, regardless of whether or not they actually mean the same thing. To clear up the confusion, read this list of lookalike terms, home in on the differences, and you’ll never be mystified again!

What’s the Difference Between a Surge and a Sprint? A surge (sometimes called “a push”) involves picking up your pace and power to about 80 percent of your maximum effort, without changing the resistance on the bike; these bursts can take place on a flat road or a hill. By contrast, with a sprint, you add resistance and pedal as fast as you can—exerting maximum effort!—for a specific period of time; for most people, a true sprint, which can be done while seated (no bouncing allowed!) or in a standing position—can’t be sustained for more than 30 seconds.

What’s the Difference Between a Breakaway and an Attack? It’s a matter of semantics because with both moves, you’re really accelerating hard and fast in order to break away from the pack (a.k.a., the peloton), the main group of riders, in a real or imaginary race.

The goal: To win the entire competition or a particular heat of the race. By any name, these are aggressive, sudden moves that can leave the rider feeling spent, out of breath, and ready for an active recovery interval.

What’s the Difference Between Power and Watts? Watts are a measure of how much power (or effort) you’re exerting during a ride.

Tracking your watts during an indoor cycling class (some computers on the bikes do this automatically) is a great way to measure the intensity and total workload of a given ride. Plus, paying attention to your watts can help you track your progress over time: As you become stronger, you can begin to exert more watts or sustain a higher wattage for a longer period of time.  

What’s the Difference Between Gear and Resistance? Indoor cycles typically feature a knob or lever that controls the resistance (a.k.a., tension) on the bike. Some computers on these bikes also indicate a particular gear number, which reflects the amount of resistance on the bike; others simply rely on a subjective assessment of resistance. Because different bikes (even those of the same model) are calibrated differently, the resistance can be set more tightly on one bike than on another even when a gear number is specified.

So rather than taking the computer calculations (and gear indicators) at face value, it’s better to use your own assessment of how difficult the resistance feels to you.

Similarly, because of these discrepancies, your instructor shouldn’t tell you an exact gear to use; it’s better for an instructor to suggest a range (between 12 and 15, for example) or to give a specific cue (“this should feel like you’re riding through mud”). 

What’s the Difference Between Hammering and Mashing? Some instructors use the word “hammering” to describe going all out with your effort, giving it everything you’ve got; others use “hammering” to describe a particular pedaling technique—jamming down on the pedals from the 1 o’clock to the 5 o’clock position to boost your power. It’s confusing, I know. “Mashing”, by contrast, usually refers to pushing a hard gear with a slower cadence (70 RPMs or lower), which can be hard on your knees especially if you have vulnerable joints. If it’s not clear what your instructor means by these terms, ask.

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