What exactly does an “isolation” look like on the bike? Is it similar to a hover? I know I don’t do hovers, but some of our trainers do. Thank you
This is a really good question, Debby. Hovers and isolations in Spinning and other indoor cycling classes have been around for many years, though they are not taught in any reputable certification courses*. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Both isolations and hovers involve holding your body still and thus putting all the force generated from pedaling into joints not intended to absorb that force.
An isolation is any move that causes you to “freeze” any part of your body with the stated goal of achieving a “burn” or some other misunderstood alleged benefit. A hover is a specific isolation where you push your butt back over the saddle, “hovering” an inch or so from the saddle, and holding this unnatural position. I think of isolations as a broader term involving any kind of body freezing. And I think of hovers as a particular and popular form of isolation.
In an isolation, the instructor might ask you to hold your hips completely still and suck in your abs for a “core workout.” They usually involve keeping the body upright. Sometimes they will have you lower the hips while doing this, as if in a slight “squat.” This gives the sensation of work since your quads and glutes will begin to burn from having to perform work for which they are not intended. While in this lowered, squatting position, you cannot effectively apply force to the pedal, and your output (as measured by wattage) will fall. In other words, the appearance of actual work is negated.
Our knees aren’t meant to be pushed that far forward while the leg rotates at 60, 80, or 90 times per minute. This position and the repetitive grinding places the knee under considerable force.
In a hover, the butt is pushed back, ostensibly for “greater engagement of the glutes and hamstrings.” You can see that in the image above. In this position, the knees (indicated by the yellow arrow) are pushed behind the proper vertical plane above the pedal spindle (indicated by the red arrow), rather than in front of it as in an isolation with a squat. For optimal biomechanics and safety in a technically correct riding position, the knee should be positioned over the pedal spindle. When the knee is behind this plane for very long, it reduces the transfer of force to the pedal, putting you in a position where you cannot produce as much power (similar to the isolation). This can be seen objectively with a power meter—you simply cannot maintain the same wattage you could if you were positioned properly over the pedals.
In a hover, this position of the knee places the joint in a compromised position under force, risking potential knee discomfort or even injury if held for long. The back is also at risk; some riders will hyperextend (arch) the spine in order to push the tailbone back, while those with poor flexibility will end up over-flexing the lumbar spine, rounding the back. Both of these positions place additional stress on the lumbar vertebrae, especially while continuing to pedal.
Neither hovers or isolations make the work effective, nor do they burn more calories. You are creating less power in a compromised position. There is also no functional benefit to either of these isolation positions, since they neither benefit a cyclist, nor do they cross over to any kind of non-cycling movement or position off the bike.
The result for both techniques: High Risk, Zero Benefit.
*Spinning ® is a registered trademark of Mad Dogg Athletics. Spinning does NOT teach or condone hovers or isolations. Neither do the following indoor cycling certification programs: Schwinn, Stages, Keiser, Indoor Cycling Group, Real Ryder, Cycling Fusion, and more.