knee pain cycling

My Cycling Class Today: A Locker Room Conversation that Helped a Rider Avoid Knee Pain in Indoor Cycling Class

While getting dressed after a workout last week, I overheard a conversation a woman was having with another member in the locker room. She had recently started taking indoor cycling classes and her knees were bothering her. “My knees have hurt so much, I’m really thinking I need to stop riding.”

That raised my antennae immediately! Clearly, I thought, something’s not right here. Riding a bike—any bike—should NOT hurt your knees. And, of course, I wasn’t about to NOT say something!

Here’s how the conversation went down.

Me (shamelessly butting in): Excuse me, I might be able to help. I’m a cycle instructor here. My name is Sara. Where do your knees hurt? Front? Back? Side? Because if they hurt in front, your saddle is probably too low. If they hurt in back, your saddle is too high. If you have pain on the outside of the knee, I’d recommend looking at your fore/aft saddle position. Did your instructor help you set up your bike?

Member: No. (I did my best not to roll my eyes at this point. Ensuring that our riders are properly fitted on the bike may be the single most important thing we do as instructors.)

Me: If you’re available to come to my class next week and wouldn’t mind coming a few minutes early, we can take the time we need to get your setup dialed in perfectly. Also, you should be really cognizant of your cadence. [Member now gives me a puzzled look.] Cadence is how fast you’re turning the pedals. I’m assuming you’re not being coached to ride at very high cadences. (I already knew the answer to this.)

Member: Well, we do a lot of 130 rpm stuff with no “tension” on the bike. (Side note: I truly hate the term tension. Don’t we have enough of it in our lives without bringing it into the studio with us? Plus it’s not an accurate description of how indoor bikes work!)

Me: Without resistance you’re not accomplishing much and you’re putting a lot of stress on your knee joints and tendons. (Lateral knee pain is often associated with this type of activity as well as with poor foot alignment.) By the way, did you ask your instructor to explain the benefit of riding in that fashion?

Member: No, I didn’t ask, but did wonder about that—it didn’t really feel like I was doing anything.  (Smart lady.)

Me: Right, so remember that indoor cycling is intended to be a cardio workout. Really, if your heart rate is elevated without any corresponding work, you’re pretty much wasting your time and, in this case, risking an injury as you are now experiencing. Ideally you should keep your cadence at 110 rpm or lower, and always make sure there’s meaningful effort behind your pedal stroke.

Member: That’s so helpful, thanks. I was also wondering about upper-body stuff on the bike, like push-ups. I look around the room and some people aren’t doing them, some people are…I don’t know, it just feels strange and awkward to me.

Me: Well, I always say if it feels wrong, ask your instructor what the movement is intended to accomplish. In the case of upper-body “work” (yes, I used my fingers to make air quotes) on the bike, it sort of intuitively makes sense that those things would be a lot more effective done in a dedicated way, off the bike, and not thrown into a class profile as a way to keep people from thinking they are bored in class.

Member: Yes, well, I am sometimes bored in class.

Me: Oh, I understand, I really do. That is actually something that seems more common when people first start riding, as they learn to really be “in the moment” and become “one with the bike.” Hopefully, with some amazing music it becomes an entirely different experience. And a well-structured class with great music shouldn’t need gimmicks to keep riders engaged. Does that make sense?

Member: Yes, wow, thanks. When do you teach? I really want to come to your class.

Me: I’d love to have you! Come a few minutes early and we’ll get your bike fit nailed. You’ll be so much more comfortable!

It’s not often I get to have a long conversation like that with someone who’s clearly interested in cycle class, open to learning, and really wanting to succeed! It was a great opportunity and I’m glad I butted into their conversation.

The happy ending is she did come to class. It took just a few minutes to fit her bike perfectly…and she didn’t miss the push-ups at all. At one point, I looked over and her eyes were closed. One with the bike. In the moment.

I’m putting this one in the win column!


  1. I have recently moved and I am taking spinning classes at the YMCA near my home. Almost all of the instructors have incorporated upper body workouts into the spinning class; Push-ups, crunches, and fast sit up’s. They also do isolations which I was taught you never should do and that if you wouldn’t do it on the road but you shouldn’t do it in a spinning studio. When I approached the instructors and the fitness director about these movements which I considered to be illegal they looked at me like I was crazy and told me that spinning is changing. One instructor told me if you don’t like it there’s the door so I pretty much took the class but ignored the upper body stuff and did my own thing which kind of defeats the purpose of group exercise. I have always been told that these things are wrong. Was I correct in going to the fitness director with a complaint or is this the norm now?

    1. Hi Hal, no I don’t think you were wrong to go to the fitness director.
      I wouldn’t call these techniques “illegal,” but they certainly are misguided. It’s too bad they aren’t open to listening to a customer.

      Alas, it is becoming harder to find good classes that adhere to proper training principles. Saying “Spinning is changing” is silly, because those moves they are using aren’t changing it for the better—it’s taking away from the actual good you are doing.

      Here are some resources if you want to send them to the director. This article goes into why it’s unwise to do upper body work on a bike.

      But check out all the links at the bottom for many more.

      You can still go to classes and enjoy the music, motivation and camaraderie of a group fitness cycling class and simply refrain from the pushups, weights, isolations, etc. While they are doing those things, just turn it up a little and work harder in the saddle, knowing you are getting much more out of the workout than they are. Good luck.

  2. Sara, this was a great article! It sounds almost identical to conversations I have had with participants who come to my classes.
    This sounds like you explaining what to do and not to do during setting up a new participant.
    Fantastic job!!!!!!!

  3. A great read Sara, and sadly it is a scenario that is all too common in indoor cycling classes. The really great bit about this for me though was it would have been so easy for you to criticise the instructor, but you didn’t and gave great advice and insight into how the lady should be riding in any class she attends notjust your own which is something I strive to do with my own riders. I’m in the UK an I mainly cover classes who’s usual instructor can’t make it for what ever reason and I find that by staying true to my own beliefs and style (which appear to mirror your own as described) and delivering a safe and effective class the riders actually start to understand why it is done in this way and some have even challenged their usual instructor about some of the “moves” and “RPM” that they are being told todo in class, which I think is fantastic.
    Keep up the great work, these stories are why I love this association and always look forward to the email dropping in.

  4. Wow great job Sarah connecting with student. You nailed it. Cuddos.

  5. Sara, nice job. And what about the litany of horrors to which she was exposed? Thank you for spreading the word without seeming preachy.

    1. Thanks, Bill. As for the “litany of horrors” (love that!) I always address these things with club management. Unfortunately, depending on the club, they don’t always get addressed. It’s so frustrating to not have all instructors on the same page. This is why it’s so important for club management to insist on (and support financially) continuing education for all instructors in all modalities.

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