base plus

Why Cueing “Base Plus” is Completely Off Base

Tools such as power meters and gear numbers on bikes are extremely beneficial if they’re used properly. They do require some knowledge on the instructor’s part in order to be helpful. When used or coached improperly, they serve only to confuse, confound, and mislead. This kind of misguided coaching can lead to sabotaging our riders’ potential for improvement, teaching them the wrong thing to focus on, and perhaps even resulting in injury.  

One glaring example of misguided cueing is to tell a rider how many watts to add. I recently took a class where the instructor urged us to add 10…20…30…40…50…60 watts, regardless of the age, size, or ability of the rider.

Another ill-advised cueing technique is to describe the resistance using geared bikes (e.g.,  Keiser) as “base plus X gears.” This form of cueing resistance is completely off base.

The first time I heard an instructor use the term “base” was many years ago on an original Spinner® bike. He started the class at “base plus two turns.” I had recently been certified but was unfamiliar with the term, so I asked the riders next to me what “base” meant. One said that it was no resistance on the bike. The other said that she didn’t know. That made two of us who had no idea what our base was—three if you include the clueless instructor. As a rule, if you’re going to use a term as a reference for an entire workout, it should be well defined every class. Make sure that everyone understands it, especially new riders. Some concepts, like “easy recovery” are inherently obvious. Since “base” isn’t well understood, it should be explicitly explained if you’re going to use it as the basis for cueing.

Better yet, I’d suggest refraining from using it at all*. As you will see, perceived exertion and training zones are a sound way to describe how hard the riders should be pushing. The term “base” is not associated with perceived exertion and doesn’t offer any description of how the effort should feel. (*Note: Jennifer Sage has an exception where the term can be used for a specific profile, described at the end of this post.)

Even if an instructor chooses to use the term “base,” they should never cue “base plus X gears,” “base plus Y watts,” or “base plus Z turns.”

The following examples illustrate why.

ICA has many resources that teach you how to use cueing to describe what your riders’ intensity should feel like.


  1. Thank you for the article. I’m new to ICA and this is the first one I’ve read. my cuing basically follows your suggestions. I rely heavily on RPE and watts to note intensities that we want to hold or return to. I have not done FTP test b/c we are on Keiser Bikes that are moved daily and each bike rides differently. My use of watts is mostly for the individual rider to track his/her intensity. I have used watts when I taught Stages on free motion bikes. In one of your responses you mention doing an FTP test on the Keisers. I’m interested to hear how you’ve dealt with the inaccuracies between bikes. I recently tried a profile called “your personal watt number for today”. After warming up, I had riders try to zero out their average from warm-up by quickly moving the gear shift up and down 3-4 times. This work for about 2/3 of the class. I did a 5 minutes all out and had them take the average watts. We worked from that number for that ride. It got confusing b/c I had to coach watts for those who got a number and RPE for those that didn’t. I haven’t tried this since then. In the meantime I am encouraging my gym to purchase free motion bikes or ones with more accurate power, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. What’s your experience been using watts on Keiser bikes? Thanka

    1. Author

      Liz – Great question. My experience has been bad trying to administer FTP tests on Gen 1 Keiser M3s that aren’t regularly calibrated, so I no longer try. In that case, I primarily cue based on descriptive RPE and use the (probably inaccurate) watts as a rough relative measure. When I ask them to change zones, I’ll suggest a range of 5 to 10% more or less power but also include a description of how the new zone should feel. It’s frustrating but still better than solely using RPE or cuing to add a specific number of watts or gears.
      My experience with properly maintained Gen 2 Keiser M3is is very good and the FTP test seems fairly accurate in comparison to my CompuTrainer, which measures actual power. If you have these bikes, definitely feel comfortable with testing FTP.

  2. I LOVE this information. Now if only I could get the riders at the studio where I instruct to grasp the concept. I began at this particular studio last year, and prior to this studio, I had never used the term “base”; nor had I ever told people how many gears above their base to be on.
    When I was first told that I would need to do that, I thought, “No, no I don’t.” However, riders will seriously yell out asking what gear above their base they should be on. People stopped coming to my classes until I followed suit. I’ve brought it up a number of times to more conditioned riders, and they insist that they want to be told. Every time I try to be sly and leave the “base plus” info out and rely on RPM and RPE, several of them will get really mouthy and ask. I even had one woman leave just last week because I was trying to break them of the habit. I’ve come to the point where I feel like I have to pick my battles, and this is one that I am certain I cannot win with these clients.

    1. Author

      Theresa – I would suggest explaining why you don’t cue “base plus” in a simple manner during warm up or recovery. While I’ve never used the term, other instructors at my facilities have. So occasionally, I will provide a easy to understand explanation of why I never tell the riders “Base + x”. I don’t mention the other instructors who cue this way, or state that their way is incorrect, misleading, or potentially unsafe. I just explain why I don’t do it, using an easy to comprehend example. No one has ever questioned my reasoning after I’ve explained it.

      1. I tried. People were adamant that they want to be told. I am thinking of hosting a workshop for people to learn their thresholds; similar to how a trainer would have a client find a one rep max.
        What are your thoughts?

        1. Author

          Theresa – I strongly encourage it. There are many resources on this site that will provide direction, including this series:

          After conducting a proper FTP test, you can provide a teachable moment to your class on why “base plus x” gear cuing is inaccurate. Take 2 riders with drastically different FTP results. Have them each find their “base”, however you want to define it. Then, suggest a specific cadence for both individuals. Finally, have them add X (maybe 3, 4 or 5) gears to their “base” while maintaining their cadence. The person with the drastically lower FTP will immediately go anaerobic and be unable to hold it, while the person with the much higher FTP will struggle a bit, but probably sustain it. Then, ask them and the rest of the people observing whether they’d like you to continue to cue using “base + X”.

  3. Excellent article. I also teach on Keisers and use the term “base gear” all the time. (Eeek!) However, I back it up with “your effort should feel like you are riding on a sandy flat road” And we return to this gear during the ride for recovery. I try to use RPE to help riders create the terrain/ride I planned. Through your example of the iron man athlete and beginner I completely understand how base + x is a bad idea. I am going to make a conscious effort to remove the term from my indoor cycling lexicon!

    I do teach using beat of the music and matching Rpms. I find using exact RPMs or a small RPM range helps riders who have trouble hearing the beat of music and pulls the class together. Riders use their resistance and RPE to gage their own effort in the exercise I am asking of them.

    Again, great article! I am always looking to become a better instructor!

    1. Author

      Kristen – Being open minded and thinking about what you do will continue to make you a better instructor. Using the beat of the music to suggest riders’ RPMs means that you’re already a very good instructor. I’d caution against using the cue “your effort should feel like you are riding on a sandy flat road”. I ride outside and I’m not sure what it feels like to ride on a sandy flat road. How would someone new to fitness or who doesn’t ride outside know what it means or how hard they should be riding? Power zones (% of FTP) is the best way to describe the effort you’re asking from your class. Absent tools for measuring power, RPE is a decent substitute when used properly.

  4. I have to admit that I use it. I call it “flat road” and tell them it should feel as if you’re pedaling along a flat road.

    I do use “gear” or “resistance” level depending on bike (Keiser or LifeCycle GX) and tell them “more road” and give them a range of levels above “flat road” they should be (e.g. “4-6 gears above flat road”). I usually call out my resistance too to give them an idea of the top of the range and they can adjust accordingly from there.

    I simply find perceived exertion is so arbitrary that class participants don’t really know where they should be.

    Also, I don’t always warm them up completely before every class (usually I do), but I remember a training ride my club used to do where you start right out on 2 tough hills wo a chance to warm up. I do explain that they should be feeling breathless and a little sick bc you’re spiking your system in the very beginning, and then back it off. Adds some realism..

    1. Author

      Peter – With all due respect, a flat road is terrain. It has nothing to do with intensity or power. I live in Chicago, so I’m very familiar with flat roads. I can be recovering on a flat road in Zone 1, riding at 10 mph as I approach a stop light. I can be pushing in Zone 4 on a flat road as I struggle to catch up to the 20 mph pace line ahead of me. In both cases, I’m on a flat road but my intensity and power are completely different. Since Keisers have (calculated) power, you should consider administering an FTP test and using % of FTP as the basis for cueing intensity. I’m not familiar with LifeCycle GX bikes but it doesn’t appear to have power. In that case, I’d suggest using descriptive RPE as a guide. Descriptive RPE tells the riders how they should be feeling. It’s not as arbitrary as unexplained RPE numbers or terrain. If you’re able to describe the sensation that they’re experiencing in their lungs, legs, and central nervous system, along with their ability to talk (or not), you can more accurately describe the intended intensity than using terrain. Since Group Ex is intended for all levels of fitness, I’d strongly recommend a proper warm up. Although you may have been able to overcome insufficient warm up in your group ride, would you want less fit members or newbies to feel breathless and a little sick just as they begin your class? They might not make it through the entire ride and probably wouldn’t return.

    2. If you qualified that flat road as “an easy flat road” it would help them find the intensity you want them at, which is, I’m assuming, a recovery pace. You don’t want to give the impression that a flat road always means it’s easy (as Bill suggested).

      Using perceived exertion does have a learning curve, I agree, but when you teach them what each level should feel like, it’s one of the easiest ways to cue intensity, especially if you don’t have power meters. Try teaching the Talk Test to truly ingrain the concept of RPE with your riders. It will also help you when coaching levels of intensity.

      Here is the original Talk Test on ICA. It’s from 2012. It’s still valid of course, but I am in the process of redoing this profile (combined with FTP and LTHR testing) so check back soon for more.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions about teaching the Talk Test or RPE.

  5. Great Article! thank you I’ll admit I teach on a Keiser and heard the term Base plus over 4 years ago and use it in class at the beginning of the ride while we are warming up. While I use the term I also advise my riders that this is where you feel the road slightly under your feet and this is where they should come at any point during there ride if they need to ease up, but keep moving. I also advise them that this number represents their individual fitness level and that every one is different, and each day we are different, and that the bikes are calibrated differently. Focus more on effort and not necessarily the number. Simple cuing about hips down and no bouncing in the saddle are great to get riders connecting with their ride. For a newbie I do believe this helps them get a visual and then a feeling I ALWAYS remind my riders, we don’t go from 0-60 that we gradually increase our HR and prepare for the upcoming Ride.

    With all that said because I’m always looking for a way to be a better coach and give my riders the best experience and hopefully they see progress I will incorporate new terminology new visual aids. Thank you again for the article I love this site!

    1. Author

      Jennifer – Telling your members that you ‘don’t go from 0-60 that we gradually increase our HR and prepare for the upcoming ride’ is a great cue. I hope that after reading this article you have a better understanding of why cueing ‘base + x’ may be inaccurate and potentially harmful to your members. Thank you for being open minded and willing to learn new things, which are the attributes of a great instructor.

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