How to Coach Resistance in Your Indoor Cycling Class, Part 1

From the archives: This series on how to coach resistance is among the most important and foundational topics for all instructors, whether seasoned or brand new to teaching. And while it’s targeted at how to coach resistance when you do not have power meters, even those who teach with wattage will find some very useful insights.

Coaching resistance is one of the more challenging aspects of being an indoor cycling instructor. Different certification programs teach resistance in different ways. Some methods that I have seen are helpful, but some only lead to further confusion. It seems that many instructors leave their certifications with inadequate information on how to guide their class to selecting a proper resistance.

Even worse, there are instructors in some of the online forums and Facebook groups who provide faulty advice to other instructors on how to add resistance. Unfortunately, this only serves to increase the bewilderment when a new instructor tries out this advice and discovers they are no better off than they were before.

In this series, I’ll cover two of the most popular yet imprudent ways to teach resistance in an indoor cycling class. I’ll follow that up with a way of understanding how resistance is one of the foundations of coaching and should always be linked with cadence to help riders achieve a given intensity. I’ll finish with ample creative resistance-coaching cues to add to your repertoire.

Following this series, you’ll be armed with everything you need to clearly and effectively cue your riders to add the correct amount of resistance so that they can experience the terrain and intensity that you have planned for the profile. Ultimately, this will lead them to much greater success.

Teaching with power meters is the number one method of teaching intensity—and by extension, coaching resistance. Power output is inextricably tied to resistance. While this series will be primarily directed at those who do not teach with power meters and therefore do not have the benefit of wattage to help guide riders to the appropriate amount of resistance, even if you do teach with power you will still gain insights from these articles.

There are two popular but flawed methods of coaching a rider to add resistance. The first is to cue a specific number of turns or a specific gear on bikes with gear levers. The second and most egregious method is to assign a 1–10 range for resistance, with 1 to 5 (allegedly) meaning a “flat road” and 6 to 10 meaning a “hill.”

Coaching resistance by turns of the resistance knob or number of gears is the most common ineffectual method. After over 20 years of training instructors, I’m surprised at the sheer number of instructors who continue to use this technique. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t teach riders to add resistance based on the intensity criteria for the ride, the terrain and cadence guidelines, or the physical sensations (muscular, cardiovascular, breath, etc.) they should be feeling. Therefore, they never learn how to be the driver of their own intensity. Even if you fine tune your “two turns” with perceived exertion cues, it ignores how different that two turns can be from one bike to the next and one rider to the next.

Some longtime students may know to ignore this type of cueing because they recognize it isn’t helpful, but the uninitiated rider or those who take every word the instructor says as gospel may be lost without knowing how many turns to give the resistance knob. I’ve subbed classes where even after I’ve explained what I want them to feel, I’ve had someone look up and say, “How many turns is that?”  

Let’s look at six reasons why this coaching technique can be so erroneous.

In part 2, I will describe the second method of coaching resistance that you should avoid.

Then I’ll dive into the best ways to coach resistance in your classes so that every rider can dial in the proper and relevant resistance that will meet the targets you’ve laid out in your well-designed profile.


  1. We recently got bikes with power (spinner chrono) and I am very excited to hear there will be future articles on how to incorporate power to teach intensity for students of differing fitness levels. But for now I find it very challenging to understand and communicate to my students what is happening with their HR at those higher cadences since it feels like you are working hard very even though their power may be low. Can you elaborate on that phenomenon? Thank you

  2. Great explanations, but you left out one thing – perhaps you will address it in Part 2 – Instsructors, and possibly participants, who ride at multiple locations on different brand bikes. I teach at three gyms each with a different style bike; One has Levels 1-20 and a lever, power is by Cal/Hour (not accurate but serves as a reference of power); the second has Gears 1-24 and a lever, power is by Watts; and the third has a turning knob and power is by Watts. Looking forward to your cuing suggestions, hopefully I’m already using some, but always looking for better ways to engage my riders. Thanks!

  3. This is a very important issue that many instructors struggle with. And again it comes down to RPE and being able to describe the level of intensity in a short, concise but clear way. Talking about resistance, I was covering a class yesterday on IC7s. I asked about injuries, any help etc Someone’s hand went up so I set him up. He was with a friend. I checked both bikes and asked if they are familiar with the console and I got a yes. Then we started warming up. I gave RPM and explained the intensity level required. Gave a colour reference, too. Then over the next 5 min I asked them 3 times to add 2 levels at a time. You can see the numbers of levels/gears on that bike. I then looked at one of the new guys. I saw his console in red and his legs barely moving. I went up to him and he was on level 80?! I was like: how did you get here?! He goes: every time you said two levels up I thought you meant 2 turns. 🙂 Sometimes you get complacent and so used to the fact people know what they are doing (more or less). Even though I say: RPM top left is 80-90. Resistance top right is going up by two, I completely forgot someone may have never seen a bike like that before and has bad habits from instructors teaching by “turns”. Even though he should have mentioned that little detail 🙂

  4. last I see written the proper concept of “relative load”; so sorry to see how most of instructors I see (not to say on event stages too!) really do not coach properly resistance feeling!! Well done Jennifer!! I think the problem is at the basis: learning, trial & error procedure, feedback from the classes and mostly… have a “good teacher” at the beginning of your life as an instructor!

    1. Author

      it is rather amazing that they don’t get the concept of “relative load,” isn’t it?!

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