I was interviewed the other day for a major magazine, based out of New York. The journalist wanted to separate fact from fiction and find out whether “Spinning” can cause big thighs and other burning questions.
I won’t tell you who it was quite yet—the article is not slated to appear until September, and it’s only going to be a small piece—but I’ll be sure to link to it when it is published. Getting interviewed in major media is a big goal of mine to help spread the word of evidence-based cycling that is more effective than the popular fads that are becoming more and more popular.
I had a fairly long and interesting discussion with this journalist about the misinformation that is being spread in so many classes by so many uneducated instructors. She’s been to those classes where they lift 1- to 2-lb weights and do other maneuvers while riding and she thinks they are fun and believes she’s getting a workout. She’s not alone.
She asked about the potential issues of taking cycling classes 6–7 days a week, including that common canard that cycling will “make your thighs bigger.”
I put that one to rest; the answer is no, it isn’t likely to make anyone’s legs “bigger.” Stronger, more cut, prettier, leaner? Yes. But to get those big thighs you see on sprinters, you’d have to be a power athlete who is training—very, very hard I might add—for sprinting. Real sprinting, with big gears, not the pseudo stuff you see in so many indoor cycling classes.
But one very interesting comment she said stood out and it lies at the root of why I do what I do day after day trying to spread the word of evidence-based, authentic cycling technique and coaching.
She said, “I know so many people who go to cycling classes almost every day of the week, but they are asking why their body hasn’t changed!”
BINGO! That’s it!
We were speaking specifically about the very trendy boutique studios that one sees on national television and print media almost daily.
Initially, some participants in these classes might see a change in their bodies, especially if they weren’t as active prior to coming to cycling classes. But very soon, most will hit a plateau and will no longer see any changes or benefits. This is the reason why we get those supposed exercise experts and personal trainers making claims that “cardio is not good for you,” that it doesn’t burn fat or change the body, or that you are better off ditching the cardio and only doing weight training. These kinds of classes, and the students who pour out of there with no changes in their bodies despite daily, fanatic attendance, only fuel their misguided claims. Dr. Jennifer Klau and I had a discussion about these fallacies last year, specifically addressing a popular online “expert’s” claim that “Spinning is bad for you.”
They do have a point, however, if they are only exposed to people who attend those types of classes where the instructor doesn’t adhere to scientifically proven cycling training principles. In other words, the classes that lift weights and dance and flop around on the bikes. Ultimately, this style of cycling class is not doing what they purport and may be a waste of time. Yet, everyone knows how popular they are and crowds around the world are clamoring to get in; some facilities are even insisting their instructors teach this way.
It’s up to you. If you want to waste that 45–60 minutes in your cycling class, then go ahead and do the following:
- warm up for only 2 minutes
- pedal real fast (>110 rpm) with no or super low resistance
- pedal super slow (<55 rpm) with very high resistance
- lift weights on the bike
- do crunches and hold the abs in while riding
- perform pushups while pedaling
- ignore the pain in the knees and back when doing silly moves like tap-backs or squats
Oh, wait. You’d rather not waste your time? You mean, you actually want to burn some calories? Then let’s talk!
Let me tell you why you are not seeing any (or many) changes in your body when you take these classes.
1. It’s the resistance, folks!
Pedaling that fast without resistance is futile because there is little to no power output. It is power that translates to calories burned, not how fast your legs are turning or a high heart rate. Always remember the scientific equation: power = force X velocity. Indoors, force is manifested by the resistance you put on the bike and velocity is how fast your legs are turning (cadence). You won’t have much power if either one of those variables falls too low, and when one of these variables gets too high, either the cadence or the resistance, the other necessarily falls to where it reduces power significantly (unless you are an Olympic track cyclist who can pedal fast with a big gear. But if you were, you wouldn’t be in this class).
That is why you don’t see changes in your body; it’s because you aren’t burning many calories and you aren’t challenging the muscles enough to cause adaptations in them that make them change and get stronger. Those beautiful legs you see on many cyclists? It’s because they have resistance on their bikes when they ride—outdoors that equates to gears, gravity, wind, and road resistance. Outdoors, they have the benefit of forward movement (or lack of it) to tell them if their gear is too low, so they shift up to have more resistance so they’ll go faster. Outside, going faster means more power output. More power output means greater fitness, which means more calories burned. Isn’t that one of the goals of so many participants? Outdoors, cyclists generally ride at cadences that fall between 60 and 100 rpm, with an occasional foray outside of those ranges.
So, the rule of thumb for you students who wonder why you don’t see any changes in your body: use cadence as your guideline. On climbs, do not drop below 60 rpm (55 for skilled, strong cyclists), and on flats, rarely go above 100 rpm, except occasionally in drills with resistance (and only up to 110 rpm, tops).
Do not ride with “roadrunner legs” with no resistance. Ever. Regardless of what your instructor tells you. That is…if you want results. Indoors we don’t have the benefit of forward movement to tell us if we are in too low a “gear”. So you have to pretend—act as if you are riding outside.
The woman interviewing me asked a valid question that no doubt drives many students (and instructors) to continue to ride at such crazy cadences that make you look like an over-caffeinated hamster. She asked, “But why isn’t it effective? You are out of breath the whole time!”
Yes, you are out of breath, but that doesn’t always equate to much of a calorie burn. You are out of breath when you first start working out because the body isn’t warmed up. But because power output is low, calories aren’t being torched at that moment. You would be out of breath if you sat at your desk and pumped your arms up and down really fast for 2 or 3 minutes (just try to do it 5 minutes). Despite the panting, there is not a significant amount of calories burned. Sure, it’s more than if you just sat still, but the misperception is that being out of breath or a high heart rate equates to “torching” calories.
It does not. Period.
The best comparison is to imagine getting on a bicycle outdoors that had the chain removed and try to pedal. You’d be spinning your legs like the roadrunner and you’d be completely out of breath and your heart rate would soar…but you’d be in the same spot as when you started. There wouldn’t have been any appreciable work performed. Again, maybe a handful of calories, but without resistance, it’s safe to say you’ve wasted your time.
Want more information on excessive cadence? Read this article.
2. Stop the fluff moves.
This includes crunches, pushups, squats, isolations, hovers, tap-backs, and lifting those silly 1- to 3-lb weights. You got more of a workout carrying your gym bag into the studio. That 6–10 minutes spent lifting such low weights doesn’t challenge your muscles enough to cause any adaptations unless you are very weak or unfit to start with or are elderly (apologies to my personal training client who is 83 and skis, bikes, hikes, and does HIIT and lifts 20-lb dumbbells for chest and back).
These moves also reduce your ability to pedal correctly and effectively. While you are lifting, you must lower the effort considerably so your power output is very low. Again, that means those calories you came to burn are barely even simmering. And no, the ineffective weight workout is not making up for those lost calories. I won’t, yet again, go into all the reasons why lifting tiny weights or doing crunches or holding in the abs are all ineffective ways to try to ride a bike, based on exercise science. I’ve done that here, and here.
All the other silly techniques are similar; they are nothing but fluff. They reduce power output and calorie consumption while also increasing your chances of injury. Even if the risk of injury is low for some of these moves, indoor cycling IS one of the safest exercise modalities you can do…why would you want to increase the risk?
If you want fluff, pet a bunny.
If you want results, and want to get stronger and burn more calories so you can lose weight, burn fat, and change your body, then stop wasting your time with the fluff. Turn up the resistance and just ride the bike.
[Note to instructors who have known me for years and read my e-book and/or the many articles I’ve written on this subject: I know I’ve written these things over and over, but they bear repeating over and over until the word gets out to the masses, the end-users, the students. They’re the ones who need educating because their instructors (and the media) are selling them false claims. Every time I write an article like this, it reaches even more people. This won’t be the last, so please spread the word and share this article!]
EDIT: I’ve received such great feedback about this post (150 shares on the ICA FB page, over 22,000 reached) and great comments. This is a great way to spread the word of “keeping it real” with the goal to positively impact this industry.
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