I first created the Keep it Real workshop to present at the 2005 World Spinning and Sports Conference (WSSC) in Miami. Portions of that workshop later became the Contraindications in Spinning® CED. The e-book Keep it Real was then published in 2008. These were the first commercial instances of the term Keep it Real in the indoor cycling world. The idea behind the concept is that even though there are some differences between an outdoor bike and a stationary bike used in indoor cycling classes, the mechanics of pedaling the bikes are the same and should be respected.
Back in 2008 I did a survey on my old blog and asked, “What does ‘Keep it Real’ or ‘cycling specific’ mean to you?” I also posted it on a popular indoor cycling forum and asked instructors to ask their students to respond. I received over 100 responses. Most were favorable, but the negative responses taught me a lot about the perception people have. Most were incorrect, but some are based on truth.
Some of those negative responses were as follows:
- keeping it real means the class is going to be boring
- you have to stay seated the whole time
- not enough variety
- only geeky cyclists in lycra like it
- it’s “elitist”
- the music is boring, is just in the background, and is not coordinated to the workout
- the class isn’t going to be as hard
- the instructors are monotone and unmotivating
None of these are necessarily correct, but these perceptions had to come from somewhere. It’s true, there are those with little to no coaching experience (but they are good cyclists) who teach “cycling-specific” classes that stay in the saddle most of the time, and play music that doesn’t match their profile. In short, they are boring instructors who have not learned how to coach or to engage students. So yes, “keep it real” has gotten a bad name in some areas because of boring instructors. I wouldn’t like those classes either.
The results of this survey is one reason why I created the Indoor Cycling Association. Misinformation is rampant and there is not enough exercise science or real cycling technique taught in some indoor cycling certifications. Once certified, instructors have little incentive to increase their knowledge, and/or it is just not convenient enough. Education needs to be made more accessible than just at orientations, conferences, or workshops; many instructors simply do not have access and/or the means to travel. And it needs to be more affordable.
There is so much more to being a good instructor/coach than just being a great DJ or group exercise instructor, but before ICA, access to vetted, exercise science–based education outside of one’s initial certification was limited.
The misinformation about keeping it real continues to be perpetuated. An article called “Keeping it Fun” was posted on another indoor cycling website. The author stated that while she used to support the concept of “keeping it real,” she had abandoned it in favor of “keeping it fun.”
This creates the false impression that the two are mutually exclusive; that in order to have fun, you can’t keep it real, and if you keep it real, you can’t make it fun. That is simply not true.
She suggested that the two concepts—”Fun” versus “Real”—are two completely different classes. But if the equipment doesn’t change, and the science of working our bodies on that equipment doesn’t change, how can they be different? Why should there be a drastic difference in technique? You are still attached to the pedals in both instances, you turn the pedals in the same way, you still sit on the seat the same, and the biomechanics of movement on that machine are the same. The exercise science is the SAME. An example of two completely different exercise classes is BodyPump vs. Pilates, or Zumba vs. Yoga—different movements, different equipment, but riding a bike correctly and riding a bike incorrectly are not two different classes.
There is definitely a schism in this industry and unfortunately, the gap is getting wider. On one side of the gap lies the science, along with virtually all of the reputable indoor cycling certifying agencies and programs. This includes Spinning®, Stages Cycling, Schwinn, Keiser, RealRyder, Cycling Fusion, Indoor Cycling Group, C.O.R.E. Cycling in Canada, and Velocity and Performance Cycling in the UK.
On the other side of that schism…well, you’ve got the “keep it fun” mentality, far away from the science of exercise. I’ve not yet met anyone who can argue with scientific facts that support what they are doing.
So it’s time to put the stake in the ground and make it known exactly what Keep it Real means and what it does NOT mean.
After all, I wrote the book on the subject! 😉
What does Keep it Real mean?
1. The term means that you respect the biomechanics of turning the pedals, and understand that those rules of biomechanics don’t change from outside to inside, or from a cyclist to a non-cyclist. If it’s ineffective or potentially dangerous for a cyclist, then a non-cyclist has the right to be protected from those dangerous techniques, too.
2. To keep it real means you respect that even a stationary bike is still a bike and that how you fit on it and how you turn the pedals is essentially the same.
The cycling industry (over 150 years strong) has known for a long time that riding with incorrect technique and poor setup can cause discomfort, pain, and even chronic injury, in addition to reducing performance (power output) because of the inability to effectively apply force to the pedals. Hence, pushing the butt back (hovers or tap-backs), lowering the hips (squats or isolations), or bringing the shoulders to the handlebars (various upper body maneuvers) essentially takes indoor riders to the same positions that cyclists avoid because they hurt. How can it suddenly become “effective” in the name of “fitness” when it was never effective before?
3. To keep it real means you respect the rules of physics. Your resistance combined with your cadence equals your power output (Power = Force X Velocity). Most of the popular gimmicks reduce power output and detract from real work, reducing caloric expenditure. So, if the technique is going to reduce your power output outdoors, then it means that you understand it will do the same indoors. If you do something that impedes your power output, such as push-ups, squats, or tap-backs, then you are impeding your fitness. Outdoors riders don’t care as much about calories, but indoors, the reduction in power output means you reduce caloric expenditure. Why the heck would they purposely do something that reduces the very thing most people say they are there for, to burn calories?
4. It means you know enough about exercise physiology to know that lifting 1–2 pound weights or doing pushups while upright will not engage enough muscle fibers to trigger a physiological adaptation and are therefore a waste of time*. The body is inherently lazy; it won’t call in more muscle fibers than are needed for the task. Therefore, strength or fitness gains will not happen. Students shouldn’t be misled that these upper body moves are doing something beneficial when they are not. (*Unless perhaps you are ninety years old and can barely lift your arms, or are rehabbing an injury.)
5. It means you know enough about core training to know that crunching while sitting upright is not working the core. While you are reading this on your computer, place your hands on the desk or table in front of you and crunch (flex your spine). How much core training are you getting? None. It is no different on a bike.
6. It means you know that contracting the abdominals while riding inhibits your ability to ride outside, essentially putting a crimp in your O2 delivery system, hindering the transfer of oxygen to your working muscles. Contracting the abs while riding also restricts pelvic movement and alignment, reducing power. Instead, you encourage your riders to train their core off the bike with Pilates, TRX, or other core training sessions.
What does Keep it Real NOT mean?
1. It does not mean that the class will be boring. If the students are bored, then it’s the instructor who is boring. Read this article about boring instructors. There are so many other ways to keep a class fun and engaging without resorting to gimmicks or constantly changing positions. In fact, resorting to gimmicks means the instructor can’t or won’t take the time to learn profile design or thought-provoking coaching.
Not being boring also means the instructor knows how to use music effectively to match the message of the profile. This is a skill that every single instructor should polish; it is one of the key skills taught at the Indoor Cycling Association. While it is true that some cycling-specific instructors haven’t been taught how to use music effectively, we believe that is changing.
2. Keep it Real and Keep it Fun are NOT mutually exclusive. After 10 years presenting at WSSC, I can guarantee you, the Friday night rides at that conference are a huge party in that ballroom, with hundreds of smiling and excited faces on the bikes. The whole room gets into a party groove, but there are never any tap-backs, squats, hovers, push-ups, crunches, or other silly maneuvers. They just ride the bike.
It’s not just Spinning®. The motto of the Schwinn program is #RideRight, and they have a workshop on motivation called, “Rockstars, Preachers, and Party People—How to Win in the New Era of Coaching.” Their tagline is Who said authentic cycling can’t be a party?
News flash: It can!
Fun is great…but does “fun” mean the same thing to everyone? Is “fun” the opposite of “boring”? Is it the goal of every student? Should it be the goal of every class you teach? What if pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is your goal, even if some might not consider it “fun”? What if being inspired to engage your mind with your body is your idea of a great class? What if exceeding your self-perceived limitations is what made you leave a class with a happy heart? That is the amazing beauty of indoor cycling; it can have different goals and mean different things to different people. Christine Nielsen has written an excellent article that will challenge your perception of “Fun vs Real.”
3. To Keep it Real does not mean you have to wear a cycling kit, Lycra shorts, or a jersey. Padded shorts are certainly more comfortable, and cycling shoes much more effective, but they are not mandatory. You can wear whatever the heck you want!
4. It doesn’t mean you have to sit in the saddle for long periods. If you are teaching to a group of cyclists training for a specific outdoor event, then yes, you’ll spend more time seated. But for a typical class, you can still keep it real while changing up the terrain and getting out of the saddle. Of course, you should train your students to sit longer than a minute or two, because it is in the saddle where they build their greatest power and endurance, but by no means do you have to stay seated for 10 minutes or more at a stretch.
Tom Scotto is one of the best examples of instructors who keeps it real in everything he does. He is an exceptional outdoor cyclist who knows the biomechanics of riding a bike and his classes are always cycling specific. But his classes are never dull. On the contrary, they are exciting, fun, empowering, and always very different…and he’s out of the saddle plenty.
5. As for the claims that the cycling-specific instructors who keep it real are monotonous or not motivating, I have an idea about how this perception came to be. Over the years, there have been many cyclists who started teaching indoor cycling who thought since they knew about “cycling,” they did not need to get certified. Therefore, they never learned group exercise skills or how to motivate people. It’s highly possible they are pretty boring—I’d probably be wishing the class would end quickly too!
The solution is that everyone taking on this role as an instructor should learn all three aspects of being a qualified and engaging indoor cycling instructor: group fitness skills (including using music effectively), exercise physiology, and cycling technique.
6. It does not mean you have to be an avid outdoor cyclist to teach a good class that keeps it real. You should, however, endeavor to learn more about riding a bike, and of course, to honor the biomechanics of cycling. I suggest to new instructors who aren’t cyclists to borrow a bike for a weekend, to try all the movements they are considering doing indoors. Ride the bike uphill in and out of the saddle; ride flat roads while pedaling at high and low cadences using low and high gears; try holding in the abs while riding. Even try doing push-ups while riding. Anyone who does this will be a better indoor instructor for that experience.
Indo-Row is an indoor rowing group exercise class. There are far fewer people who have rowed on a real body of water than who have ridden a bicycle. However, the Indo-Row certification requires instructors to understand and respect the biomechanics of rowing. There are no made-up silly moves on a rower! You wouldn’t go into a class and ask the instructor, “Can I do a biceps curl with this handle? I’m never going to row a real boat, so what does it matter?”
Similarly, you wouldn’t go into a kickboxing class and tell the instructor, “I’m not a real boxer and never will be, so forego the safety stuff…I just want to kick the heck out of this bag!” Punching and kicking safely require a laser focus on proper technique.
Proper technique in all sports and activities should be respected for maximal success and minimal chance of injury. Riding a stationary bicycle is no different.
7. It does not mean the instructor or the class is “elitist”; most are not. But, I acknowledge that the “elitist” perception came from somewhere. There is a market for cycling-specific classes targeted directly at cyclists to prepare for outdoor riding. These classes may be filled with cyclists in their club kits, and it’s possible that these riders turned up their noses at those “other” classes that are bouncing all over the place doing silly gimmicks. In that case, it’s easy to label them as “elitist.”
The point is, there are differences in the marketplace, so these classes are specifically targeted and should be labeled as such. But always remember that cyclists are not the only ones that have the right to properly performed, safe, and effective workouts on a bike.
As I’ve already explained, you don’t have to be doing exactly what these cyclists are doing with long in-the-saddle rides; just keep it real, keep it motivating, keep them engaged, and keep them safe while still keeping it fun!
A few years ago I wrote this blog post asking why some instructors openly choose to not learn about how to teach correctly and safely. There are 40 comments on this post which you may find interesting.
Many thanks to Rachel Buschert Vaziralli, who provided the image at the top of the page and is someone who shares my passion for real and effective training. Rachel has her master’s degree in exercise physiology, is a master trainer for Schwinn Cycling, an avid cyclist, and a top-level Equinox instructor in the challenging market of New York City. You’ll never do a tap-back, push-up, isolation, or crunch in her classes and they are still full! She preaches the Schwinn motto of #RideRight wherever she goes, and she has the science to back her statements up.