I wrote the following article for GXunited, an online resource for group fitness instructors that is devoted to exercise science and proper technique. For those who know me, this is an organization after my own heart! You can read this article on GXunited here. For more information about GXunited and to find out how to advance your exercise science and programming knowledge of all fitness formats, please check them out here.
(Note: I’ve slightly expanded this article for this audience.)
Respect the Bike: Create Safe and Scientifically Sound Cycling Classes
Cycling as an activity has been studied in great depth since 1897 when the first bicycle ergometer was invented. The inventor, Frenchman Elisée Bouny, wanted to measure a cyclist’s physical performance as exactly as possible.1 Since that time, exercise scientists have analyzed every single aspect of pedaling a bicycle (outdoor and indoor), including performance and metabolic metrics.
Exercise scientists and cycling coaches know what constitutes a good pedal stroke. They know what the angles in the knee, hips and shoulders should be for optimum force generation, metabolic efficiency and biomechanical advantage.
When you attempt to ride outside of these optimum positions—which is exactly what happens with most of the popular contraindicated techniques in indoor cycling—power output is reduced, pedal stroke is compromised, metabolic efficiency is inhibited and the potential for discomfort or injury is sharply increased.
PUTTING PARTICIPANTS INTO BIOMECHANICALLY INCORRECT POSITIONS?
Over the decades, many millions of cyclists around the world have gone to see experts in bicycle shops when they have pain while cycling. It may be that the saddle is too low, or too far back or forward, causing pain in the knee and/or weakness in the quads or hamstrings.
Poor positioning on the saddle often causes poor technique, which can translate to back pain. It could be that they are reaching too far forward, causing aches in the neck and/or shoulders. Most often all that is required is a small adjustment to put them back into a correct position, and voila! The pain goes away, and they are often stronger on the bike after the adjustment!
While there are some elements that are different about a stationary bike (such as the fact it doesn’t flex, bend or move, and has a fixed drive train with a weighted flywheel), for most intents and purposes, our bodies pretty much fit the same way on indoor bikes as we do on outdoor bikes, and we apply forces to the pedals in the same way. The angles in our joints should be the same as they are on a road bike. How fast we turn the pedals should be similar to what is optimally correct outdoors.
Yet virtually all of the popular gimmicky movements and techniques made famous by numerous boutique programs move the rider OUTSIDE of these scientifically proven effective positions and techniques, and/or they inhibit a proper pedal stroke. Or, they violate very basic exercise science training principles.
Just some of these techniques include (but are not limited to):
- Tap backs
- Reaching out to the ends of the handlebars (while seated)
- Excessive cadence with low or no resistance
These techniques often put the rider into the painful positions that bike shops are moving cyclists out of so that they can reduce pain, prevent injuries, and improve performance.
Let me repeat that…
The gimmick techniques are moving participants into the positions that are known to cause pain and discomfort in cyclists and limit their ability to ride correctly…and they are doing this ON PURPOSE.
Because they think it’s “more fun.”
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Indoor cycling instructors and some programs declare, “well, my riders aren’t cyclists so they don’t care about riding a bike,” or, “my riders don’t care about performance, so technique doesn’t matter.” As such, they insist that it’s OK to eschew the known science of riding a bike, and do whatever they want to on an indoor bike.
But it’s not.
This is one of the reasons we have a serious problem in the indoor cycling industry with rogue programs and instructors who insist on making up and performing gimmicky techniques that not only go against scientific knowledge and common sense, they are a slap in the face of general exercise physiology knowledge.
YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT ON A BIKE?!
The best example of the latter is the trend to use small hand weights while pedaling, or to do pushups on the handlebars. If a personal trainer handed you 1 or 2 lb weights and told you to work your chest and back while sitting upright, or had you do pushups with your hands on a table (while you either stood or sat next to that table), that personal trainer should be fired for lack of knowledge of how the body works.
But why is it ok in the cycling studio?
Why is it ok to lie to participants that they are getting an upper body workout when in fact they are reducing the effectiveness of the cycling part of the workout while doing nothing to improve their upper body strength?
Or rather, it shouldn’t be. But for some reason, it is becoming harder and harder to find an instructor or a studio that refrains from performing these unproven gimmicky techniques, because they think that’s what the public wants.
While it may temporarily serve to increase class numbers with the “promise” of a fun, full-body workout, this lack of knowledge by instructors is not good for the long-term health of indoor cycling, and it is not good for the fitness industry.
It’s also not good for the riders. But they look to their instructors for knowledge and experience because they do not know the difference.
I shouldn’t have to belabor this point, but I’ll say it one more time in a different way because there are still instructors who will argue about this (many of whom have limited knowledge of outdoor cycling). Our bodies fit an indoor bike in essentially the same way it does on an outdoor road bike. Our bodies do not know the difference between the two from a biomechanical standpoint. Therefore, most of the time*, the same rules of effectiveness and the same laws of physics apply.
For more on this topic, please read and share the following articles:
- Why You Shouldn’t Do an Upper Body Workout While Pedaling in Your Indoor Cycling Class
- Indoor Cycling Safety
- Ticked Off to the Core
- What Keep it Real Means, and What it Doesn’t Mean
(1) Computerized Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing, edited by U. J. Winter, K. Wasserman, N. Treese.
*the differences between an outdoor bike and an indoor bike still do not give anyone carte blanche to alter correct biomechanics. These differences include the fact that it’s a stationary bike that doesn’t flex, bend or move (except for Real Ryders that move side to side), or that they have a fixed-gear drivetrain, most often with a heavy, weighted flywheel.