I was headed to the gym for a workout, and upon reaching the entrance, bumped into a friend of mine who looked as if she had just been run over by a bus. Knowing the unlikelihood of large motor vehicles operating in the club, I decided to ask her what happened.

“Hey, how are you?” I said in apparently too chipper a tone. She turned only her head and glared at me with one eye bigger than the other. Her facial expression compelled greater curiosity, so I continued. “Did you just get out of a cycling class?  How was it?” She released the gym bag in her hand as if dropping a heavy sack of potatoes. “You can say that. The instructor was a maniac.”

I have been a coach for 15+ years, and have come to realize that everyone has their own perception of what is hard and what is easy. Since their perception is often different than my interpretation, I find it best to get clarification; plus I was particularly interested in her definition of a “maniac” instructor. Anticipating a juicy story, I prodded further. “Wow, sounds pretty extreme, what happened?”

Her stare became intense and her tone aggravated. “Our regular instructor was away this week, so we had a sub. I think he was either new, insecure, or just terrible. Our instructor’s class is quite popular. People really respect her workouts. She has a reputation of giving a hard class that provides a perfect balance of work and recovery. Maybe this sub felt he had some big shoes to fill or maybe he decided to show us how hard he can make us work. We barely had a warm-up and were immediately thrown into a hard climb followed by 10 minutes of jumps. Then some long sprints where he only provided 15 seconds of recovery, followed by another climb and more jumps. He ran us ragged with no rhyme or reason until 2 minutes before the end of class when he told us to cool down and stretch on our own. With the exception of those 15-second recovery periods, I don’t think he gave us any other break. I don’t know why I tried to keep up. I think I was just aggravated and hammered away in frustration. Oh well, I’m late for work so I’ve gotta run. I just hope he never subs our class again.” She peeled her gym bag off the sidewalk and continued out of the club.

This is not the first time I’ve heard this unfortunate tale, and my mind started connecting a few of the stories. Many of them involved a sub which people deemed “horrible.” Now I certainly don’t believe all subs are horrible. I’m sure we’ve subbed many classes ourselves (I hope); I know I have. However, I do think there can be a greater tendency to overplay our “A” game when walking into a cycling studio with new or unfamiliar stares. Let’s face it, it can be intimidating to enter a room when you’re NOT the person everyone is expecting. I’ve even had a rider walk out of a class I was subbing moments after I walked through the door—before I even had a chance to reach the stereo or say a word. So I understand the pressure of feeling the temptation to overcompensate for not being THE instructor. The bottom line, is the class we are walking into is not ours; they are not our riders and not used to our style.

In two days I will post part 3 of our series “Sub-Standards,” which will focus on BEING the sub. Before doing so, I’m curious if any of us have been a part of a class led by one of these overzealous subs. What did you observe? I look forward to sitting back with a scotch and enjoying your stories. 😉

Be sure to also check out part 1 and part 2 of “Sub-Standards.”

P.S. Just in case you are sweating and nervous—no one who has ever subbed one of my classes has been accused of this.


  1. I have found that if you can just put it out there(before the start of class): “So…I’m obviously not (regular instructor)and today’s class might be somewhat different than what you are be used to…but I will do my best to give you a great workout and have some fun in the process! And…Please! don’t do anything you are not comfortable with or are unsure of-this is still your ride and I want you all to leave feeling good about your efforts.”

    My experience is that people become much more open to you and whatever you might offer during the class when you can just tell it like it is up front and remind them who’s class it really is.

  2. I sometimes feel I have an advantage as I usually take most of the classes I’m subbing so I usually know what to plan for. I know which classes are pickier than others. The noon crowd seem to be the chronic complainers and I usually avoid subbing those classes at all costs!

  3. best advice for a sub ? “Leave your ego at the door”. The goal is not to prove how fit you are, or how tough you are, or how “great of an instructor” you are, or unfortunately in many cases, “how much better you are than the regular instructor”, but to lead the riders through a good challenging ride. When I sub, which is pretty much all the time, I want the class to appreciate a little change of pace, have a good ride, and then let the regular instructor know that, while they missed him or her, they had a good workout.

    at the end of the class, I tell them I will give a good report to the regular instructor. That way they know you are both working together, and care about their fitness goals. I have no problem making the regular instructor look good. And I do follow up and let the teacher know how many attended and what we did.

  4. I usually sub for the woman that was my mentor, so I am familiar with her style. Occasionally, I will be asked to sub for other instructors at our Centre. I have asked one of the other instructors for information about her class and not received any help. So, at those times you do a fun class like trying to out run a rain storm.

    As for maniac classes I taught at one club where the participants expected an all-out gut wrenching class every time. I gave one where I ended up nauseous and they were celebrating the “great class”.

  5. We are always overly anal when we sub (I am anyway). In many instances, it is a case that i am subbing a class for someone that doesn’t keep it real so I try to bring a class that’s challenging, keeps it real and keeps them engaged (usually means I talk a little too much 🙂 )

    I was lucky and grateful to have co run a small studio for over a year and now teach in a facility where the members have followed me. The bad news (after reading this, maybe not so much) is that they will not go if I have to get a sub. This is because i have no control over who subs my class, the facility decides and puts it out to ‘tender’ so to speak.

    Interesting issue, I could share some stories!

    1. I know exactly what you are talking about Richard. I recently subbed for a guy who actually was very crucial in giving me my first classes. However when I had a peek through the glass door at a couple of his classes I knew that I wouldn’t teach like him. He has a great personality but it’s all the gimmicks and 100mph cadences. Anyway I recently was asked to sub for him in a place I have never taught before. The turnout was very small – 5 people. I was trying to do a good class as usual but their form was really really bad.
      I went with my instincts and did all the corrections. But when the class finished they didn’t look happy and I thought back to the whole experience.
      I really should have talked less, still correct but much less and just let them do their thing. I can’t change their habits in 45min and I think I just overloaded them with information and they just wanted to ride.
      It’s not enough time to explain why I teach so differently from their usual guy and it wasn’t my intention to say: he’s a bad instructor, you better do as I say.
      So what I learnt from that is that if I sub a random hour in a random place and it turns out that people clearly aren’t used to good form and more efficient riding technique I should still cue those but not try to correct too much as it may come across as me telling them: YOU ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG! ALL OF YOU! Even though my brain is telling me exactly that 🙂

  6. I want to thank everyone for the great comments! Kathy, as always, I appreciate your candor and ability to articulate what we all think and feel.

    Thanks for the inspiration for Sub-Standards Part 3, which will be posted today.

  7. Happens in spin, yoga, dance….looking forward to the series….just trying to fill my own shoes!

  8. Haha! “Sub-Versive.” I see what you did there, Tom Scotto, and I will say, there is nothing like a Tom Scotto pun to start my day with a big goofy grin.

    One of the things I do when I agree to sub is simply ask the instructor what their class is used to. I particularly ask about intensity, the length of warm-up and cool-down the class is accustomed to, music style, and a basic idea of class structure. I’m finding that sometimes when I sub, the regular instructor has a set “formula” they teach, a music style I may not use a lot of, or much more likely in my own case- are far more intense offering less recovery than I do. These things give me an idea of what the “norm” is for these students and the expectations they are walking into the room with.

    I think it’s important to respect what the regular instructor is doing and not disparage it, but that said I always stay true to myself as well. Subbing in this way does mean that I sometimes stretch myself and grow in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. Example: I’ve subbed for an instructor that does predominantly intervals to pop dance remixes. So while I may not do that week after week myself, why not at least devote a portion of class to giving the students what they are used to? Gain their trust with that first. It’s so much easier to get them to take a chance on you if you show your willingness to meet them half-way.

    The sadist technique you’ve so aptly outlined above- I think we’ve all unleashed that one at least once in our subbing careers. I think it’s born out of insecurity, or at least it was in my case: feeling we have something to prove.

    My challenge as a sub? I refuse to teach in the way outlined above and I’m coming to the realization that in this numbers game industry of ours that high intensity all the time is the rule instead of the exception. I’m at a new place as an instructor, challenged to find a way to stay true to who I am, yet give them what they want. I use subbing to help foster this growth, even when it means 1/3 of the class gets up and walks out (that happened in the recent past, no less and trust me, it doesn’t feel good. It also shows me that though I may be a seasoned instructor- I still have a LONG way to go, obviously.) What I think? Two things: we all HATE change and we all LOVE having fun. I can’t very well morph into their regular instructor, so change needs to be accepted and a trust earned. I can, however, work harder to deliver a FUN profile that still stays true to who I am as an instructor. I’m learning (the very hard way) that while science is great- I need to use that as the solid backbone/structure of my profile and spend a whole lot more time on its marketing and presentation. We are a society of sound bites and flashy gimmicks, and the masses, especially when we’re subbing, want to be wowed and entertained. They want an experience more than they want a “class.” The Cuez app has been just one thing helping me with this. At the end of the day I may very well be the only one in the room knowing about all the science behind what I’m presenting to them, but if it’s not fun- it’s game over. Especially as the sub!

    I look forward to seeing what you have coming next in this series.

    1. Kathy, you said it so well. This is my struggle as well. Every single thing you said. Great post Tom. Thanks for this.

  9. Oh Yes .. more of the instructor demo on what he can do .. not what the client can be instructed to do .. Thanks for that Jenn, keep up the great work !Hope you’re well .x

  10. Not a sub, but I was shocked when I paid $12 to attend a class on a cruise ship and the instructor tired to do pedal drills by having us take one foot out of the pedal and put it on the frame of the bike. I didn’t do it.

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