Ticked Off to the Core!

I’m beyond irritated. After watching a couple of online instructor videos and listening to others talk about how cycling is an amazing full-body workout that targets the core, I almost don’t know where to begin. Unfortunately, it demonstrates the lack of science, training, and knowledge that should be required to call oneself an indoor cycling instructor. Those of us who are keeping the indoor cycling industry effective and real have done it via our own determination and quest for knowledge.

One of the problems is that there are literally no “official” standards in place. Cycling’s national governing body, USA Cycling, does not involve itself in the health club industry; accredited certification bodies such as ACE, ACSM, NSCA, and NASM do not focus on cycling qualifications; finally, the health clubs themselves are not held to any standard. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. Opening the door for all kinds of ridiculousness, health clubs have let unaccredited indoor cycling classes become part of their programming; on the other hand, if health clubs didn’t adopt Spinning® and indoor cycling, our industry would not exist.

OK, so that was a rant within a rant. Let’s get back to the issue of core training and indoor cycling. What is the deal and why are people still making claims that cycling is a full-body and core workout?

Strength Training vs. Conditioning

Getting back to the issue of training knowledge, people making these claims know little about cycling technique, mechanics, or exercise physiology. Proper cycling technique that is both safe and effective relies on a relaxed upper body. Sucking in the stomach and tightening the core (abdomen, back, chest, shoulders, etc.) restricts adequate breathing, restricts necessary joint movement, and causes a person to fight the mechanics of the bike. Not only does this encourage injury, but it also makes indoor cycling classes highly ineffective. One simply can’t get the most out of a workout when they are bound up like a person in severe need of laxatives.

Then there is the science of developing strength. Strength requires stress, which, if applied correctly, leads to adaptation. The muscles of the upper body and specifically the core (by this they often mean abdominals) are not and should not be under any level of stress that would cause adaptations in strength. We know the upper body is used for balance and stability; what benefit, if any, does the upper body receive?

This is a great question. Although the upper body is not under enough stress to produce significant adaptations in strength, the movement, and postural requirements condition the joints and muscles. This may seem like I’m toying with words, but there is a difference. Even though the large muscle groups of the upper body are not fully engaged while cycling, numerous deep postural muscles are used to counter and control the forces applied by the legs. This movement keeps the upper body muscles and joints active and facilitates increased blood flow. Movement is good. Posture is good. Balance is good. So yes, cycling involves the entire body (movement and stability), it just DOES NOT provide a full-body strength-training workout.

How Do You Burn More Calories? Ride Harder.

Doesn’t adding upper-body gyrations on the bike increase overall activity that burns more calories?


Why? Because when you start twisting, turning, and lifting massive 1 lb weights while riding, the powerful work of the legs is greatly reduced (don’t get me started about safety). Activating more muscle and applying real stress increases the amount of work and thus, calories burned. The muscles of the legs are much greater in size than those lifting the twig weights, so why would we trade more for less?

The mechanics of the bike strongly, if not exclusively, target stress on the legs; why diminish the effects of this beautiful movement with upper body silliness? The answer is simple—those that contort their abs and pump their arms in praise of the calorie gods don’t know what they are doing.

So let me give it to you straight…

If you want to burn more calories on the bike, ride harder…and with resistance.

You know you are getting the most out of your ride and burning a sick amount of calories when your upper body is simply hanging on for dear life.

They Are Trying to Sell Their Class and More

People who promote the upper body workout and core benefit of an indoor cycling class are often looking to either hype their personal style or condone the contraindicated movements they use. This inherently leads us back to my opening rant about the state of indoor cycling standards. If the indoor cycling industry was subject to the same risk stratification scrutiny as personal training and other functional movement modalities, some instructors would be serving jail time for their crimes.

To add insult to almost certain injury, it is often these misrepresented classes and fitness model instructors that make the news and host Hollywood favorites among their attendees. In the public eye, it doesn’t matter that these ab-crushing, 1 lb-weight-wielding, stretcho-band-snapping, and arm-flailing cycling classes violate sound training science. It was on TV; it has to be right.

Who Are the Real Offenders?

Who should really take responsibility for all of this? We often blame the Internet because of its hyper-accessibility and ease of vomiting information (minus the inform).  Does anyone really believe these indoor cycling video atrocities and misinformed articles are accidentally posting to the World Wide Web? Someone intentionally uploads them.

It needs to stop.

The responsibility, therefore, falls on the instructors spewing these false claims as truths. Our industry needs respect and instructors should be upheld as health and fitness professionals and coaches. This can only materialize when the noise is silenced.

To those who take pride in our industry and spend countless hours researching, studying, and achieving qualifications, we need you and respect you. For the others who occupy instructor bikes and spout fitness illusions and training quackery, we beg you to either take responsibility and get educated or step down and stop confusing everyone.

My stomach hurts after writing this article. I never knew that ranting provided a core workout.


  1. I so agree with everything, i just cant stand what is out there, its just crazy what they think is ok to get people to do on a bike.
    I am 100% about keeping it real. In a class I was subbing, there was a lady with her sling bag across her body!! And another with headphones on ????????
    Keep doing what you are doing Jen and Tom, I love you for what you have given us ????

  2. Tom and ICA,

    I know this is an older article, which only goes to say that the message is still important. Here at Revocycle we preach knowledge, experience and professionalism….and effectiveness. Our message to potential clients is if you want to use a bike to get fit, this is how you do it. It’s working…but it takes persistence and strong belief in what your’e doing.

  3. You may be very surprised who is reading this .. I know several very mainstream people who are , not traditionally the choir at all .. keep preaching Jenn x

  4. Couldn’t agree more Jenn , but the tragic thing is when I try to recruit teachers for my studio I get lots of people who do all this bouncy, crazy non cycling stuff. Obviously I cant employ them . Where are the people who do the correct posture these days. The trendy commercial boutique studios are training people so badly that the industry has become deeply divided into really earnest riders and dancers. It’s so frustrating . I’m with Neil, who does and excellent job training new teachers If you have nothing . valuable to say , then concentrate on your ride. Our studio is forward thinking , we do all the lighting the great music etc .. we just insist on riding our bikes correctly, and teaching classes not merely demonstrating what we can do . Great Article.

  5. Love the article. Ride harder some student get confuse thinking in order getting ab ribbed maybe should ride with too much resistance short cut it out below 60 rpm. I seen that a lot in the gym taking Spin class. Last Sunday I see lady doing standing climb 15 minute serious. Don’t see her doing sprint on hill, running on hill those type. Really? I don’t get it what they trying to accomplish.

  6. This article which came to me through Twitter is excellent. I recently received my Indoor Group Cycling certification through NETA. It was excellent. I teach classes twice a week at a local gym. In fact the owner of the gym is the one who encouraged me to get certified because she knew how passionate I was about cycling. Part of my certification training encourages instructors to not only self critique with video but try to attend other indoor cycling classes in other facilities to learn from other people doing the same thing. So…I decided to to attend one of the cycling classes at the gym that is done by a PT who is AFAA certified. I was shocked!!! I counted at least 6 different contraindications done by the PT during our ride. Pedaling backwards was one. She put 2 8 lb dumbbells on my indoor bike so we could lift them while pedaling. Those are just two. Do you know what that does to your balance on a bike when you are lifting dumbbells. She in into crossfit, so I imagine this is where this idea came from. I have even seen the owner of the gym (who is also a certified PT) have participants use med balls while cycling. This is crazy. I have invited them to both attend one of my INDOOR CYCLING classes. They haven’t showed up yet. The problem is that some of the people who attend my Group Indoor Cycling classes (and I emphasize the word CYCLING) were expecting me to do some exercise routine ON THE BIKE. I have now done over 25 classes since I got my certification and I can at least say the people who attend can expect a real good lower body cardiovascular workout. The TICKED OFFF TO THE CORE article and some of the replies made me feel better. Thank you

    1. So glad you saw this in your Twitter feed Doug! (I’m giving a wink to my new social media person…it really works!!) 😉

      We’ve got tons of content on the ICA website I’m sure you’ll find very helpful, articles like this one, plus lots of training and coaching tips, profiles and drills, music ideas and resources, communication skills, etc. First stop, download this list of 101 Ways to be a Better Cycling Instructor!

    2. Doug,

      I have no reason to doubt your assessment, and as a partner in a CrossFit operation (since 2008), I’m the first one to admit that our side of the pond is also riddled with individuals who shouldn’t take the floor and lead a class. However, as we are about to add cycling to our offering, we (my wife and I) are adamant that no instructor will EVER perform push ups on the bike, add lollipop style weights to the ride or otherwise contort riders out of functional balance.
      If a member wants to add these modalities, it will happen off the bike.
      Indoor cycling/Spinning©, just as Olympic Lifting, Yoga, etc. have their place. As coach, one must respect them all, and provide a clear, safe and professional path to utilize them, and while some combinations, such as the inclusion of gymnatic abilities into handstands, others have no business to being combined.
      In the interest of safety, someone should have corrected the instructor you experienced.

  7. Fantastic discussion… We all need to continue fighting the good fight on this front- discouraging as it can feel at times.

    I try to explain that, fitness freak that I am, if this stuff worked, I’d be doing it! Sadly, safety isn’t sexy, but results are. We need to focus not on the safety side- but on the reality of what is-and what is NOT- effective.

    Thanks for a great post… This member of the choir enjoyed it thoroughly.

  8. I think what we are seeing is the second generation of instructors repeating the past. Recall the early days of Equinox when it was searching for its brand identity. They promoted the instructors as entertainers and showed them doing crazy things like dancing on the bike. Somehow, we have failed to teach the history and evolution of indoor cycling as we are seeing new, young instructors doing the same contraindicative movements abandoned long ago. That the outrageous boutique cycling studios promote their riders with addictive personality disorder only advertises both their ignorance of basic exercise science (ie. train smart, not to burnout), and that the company is not in it for the long haul – how can they be if they burnout their riders? These studios do not promote lifetime health and fitness. They use, abuse and discard.
    Small tangent re: history repeating. Notice how some of the big box gyms have a variety of yearly membership fees depending on what day it is? Different fees, but the same membership benefits. AGs from several states brought a class action suit back in the ’80s. Court ruled against the clubs. Funny how the same practice is back and despite internet publicity, no state has acted.
    Good article Tom! Have enjoyed your seminars

  9. I agree with Basia. I teach in a club which is a certified Spinning(R) centre and still, sadly my classes lose comparing to other instructors whose cue language contains literally “heyyyy-hoooooo” and up-two-three-four, down-two-three-four”. Sometimes, it can be very depressing. On the other hand, I love this moment when I have a rider coming into my class and you can tell they just had a “lightbulb moment” in your class and they thank you for the best session ever.

  10. I’m also a member of ‘choir’, however, when I try and educate by explaining the reason why, I am targeted as an instructor who is ‘extreme’, ‘too intense’ because of the subject matter not the delivery. My delivery is usually when we are riding and just touching base with how the body is feeling when we’ve either just completed a tough segment or are about to get into one. Checking body alignment, grabbing a drink, etc. It seems like people don’t want to hear this stuff.

    1. Basia and Bogna:

      I’m right there with you.

  11. Dai,

    I don’t think anyone is saying the core muscles are NOT engaged. The point I believe Tom was making is that to single out the core so as to strengthen it as a part of an indoor cycle class is counter productive. My advice to my riders is to try to use good form. What muscles work will take care of themselves. After class, if they want more core work, get off the bike and do some planks

    I grabbed this from Tom’s post above:

    Then there is the science of developing strength. Strength requires stress, which, if applied correctly, leads to adaptation. The muscles of the upper body, and specifically the core (by this they often mean abdominals), are not and should not be under any level of stress that would cause adaptations in strength. We know the upper body is used for balance and stability; what benefit, if any, does the upper body receive? This is a great question. Although the upper body is not under enough stress to produce significant adaptations in strength, the movement and postural requirements condition the joints and muscles. This may seem like I’m toying with words, but there is a difference. Even though the large muscle groups of the upper body are not fully engaged while cycling, numerous deep postural muscles are used to counter and control the forces applied by the legs. This movement keeps the upper body muscles and joints active and facilitates increased blood flow. Movement is good; posture is good; balance is good. So yes, cycling involves the entire body (movement and stability), it just DOES NOT provide a full-body strength-training workout.

  12. Interesting comments. Are people saying that the core muscles are not engaged during cycling indoors or out? Surely if the core muscles are being used then there is some level of training effect for example on a 2 or 3 hour ride?

  13. I WILL be copying this to my group fit director. I and a fellow instructor are working with her to strengthen the real ness of our indoor cycling team. Unfortunately, many of our members are drawn to certain classes because of the instructor’s use of these crazy creative tactics. Even though we have held meetings, these creative geniuses are still breaking the rules. A gentleman and friend who rides outdoors and takes my class when he can, and has learned a lot about adapting outdoor riding to indoor cycling, went once again to an offending instructor’s class and knowing better decided to participate in the isolated upper body and hover drills….. Bummer for him cause he had to ice his knees that night. . I will email this to my director to share. Thank you.

  14. Chuck,
    I’ve been talking to my assistant John about how to make this fact more apparent. Thanks for making me realize how crucial this actually is! We’ll do that soon…

  15. Hi Chuck,
    I’m not sure I follow. When it’s a free article such as this, we invite people to share it as much as possible. I hope hope hope it’s been shared via email etc. We can’t track emails shares but would see pingbacks if shared on blogs (so far there aren’t any). On the ICA Facebook page we encourage as many shares as possible. Yes, the people commenting are the “choir”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not seen by some other instructors who might not YET be convinced! There are some who are wavering, I do hear about them.

    We’ve got some ideas in the works to try to get the Keep it Real message beyond the choir. It’s a tough thing…but hopefully what we roll out in the next few months will make a difference.

    Thank you everyone for your comments!

    1. Thanks Jennifer,

      I think you got me on this one. Since I’m such a long time member I forget to note the distinction between ‘member only’ and free posts.

      Let the sharing begin.


  16. Tom/Jennifer,

    Let me chime in with my off-key Amen!

    I have to agree with Bogna, you are preaching to the choir. This particular post hold tremendous value to me for two reasons. First, of course it needs to be said, over and over and over… Next, my day job had taken me away from my classes for an extended period. When I returned I was inundated by my riders questions regarding just this subject. Apparently the subs (sometimes we have little control over who covers our classes) were advocating such core and upper body work. Aghh!!!

    With the exception of cut and paste there is no way to share such critically needed pearls of wisdom inside our industry but outside of this website. While in one sense I get that putting a ‘share this post button’ is financially counter productive, some posts – such as this one – are too important to only share with the ‘choir”.

    Might I suggest considering ‘share’ option for such important topics as this one.


  17. Tom, thank you for this article. But there is one problem here: the reach of your word usually goes to those, who already know it and agree with you. Look at the responses above: “amen” from all of us. We are preaching the same gospel to our students and this is simply not enough. The same on FB, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, even if I post this article on my wall, my friends are either ICA members and devoted indoor cycling instructors, who know all this as well but those who should really read this article are out of reach, therefore I would like to propose something.

    Why don’t we start a group on FB called ‘Save the Safety in the Sports Industry” or something like this and start a proper movement? We could collect all the nonsense we observe either on YouTube or other forums, post it there and explain to people WHY it is nonsense. I think starting a movement will gather much more interest than single outbursts of anger, which only will be heard within the same, already enlightened circles. With a proper group on FB we could try to reach other fitness groups and forums; I am quite sure not only indoor cycling is affected by those who want to “improve” the fitness industry, so let’s gather together and do something about it!

    I thought about starting this group myself but you and Jennifer have so much more authority and knowledge, your names are already known on FB, you will have much more power to start such a movement. On my behalf I am more than happy to contribute and spread the word and I think many instructors would happily do the same.

    May the force be with us!


  18. The lack of science is not just specific to Indoor cycling, it is mostly the all fitness industry. As you said no “official” standard, everybody can create a program based on …

    As a complement of information I would advice anybody interested on the “core” subject to try to find Joanne Elphinston “Srability, sport, and performance: great technique without injury”. Her vision, explanation and working of the “core” is, I think the right one.

    The craziness origin, I think, is what is our society going to: easy, fast, all in one … we want everything now ! In every fields in the same … but at the end strangely we really have nothing …
    We have to start watching who we REALLY are.

  19. AMEN!!! I so agree. I know many instructors who perform contraindicated exercises all the time. I am a Spinning instructor and have been for 20 years and I can tell you that when you take your cert they do not teach you the things that I see instructors do. I believe what happens is that the instructors want to be creative so they add things that don’t belong in a Spin class and the participants think that it is okay and safe to do…but we all know that it is not the truth. Our job is to give our clients a safe, effective and fun workout and unfortunately some of the classes they take are not safe and effective.

  20. Amen… and praise to the cycling gods. Lack of .. OF RESISTANCE IS FUTILE …

  21. Agree completely and even though I am not a member of your organization I am a cyclist and know efficient calorie burning rides come from as you write relaxing that upper body keeping the chest open for your lungs to breath and keeping adequate resistance to get the most out of your ride. I am a certified instructor/personal trainer that has enough experience (19 years) to know a gimmick when I come across one. I always use the AFAA 5 questions
    1. What is the purpose of this exercise?
    2. Are you doing that effectively?
    3. Does the exercise create any safety concerns?
    4. Can you maintain proper alignment and form for the duration of the exercise?
    5. For whom is the exercise appropriate or inappropriate?

    Glad you folks are around to benefit the indoor cycling community!

  22. Amen Tom! Glad this is a free article so i can forward it to my teammates and director. Thankfully, i haven’t heard of any instructors where i teach practicing the above stupidity. Unfortunately, the quackery you speak of has drifted its way to my region and studios are popping up all over the place. I’ll keep spreading the word.

  23. Hi Tom welcome to the world of ranting. 🙂 It is a good topic you have chosen and one I have to counteract every time I deliver one of my training courses. Who takes responsibility a) the training providers who spout such myths to their learners b) the instructors who take everything they hear as gospel and don’t question or educate themselves further, so when they are looking for a filler for silence they consider it easy to say ‘activate your core’ when actually silence would of been better. The fitness industry is guilty of a lot of things, poor education and delivery of training is high on the agenda. Look forward to seeing you in the UK next month.

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