Training Versus Exercise…Your Thoughts?

This article from our archives is designed to get you thinking about the concept of training vs. exercise. I’ve updated the article and would like to know your thoughts on the topic.

The subject of training versus exercise comes up occasionally in online indoor cycling forums and groups. And it has got me thinking…we need to find a better way to package “training” so it’s not as scary.

Why? Because training works so much better than exercise!

I’ve got my own ideas, but I’d love your input into this. I’ll be posting a series on base building and periodization following this but I’d like to get you thinking about the topic on a deeper level.

Real work is hard. And I don’t just mean tons of sprints and HIIT classes. Those are popular, but in reality, a periodized training program that starts off seemingly “easier” and then progresses to harder training—one that builds a base, develops the aerobic system, improves lactate threshold and FTP, and provides meaningful high-intensity training sessions with plenty of (properly applied) recovery—is far more challenging and successful at meeting most people’s goals than a whole bunch of haphazard interval classes with tons of sprints or random Tabatas. Sure, the latter drills raise your heart rate and get you breathing hard, but without progression and a plan, they are not likely to lead to any substantial long-term results.

While every person has his or her own personal goals—a cyclist training for an event obviously has a different goal than most of our participants in our classes—the means to the end is not as different as you might imagine. The truth is that, with a few exceptions, training more like a cyclist (even for a non-cyclist) will most likely lead to a greater chance of meeting an exerciser’s goal of burning more calories, improving general fitness, or fitting into a certain dress than if they simply went to haphazard classes here and there without a greater plan.

The reasons why would take several chapters of a book to explain…but suffice it to say real training trumps fluff exercising any day! And what I hope to convince you (and your peers and riders) of—there is no reason that they can’t be just as fun.

Especially when your goal is to burn calories. Gosh, I hate that “C” word but I recognize what a lot of people come to cycling class for and that some clubs and instructors promote their classes as a way to “torch calories.” 

SoulCycle classes, and the other classes like it, continue to be popular around the world. The SoulCycle wannabes want what SoulCycle has achieved (that is, the revenues) but many in the industry recognize that the public has been hoodwinked into thinking that type of exercise (translation: not real “training”) will actually lead to long-term success and full-body results.

Don’t get me wrong…there is no denying some people have lost weight in those classes, especially those who went from doing little to nothing on a consistent basis prior to discovering SoulCycle and going frequently. And they should be commended for finding something that holds their attention and keeps them active. But, there is no long-term plan, there is no progression, and it doesn’t get any harder over time.

In actual fact, those classes are not really all that hard to begin with. All you really need to do is simulate the class on a bike with power and include super high cadence, tap backs, a weight segment with 2- or 3-pound weights. Your average wattage will be miserly, which means your true caloric burn will be less. I wish that I could secretly hook up power meters to their bikes and record the data to prove my point. Alas, that’s not possible. But with this type of exercise class, plateaus are inevitable.

And I get it…not everyone wants to work that hard and many come for the mental and emotional or the social benefits—it’s one of the great things about what we do on bikes that go nowhere. But you know as well as I do that there is a large percentage who do say that they want to burn more calories and/or lose weight.

Anyway, I digress…this post is not meant to be a discussion of the techniques in those types of classes. Rather, I am posing a question to you all:

What do we need to do to teach the public, our potential market of customers, that “training” is better than just “exercising”? Instructors say things like “My riders don’t want to train, they want to exercise,” but we know without a shadow of a doubt that a structured training program is more effective than haphazard exercise (even if they go to the gym 3–5 times a week), regardless of their goals. A structured training program will help them burn more calories, lose more fat/weight, stay more committed, fit into their clothes better, live longer, and gain all the heart-healthy benefits of cardiovascular training they are seeking. Notice there are no “performance” benefits mentioned there!

The conundrum…how would you package a training program to the average gym-goer?

  • Is it packaging?
  • Perception?
  • What can we do to better package our “training” to attract the average exerciser?
  • Are they scared of “training”?
  • Is it too hard?
  • Is it too complicated (perceived)?
  • Messaging? Have we been using the wrong words to describe it?
  • Is it simply getting better at educating participation on the benefits?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Let me know if you’ve incorporated any structured training plans into your curriculum, and if you’ve been successful or not. Have you charged separately for these training packages? What kind of success have you had?



  1. Very well written, and some great thoughts and questions, thank you. I think that although perception of “training” for some can be a turn-off, the idea of well structured rides with the goal of improvement is really important. Regardless of weather people are there for “exercise” or more serious “training” I think the same approach can be used when speaking to overall improvement….this looks different for everyone and could range from weightloss to increasing VO2 max but in general, if you pitch it in such a way most people will get on board. “We are here to improve!” Reading over the comments from 2015 til now, I think the industry has come a long way as far as technology and use of power as a metric to measure intensity. With an accurate FTP, or even a ballpark for beginners, Everyone should be able to work as hard as they need to. I.e. the class will not be “too easy” or “too hard” and that’s the beauty of being in control of your own bike. Most of my riders, a range of iron-man athletes, Moms, retirees, you name it, enjoy having a structured “program” or protocol which we test quarterly at minimum and have real, measurable, results or indicators of improvement. It has also really improved my coaching and classes. We spent the last 8 weeks improving and progressing workouts with the goal of improving our FTP. We tested last 2 weeks (two different classes) and almost everyone improved. It gives people incentive to show up as the workouts progress with adaptation as they should do if you miss one, you’ll be “behind.” I used it as a way to stay on track through the holidays and encourage people to keep coming and stay accountable. Now both of these classes are full, some with waitlists and I ended up adding an extra class. Structure is imperative, as is progression. I remind people that this is always their class and it’s up to them to get what they came for but when I can explain the benefits of a certain ride in less scientific language, they know what they’re working on and how they can improve. I think a lot of it is the verbiage you use, but for me, pitching it as improvement to the “exercisers” and training to the serious and dedicated athletes has been helpful. Also making the shift from “burning calories” to improvement in this specific area (I like to throw in some terminology here but just enough to not confuse people) is huge. Part of our job is also educating people and I love that. The best satisfaction is to see the empowered look on someone’s face who has improved their FTP in the last 8 weeks. I will continue to spend 6-8 weeks preparing before every test and wish I could hold private training sessions. Maybe in the future. As for the studios that provide exercise classes without the proper training or science, the people who gravitate there will get an experience and maybe with education they will see the difference…I have several converts and some that prefer the experience of a party and it’s their choice as far as I see it. I like to say, sometimes, you get what you pay for and it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. In the mean time, I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming articles! I just joined this community and am so glad I did. Thank you!

  2. My thoughts are that training is exercise with an intended purpose. Training is intended to be specific to a goal. In my case, the goal is typically an event, but it doesn’t have to be. Exercise may primarily be to break a sweat, work off some frustration,or just randomly burn calories. Training can make one fitter, faster.

    I’m doing FTP assessments in my classes this week. I asked my members to email me their FTP results so I could translate them to power zones for them. I received this interesting bit of feedback from one of them, which relates to your question: “I really appreciate the organization, time, and effort you put into the classes calculated to actually improve our fitness as opposed to primarily a caloric burn.”

  3. Our gym members dont care about training – just spinning fast to pop songs. No strength, endurance training. In and out of saddle constantly for 45 minutes. More sweat from faster pedaling is a better workout simply because they sweat more. So Sad.

  4. What a great article Jen. I love the comparison between training and exercising. I have the privilege of owing my little studio on a restricted budget so we certainly don’t have the power training system but I can assure you, we can still train. My busiest classes with waitlists that never end are the endurance classes on the weekend. Riders have discovered a passion and an understanding of the benefits behind those types of rides. No you don’t have to just sprint and kill drills to have a great workout!!

  5. I am SpinPower certified through Mad Dogg Athletics. I have been teaching for 5 yrs or so. I left my primary gym in September – not really wanting to but felt it was time. I teach with power. We have Keiser bikes w power meters (they are prob about 10 yrs old at this point), we have Performance IQ. We power test (3 min) thru this system. It’s a 55 min class where we have a mix of ages, commitment and styles. A few outdoor riders but mostly regular gym goers. I primarily teach endurance rides, coach clearing your brain and focus on connecting you brain, body and bike with watts. Some people love it some dont. This gym brought in Les Mills Sprint and I choose not to get certified in it (and I was away at the 5 Boro ride in NYC at the time of training). I took a couple classes at another gym to see what it was all about and I was horrified. Now, whether those instructors actually followed all the instruction from Les Mills I didn’t know at the time but still horrified. I video’d several instructors for their cert. And I still don’t agree with this program. Personally, I see a lot of room for injury and it went against everything I was certified in through Mad Dogg Spinning and SpinPower. Just not my style and I didn’t want to do it or pay for cert and qrtly releases and learn choreo (I was Les Mills BodyCombat certified). I lost my Wed am class to Les Mills Sprint and I gave up my Saturday as the writing was on the wall. This gym is VERY numbers driven and if yr numbers are not there – your class is gone. Anyway, they made changes and most of the Cycle classes are Sprint. People seem to like it and the numbers are better. I’ve talked to a few ppl and they LOVE the fact its 30 mins of an ass kicking. So sad. I am confident that the people I had in my classes did learn about Power and that it is proof of your workout. See what you can do with proper setup, form, breathing, connecting. Some people LOVE the numbers, some people just want you to entertain them w stupid stuff on the bike “old spin” as I call it with pushups, crazy resistance, crazy non resistance, up & down a million times. Ugh. People want quick, fast workouts. Their heart is beating a million times a minute and they sweat so they think they are burning tons of calories. Trying to get thru to ppl that beating the crap out of your body isn’t for the long haul. I haven’t taught since mid September and I TRULY miss it. Its my own fault as now I won’t teach anywhere that doesn’t have power meters. PIQ was nice but it was inconsistent – prob because our bikes were not the blue tooth model so we had boxes run by 4 AA batteries and required calibration and changing batteries 1x per month. But it was fine for what most ppl were looking at. I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in this HIIT mentality for everything. Haven’t found my spot yet. I’m so interested in reading other responses. I feel like people just don’t want or have the time to focus 1 hr for cycle. We do have a couple of 5am classes that do well with real Cycle – been there – done that – just too damn early for me. Thank you for this AWESOME article!!

    1. Love this, and agree with you Jackie!

  6. As instructors, it is our responsibility to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. Instructors who are knowledgable and up-to-date should be able to create profiles that are fun and effective for everyone in the room. If we see our job as entertaining clients or mimicking trends, we are destined to fail.
    I teach every Spinning format and have waitlists for almost every class. Ironically, my riders love Endurance classes or “steady state”. I make certain the music and cueing make the experience exciting and challenging. Riders who have been my regulars know the difference in my approach, whether their goal is to torch calories or just have fun, and, they see and feel the difference it has made in their bodies.
    Our gym doesn’t have power meters, we have a meter for RPM, distance traveled, and heart rate. Our road riders wear their own fitness watches and record their performances. It works! We are a boutique studio in NY, in our seventh year and going strong.
    Call it what you may; training or exercising, but make every class awesome. Try not to talk too much (TMI) just do what you are trained to do, and they’ll come back for more.

  7. I have a very diverse population that have gotten stronger by cycling. My cliental ranges from Mom’s to retired athletes. I teach 3 cycle classes a week and try to emphasize time trials monthly. I have the same group each week so I do plan my classes monthly with progressions and goals for all riders. I enjoy your resources you share and I share them with my group of riders. Thank you for keeping this great sport pure.

  8. Question: Where is periodized training possible?

    Answer: I think it depends on how much support management gives your program, the demographics of your club/studio/school and how much time you have. I’ve been able to implement a 16-week periodized program at Sacramento State not only because I had a decent training protocol but also because management provided me with consoles, heart rate monitors and access to a large TV from which I could play “Class Builder.” Access to these tools coupled with lectures on periodization created a lot of student “buy-in” and my students came consistently as if this group exercise class were a team practice or a for-credit class. My students were not scared of “training”, in fact, a lot of them were current and former athletes that felt underserved by traditional group exercise offerings. And those that were not athletes, per se, embraced the opportunity to train as if they were. It should be noted, however, that this program took 4 years to build and unless you have a day job, a well-to-do partner or are comfortably retired, teaching with the preparation and focus I’m describing above is not financially feasible with what big-box gyms and universities pay ($19-28/hr.) I think, therefore, the most probable place to implement a periodized program is at a boutique studio that can pay for the tech and the teachers.

    1. I like your style Tia a high five coming your way. I am so encouraged to read your comment. I certainly feel for those who do not get the support from the gym owners or clients. I opened my Boutique Studio in March of this year. My husband has been a huge support regarding funding Spin Cycle Studio. I have 5 Wattbikes which I am very impressed with. (Check them out on Mr google). Wattbike do lots of programs which are written by professionals so this is a great help. After saying that you still have to ‘sell’ the concept of ‘Training Right’ to your clients. Prior to setting this up I like many had been a participant in others classes’ as well as being the instructor, so can view from all angles. Using this information I saw the need for an 8 week course for beginners. I have invested in heart rate monitors as the Wattbikes cater for this and of course we have Watts to train with. As this is all new I have not as yet done any advertising rather used existing clients from my other business (Hairdressing), to Try and Test my programs and methods. I packaged my programme as a 12 Week Weight Loss. This was 3 times a week. The first 8 weeks were the same as the 8 week beginners course. This worked very well and the clients, who were not gym goers in any way shape or form, have appreciated the more personalized approach. (Might I add, these same clients would not have continued if they had come along to one of the 3 gyms I had taken classes in). I listen to many talk about Spin Classes, it tends to fall into ‘I love them’, or ‘went once, NEVER AGAIN’. Learning from comments like these I felt I wanted to create various sessions that will help those who firstly would NEVER go to a gym, and secondly encourage this type of person to realise their potential regarding ‘Taking back the reigns of their health’. In order to achieve what I am doing I needed to start SMALL. Hence the ‘BOUTIQUE’ type studio. I needed to be able to ‘PERSONALIZE’, hence the ‘BOUTIQUE’ type studio. Using the Wattbike has been a HUGE bonus. Apart from the bikes the support you get from the Company is a credit to them. Clients are able to view their stats directly after their session, taking a photo for future reference. I can download and print off theirs sessions. (I do cater for the ‘die hard’ spinners too). Coaches can download the software and send their clients to do ‘Interval sessions’ (or what ever), get the client to plug in a USB stick then send them the session afterwards. Hence I am shortly going to offer this format to cycle coaches in New South Wales who have clients in my area. (I live in Australia, and the area I live in is one of the many host areas for the Iron Man Event). Part of the training I did to become a Spin Instructor teaches us to encourage class members not to go above 85% of their Max Heart Rate until they have been taking a Spin Class for 8 weeks. I use the moto ‘Train Right, Train Effectively’. I am constantly educating my members regarding health. No one would go into a gym for the first time and attempt to pick up a barbell with 20kgs on each side. Why do people think they can treat their heart the way many do when they take their first, second or third spin class? It has to come from the instructors to educate. (We all know no matter what we say to class members regarding adding or taking off resistance, many do their own thing). Going back to basics may seem boring sometimes but often it is essential for longevity. My clients are very happy with my sessions, as they value their obvious progress, not just in toning up muscle but their personal achievement. One recently got her 13 year old son to come for a trial session as he wants to get fit for soccer next year. He was impressed how fit his mum was on the bike. I want to encourage you ALL, I am 51 years of age and I have opened Spin Cycle Studio. I am no where near where I want to be with the day by day client base, but hey at least I have clients. No one in my (regional) area is doing what I am doing. It is very daunting to say the least, but I am taking little steps in the right direction. Might I add, we did a reno in our home to enable me to have my Studio. You need to speculate to accumulate. I am passionate about Health and Wellness, I want to help others achieve this too and doing something you LOVE, well what do they say, ‘Do a job you love and you don’t have to work a day in your life’. Don’t give up, I learn constantly from those who have been doing this for years and I find their advise a life line, so a huge THANK YOU. Lots of things evolve over years the whole concept of ‘Spinning’ is doing just that.

    2. I have a studio indoor cycling specific with Keiser M3+ bikes using class builder. I am a cycling Fusion Instructor my cliental is Triathletes Marathoners and Ironman and also people that just want to lose weight or get into shape lacking cardio in there workouts. I would like to plan workouts that can be done for all types if possible in segments of 4 weeks 2 to 3 times per week on and off bike. Can you suggest a plan that would work my email is

  9. I am teaching at a club– where people float in and out of class!! They use it as a warm up. They come in late. The facility has class times that overlap.Most of the students here just want exercises– they don’t seem to care if they are doing things they shouldn’t. They don’t want to train especially not in the saddle!!! It is very frustrating!!

  10. Interesting discussion. I don’t struggle in an environment that is unsympathetic to training but even so, I am currently working on ideas to brand my classes in such a way that the rigour of my planning will be obvious but so that it is obvious that people with very different goals are welcome.

    Right now I am toying with ideas like “where worlds collide” (which in my case refers to the cyclists, the runners and the general ”exercisers’) or something related to melting and crucibles. When I find the right concept and catch phrase I am going to write a whole new series of classes so that one a week will riff on that concept. There will still be content in everything I do during the week as well as weekly, monthly and yearly plans, but I’d like the additional through line as well.

  11. I run an 8 week cycle that repeats throughout the year. I stress to work at your individual level/RPE. What’s feels hard is their “hard”. The regulars recognize that hard work pays off in the long run. I point out to new people who drop in that this one class is just a small part of the overall plan and if they stick with me (and come more than once!) they will see results. Since I work with watts/power I can show them that from week to week there is progression in endurance and power output, so long as they put forth the effort. Some, like another poster said, only want to sweat and forget but there are the few who really listen to what I am saying and realize that I’m not there for me – I’m there for them. I don’t just show up and lead off the cuff. I have a plan and I’m not afraid to use it!

  12. As Mark said, there are folks who pop in when they can and that makes it hard to teach progression. However, I’ve found that those who work out early – AM classes – tend to be the same lot every week. Yay! (vs the after work crowd that tends to wax and wane and vary in particpants). Anyhow, long before I became an instructor, I enjoyed a class in which the instructor did ‘training’ – and it worked pretty well culminating in a ‘race day’. The ‘recovery rides’ were never favorites though 😉 I think to build a training program – there needs to be ‘check points’ along the way for participants to see any measurable or perceived benefits or improvements – maybe being able to carry on with a charge up a hill longer or keeping a controlled sprint longer. Maybe those with HRM would see their ability to hold their 75% rate longer (not everyone has a HRM either), or for some, it may be losing 5 lbs over the course of the class. So for an instructor, there needs to be planning and goal checks and / or adjustments along the way. And the class needs to ‘get on board’ by committing to their own goal from the get go. Maybe make a chart for them to see or just keep notes to remember who to encourage for what goal. I’d love a class like that! Means we all commit to something…keeps everyone engaged, accountable, and energized.

  13. Jennifer:

    I struggle with the idea of a training program when I teach three times a week and have a different mix of students in each, most regulars, some newbies. A hard core regular could come on a day when I am going easy and be frustrated, or a newbie could come on a “hard” day and be similarly frustrated. I think if you had a set group coming 2-3 days per week, a training program would be easier to implement–but that isn’t how people come to my fitness center (a YMCA). So I do the “haphazard” thing, and mix up formats and intensities to try and appeal to a wider spectrum. And then of course, however “hard” the class is, people inevitably go at their own rate. But I’d be interested to see how a training program would work with a mixed group.


    1. Author

      Yes, this is definitely one of the conundrums. The way to deal with it, I think, is to have a mix of both at a studio or club. That said…it may or may not fit with an instructor’s schedule.
      Thanks for your input.

    2. Agree with Mark. Music is the key in my opinion. My WINTER CHALLENGE is geared (no pun intended) for both beginners and seasoned riders and should help everyone improve over a 2 month period. I like to challenge the best people in the class to a hard and challenging workout. At the same time I encourage new or beginning riders to back off and just enjoy the music when they can’t keep up. Over time they do more, and it helps them to improve.

  14. Some people say: I have a busy life, I make some space for cycling classes but I don’t want to commit to following something for certain number of weeks. It just adds to my list of to dos. I want to go hard and sweat and then forget. Then there are others who don’t even know they would like it as they have never had a chance to try. They think they would need to pay extra. I recently started playing the card of: don’t you want to know if you are getting better, fitter, stronger? Don’t you want to have a goal at least for the class if not for a month? So many people love indoor cycling and joined to lose weight. Then they hit the plateau but what they think happened is they got too fit for cycling and they need to change the sport. I am working on convincing one of my groups about benefits of fitness testing and then will introduce the whole training and retesting concept. Hope for testimonies and word of mouth to spread 🙂

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