Suppose you hired a personal trainer. At your first session, your trainer, Jack, hands you 1 lb weights. You look at him doubtfully, but he smiles and says, “Trust me!” So you do dozens of biceps curls and shoulder presses and a few other exercises until your shoulder muscles are burning so much you can barely lift your arms.
Jack then sits you down with your hands on a table in front of you and has you do push-ups. Yes, it feels and looks silly, but you do them because, well, he’s the “expert,” isn’t he? Next, Jack tells you to “crunch” while sitting upright at that table. First you do traditional crunches by sucking in your abs and driving your ribcage downward, and next oblique crunches by pulling your ribcage down to the left and right…all while sitting upright with your hands on the table. He tells you he is giving you a solid upper-body and core workout, and you believe him and pay him your money and set your next appointment.
I hate to break it to you…but you have just been swindled.
Most people with any fitness knowledge would read this and agree that Jack should be fired as a personal trainer. When you hire a personal trainer, you trust that he or she has obtained a reputable certification. That trainer must have an understanding how muscles and joints work. She must know anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and physics. You believe that your trainer knows the muscle attachments and insertions and knows what “lines of pull” means. A personal trainer must know how a muscle gets stronger in order to devise a training program that is effective.
Jack is an example of a trainer who does not know his profession. So I think we all agree that his techniques would be unacceptable in any weight room…
But Why is This Acceptable in an Indoor Cycling Class?
Performing upper-body exercises exactly as they are described above has become all the rage in indoor cycling studios across the country, and it’s catching on around the world. They are lauded as “full-body workouts”!
One studio based in New York has even gone so far as to “brand” their techniques. Enter SoulCycle, the hottest craze in indoor cycling since Johnny G first created Spinning® in 1994.
These is some of the praise that SoulCycle has received from an uneducated media:
“Those looking for a Full-Body workout should pedal over to Soul-Cycle”
“Voted BEST hit-each-body-part fitness class”
“…killer total-body workout”
“Cycling, plus upper-body strengthening resistance bands…”
In their online videos on YouTube that extoll the upper-body workout, you can see riders wielding their 1 lb weights, doing their push-ups, and crunching obliquely to each side…but SoulCycle takes it one step further than Jack-the-uneducated-trainer ever did. They are doing all of this while their feet are attached to pedals, spinning at 70, 80, 90, or 100 times a minute, sometimes even much faster.
Before I get into details about how functionally ineffective and even potentially dangerous these techniques are, it’s important to go back in time to the early days of the fitness craze and the techniques we (ignorantly) employed back then.
A Trip Back to the 1980s
Back in the 1980s exercise classes, it was all about “No Pain, No Gain.” We bounced, lunged, jiggled, and donkey-kicked our way to fitness. We interpreted any kind of burning as a sign that we were doing it “right” and that stronger, leaner muscles were soon to follow. Instructors and students were praising each of the following exercises and how well they “worked”:
- Single-muscle calisthenics (isolations), such as fire hydrants, butt squeezes, conventional sit-ups, and so many others.
- Windmills: Standing, bent over at the waist while rotating the arms. I wonder how many people herniated a disc?
- Duck Walks: We probably ground off some cartilage and meniscus with every burning step, but oh, feel that burn in the quads…it must be good for you, right?
- Suicides: These must have caused more ACL and low-back injuries from the bending over and pivoting while decelerating than almost any other exercise.
- Who can forget “we must, we must, we must improve our bust!” What a royal waste of time those isometric exercises were, but they were the rage of the 1980s.
One of my favorite moves while teaching aerobics classes in the ’80s was holding the arms out to the sides as if we were flying, while pumping or rotating the hands for what seemed an eternity. Afterward, we’d all grab our deltoids to rub away the burn, thinking we were doing something good for the shoulders.
Turns out, these were only effective if, in fact, you were a bird.
We can be forgiven for many of those silly 1980s and early 1990s moves, because the fitness industry was still in its formative years (although tell that to those still nursing injuries from the 1980s). The fields of exercise science, kinesiology, and biomechanics have grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten to fifteen years. Nowadays, there is no excuse for outlandish claims and dated techniques in any exercise class. Exercise science may still be a science in flux, but there is so much that we do know about forces in the joints, how a muscle is strengthened, and how technique impacts results. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for stupidity since this information is readily available for those who care to learn proper technique and get certified.
Advances in exercise science have brought us terms such as “functional training” and “closed-chain” exercises. We now know how to protect the knees and spine in squats and lunges. We know to avoid behind-the-neck lat pull-downs because of the stress on the shoulder joint. We know that certain popular machines such as knee extensions and abductor and adductor leg machines should probably be banned from most facilities for their lack of functionality and/or their potential danger. Most trainers know that traditional abdominal exercises such as sit-ups are more likely to lead to muscular imbalances and that the core is best strengthened in functional movement–oriented exercises.
And most importantly, we know that in order to strengthen a muscle, heavier weights are required so that the muscle is taken to failure within 12–20 repetitions. We also understand that to effectively strengthen a muscle, it must work against an opposing force. In many cases, that force is your body weight moving against gravity. Translation: you work against gravity, not with it. Hence, crunches in the direction of gravity, or push-ups in which you are sitting upright, are utterly useless exercises. Similarly, while seated on a bike, pushing a weight forward does not work the chest and pulling it back does not work the back. Those movements are perpendicular to gravity, not opposing it.
James Fell wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times calling into question the techniques used by Soul Cycle. Fell asked owner Julie Rice about the efficacy of lifting 1 lb weights and her reply was that the students’ arms are fatigued after lifting the weights for 5 to 8 minutes. Sadly, she and her students ignorantly believe in the sanctity of “the burn.” Due to her lack of physiology knowledge (and her instructors’ as well), they are falling prey to the same scenarios I explained above about the 1980s techniques: believing that “the burn” is doing something beneficial, when in fact basic exercise science principles tell us it is not.
Up to now, I’ve only discussed the non-productive weight lifting techniques. I haven’t addressed the fact that what they are doing might actually lead to a decrease in performance or calorie burn. To do so will require another little detour, this time to understand proper cycling techniques and to dip into a scary phrase: power output. By understanding power a little better, you’ll have a much greater understanding of how adding upper-body workouts to your cycling will reduce your potential cardiovascular and muscular benefit and your caloric burn.
Cycling has been studied longer than almost any other sport in the world. Treadmills weren’t invented until the 1950s, so analysis of running came decades after bicycle ergometers enabled analysis of the biomechanics of pedaling and the effects of aerobic exercise. The first ergometer was developed in 1896 by Elisée Bouny so he could quantify the power output of racers. To do so, Mr. Bouny elevated an ordinary bicycle off the ground and applied a mechanical brake. Since then, there have been tens of thousands of studies done on bicycle ergometers that analyze power output, forces in the pedal stroke, angles of force application, efficiency, the best body position for optimal performance, and much more.
Because of this extensive testing, exercise scientists, bike fitters, and cycling coaches around the world know what is correct cycling technique and what is incorrect cycling technique. It’s not a guess, it’s not debatable, it’s not still up for discussion. Sure, there are still some minor tweaks in positioning and technique that may be argued at the elite level of cycling and triathlon, but by and large, good—and poor—cycling technique is indisputable.
How does that translate to indoor cycling, which is filled with people who ride bikes indoors but do not ride outside or consider themselves “cyclists”?
It’s simple: if it is unsafe and ineffective for a cyclist to do something on a bicycle (whether an indoor or outdoor bike) then it is unsafe and ineffective for anyone else to do the same. This holds true even if someone has not ridden a bike since their tricycle. The laws of biomechanics and physics do not change for a cyclist and a non-cyclist. Anatomy and physiology aren’t different between a cyclist and a non-cyclist (fitness level notwithstanding). Furthermore, these things also do not change when you go from riding a bicycle outdoors to indoors.
Yes, a few things are different between an outdoor bicycle with a freewheel and an indoor fixed-gear bike with a weighted flywheel. But the manner in which you turn the pedals, and the forces required to do so, remain the same. The oft-used claim by indoor cycling instructors that their students “are not cyclists,” ergo they can ignore cycling principles, is dead wrong. Biomechanics are biomechanics—it doesn’t matter if you have never ridden a bicycle outside, the rules still apply to you.
It should by now be evident that there is a direct translation from the outdoors to the indoors, even if the indoor bike doesn’t move and even if the indoor rider is not, in fact, a “cyclist.” With that in mind, we’ll look at an outdoor scenario, then take it indoors. First, let’s talk about power.
The concept of power output is very difficult for some people to understand, but basically it is a quantitative measurement of how much work you are producing. Power is a product of the force you put into the pedal (indoors we regulate that with gear/resistance) and how fast you turn the pedals (cadence). You need both to produce power.
A higher average power output translates to both increased performance and improved fitness, which can lead to weight loss. All else being equal, the higher your average power (relative to you and your abilities), the more fit you are and the faster you will go (on a bike outside). It’s a relatively simple concept when you examine it this very basic way: If you can no longer produce as much power on average as you used to, then you are less fit. If you can produce more power on average than you used to, then you are more fit.
Greater fitness for a cyclist means greater performance, which is manifested by faster speeds, greater endurance to go farther for longer, the ability to climb hills faster, the potential to win races, etc. Greater fitness for a non-cyclist means stronger muscles that can endure for longer periods, and a stronger, leaner body. Improved fitness also increases one’s ability to burn calories, which for many indoor riders is the holy grail.
Hence, there is not that much difference between the needs of the cyclist and the non-cyclist; what creates improved performance for one will create greater caloric burn and general fitness for the other.
An Outdoor Cycling Example
Imagine that there is a flat stretch of road that a cyclist can ride 16 miles in one hour. (In order to draw comparisons, we are going to pretend that wind, weather, traffic, or any other extenuating circumstances are not a factor on this road, similar to an indoor experience.) Suppose after a few months of training, our cyclist can now cover 18 miles instead of 16 in that same one-hour period. That represents a real gain in fitness, and would mean that she is now producing a greater average power output over that time period.
Now, let’s say after a few months off due to an injury, she can only cover 16 miles in one hour. Her average power output has dropped, and so has her fitness. With proper training, she can expect to improve once again how far she can go in one hour.
Anything this rider does that would impede her ability to turn the pedals and maintain a high average power output over that stretch of road would be detrimental to her training and fitness. So, why would she intentionally try to interfere with her ability?
That easily answered question makes sense for an outdoor rider, but when you ask that question of indoor riders, for some reason, there is a disconnect.
With that in mind, let’s look at one more outdoor example. Suppose the rider is now very busy and must limit her workout time, so she decides to include an upper-body workout while she is riding this same stretch of road. Obviously, she cannot take both hands off the handlebars, so she lifts 1 lb weights in one hand, and then switches off to the other hand. After doing biceps curls and shoulder presses and triceps presses on both sides, she sticks the weight in her back pocket and does push-ups and crunches while pedaling. How can she maintain a consistent and strong pedal stroke while lifting weights or bobbing on the bike? She cannot—it is virtually impossible. She will likely only be able to cover 6–7 miles (if even) in that one hour because she has completely hindered her ability to pedal properly. As a result, her overall average power output would also plummet. By trying to do it all—lift weights and work her core while cycling—she has reduced the benefit of both activities so that neither of them have the potential to cause adaptations in her body.
Caloric burn is directly associated with power output. While your heart rate monitor, the cardio machine in the gym, or even your cycling instructor might tell you that your heart rate determines your caloric burn, but this is not as true as you’ve been led to believe. Heart rate is only a (very) rough estimate of how many calories you burn. The actual amount can be far off from the reading on your monitor, depending on your weight, height, fitness level, and many other factors that affect heart rate (see below for other factors).
Similar to the scenario described above for our outdoor cyclist, any kind of bobbing and weaving or upper-body movement indoors will reduce your ability to turn the pedals and will thus reduce your power output and your potential caloric burn. Some think they burn additional calories by adding the weights, but any potential (tiny) addition is negated by the large reduction of power output while pedaling.
Someone might challenge this by saying, “But my heart rate is so high in this class when we lift weights!”
It’s very important to not be fooled by elevated heart rates in a class. High heat and humidity will elevate heart rate response. Your heart rate monitor doesn’t know the difference between a heartbeat that is produced because of your actual effort level or one that is created because of heat, humidity, stress, caffeine, seeing that good-looking person on the bike across from you, or a whole host of other completely unrelated factors that all can affect heart rate.
Even when perceived exertion is high, a high heart rate does not always translate to work (i.e., power output). The best way to prove that point is to take your chain off of your bicycle outside and try to ride. Your legs will spin like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, and your heart rate will soar to the point where you can barely talk, but you will not move the bike one inch, and therefore, you will not have done any appreciable “work.” You might burn a few metabolic calories in the process of spinning your legs uncontrollably, but power output would be close to zero, and total calories burned surprisingly low.
This is, incidentally, the reason why excessive cadences (over 110 rpm) at little to no resistance that are so common in indoor cycling classes are an ineffective way to train, either for performance or for fitness. Power output is very low at high cadence with no resistance because it is lacking one of the important variables of power: force.
There are other movements and techniques that are prevalent in many popular programs such as SoulCycle that also reduce effectiveness and increase the chances for injury. These are the up-down, back-and-forth, or contrived movements they do with their hips while pedaling. Hovers, isolations, squats, and tap-backs are very popular, yet, similar to the examples given above, are contrary to proper mechanics required to ride a bike in an optimal and safe manner.
These movements or positions place the knees and hips outside of those that have been found to be biomechanically effective or anatomically safe, so they do not do what the instructor purports that they do, and they reduce the power output (and hence calories burned) while placing the rider at a higher risk of injury. That is three strikes against them, and zero points in their favor.
In summary, the addition of weights or bands to an indoor cycling class, doing push-ups or crunches, isolating the abs or any other part of the body, and moving the hips fore and aft or lowering them while cycling does nothing for your muscular strength or endurance, and everything to impede your ability to pedal while reducing your power output. And most important for the non-cyclist fitness enthusiast, doing these things ensure that you burn fewer calories.
Just ride the bike!
- The Science of Cycling, Edmund Burke, Ph.D., 1988
- Hi-Tech Cycling, Edmund Burke, Ph.D., 2002
- Cycling Science: How Rider and Machine Work Together, Max Glaskin, 2013
- Journal of Science and Cycling (JSC) is an Open Access online journal, which publishes research articles, reviews, brief communications and letters in all areas of Cycling or Triathlon sciences. The journal aims to provide the most complete and reliable source of information on current developments in the field.
- Training and Racing With a Power Meter, by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, Ph.D., 2010
- A Brief History of Training and Racing With a Power Meter, by Andrew Coggan, Ph.D. www.trainingandracingwithapowermeter.com
- Indoor Cycling Association