If you have been spinning a while, you have likely seen many types of indoor cycling instructor.

Probably you have done a class where the instructor did an assortment of movements that were unusual to perform on a bicycle. Perhaps a push up over the handle bars. Perhaps a chicken wing, where you flail your arms forward and back. You might have been asked to stand and tap to the back of the seat and push your hips forward again, or perhaps you were told to isolate your hips perfectly and hover over the pedals without moving. Worst, you might have might have been given sandbag or bar weights to monkey around with, or asked to pedal at very high cadence with little or no resistance on the bike.

And if you have ridden at Cyklus, then we know you have also done another type of class. One were you spent your time working on form while you pushed yourself to stay at a target power output. One where the focus was on the legs and you were trying to pedal as efficiently as possible by keeping your upper body as quiet as possible. One where you rode your indoor bike just like a professional cyclist would ride outside. One where, just maybe, you started to imagine yourself riding outside on a road bike at a fast pace.

What you probably don’t know is that the first class,  the one that involved all the exercises besides pedaling, is in fact warned against by every major spin bike manufacturer and certification body. Keiser, Spinning, Real Ryder, Stages, Cycling Fusion, Indoor Cycling Group, and Schwinn all certify indoor cycling instructors. All of their training programs specifically exclude and warn against upper body motion. Further, everyone who understands sports physiology knows that these types of movements hit you with a double helping of bad: they do absolutely nothing to change your body, and they put your lower back, among other things, at significant risk of injury.

“But my arms were burning and my heart was in my throat when I was doing those things” you say. True. Push ups on a bike can be exhausting. Holding up a 5 pound bar weight above your head for a long time can cause a burning in your arms. But you are not going to see a meaningful physiological change doing these exercises unless you do a hell of a lot of them. And by that, I mean make them your full time job.

To fully explain myself, I am going to have to get a little technical. So I offer two options: struggle through the following paragraphs, or go do bike push up classes until either your back gives out or you get tired of looking silly on a bicycle, and see the lack of results compared to an actual training regimen targeting those muscles.

I have covered this ground before on my blog post here on periodization. Basically, to get any muscle to change (super compensate) you need to get it to the alarm state. Lets start with case one, the bike push up. Here, your throat is burning, your pulse is hammering away, and you are feeling like you are going to die. Surely this is a great arm workout? The alarm state?

But… are your arms really working all that hard? Doubtlessly your heart is in your throat, and certainly your legs are working overtime on a standing climb. And your heart is certainly getting a workout, as it would for any challenging interval in any fitness class. But you are being fooled, as your arms are not working very hard at all. Your arms can likely push the 15 percent of your body weight up and down forever, and it is your legs and your cardiovascular capacity that actually run out of steam as you return to your saddle exhausted in either a controlled, or  (gulp) uncontrolled fashion. Try them again and think about it: this drill is 60% legs, 30% aeorobic, and 10% arm. Most of your bodies up and down motion is controlled by the larger muscles in the back and abdomen.

This is important to note: good exercise technique is about isolation of the muscle you want to make change, or the combined use of complimentary muscles in a functional way. Your body is very smart about recruiting the biggest muscles available to do any given job. That is why your push up is largely being performed by the legs, back and abdomen, and not your arms. But think about how exposed to injury you are in this position. Your back is hunched over the bike, and getting thrown around by the movement of your spinning legs. You are lifting with your back in the worst possible unstable position. Remember what almost all of us have been told many many times: don’t lift with your back. Please just stop doing these movements before you strain, sprain do even worse damage to the muscles and ligatures there.

Consider the second case, where you are sitting upright in your saddle, pedaling fast with little resistance, and moving those very light weights around until you feel your arms (and likely lower back) burning. That burning is, unfortunately for you, telling you nothing.  You are not putting enough adaptive stimulus on the muscle to effect a change in a reasonable amount of time, but the elevated arousal level in the rest of your body is telling you that the relatively mild sensations you are experiencing are in fact much greater than they are. Not convinced? Just take a look at any other exercise regimen targeted toward working those muscle groups. It is generally accepted that growing a muscle is done with large enough weights that the maximum number of repetitions is less than ten for maximal strength training.

“But what about toning my arms” you ask? There is no such thing as toning. Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as toning!” Toning is an unfortunate exercise myth, and will be the subject of another blog article. In short, muscles are visible in people with low body fat. To get that look we all call “toned,” you can simply reduce the body fat covering the muscle, and/or perform an exercise that can make the muscle grow. Simple at that. That low weight, high repetition workout you have been doing is not taking you where you want to go.

The same applies to the hover and tap back. While the instructor might tell you that there is a benefit, that benefit is far outweighed by the risk of injury. And that benefit is questionable: there is little functional use in the ability to push your butt back and forth while spinning, or to hold it perfectly steady while spinning (this one I really dislike, as it tends to overwork your quads, which is the muscle I am trying to move away from with my cycling technique as I try to get into the hamstrings and glutes). The risk of injury is one thing, but you will also have to remove most of the resistance you are riding with to do these moves. In every case, when you take away the resistance, unless you are working on a specific aspect of cycling form, recovering, warming up, or cooling down, you are taking away the training benefit. So you are increasing risk, and decreasing the health benefit. Not a sensible choice, and, as said, one strongly recommended against by the great majority of industry professionals.

You might have noticed that while you were flailing around on that bike, wiser riders were completely ignoring the instructors direction to do these movements. Or perhaps you tried them yourself and found that it felt like either the bike or you were going to fall over. So sensibly, you stopped. In my experience teaching the Cyklus Intro class for the last two years, I have found that when I state we don’t do non riding movements on the bike, most riders over 30 are relieved. I often wonder if those that enjoy these classes just have not yet had the back pain that can come from them yet.

Let me leave you with a quote from Jenifer Sage from a recent conversation I had with her as I wrote this article. Jennifer Sage is the founder of the Indoor Cycling Association, former Master Instructor for Spinning, and author of the e-book “Keep it Real in Your Indoor Cycling Class.” She is well known as an authority with respect to all things indoor cycling related. With respect to the push ups and other non riding types of movements she told to me “don’t pretend injuries don’t happen. They do.” If you are interested in her take on this subject, you can find it here.

No one should get injured in a cycling class. The key benefit of cycling classes is that not only is it a highly intense form of exercise, it is also a very low impact one. When you start to get silly on that bike, you take away that intensity, and you add risk. If you want a risky fitness class, at least take one that is going to result in a physiological change in your body (yes, Crossfit, I am talking to you).

What to do? Take our T-Rex classes. Suspension training is another low impact, high intensity workout for your entire body, and is a great compliment to your cycling program. That is why we offer it here at Cyklus for the same price as our regular cycling classes. We are strong believers in doing it right, and doing it safe.

See you at the studio.

Jay.

Ready to ride after reading that? Book a class now!