Everyone has their own definition of “crazy.” When I first became a certified spin instructor, some friends were supportive while others said “really? That seems crazy.” When I started teaching 5x/week I was called “intense” or even told I was “overdoing it.” When friends and family have visited and I tell them to come into the studio for a class, I’m often told “oh no. I don’t do those crazy classes.”
But when they finally muster up the courage to come in for a ride, they see it ain’t so crazy after all. It is just a community of dedicated, motivated individuals who have found a common ground of arm pumps, jumps, and geared sprints. And while we may look a bit funny holding 3 minute standing isolations, we indoor spinners are just doing what we love for our bodies and minds.
So when a friend forwarded me an article targeting spin studios from the LA Times column “In-Your-Face Fitness,” I immediately distributed it to my friends in the spin community, steeled myself with a glass of wine, and saddled up to read the negative review.
Now, every journalist is welcome to his or her own opinion (thankfully, or blogging would hardly exist!) and news stories require sensationalized headlines, but the article, targeting famous NY-based spin studio SoulCycle, wasn’t just sensationalized, it was plain bad reporting. Some highlights:
- Author James Fell writes that, although he has “pedaled his way through  indoor cycling classes before,” he has in fact never attended a SoulCycle class, or any other class that incorporates an upper and lower body workout. However, he goes on to report that “the whole idea of working one’s upper body while pedaling a stationary bike is not only counterproductive, it can be physically detrimental over time.”
Let’s start there. Although I don’t incorporate arms into my rides, other instructors at Recycle do, and I have attended their classes as well as classes at SoulCycle, Flywheel, and JoyRide and I can tell you firsthand – “counterproductive” is not a word that comes to mind. At the end of a sweaty 4-minute arm set last Friday, another Recycle instructor, who was taking the class beside me, leaned over and said “whoever says this doesn’t work is crazy.” Ironically, it was Rachele Pojednic, our resident outdoor enthusiast who also holds a BS in Cardiopulmonary and Exercise Science from Northeastern University, an M.Ed from Boston University in Physical Education in Coaching, and is currently working on a PhD at Tufts University in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition & Exercise Physiology.
I had previously talked to Rachele about Fell’s opinions on incorporating upper and lower body exercise, particularly his statement that caloric output will be less in a class where you incorporate upper body exercises. According to Rachele:
“using light weights is going to use your slow twitch muscles (which are smaller and will definitely require that you back down on the power your legs are producing). That being said, they are also aerobic, which means that your body still needs to use fuel (usually fat at submaximal levels) to make them go. It may be that you’re using less total calories than you would be if you were maxing out your legs, but you would also be using just your legs in that scenario – which is why Lance Armstrong and other pro cyclists have practically no upper body muscles. While you won’t see major hypertrophy with very light weights, every time a bout of exercise is completed there is certainly an adaptation by that specific muscle. Adding upper body exercises, even with just a small amount of weight, is going to elicit a beneficial effect to those muscles, no doubt. Saying that “…it doesn’t accomplish anything” by using these light weights is like saying going for a walk – when you could be running – “doesn’t accomplish anything.”
In other words, might your heart rate go down when you slow the legs and lift weights? Yes. But you’re lifting weights, and therefore benefiting the muscles using to lift them, making this an exercise that is beneficial to both upper and lower body. Two birds with one stone is exactly the opposite of counterproductive in my book.
Fell quotes 12-year Master Indoor Cycling Instructor Jennifer Sage (who also has never taken a SoulCycle class) as stating “lifting a 1-pound weight isn’t going to do anything. It’s useless.” I think Fell and Sage might both feel differently after 4 minutes of shoulder lifts paired with constant pedaling.
- Fell continues on too state that his “primary concern” with the classes is safety. He quotes numerous sources, including Sage, who states that “when you start bobbing and weaving and doing push-ups on a bike while your legs are spinning, you risk hurting your low back,” and that “shifting in the saddle keeps changing the angle of the knee joint while pedaling.”
While I agree with Fell that safety is always the primary concern in a class, I believe any class can be run safely. I consulted with Rachele and she provided the following feedback:
“Whether or not you are a professional athlete or an indoor cyclist, it seems as though somewhere between 30-70% of cyclists experience back pain from overuse. It also seems to be that this is dependent largely upon the set-up of the bike. From experience, I know that raising and tilting the seat really makes a difference on my back pain. This isn’t isolated to back pain, either. Doing something as simple as changing the angle on your cleats can create or eliminate IT band pain.” http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/
Rachele is right – many indoor cyclists, whether traditional or of the SoulCycle variety, experience lower back pain due to the position of the body while riding. The angle of the knee joint can be equally damaging, which is why most studios recommend using clips instead of running sneakers to ensure the foot is locked in place. But the idea that adding arm pumps while on the bike will lead to more injury is just plain wrong. Injury on the bike comes from improper form, low quality equipment, and bad instruction, and you can find that in a traditional indoor cycling class as easily as a non-traditional one.
So, considering that Fell and most of his experts have never been to a mixed (upper and lower body) cycling class, what’s the drive behind the article? A couple thoughts…
- Traditional “spin” is losing momentum. Fell’s “expert” is a 12-year Master Indoor Cycling Instructor and part of a different crowd of indoor riders than SoulCycle and others like it attract. I am a certified Mad Dogg Spinning Instructor but I have developed beyond the formulaic system that you learn in your initial training (which by the way, is one day long, making Fell’s criticisms of SoulCycle’s “untrained” owners a bit extreme). Why have I broken away from the mold? Because it becomes boring. What Fell and I do agree about is the fact that exercise shouldn’t be a means to an end, it should be an enjoyable experience throughout. And coming in every day to take the same, structured, choreographed class is monotonous. So I am going to kick it up with some double-time jumps and some tap backs. And those are moves that you aren’t going to see in the spinning manual.
- People seem confused about the difference between indoor spin and outdoor cycling. Think of them as two different sports. Fell’s statement that “a bicycle is no place to attempt an upper-body workout” is absolutely true – it would be very dangerous to take your hands off the handlebars of an actual bike and try to lift weights. But an indoor spin bike with a flywheel is not a bicycle. And indoor spin classes are not the same as outdoor cycling. So we can play around indoors in ways that you might not play around outdoors. Just like outdoor cyclists wear helmets and we don’t. Two different sports.
- Everyone loves to hate. The most frustrating part of this article was that only 1 of the experts quoted had ever taken a SoulCycle class. Why not give it a try? Maybe it is a different experience than what you’ve come to know as traditional indoor cycling. Maybe you’ll hate it. But maybe you’ll find a community that motivates you to “put down the doughnut and unglue your ass from the couch” – Fell’s words, not mine. The point is, I don’t criticize my friends who choose running shoes over SPDs or yoga over pilates – I applaud them for finding what works for them.
And this works for me.
All I’m saying is before you knock it, try it.
- The Aspiring RD