October 19, 2017
Elderly and young women working out hard

Spinning: For Body—and Soul?

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

For the past few years, one of the biggest trends in fitness training has been spinning—that is, group stationary cycling done very energetically in a health club or special studio with an instructor leading the workout. (“Spinning,” with a capital S, is actually a trademarked name for one type of indoor cycling and one brand of stationary bike, but “spinning” is in­­creasingly used for all sorts of high-intensity cycling classes.) While there’s no doubt that such cycling sessions can provide a very intense cardiovascular workout, there’s plenty of debate about the effectiveness and safety of specific programs. One of the most popular companies, SoulCycle, has elicited some of the strongest criticism for its workouts.

Spinning attractions

While old-fashioned stationary cycling can become boring quickly, spinning classes psych up participants with varied workouts, fast-tempo music, motivational coaching, camaraderie, and often visual imagery (sometimes “virtual” outdoor courses, complete with hills and valleys). Workouts typically are 40 to 60 minutes long and can burn 400 to 700 calories. Pedaling gets up to 80 to 100 rpms (revolutions per minute) or even faster, sometimes raising heart rate above the standard target range to near-maximum rate, as is done in high-intensity interval training. Like any cycling, spinning can im­­prove muscle endurance in major leg muscles, and like any intense aerobic workout, it can boost exhilaration-inducing endorphins (those brain chemicals largely responsible for “runner’s high”). When done correctly, it’s a low-impact workout that is easy on hips, knees, and ankles, though that often isn’t true of SoulCycle.

Adding some soul?

SoulCycle is a hit in some U.S. cities, where it has a devoted (some say almost cult) following and the usual endorsements from toned celebrities. It features crowded, steamy, atmospherically lit rooms, pounding dance music, and high-energy leaders (combination fitness trainer, inspirational guru, disk jockey, and cheerleader). What also sets SoulCycle apart is that it melds group cycling with aerobic dance, adding in light hand weights, upper-body workouts (such as abdominal crunches and twisting), standing up on the pedals while cycling at high speed with little or no resistance, and push-ups on the handlebars while cycling (yes, you read that right).

Numerous exercise physiologists and other experts have given SoulCycle failing grades, warning about the risk of injury from many of its maneuvers. They also point out that such multitasking—that is, adding in all these extraneous moves—can undermine the basic cycling workout, with little added benefit. If you want to build muscle, you’ll still need to do regular weight training or calisthenics.

Tips from a Spinning Instructor

If you're thinking of taking up spinning, here are some pointers from Barbara Van Tine, a certified spinning instructor.

Pedaling backwards?

Another controversial maneuver in some spinning classes is pedaling backwards, which is supposed to be a form of cross-training. A study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), published in ACE ProSource in 2015, found that this may boost calorie burning and heart rate a little more than forward pedaling and that it better targets the quadriceps muscles (on the front of the thighs). For many people, however, backward pedaling is difficult and can put excessive stress on knees and ankles. We recommend against it, especially at high intensity.

With benefits come risks

Spinning may be too challenging for people who are unfit or have knee, hip, or other injuries or biomechanical problems. If you don’t already do in­­tense cardio exercise or if you have heart disease or another medical condition and are considering taking a spinning class (or doing other intense workouts), consult your health care provider first. If you get the go-ahead, start by cycling on your own on a stationary bike, working up to a form of high-intensity interval training. Some facilities offers classes for beginners.

Though there have been reports of injuries or other ad­­verse events from spinning (including severe muscle damage and ankle fractures), for most people, spinning is safe when done correctly. That means good posture, proper seat and handlebar position, and no calisthenics or hand weights (sorry, SoulCycle).

ACE recommends: Ask about the instructor’s training (preferably with certification from an organization such as Mad Dogg Athletics, Schwinn, Reebok, or ACE); bring a full water bottle; make sure the seat is at the right height; and cycle at your own pace when you need to.

If you are a beginner, the instructor should be willing to give some individual guidance before (come early) or after class and should en­­courage you to monitor your level of exertion, either by checking your heart rate or using perceived exertion.

No matter how hard the instructor pushes the class, listen to your body and don’t be afraid to slow down or take a break (don’t worry what your classmates may think). Avoid classes that call for excessive upper body movement (such as push-ups), pedaling backwards, and over-the-top intensity (more than 110 rpm)—or at least skip those moves. And don’t get too caught up in the competitive nature of spinning. Your body—and soul—will thank you.

Also see Are You Fit to Do CrossFit?