Fitness trends…there are a dizzying array of ways that we are encouraged to get fit. From infomercials to celebrity endorsements, we are bombarded by the latest trends on a daily basis! Just like fashion…those legwarmers that were so cool in 1989 have been replaced by the Lululemon yoga pants of the moment!
One of the mainstays of group exercise is the indoor cycling class. “Spinning,” developed by world-class cyclist Johnny G. in 1987, became the gold standard of indoor cycling, and that standard continues today. Other companies offer programs based on the “Spinning” model and have increased the availability and popularity of the classes. Kaiser, Reebok, Schwinn—the longevity of these programs speaks to the fact that they work…they’re effective!
These programs were meant to replicate real cycling in an indoor setting, offering an opportunity to increase cardiovascular fitness, build strength, and burn calories at a high rate. As we have become smarter about the science of exercise, the classes have evolved. We have gone from high-speed pedaling with little resistance, and rapid jumps in and out of our saddles, to maneuvers and speeds that are more realistic and comparable to “real” cycling.
So, here’s where the new trends come in, Joyride, Soul Cycle, Flywheel, to name a few. Fun? Sure. Intense? Positively! As human beings, we want something new…we strive to create things that are “more.” But some of the components of these new trends in indoor cycling are just plain dumb! (There, I said it!) A number of the “latest and greatest” of these celebrity-endorsed cycling programs include things like push-ups on the handlebars, lifting small dumbbells, and (don’t get me started) a move called a “tap back.”
Let’s start with the push-up…on the bike, while you’re sweaty, AND your legs are pedaling. Seems like a trifecta of disaster! Imagine yourself sitting basically upright on the seat of the bike. To strengthen your pecs (chest) in a push-up, the muscle fibers and where they attach should be close to parallel to the force against which you’re working. Gravity pulls straight down to the floor, so for a push up to be effective, you’d need to be facing the ground. Because you’re upright, there is very little resistance, so to claim that this works to strengthen your upper body is nonsense! If your personal trainer is suggesting that you do pushups while sitting at your desk to build strength…run, don’t walk, to the exit of that gym and find someone new!!
Secondly, lifting a 1lb weight is not an upper body workout, unless you are very old, or working to rehab an injury—it will NOT make you stronger! One basic rule of exercise physiology is that you need to lift something that’s heavier than what you’re accustomed to lifting in order to see any gains in strength. If you’re toting a 15-pound purse around with you every day or lifting your toddler in and out of the car; you should be lifting more than a 1 or 2-pound dumbbell!!
The “tap back” can be compared to the rapid, popcorn style jumping that was done in the earliest stages of indoor cycling. You perform a kind of reverse jump, from standing, quickly tapping your glutes on the back of the saddle, and then rapidly return to standing. This is probably the most problematic move of all of the trendy new cycle programs, as it makes us rapidly decelerate the muscles of our back, and put undue stress on joints without any real benefits. Your knees and hips and low back take all of the force of the bouncing movement. The risk is much greater than any perceived benefit.
The real, science-based answer is that if you could put a power meter on the bike, this lifting, pushing, tapping style of class necessarily reduces power output. These maneuvers take power away from the pedal stroke, and the pedal stroke takes away from any upper body exercise you might perform. Will your heart rate be high—absolutely! But high primarily due to the heat and humidity of the studio, and all of those unnecessary gyrations on the bike. But, calorie burn is a result of power output, not how high your heart rate is, or how much you’re sweating. Science at work, again!!
In our quest to be trendy, new, and exciting, it’s important to keep effectiveness and safety first. So, my indoor cycling friends, don’t ride while also doing push-ups, lifting weights, or doing crunches to strengthen your core. Ultimately, you’ll end up doing a mediocre version of each exercise when you try to combine them on the bike. There is no nationally accredited indoor cycling certification program that teaches these moves. They are bio-mechanically unsound and produce no real physiological benefit. Take a great, “real” indoor cycling class. Have fun, burn those calories, and take your strength training into the fitness center!!
By Annie Farley, MS CPT, Group Exercise Instructor at Elite Sports Club-Mequon