Confused by spin resistance, RPMs, or how *exactly* to set up your bike? Allow the experts to explain how to ace your next 45 minutes on the bike.
Arrive Early and Stay for the Stretch
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Arrive 10 minutes before class begins, especially if it's your first time. It takes a few minutes to properly fit your bike (more on that later!), and a bad setup is both incredibly uncomfortable and ups your injury risk, says Alex Figueroa, a certified cycling instructor, personal trainer, and triathlon coach in Boston, MA (and that's just *one* of many mistakes you could be making in spin class). The extra prep time gives you the chance to ask your instructor for help (and how to understand spin resistance, for example!) and still be ready for the full warm-up, says Figueroa.
And don’t be tempted to slip out during the cool-down—stay for the entire class. In addition to the stretches you do in class, try this move that can help counter all of that forward leaning: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and create as large of an arch in the small of your back as possible by tilting your pelvis (as if pushing the belly button forward). Hold the tilt for 2 or 3 seconds, and then relax. Do this 15 to 20 times, suggests Yoav Suprun, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Sobe Spine in Miami Beach, FL.
Photo: Bojan89/Getty Images
Learn How to Set Up Your Spin Bike
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Learning how to set up a spin bike properly for your body is totally worth it. For optimal performance, stand to the left of the bike and adjust the saddle and handlebars to hip height. Next, bend your right arm 90 degrees, form a fist, and place it at the center of the handlebars (the part closest to the seat); move the seat forward or back until it touches your elbow.
Finally, check your work: Sitting in the saddle with your leg extended downward, your knee should have only a slight bend (about a 25- to 35-degree angle). “You want a fairly extended leg so you are not pedaling all squished up for more power and so the knees are happier,” says Caroline Dawson, a master instructor for Spinning® in New York City. When both pedals are parallel to the ground, your front knee should be directly above the center of the pedal. If it's not, you need to slide your seat forward or back until your body is in proper alignment.
Check Your Alignment
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Throughout your ride, check for any excess pressure on your wrists or in your hands and, if necessary, shift your weight back to your legs, says certified cycling instructor Paul Katami. Qualities of a good cycling posture include hinging forward at the hips slightly, little pressure on the back, knees, and wrists, and minimal rounding of your back and shoulders. (Related: Reverse Flys Are the One Exercise You Need to Improve Your Posture)
During standing positions, make sure your hips are above your pedal stroke, says Katami. If you find yourself leaning into the handlebars (especially when pedaling out of the saddle), sit back into the saddle for a few seconds to recharge and realign your body. Do your best to maintain this form even when the spin resistance is heavy.
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Focus on Speed Over Spin Resistance
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Going fast and building muscle are both important facets of indoor cycling—but if you hit a hard hill and realize you can't maintain your speed, do you lower your resistance or slow down? "I always tell people torque (resistance) is completely negotiable and RPMs (speed) is non-negotiable," says Victor Self, a master instructor at Flywheel. "Because we're doing high-intensity interval training, we always ask you to add torque or speed—but if you're not already going the speed we've requested, the interval won't be as effective."
So if you're struggling on a hill, drop the spin resistance and keep your RPMs where they should be. "This is how the pros do it," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery. However, you don't want to cut the resistance excessively.
The faster you can do a heavier amount of work, the greater your explosive power will be in your core and leg muscles, she says. Turning it up will get you the most bang for your buck, in terms of upping your aerobic and anaerobic power, she says. Anaerobic training—which consists of shorter, more intense bursts—is important for everyday life (whether you're lifting heavy boxes or jumping over a curb), Olson explains. Aerobic power—which you build through working at moderate intensities for a longer amount of time (think: runs)—helps heart health and increases your ability to use oxygen effectively, she says.
The bottom line: Master the basics at a lower resistance, then work toward keeping that resistance high to improve your fitness, says Olson.
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Compete with Yourself
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The group energy and dynamic of a cycling class can make it feel like a competitive sport but don't feel pressure to outperform your classmates. Make the ride your own by setting reasonable expectations (with your spin resistance or how fast you go, for example) and sticking with them, Dawson suggests. “Make today's ride about your fitness level and body's needs for today. Balancing your performance on the bike will help you adhere to a cycling program for longer and get you more results." (See: Is Competition Legit Workout Motivation?)
Get in Gear
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Sneakers are fine for your first few classes (if the studio doesn't require that you clip in, that is), but if you want to make cycling part of your regular routine (say, at least once a week), you may want to invest in cycling shoes which prevent slipping and give you move power, says Figueroa.
Cycling shoes also have a solid bottom that doesn't flex, which is what you want when your feet are constantly pushing into pedals for 45 minutes to an hour, he says. Look for a basic shoe that fits well—the sales staff at any sporting store can help fit you properly. (Related: 5 Reasons You Need to Finally Buy Your Own Indoor Cycling Shoes)
Don't Cheat Yourself
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When the instructor tells you to add spin resistance, don’t reach for the knob and fake it. Cycling is a cardiovascular activity at heart but the right amount of resistance can make the difference between a great workout and just spinning your wheels. Here's why: Riding without enough resistance can wear on your joints and cause injuries (and a lot of discomfort) if you're bouncing up and down in the saddle.
“It's easy to see in a class when someone isn't able to create a smooth circular motion in their legs and they 'bottom out,' creating a sewing machine look versus and nice circular pedal stroke,” says Katami. Figueroa agrees. In order to push the bike properly, it needs to be in the proper gear, which happens by actively using your spin resistance knob. (See: This Workout Made Me Realize I've Been Cheating Myself In Spin Class All Along)
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And to avoid using your quads too much, focus on keeping your weight back in your hips and avoid pointing your toes as you pedal, Figueroa says. By pressing through with a flat foot, you'll help maximize engagement of your glutes and hips and reduce the pressure on your quads and knee joints. Think of pulling your toes upwards as you pedal so that they're slightly above the heel (if you haven’t done it before, it might feel like your feet are flexed). (See: How to Get a Better Butt Workout In Spin Class)
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Guide Your Ride with RPM
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Tracking your cadence, or RPM, can help you guide your ride and provide instant feedback on your performance. If your RPM is extremely low (especially during an intense climb), you probably won't last long and should consider lowering your resistance, Figueroa says. Conversely, if you're going faster than 120 RPM, there's not enough spin resistance for you to be pushing the bike—the bike is pushing you. Make sure you have enough resistance to maintain control.
Think back to the last time you rode a bike outdoors—it’s pretty tough to move super fast. By using the spin resistance to create your "terrain," your indoor ride more closely mimics a road riding experience where you'd hardly ever go above 100 RPM, says Figueroa.
If your bike doesn't have a cadence computer on the console, you can figure out RPM by counting your pedal strokes for six seconds and then multiplying by 10. Sixty to 80 RPM is a good general range for climbs. For seated or standing runs, aim for 90 to 110 RPM, says Figueroa.
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Stand Up the Right Way
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Standing positions during your ride should be as close to your perfect seated position as possible. “Don't stand and lean forward," Figueroa says. "As soon as you come forward, all the work goes into your knee joint, which doesn’t allow the power of your muscles in the hip joint to take over." When you stand, you should still feel the nose of the saddle bumping against the back of the inner thighs, he explains.
For standing runs, hold your body steady and focus on equally pushing down and pulling up, working through a solid core, he suggests. For standing climbs, shift your body weight back a bit. The further back your weight is, the more you’ll use the muscles in your hips, he says. You should also have your spin resistance high enough that it feels like you have something to push against.
Photo: Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock