Spin Class Curmudgeon

First off, the winner of last week’s Spartan Class Spirit Award goes to…Kim from TryItMom!  Kim, I will email you the code. I can’t wait to hear how you kick even more #motherSpartan booty at your next race. I think you will go professional by the year’s end.

Now, in my continuing quest to become a fitness curmudgeon, I present to you: a rant about spin class.

Disclaimer: I am no exercise scientist, no professional cyclist, and am only marginally qualified to comment authoritatively. But I do, however, also exercise that organ inside of my head along with the rest of my body, so I feel the need to point out some glaring errors I see all the time.

I am certified to teach Spin, and I pick the brains of actual fast cyclists, triathletes, and dude and ladies who ride outside, I own an actual bicycle, I rode it a couple of times,  one time for 100 miles, a few races, I research this crap for work, and I can understand basic mechanics. This makes me 80% more capable of discussing what 9 out of 10 spin instructors don’t understand than the average gym goer. I kind of straddle the endurance sports world and the gym addict world. I’d like to see some of the common sense effectiveness of the outdoor riding world in gym spinning, since there’s nothing wrong with gym spin classes. They are an excellent training tool when used correctly.

So I am lucky that my gym has Keiser bikes. The Keiser bikes have computers that read out:

RPM (Cadence) – cycling speed

Calories/Watts – power output


Gear – resistance level 1-20


The sad thing is that 95% of instructors don’t USE the computers. It’s the single best training tool you could ever have but most ignore it and teach the old way from when Spin bikes just had a resistance knob and no one knew what anyone was doing besides perceived exertion. I guess because those teachers learned that way and are creatures of habit and/or don’t understand how to teach with watts.

Because watts are the single most important piece of data you can use. Unless you’re just riding for fun, and not to get fitter, but then you’re strange and you should go ride a basket bike to the market and pick up a loaf of French bread.

Some attempt to use the data to teach, but in a misguided way. Because everyone’s gear and watts will be different, because fitness level and body weight matter. If a 100-pound woman and 300-pound man are both using 12 gears, then that woman is working way harder and would be pushing her way up a hill way faster than the guy, because she’s putting out more power for her size.

The bigger you are as a rule, the more power you can exert and the faster you can go on a bike. Your watts= power=speed=how fast you can push your ass through space on a bike. Not using this number as a teaching tool is like trying to teach algebra without the X, like teaching geography without a map. It’s plain dumb.

I think I need bullet points to break this down.

  • How many miles you went doesn’t really matter. They aren’t real miles. If you are using gear 6, you didn’t really go 20 miles in an hour. Sorry.
  • When you spend the class out of the saddle, it’s fun and more interesting, but it’s not as good of a workout as sitting down with moderate gear. The watts will show this. Ever see cyclists on trainers prep for outdoor fitness by bouncing around all over the place to Fergie?

  • An instructor should never call out a gear to you. “Use 14!” No, each student should find their base gear (the instructor should be able to help you with this) and then be told to add two more gears from base, or five up, or two below, etc.
  • If you are moving all around and bouncing your butt and, like, flailing about you don’t have enough gear.
  • If you aren’t sweating and your hair is down, you’re paying for an hour of meditation in a dark Day-Glo room. Don’t tell me you don’t sweat. Push twice your body weight in watts and see if you sweat.
  • A good power output sustained over time is anything from your body weight in  watts, to 1.5 times your weight to double your weight, depending on your fitness. If you really want to see how you stack up there are books with age and gender tables for time trials for outdoor riders. You can test yourself on a Spin bike, subtract some wattage for indoor vs. outdoor (no one really knows how much) and see how well you are doing.  Warning: this is some nerdy shit.
  • A better way to determine ideal watts for you (and base gear) is to do a simulated lactate threshold test on the bikes. Kill yourself for 30 minutes after a brief warm up and see what your average watts end up being. I did this right after I had Henry so I wasn’t that fit and I averaged 258 for 20 minutes. I weigh about 120 so this is decent for me, but I think I could do better. When you train with tests like these, make sure you repeat them as you get fitter or every few months or so. Now I can take this number and plug it into an online calculator for ideal training zones. But you don’t need to get so fancy. Just try to keep those watts as high as you can.

  • Gym spin bikes don’t have computers? Same principles still hold. Sit your butt down, train your mental discipline, and hold the heaviest gears you can for the whole class. Add some hills and speedy portions, sure, but spending the class in second and third position is actually kind of silly. Sorry. I know it’s more fun. The thing about this is that it gives you the ILLUSION of working hard. Like, you may get out of breath and a little sweaty, but if you stood in place and yelled long enough and maybe waved your arms around, you’d get out of breathe too. Does that mean it’s a good cardiovascular, muscular and training workout?
  • Your instructor shouldn’t really be making you spin over 120 rpm, maybe as part of a short kind of skill drill but not as a rule. Yet I see this all. the. time. I guess it’s part of that cardio junkie female mindset that thinks the faster, the better, the more Energizer bunny, the better. Yes, this works in running but biking is different. If you were outside spinning 130 revolutions per minute with your gear at five you’d fall over. You have to hold your own weight and the weight of the bike (your body weight in watts) and you have to have enough gear that your ass is not moving wildly side to side. The crazy ass test is actually a pretty reliable one.

A conundrum happens when you go to a class and it’s all wrong. Are you rude and do your own thing? (I’ve done this, sorry) Do you only go to classes that ask you to train effectively? There are only two or three at my gym, and I go to a somewhat sophisticated gym. It’s worse at the national chain gyms. But sitting home alone on a trainer isn’t fun! I like the group atmosphere, the healthy competition, being pushed, the music, the lights. That’s why I’m certified and I want to start teaching again soon.

Even if you never ride outside and don’t care, even for the sake of exercise you should care. Spin is the single best cardio workout besides running and a lot of people can’t or won’t run. Runners can use spinning as a highly effective cross training tool. BUT YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU’RE DOING AND FEMALE GYM FITNESS WORLD?

You don’t right now. Hope this helps. Let’s copy what the nerdy guys are doing with their fancy outside bikes a little. Because right now we’re silly. We’re doing step aerobics on bikes, but it’s worse because it’s not even as hard. A lot of us have tried to start lifting weights like a guy (no more endless reps with two pound pink dumbbells) now let’s ride the damn inside bike like we’re serious.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in a Spin class?




Filed under Running and Racing, Weight Training

13 Responses to Spin Class Curmudgeon

  1. Thanks for the win :)
    It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a spin class. When I started running, there just isn’t time for ALL THE THINGS. I’ve been so focused on improving my running, that I know I need to go back to a more well-rounded workout. I’m leaving your page right now to see when the next spin class is & then maybe I’ll do some nerd math!

    • admin

      Nerd math FTW! Spin is great cross training for running. You can’t run every day and it works the opposing muscles (hamstrings instead of quads, etc) and keeps up cardio fitness.

  2. Well, now I really never want to go to a spin class lol. This shit is complicated!

  3. Lauren

    THIS is the reason I quit going to spin classes. You got it all right. I used to spin during the winter all the time at our local YMCA. It was pretty terrible. It was new, the instructors didn’t really do a great job, and there was only one instructor who I liked and so did everyone else so her class was always full. I love the atmosphere and the motivation other people provide, but I got a better workout at home on my trainer. That’s pretty damn lonely though! I ride outside during the spring, summer, and fall and will just be sticking to my trainer again this winter.
    The worst thing I’ve seen in a spin class…not really related to your post…a poor lady puked all over her bike. That class ended pretty fast!

    • admin

      Oh no!I feel for her. I have a bad stomach and I’ve been known to throw up after races so I could totally see that being me. Maybe you should get certified and teach? Since you know how to ride outside and all.

  4. Pingback: Gyminy Crickets | MuscleUpMom

  5. Lynne

    Outstanding post. I too am certified to teach cycle, and I apparently am the exception at my gym (read: I don’t make all of my students hold the exact same gear at the exact same RPM for an entire song…but many others do…?!). I wonder where some of these people received their certifications AND, more importantly, if they understand anything about proper anatomy and physiology. I am by no means an expert, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to get up there and throw good cycling principles out the window just to see if I can get my students to puke mid-class. Can you tell I’m a bit jaded? :)
    Anyway, off of my soap box! I’ve been looking for a way to properly introduce watts training into my routine, and I think your bullets (and the book you cite) are just what I need. I appreciate that you took the time to share your knowledge on this topic!
    p.s. did you see that Spinning is now offering a bike and certification to train their instructors on incorporating power into their classes? http://spinning.com/en/spinpower

  6. matt

    There are too many things to focus on one:
    * I hate when cute little bimbo teachers get up there and bounce around like pinball with their toes pointed down, providing a perfect example of what not to do as they push out 50 watts for an hour. “Alright boys and girls, we should be up near gear 7!”
    *I have had an instructor tell the class to wiggle their asses side to side to the beat of a song. Couple that with outrageous hand movements, and you have the dreaded bike dancing.
    *Perhaps the most annoying is when some moonlighting aerobics instructor puts on a 5 minute techno song for jumps and repeats “and up, and down, and up, and down” for the duration of the segment.
    *I know this last one is terrible, but I hate fat spin instructors. I mean it is virtually impossible to be fat and spin 4 days a week without drinking Crisco shakes. My gym has a tubby lady who takes breaks every other song to walk around the room and check everyone else’s form.

  7. Marc

    I also am a certified Spinning instructor (Star 3). I think too many instructors have lost track of a central theme: If you wouldn’t do it on a bike outdoors don’t do it on a bike indoors. I se other instructors doing hovers, push-ups, dips, climb-a-hill-with-one-one-arm-behind-your-back, push a 24-gear climb at a cadence of 10, stand up on the pedals and take both hands off the handle bars–you get the message. What is distressing is when I lead a class without using contraindicated movements some students complain they aren’t getting a real class. I wonder if those instructors realize that if they are telling students to do contraindicated movements and the student gets injured they could potentially face a lawsuit? After all, they told them to do it. BTW, I never tell a student what gear to use, I help them find a base of light, moderate, and heavy resistance then start them by telling them to start with moderate (for instance) then add 2, 3, 4, or so gears on. Emphasis that it is their class and they are in control. I guide, lead, and encourage but don’t scream and shout must-do and have-to or get off my bike and get in their face (seen that too).

  8. For me spin is fun with the right instructor (I want a road cyclist as instructor, teaching a class like we were out on the roads) but with the wrong instructor it’s a massive bore! I’m lucky to have a great spin studio near where I live, doing everything from 45 minute to 3 hour classes, and it’s even otivated me to take my cycling outdoors with a ‘proper’ road bike – I love it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *