How To Find the Best Indoor Cycling Classes for Outdoor Cyclists

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Will an indoor cycling class at my local gym or cycling studio help me in the winter?

Every fitness club has some form of indoor cycling class, and during the winter it’s very tempting for outdoor cyclists to jump in rather than slave away on an indoor trainer all by themselves. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with indoor cycling classes in gyms and health clubs, cycling studios like SoulCycle and Cyclebar, and even live and on-demand classes like Peloton, but if you are a cyclist or triathlete it is important to find one that’s actually going to improve your performance on the bike.

For an informative look at the range of experiences you will find as you go to different indoor cycling classes, read this article CTS Contributing Editor, Mara Abbott, wrote for The Denver Post. I encourage athletes to evaluate indoor cycling classes based on how well they address the core principles of training: Overload-and-Recovery, Specificity, Individuality, and Progression.

Overload-and-Recovery

Indoor cycling classes generally fall into two categories: Sweatfests and Structured Workouts. Both have their merits, and I understand the psychology of the Sweatfest fan’s desire to reach the end of a class thoroughly exhausted, but as a coach I prefer the Structured Workout approach. Many times the Sweatfest feels excruciatingly difficult, but due to inadequate recovery periods, your perceived exertion level is through the roof but your actual power output is too low to lead to improved fitness. Check in with the instructor: if the primary feature of the workout is that it’s ridiculously intense, but he or she can’t identify what you’re actually going to get out of it, find a different class.

Specificity

The fact you’re pedaling is a step in the right direction, but some indoor cycling classes seem to have very little to do with actual cycling performance. And that’s OK – I’m all for classes that aim to burn calories and get people sweating – but if you’re looking to a class to improve your performance on the road or trail, you need workouts that target the energy systems and power demands of actual cycling. These classes can be harder to find because effective interval sets are often not the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing kind. The intensities are consistent and repetitive instead of all over the map, and while you may do some pedaling out of the saddle, no cycling-specific class will have you doing pushups on the handlebars…

Individuality

This is where technology comes into play. The absolute best indoor cycling classes use power meters, whether that’s in the form of smart trainers, power-equipped stationary bikes, or personal bikes with power meters. The best among those also set individual power training ranges for each athlete. The next-best scenario is a class that uses heart rate monitors and individual training intensities. The self-selected “turn the knob to the right” method is OK, but certainly not optimal.

Progression

Indoor training classes that are progressive are pretty rare, and to find one you’ll most likely need to go to a cycling performance center instead of the local gym. To address the progression principle, a class needs to be designed with the idea that the same people will come back week after week, and that the workout and workload will consequently take into account the participants’ developing fitness. In the standard health club model, where classes need to be accessible to anyone at anytime, the programming tends to be more static. This is also part of the reason standard health club classes often focus on being Sweatfests instead of Structured Workouts. In a progressive class, some of the workouts may actually be pretty moderate in intensity; and while that may be good from a long-term training perspective, it’s not as appealing to the intermittent cycling class user.

Then Again…

Incorporating indoor cycling classes into your winter training program doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional – or even weekly – Sweatfest. It’s fun, just like going to the Tuesday Night World Championship group ride during the summer. If you are doing the vast majority of your riding indoors for the next few months, you might be following a structured plan or doing your coaches structured workouts on Zwift, Sufferfest, or TrainerRoad; yet even well-structured, scientifically-based, progression-driven indoor cycling programs sometimes need to forget about the numbers and just open the throttle. Like everything else, it’s a matter of balance. If all you do for the entire winter is pummel yourself, you’re actual progress will be blunted. If riding indoors on your own for too long crushes your motivation, you won’t ride. The best option, especially for people in the northern, snowy States, is to follow a scientifically-based indoor training program, but incorporate some “hard for the sake of being hard” classes for the fun and social aspects they provide.


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Comments 24

  1. I think this is a solid write up! I do think the, what I call, Fitness Enthusiast cycling classes can help a ton too though. They build up the cardio base, endurance and leg strength. It’s not apples to apples though. I think they are a supplement to, not replacement for, training outside. I know when I started Spinning in the more traditional classes my mountain biking and road biking (though I only really use road biking in triathlons) got WAY better. I started smoking people on the biking portion of triathlons even though I never trained outdoors. Ha. I called them my “Spinners legs”. I do classes with Studio SWEAT onDemand though. They do have some instructors that are more traditional outdoor cyclists, along with your more traditional Indoor Cycling instructors. They keep my cardio crankin’, legs strong and endurance fired up.
    ..
    I’ll add a website below, but it’s not mine, it’s just my favorite online classes because they’re super tough and use real trainers, not aspiring actors or fitness models.

  2. I am a Spinning ™ certified instructor. To become certified I had to take 6 hrs of training plus pass a written test. We learned about structured training and sports physiology. I am also an avid cyclist. I view a spin bike as a stationary bike, not a piece of exercise equipment. In my classes I incorporate simulated rides we cyclists do in the neighborhood and region in addition to TDF rides. My class is mostly active cyclists. I’m sure I am not the only one offering Spin classes such as this.

  3. Surprised that nobody has mentioned Matt Wilpers on Peloton. You take an FTP test to individualize your output levels. He has different types of power zone workouts to address different fitness objectives (endurance, regular powerzone, and high-intensity “max” rides), lasting from 30 to 90 minutes (and you can do more than one of you need), and they progress throughout the year. Plus there is the competitive element of the leaderboard if you want it. And there is a library of about 1,000 rides to choose from, which you can do at any hour of the day or night – more convenient than any class. Sure, it is not as good as your own coach structuring a workout for your Zwift ride, but it makes for a great alternative to slogging away on a trainer.

  4. Taught a structured spin class for nearly 18 years. Always had the smallest classes vs. the sweat-fest classes.

    Now I have no problem sitting in the back of a class and do my own structured workout. If possible I’ll tell the instructor what I’m doing as a courtesy. Never had a problem. Why? I like the social aspect and different music.

  5. The Fitness Industry is unregulated and as such is a pandemic of applied contraindications. Instructors are not evaluated on safety or Certification compliance, at all. Even with over twenty years of Certifications and CEU’s and billions of dollars spent, instructors are only encouraged to “do whatever it takes” to “bring ’em in”. The Spinning program is legit with input over the years from some cycling heavy weights like the former Dr. Ed Burke, and more. Your best bet, if traveling, is to carry a “Go Bag” with pedals, pedal wrench, shoes, shorts, etc and use the “spin” bikes between class schedules. Taking the approach of training as input, rather than simulating any outdoor experience for output, is a huge off-season potential. The Spinning program does this by isolating five basic core movements to study for the sake of development, not outdoor ride experience. That comes later. Periodization is employed in the program as well and will provide a pathway to rapid results, without overtraining. Think of it as like working on an old car through the winter in the garage. Making the necessary modification and then be sure you tac up slowly as the power, strength and endurance improvements will surely require some familiarization rides to be safe with the new found speed. The biggest opportunity, again, is to think input, or training, and not try to recreate outdoor riding experience. Use the time to improve on all of the details of performance like muscular operation, respiration, hydration and nutrition. At our house we enjoy our two Johnny G Spinning (first generation) bikes right in the living room. If we want to watch Netflix or Youtube or listen to music, we opted for the stationary bikes, rather than the couch. We’re looking into watt measuring pedals so that we might be able to join in with friends on Zwift and Sufferfest. Ultimately, the best investment is a well seasoned Coach. Money well spent on a mentor with years of experience gives you a greater sense of self worth and commitment. CTS is the way to go.

  6. I travel for business almost every week, and so it is inevitable that I end up taking spin classes. The “big box” spin classes have nothing to do with riding a bike and most of the instructors are not cyclist, and in fact many seem to lack basic knowledge about exercise physiology. The classes have very little structure, no objective and usually involve doing things besides cycling (I was in one recently that incorporated belly dancing) – and for the the few that provide metrics or data, they are usually widely overstated (sorry – you cant burn 700kj in 45 minutes). That said, for me, something is better than nothing, and so moving and sweating for 45 minutes while “on the road” is better than getting no exercise. You just have to understand what you’re getting into, and accept the fact that for the most part it will “junk miles.”

    1. Fred,
      I’m sorry about your experience but I’m a personal trainer and I have a college degree BAA from Central Michigan University. I’m also a spin class instructor at a gym in the area.

      Let me know if you’re going to be in the metropolitan Detroit area and I’m sure I can beat you up any incline. As the article states not all Instructors are cyclists nor are they even certified!

      As the article does state all of us typically aren’t interested in getting certified. I am a both certified as a Real Ryder instructor and a Jonny G ‘spinning’ instructor. To become the best you need to take the time to search for the class that fits your needs, wants & desires.

      Time to take part in the “junk miles” may be what it takes. Better junk mileage than no mileage at all.

  7. The truth is spin classes are not an effective way to improve cycling performance. Period. They’re not structured. Many gyms don’t use power meters, and even if they do, the spin instructor is probably ignorant about how to use them effectively for your needs. All that trash talk said, they can be used as a fun exercise to hang out with friends. I just prioritize my week’s workouts on the trainer, then allow spin classes for days in between the structured workouts. Also, I don’t let the instructor dictate my effort level, instructors usually don’t know where you need to be anyway in terms of watts. They just want to see your sweating and working hard.

    1. No matter how many spin classes I attend, the first day outside in the spring a headwind or hill feels as if I took the winter off. I simply use spin to improve my peddle stroke and body position.

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  11. When it comes to the list of health and fitness benefits of Spinning well you can see the improvements that show up in the mirror, like slimming down your waistline you can easily Burn Calories you can also Improve Your Cardio for a Healthy Heart Build Lean Muscle etc.

  12. I am an active road rider, averaging 150-200 miles x week. Also manage to take some indoor cycling at local gyms. Unfortunately, none of these instructors have real cycling experience, and like the article says, it’s a matter of putting a sweafest show and fill up the class with as many people as possible. Instructors and members, all gym rats spinning like hamsters with no resustance, doing pushups, using weights, pedaling on one leg, you name it. Very sad. But then, this us what commercial gyms want. It has become very hard to teach and take classes with real cycling instructors.

  13. Hi! I wanted to ask your opinion about teaching using RPM vs. wattage. I’m an outdoor rider too (mostly mountain biking) and my die-hard cycling racer friends all structure by watts. I have a few of those guys in my classes, but most people are non-cyclists who just want a good workout. I structure mostly around RPM since it seems to keep everybody, regardless of fitness level, working around the same intensity. What are your thoughts?

    1. Cadence is important, but even if 2 riders are both pedaling at 90 rpm’s, one could be riding at a very easy, “Zone 1 – Recovery” level, and another rider could be pedaling at 90 rpm’s at a near maximal level. You need some way to monitor intensity, whether it is a power meter, which measures objectively the rider’s power output, or at least a heart rate monitor, which shows the effect of that effort on the rider. Heart Rate is not the most accurate way to assess performance, since it can be affected by so many variables outside the rider’s control. And even “absolute power output” is not the best measure of performance or intensity, because you need to account for the rider’s weight and fitness level; you need to look at the power to weight ratio (Watts/kg) of an effort.
      Here’s an example: 3 riders might be riding at 200 watts, at 90rpm’s, but Rider A weighs 220 pounds (100 kg) at a heart rate of 185 bpm’s, and rider B weighs 110 pounds (50kg) at a heart rate of 140 bpm’s, and Rider C weighs 165 pounds (75kg) at a heart rate of 160 bpm’s. Which rider is performing the best? Or which rider will go faster on the road? Rider B is working at a power to weight ratio (watts/kg) of 4.0, and has the lowest heart rate (probably means that power output is easier for that person, and Rider B is very fit, or they have a very low resting and exercise heart rate). Rider A has the lowest power to weight ratio (watts/kg) of 2.0 and the highest heart rate (probably means that person is less fit or they have a very high exercise heart rate). And Rider C is working at a power to weight ratio (watts/kg) of 2.67 and a heart rate of 160 bpm’s. Of course, we would not necessarily know the FTP power/weight ratio of any of these athletes, nor would we necessarily know the maximal heart rate of these riders. In a best-case scenario, I ask riders to use 3 metrics to monitor intensity during workouts: power (an objective, quantatative value), heart rate (a less reliable, more fickle way to assess the effect of an effort on an individual), and RPE – Rating of Perceived Exertion (a very subjective personal assessment of how “hard” an effort is). And from day to day, a rider may experience fluctuations in Heart Rate or RPE, depending on a number of factors.

  14. I have been teaching spin classes for over 6 years.

    The classes I find the most beneficial are the ones led by outdoor cyclists such as myself… as many times I simply use the training plan created by my coach & transfer it (as best you can) to a class format with a good playlist.

    I’ve been in classes taught by aerobics-only instructors and many times do my own thing bc what he/she has you doing makes no sense from a training perspective.

    First time in class, ask the instructor if he/she rides outside.

  15. This is a great, balanced view on indoor cycling for the cycling enthusiast. Schwinn Cycling is a global provider of indoor cycling bikes and education, and our programme has always (and will always) be based on authenticity – to outdoor cycling and to proven training principles. If anyone is looking to certify as an indoor cycling coach, to host the type of classes you describe above, check out our website (search for Schwinn Education) for details and dates. We also offer a range of additional workshops on topics including HIIT, Strength training, Coaching with wattage, Heart Rate Training, etc. As a Master Instructor for Schwinn Cycling I totally agree that there are different styles of classes which suit different people with different goals – as you say there is definitely a place for just enjoying the ride, the music and the company – but I also believe that while making classes fun, enjoyable and accessible for all fitness levels, we can also ensure that participants improve their fitness and health. My classes are planned up to 12 weeks in advance and anyone who can make it to the majority of them will get a complete cardiovascular training programme. By the same token, anyone who rocks up on occasion will also get a great one off workout, and while I understand that moderate intensity classes can be more difficult to ‘sell’, with the right education (a bit of an explanation at the start of class about the benefits, reinforced during class and a challenge to put their egos aside) I can almost always get everyone on board and they love leaving the class with their legs intact!
    Keep up the good work.

  16. So I actually teach spin classes at the local university. We don’t have heart rate monitors or power meters so instead I use a 1-4 RPE scale (recovery, “false flat”, hard, really hard) and then at the conclusion of an activity I will mute the music and silently count off 10 seconds while students take heart rate on the carotid artery. As we approach an activity I say something like “this activity is 4 minutes long, 3 out of 4 on the resistance scale, and should put you in the 80-85% of your max HR.”
    I also have a workout plan where I do a warm up and training program that is repetitive and then I always interject a “fun” activity for diversity.
    What would you suggest different so that my class is beneficial for the cyclist or triathlete? For what it’s worth- I think I’d smack anyone in the head who tried to do push ups on their bike in my class.

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      Author

      Russell, you might like and benefit from this article on RPE: https://trainright.com/is-perceived-exertion-accurate-or-meaningful-to-your-training/

      A 4-point scale probably works quite well because it’s simple, so you may want to stick with it, depending on the audience. The talk test, though, could be useful for helping people figure out if they are at an appropriate intensity for what you are trying to accomplish. Someone going too easy will be too talkative, while someone who is panting during a period that should be sub-threshold or steady state is almost definitely pushing too hard. Monitoring breathing and/or the ability to speak provides athletes with another cue they can use – in any activity – to gauge their intensity relative to what is easy, challenging yet sustainable, or unsustainably difficult. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  17. Are you accepting any comments to this article? I had submitted comments earlier today but it did include links to outside organizations which you may not approve/allow. If so, I can submit a different comment without specific organizations mentioned. Please let me know. Thanks.

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      Author
  18. Thank you for this article. There are some good indoor cycling instructors out there. We like to “Keep It Real” on the bike and some of us even have winter progressive programs. Some try our best to keep the training similar to power-based training depending on the bikes available in the gym or studio. If you need to get out of your basement or away from Zwift for an occasional indoor social ride, please search for true, quality indoor cycling instructors. Check out http://www.indoorcyclingassociation.com. It is a great organization educating indoor cycling instructors to teach quality, challenging classes. We have a FB page and people can search for quality indoor cycling instructors/classes in your locality. https://www.facebook.com/IndoorCyclingAssociation/
    Again thank you for this article.
    Patty

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