How To Tell If An Indoor Cycling Class Is Any Good

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Will a “spin class” at my local gym help me in the winter?

This is a perennial question, but it’s also a very good one. Every fitness club has some form of indoor cycling class, and during the dead of winter it’s very tempting to jump in rather than slave away on an indoor trainer all by yourself. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with indoor cycling classes in gyms and health clubs, 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.

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.

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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.


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…

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This is where technology comes into play. The absolute best indoor cycling classes use power meters, whether that’s in the form of Wahoo KICKRs or other 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.


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. 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. 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 13

  1. Pingback: Fall and Winter Training Plan for Cyclists Over 50 –

  2. Pingback: Fall Training Plan for Cyclists Over 50 - Chris Carmichael

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  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. Post

      Russell, you might like and benefit from this article on RPE:

      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

  10. 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.

    1. Post
  11. 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 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.
    Again thank you for this article.

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