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Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Cycling

Two-wheel newbies and outdoor cycling enthusiasts alike can benefit from this growing fitness trend
Written by 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
October 17, 2013

Indoor cycling, also known as Spinning (the brand name of an indoor bike that has become synonymous with the workout), has ranked among the top fitness trends for nearly three decades—and it shows no sign of losing steam. In fact, 34.7 million people are in on the trend, averaging more than one workout a week on two wheels, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. And while indoor cycling classes have been a mainstay in gyms and health clubs for years, hundreds of dedicated cycling studios have popped up in cities across the country in recent years, commanding as much as $32 a class with sell-out crowds and wait lists to boot. Ready to see what all of the buzz is about? Read on for a complete guide to indoor cycling for beginners.

What Is Indoor Cycling?

While you can certainly hop on a stationary bike in the cardio area of any gym, indoor cycling classes are known for energy-infused music and motivating instructors who guide you through an imaginary course during a 45- to 90-minute class. Following the instructor’s cues, you’ll “climb” hills by cranking up the resistance on the bike, increase your pedaling speed for short interval bursts and challenge yourself more than you likely would pedaling away solo. Each class typically begins with a warm-up and cool-down period of less-intense pedaling, and most instructors lead you through stretches at the end of a session.

Spinning for Outdoor Cyclists

Indoor cycling can have a place in the training repertoire of even the most dedicated outdoor cyclists and triathletes, and not only by offering respite from bad weather. Practicing in a standstill setting offers a chance to build turnover speed, leg strength and hill-climbing technique. An instructor with cycling experience can also help you work on your body position and form—just ask.

Indoor and Outdoor Cycling: Which is Right for You?

No doubt about it, both indoor and outdoor cycling are great workouts, and which one you select may largely come down to personal preference. Still, each one has pros and cons that you may want to consider when making your choice:

  • Indoor cycling may be better at keeping your heart rate up. While both can achieve this goal, American Council on Exercise research determined that indoor classes reliably crank your heart rate nearly to its max. With an instructor guiding your intensity, you are more likely to continue to push yourself than if you were riding solo. Plus, indoor cycling doesn’t present you with obstacles—pedestrians, traffic lights—that may slow you down.
     
  • You may burn more overall calories with outdoor cycling. Both can burn up to nearly 700 calories an hour for a 150-pound individual, but outdoor rides tend to go longer than indoor ones—sometimes for hours—which will increase your total calorie burn.
     
  • There’s no freewheeling indoors. When you’re cycling outdoors and you have plenty of momentum or are going downhill, you can spin your pedals without any resistance, giving your legs a break. That’s not so indoors, where the resistance is constant.
     
  • The hamstrings get extra attention indoors. Both workouts are great leg strengtheners, working the entire lower body and especially the quads. But the extra weight of the flywheel, the mechanics of your indoor bike, gives your hamstrings a little extra challenge.
     
  • The core gets a tougher workout outdoors. With the exception of new indoor cycling bikes that are designed to lean from side to side, the sturdiness of most spinning bikes means you don’t use your core muscles to steer and balance like you do on the open road.
     
  • It’s safer to be social indoors. Research shows that it feels easier to exercise with company. But it can be tough to do so safely on busy roads outdoors, while cycling classes are all about group synergy.
     
  • The scenery is better outdoors. There’s nothing like being amongst nature—feeling the wind in your face, seeing the trees as you whizz on by. The changing setting may engage your senses and interest, helping to keep you motivated.
     

What to Know: Your First Indoor Cycling Class

There’s no need for newcomer fear here. With indoor cycling, you can go at your own pace without worrying about getting left in the dust. Here are a few things to know before you go:

Dress for comfort. Two things to keep in mind when dressing for an indoor cycling workout: You will sweat (a lot) and your rear end may get sore. Skip heavy sweats, which will soak up the sweat, and opt for lighter or wicking fabrics. And consider fitted bike shorts (ideally with seat padding) to cut down on chaffing. You can wear cycling or Spinning shoes, which clip into the pedals, but regular sneakers work well. Just be sure to tuck your shoelaces into your shoes so they don’t get stuck in the crank.

Bring a towel—and a water bottle. Airflow in studios may not be good enough to help evaporate sweat quickly, so you may need something to wipe away moisture; wipe your seat in between songs, too. Be sure to sip on a water bottle throughout your session to replenish yourself and stay hydrated.

Arrive early. Not only do spinning classes tend to fill up fast (some even have wait lists), but you’ll want time to set up your bike or ask your instructor for help doing so.

Adjust your bike. Don’t be tempted to skip this step: Making sure your saddle and handlebars are positioned right for your height can make the difference between sore muscles from a good workout and a sore back, neck and knees from an improper bike fit.

  • Seat height: Start by standing next to your bike. The seat should be at about hip level. Now, get on the bike and pedal one foot forward to the bottom of the stroke. Your leg should be fully extended with a slight bend in the knee.
  • Seat position: Put your hands on the handlebars and pedal forward until your feet are even. Your elbows should be slightly bent, shoulders relaxed and your front knee should be over the center of the pedal. If not, move the seat forward or back until you find the sweet spot.
  • Handlebar height: For your first class, position the handlebars slightly higher than the seat. As you get more experienced, lowering them and leaning forward will engage more of your core. 
  • Pedal fit: If you’re wearing regular sneakers (which is perfectly OK) you’ll want to adjust the “cage” so it fits your foot snuggly with your shoe centered in the pedal. If you decide to get serious about indoor cycling, then you can consider upgrading to clip-in shoes, which can help you pedal more efficiently.
  • Introduce yourself. Even if you’re already an avid outdoor cyclist and know how to adjust the seat and handlebars on your bike without help, identifying yourself to the instructor as a newbie will ensure that she’ll explain everything thoroughly and not assume you know the lingo during the class.
“Don’t be surprised or discouraged if your buns hurt after the first class—the seat can be uncomfortable. After your third class you will get used to it. Many gyms offer gel seats you can borrow, which add extra cushion. Or you can buy your own and bring it to class.”
Reference(s) 
American Council of Exercise
American College of Sports Medicine
About the author 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a Syracuse, NY–based health and fitness writer, an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and the author of Tone Every Inch (Rodale).