The music, the lighting, the rush of a high-intensity workout — in recent years, indoor cycling (sometimes known by the trademarked name "Spinning") has taken off. But some top fitness experts caution that the trendy workout doesn't meet up to the hype — and could actually be hurting you.
"The human body was never meant to sit in a flexed [bent-forward] spinal position, performing hundreds if not thousands of repetitions, overloading the hip flexors and quads," says Jason Walsh, a personal trainer, movement specialist and founder of Rise Nation. "It literally shuts down one of the most important muscle groups in the body, the glutes [butt muscles]."
These high-intensity classes are generally led by an instructor, and movements are synchronized to upbeat music. Celebrities like Olivia Wilde and Reese Witherspoon have been snapped exiting these trendy classes, and the general public is also picking up indoor cycling with greater frequency.
"I like that the general public is interested in exercise now more than ever," Walsh says. "I just don't think indoor cycling is a great form of exercise."
Skip Spin Class?
In addition to the wear and tear on the body, Walsh also thinks people don't need to be sitting any more than they already do. "The public does plenty of sitting throughout the day, which wreaks havoc on the human body."
Jimmy Minardi, certified personal trainer for more than 20 years and founder of Minardi Training, has also never been a fan of the indoor-cycling fad. "There are 616 muscles in the human body, and Spinning barely uses half of them," he explains.
"One of the most important things — especially for the aging female with osteoporosis — is to bear your own weight," Minardi continues. "So you're way better off going out for a brisk walk or to a trainer who emphasizes safe weight-bearing movements."
Riding a stationary bike also negates a key benefit of outdoor cycling: balance. The Arthritis Foundation recommends indoor cycling for those with balance problems. "I see a lot of indoor-cycling enthusiasts who can barely ride an outside bike because it's too hard," Minardi says. "If you're going to ride a bike, an outdoor bike is best. Not only do you get some fresh air, you're also practicing balance." This helps bolster the body against the effects of aging.
When Is Indoor Cycling OK?
While neither Walsh nor Minardi would recommend an indoor-cycling class, that doesn't mean a bike is all bad. First off, any kind of movement is better than no movement, and there are benefits of spinning everyday. So when is it a good idea to include indoor cycling in your routine?
1. When You’re Recovering From Injury
After an injury you may need to lay off the weight-bearing exercise for a while to facilitate recovery. "Spinning is one of the first recommendations sports doctors and physical therapists recommend to their patients when recovering from an injury," says Felicia Walker, a certified Spin instructor at with more than 15 years of experience teaching indoor-cycling classes. "Since riding is a no-impact exercise, Spinning helps people recovering from injuries to ease back into the gym safely." Mayo Clinic recommends indoor cycling or spinning to people who have osteoarthritis. Since cycling is classified as a minimal impact exercise it will help ease the pain while increasing cardiovascular fitness.
2. For Cross-Training
Walker adds that indoor cycling also serves as a great form of cross-training for runners who need to give their joints a break from pounding the pavement. "Running is high impact; Spinning is no impact," she explains.
Interval training on a stationary bike also improves cardiovascular endurance, which will help your performance in other fitness classes or sports. "It's always a good idea to cross-train so that you don't overuse particular muscle groups," Walker says. "My own fitness regimen includes boxing, jumping rope and ballet to counterbalance the Spinning."
3. For Interval Training
Interval exercise is a training method in which you push yourself for a block of time before easing back for a short period — and then go hard again.
The benefits of intervals are well documented: The American College of Sports Medicine shows that interval training improves cardiovascular fitness, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity. Intervals also tend to be a more efficient way to exercise, delivering these benefits in less time than traditional cardio.
Indoor cycling is a natural interval workout, Walker explains. "When the beat speeds up, so do your legs," she says. When the beat slows down, you turn up the tension on the bike so that it's harder to pedal.
In a Spin class, intervals are instinctive because the music will dictate how fast or slow to push and motivate you to pedal quickly during high-intensity blocks. In addition, Walker says participants typically burn 400 to 600 calories in a 45-minute class, which can contribute to weight loss.
4. If You Really Love It
The music makes indoor cycling an enjoyable exercise for many people. Plus, it's a form of exercise that's appropriate for people of all fitness levels. If you're new to exercise, following the instructor's directions and the beat of the music can take some of the pressure off figuring out what to do. And if you feel self-conscious about working out in front of people, you can simply grab a spot in the back row. Regular exercisers only need to crank up the resistance and push a little harder to get a high-intensity workout that can leave even super-fit folks drenched in sweat.
Walsh wants to be clear: Exercise is important, including indoor cycling. "I do think that Spin classes today have done a great job with building community and making class training more exciting than ever, but I think they should be secondary to strength training," Walsh says.
If your body moves well and your back, hamstrings and glutes are strong, then there will be less risk of injury, and the benefits from Spin will be greater, Walsh adds. "Strength training should be the primary form of exercise, laying the proper foundation before all forms of conditioning."
Beyond that, Minardi also says to make sure you're riding the bike correctly. "You want proper bike fit every time," Minardi says, explaining that he peeks in on indoor-cycling classes from time to time and sees many participants misaligned on the equipment.
Walker says she stresses bike fit in her classes. If you sit too low you will compress your knees, she says. If you're too high, you will strain your IT band (the firm band of tissue that runs along the outside of the thighs). Protect your lower-back muscles by engaging your core while seated, she recommends.
If you're at all confused, Walker says a good instructor should refer to proper form throughout the class. "The instructor should also help with setup before class begins to make sure all participants are good to go," she says. "Spinning requires proper form. If you come out of position, you won't be getting the most out of the class and may be straining yourself unnecessarily."
Spinning has its benefits and disadvantages. The bottom line on indoor cycling: It's fine to have it in your exercise arsenal, but it shouldn't be your only form of exercise. If you decide to hit the bike, make sure you're doing strength-training and weight-bearing workouts too. Ensure that your bike fits properly and your form is sound. And if your instructor isn't helping, find a new one.