The beauty of a group cycling class is that you’re not just stuck in a dark room furiously pedaling nowhere. A good indoor cycling class can transport your body and your mind, lifting you up imaginary hills, rolling through varied terrain, and sprinting to an imaginary finish line that will leave you breathless and exhilarated.
“It’s a fantastic workout that burns a massive amount of calories because it uses some of the largest muscles in the body, including your legs, butt, and some of the upper body—but without any impact on your joints,” explains Josh Taylor, a master instructor for the Spinning Program (an indoor cycling brand). Ready to ride? Here’s what to expect when you walk into a cycling class.
Before you begin
Set up your bike. Making sure the bike is adjusted to fit your body is crucial to having your workout be a pleasurable experience, not a painful one. “Proper setup will not only ensure a comfortable ride, but will also keep you injury free,” notes cycling instructor Holly Rilinger, a Nike master trainer and author of Lifted: 28 Days to Focus Your Mind, Strengthen Your Body, and Elevate Your Spirit.
Get to class a few minutes early and tell the instructor you’re new so she can help you get fitted. Key areas to adjust include seat height (at the bottom of your pedal stroke, your knee should have a slight bend, about 30 degrees); handlebars (set high enough that your neck and lower back are not straining); and seat distance from handlebars (your knee should line up over the ball of your foot on the pedal).
Know your ride. Familiarize yourself with the resistance knob and what the bike does when you turn it to the right and to the left. This is important because many classes use interval training. Intervals consist of varied resistance and you can adjust resistance by turning the knob or controls on the bike to match your desired intensity. Most cycling classes include a mix of easy riding on a flat road (low resistance while seated), jogs (standing up with a moderate resistance), and both seated and standing climbs (high resistance).
Some bikes feature a display that will show your RPMs (revolutions per minute), which vary depending on pedal speed and resistance. “The instructor will tell you what RPM range you should be in, and how hard to push and for how long,” adds Rilinger.
Don’t take it all off. There’s no such thing as coasting on an indoor cycle, so make sure you always have a little bit of resistance on the wheel. “You don’t want to pedal out of control, risking injury,” says Taylor.
Comfy, fitted clothing. Cyclists choose tight bottoms because loose-fitting ones can lead to chafing. Lycra tights or shorts can help you pedal in comfort; if you’re self-conscious about wearing something snug, you can layer on looser shorts. Some cyclists also like to wear shorts that have a little built-in cushioning (called a chamois) or use a seat cover that offers some additional padding.
A water bottle. In a 45-minute group cycling class, you can burn over 500 calories, which means you will be working up a sweat. Luckily, there are ample opportunities to rehydrate during periodic lower-intensity breaks. Having a water bottle on hand will make it easier to grab a gulp when you need it and most bikes feature a spot to keep it within arm’s reach.
Athletic shoes. To help you pedal more efficiently, indoor bike pedals have straps that go over your shoes. The straps help transfer the energy from your legs into the pedals, and this means you won’t slip off the pedals when you stand up out of the bike seat. Adjust the strap so it fits snugly, but not too tight, over the top of your shoe. If you decide you like cycling, you may want to invest in a pair of cycling shoes, which are designed to clip into the pedal itself, making your ride even more effective. Some indoor cycling studios will provide cycling shoes for class participants.
A towel. Most gyms will provide this, so make sure you grab one on the way in—you’ll need it!
To challenge yourself. “An indoor cycling class is a high-intensity interval training workout—which means that there are shorter and more intense parts of the workout that are followed by longer periods of recovery,” says Rilinger. “This is a highly effective method as it elevates your heart rate repeatedly over the course of a 45-minute class.”
Lots of music. Instructors often design the workout to match the beats per minute of a song—a faster tune for a sprint, a slower one for a hill climb, where the resistance is higher. You can either ride along to the beat or follow your own pacing, but losing yourself in the music can often make the workout feel easier (and more fun!). If you find the music too loud you can wear earplugs, but make sure you can still hear the instructor’s cues.
Go at your own pace. The beauty of indoor cycling is that you are in complete control of your ride. “Don’t be afraid to back down on the resistance and slow your leg speed to a more manageable level if you need it,” says Taylor. “Your primary goal for your first few classes is to follow along and just have some fun.”