“I’d Rather Sell My Soul Than Soul Cycle”By Jennifer Sage On January 29, 2013 Under Contraindications, Form and Technique, Keep it Real
“I’d rather sell my soul than Soul Cycle, frankly.”
That was the quote in an article in Gawker, an online entertainment magazine. Three employees from Gawker were invited to take a free class at Soul Cycle in Manhattan. The article is quite entertaining, and Soul Cycle will no doubt rue the day they invited Rich, Caity, and Leah to attend a class. But hey, they opened themselves up to honest evaluation!
I realize that these three have never taken any kind of Spinning® or indoor cycling class; in fact, they aren’t really exercisers at all, so they might joke about any class. But I do not think they would be quite as irreverent if they attended a cycling class in which the instructor taught like a true coach; someone who employs proven inspirational coaching methods instead of silly yogic clichés such as “I want your next breath to be an exorcism” or “Be honest about who you are trying to be.”
They wouldn’t have anything to mock if they were to review a class taught by an instructor who uses profiles that offer a combination of education, inspiration, and fun while utilizing correct (and safe) cycling techniques and adhering to proper exercise science training principles*. The Gawkers hit on the circus atmosphere of a Soul Cycle class and questioned why the heck they were doing what they were doing. They also have a field day discussing their instructor, Danny.
Below are a few quotes from their review, followed by my commentary:
Rich: Danny told us, “If you’re out of breath, don’t be embarrassed. It means that something shifted.” I wasn’t out of breath, nothing shifted, except for my balls, into my body, whenever we had to do a seat tap or pushup on the handlebars while seated.
Shifted? Really? What could have shifted to make you breathless? And why should anyone be embarrassed by being out of breath? There are very basic physiological reasons for being out of breath—it is a normal human response to intensity and is never anything to be embarrassed about. Being out of breath simply means you pushed yourself beyond what you normally do—that’s a good thing! And sorry to tell you, Danny, nothing “shifted,” metaphorically or literally. If it did, please call 911. Besides, you, the instructor, should tell students when you want them to be breathless or not; it’s a crucial element to proper instruction, guiding students to the intensity you want them to attain, depending on the objective of the ride.
Perhaps the only objective in a Soul Cycle class is the desire to create massive pools of sweat?
About those “tap backs.” These are a kind of “reverse jump” where you aggressively “tap” your butt back with a pelvic thrust onto the rear part of the saddle, then quickly return to a standing position. They are a high-risk move because of the deceleration required by the back muscles, otherwise, you’d slam down hard into the saddle. Not to mention that one knee is constantly hyperextending as it pushes the pedal down every second, timed with the butt tapping back. This forces the knee behind the proper alignment required to apply force to the pedal—one of the key reasons why cyclists experience knee pain.
There is zero benefit to doing tap backs. They are potentially harmful to joints and the musculature of the back, and apparently, according to Rich, the balls. They aren’t much fun to the female anatomy either.
Even the basics of how a muscle works seem to be lost on these instructors. Pushups for example. While sitting upright on a bike, they serve no purpose whatsoever, although there is a whole host of negative outcomes when doing them. To strengthen a muscle, you must oppose the force against which you are working. In the case of a pushup, gravity is the force. Gravity works straight down, so for a pushup, you need to be facing the ground to work against it.
Because most of your body weight is supported by a bike saddle, and because you are opposing the force, there’s very little resistance (even if you are standing on the bike); therefore it is nonsense to claim this is an upper body workout. To see the difference yourself, get on the floor and do 10 full body pushups. It’s hard! Then sit in a chair and do a “pushup” on the desk or table in front of you. Yup…I can see your head nodding in agreement…that wasn’t hard at all, was it?
These “elbow bends” (we can’t really call them pushups) do nothing for your upper body, but they do interfere with a smooth, continuous pedal stroke. This will absolutely reduce your power output. (See below for why power is important).
Soul Cycle instructors also claim these pushups are a core exercise. Not while sitting upright they aren’t!
Seriously…if you hired a personal trainer and he made you do pushups while seated upright, that trainer should be fired because he doesn’t know his exercise physiology.
But why is it OK in a cycling class?
It shouldn’t be.
The same uselessness goes for crunches while sitting upright (as in the photo above). A crunch should oppose the resistance (gravity)—that is why you lie down to do them. But when you are sitting on a bike and “crunch”, you are working with gravity so there’s no resistance. See how that works? Besides, any good trainer knows that crunches are passé and not the way to strengthen the core. But you need to take a certification and/or continuing education to know that.
These instructors aren’t required to have any certifications, continuing education or experience in exercise science.
Caity: I would say that from start to finish I had no to very little idea what was going on. I wish there had been some kind of prep video I could have watched beforehand.
I tried to base my moves on what those around me were doing. BUT I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW WHAT THEY WERE DOING.
In a group fitness class in which there are new people in every class, there should always be some explanation by the instructor of what is going on; some coaching about modifications and permission to ride at a lower intensity. Or at the very least, a handout that explains about intensity and what to expect.
On the other hand, when you are riding the bike properly and not like in a circus show, there is no need to explain anything elaborate…it’s just like riding a real bike!
Rich: I found that when my nose wasn’t up the ass of the guy who was cycling in front of me, I was able to follow his lead a lot better than Danny’s.
At many studios of this sort, where the bikes are crammed so close together, both fore and aft and side to side, I cannot fathom the attraction. People pay big money for this cattle-car, sweat-bath experience.
Maybe it reminds participants of a nightclub?
Moreover, these last few comments by Rich and Caity show that at Soul Cycle, it’s all about choreography and constant movement. If you’re moving around on a bike that much, it is virtually impossible to pedal correctly, smoothly, and safely. When you are constantly jerking around on the pedals, there is a great amount of stress in the joints, and all the fluff moves and constant movement causes a reduction of power output.
You might be thinking, “Why should I care about power? I’m not a real cyclist. I just want to burn calories!”
Power output is directly related to how much work you are doing, and hence, how many calories you burn. If your average power drops, your caloric consumption will drop. If we could put power meters on these bikes, we could show riders that they are burning FAR fewer calories than they are being told. The reason is because they are doing fluff moves, and not actual work. The biggest contributor to the low power output and low workload is the very high cadence at very low resistance, a signature part of a Soul Cycle ride. This type of pedaling yields extremely low power output. Ironically, the heart rate is still high, but that doesn’t translate to actual “work”. The power does.
Please bear with me for a moment while I get a little bit sciencey…I’ll try to keep it simple.
The equation for power is P = fv (power is equal to force times velocity). On a bike, velocity is equivalent to your cadence (how fast your legs are turning the pedals) and force is related to the resistance you have to push against. It doesn’t matter how fast your legs are going, if your resistance is nil, then power will be close to nil.
(Note that this power equation is oversimplified in order to keep this post from being a text book chapter).
This, my friends, is the reason why you don’t burn many calories in these classes. If they taught riders to add more resistance and pedal at a slower rate, somewhere between 60 and 110 rpm, then there would be far greater success. If they just rode the bike and used real riding techniques instead of fluff moves, caloric consumption would sky rocket.
Rich: The NY Mag article talks about how they hire stars, not necessarily experienced trainers.
This is the most important line of the article. Read it again. These instructors know little, if anything, about physiology, biomechanics, or real cycling technique. This is also a sad exposé of the fitness industry, and more specifically, the indoor cycling industry. It’s not just at this boutique brand, either. Far too few instructors have sufficient experience and education in exercise science and anatomy. A one-day indoor cycling certification is usually not enough to provide a new instructor the knowledge needed to put together and teach safe and effective classes.
Caity: But I think because I didn’t know exactly what to do, I never really got the “workout.”
This is a telling statement. She recognized that even with all the up and down and front and back and frantic pedaling and non-stop sweat, there really wasn’t much of a benefit. Not being an exerciser, she wonders what she was missing and thinks she was doing it wrong because she was unable to “follow” the instructor and therefore she thinks she missed out on the “workout.”
But the truth is, that is not the reason why she didn’t “get the workout.” The real reason is that this aerobics-on-a-bike nonsense reduces power output so there really isn’t much “workout” to be had. It is virtually impossible to maintain a good power output it if you pedal like that, or do pushups, or crunches, or tap backs. Nevertheless, heart rate will still be high because of the high cadences, the hot, humid room, and the flopping around on the bike. As stated above, calories are a result of power output, not how much you sweat or even how high your heart rate gets.
So, although she is unaware of it, she is correct. There was little “workout” to get.
Rich: It takes might to hold your arms up for a long time, though, as we learned. The weight routine, in which we had to keep our arms extended while doing all sorts of arm-crossy things with small hand weights for about five straight minutes without a break, was the best part.
…in that it was the worst.
Leah: I was too cool for the weights. I noodle-armed the shit out of those.
Leah hits the nail on the head. You can “noodle-arm the shit” out of those weights because it’s only 1 lb and not enough to cause any adaptation in the muscles. I bet most students noodle-arm the weight segment.
We did silly things like this back in the 1980s, holding our arms out forever until they burned. But we could be excused for doing silly techniques back then because exercise science was still in its infancy and we really didn’t know any better. (We, meaning the fitness industry).
But now we do know better. Exercise science teaches us that this kind of training is ineffective. Except for the very old, the frail, or those rehabbing an injury, lifting a 1-lb (or even 2-lb weight for most people) is not an upper body workout; it will not make you stronger. Anyone who is certified through a reputable agency, and who maintains and updates that certification and knowledge through attending conferences and continuing education, would know this.
Caity: The rule was printed on the wall. It was like, “Do laundry so you don’t smell, don’t talk.”
Is this a Manhattan thing?
Caity: I think what I learned is that I might not excel in classes where trainers yell at you. Every time Danny pleaded with me to “PUSH IT!!!” I was unmoved. I would rather try Zumba.
She is not alone. Tip for you instructors: yelling at students is one of the least effective ways to motivate.
I could go on about the “mean girl vibe,” the co-ed locker rooms, and the narcissistic instructor who gazed at himself in the mirror, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about those when you read the Gawker article.
For all you educated, experienced, qualified instructors out there reading this who do understand exercise science and honor the principles of riding a bicycle, please give yourself a huge hug and a pat on the back! We need more of you.
And for all you indoor cycling fanatics who have instructors who do keep it real while also infusing their classes with fun and inspiration, and who motivate you with correct cadence and resistance ranges, give them a big hug and tell them how much you appreciate them. We need more of them!
*inspirational, fun, and technically correct profiles such as the ones we provide on the Indoor Cycling Association
Jennifer Sage is the founder of the Indoor Cycling Association, an online educational resource to educate and inspire indoor cycling instructors from all programs on all bikes. The motto of ICA is to fire up the passion of instructors and studios so they can fill their classes with raving fans. Learn more about ICA here.
Jennifer wrote the e-book Keep it Real. Since 2008, it has become one of the top industry resources for both instructors and enthusiasts alike, describing the most effective and safe ways to ride a bike indoors for optimal results. Even if you don’t ride a real bike outside, the same principles of biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology and anatomy apply to you in the same way that they do to a cyclist. Don’t let anyone tell you “it’s not a real bike so we don’t have to ride it like one”.
Don’t forget to read the Gawker article here!