Why Would (or Should) You Teach an Entire Class Off the Bike?, Part 1

This article first appeared in 2011. It is such a commonly requested topic that it is time to bring it back with some added advice. The series is broken it into five parts. Part 1 will give you an overview of why teaching an entire class off the bike can be so impactful. Part 2 and 3 will provide 12 tips for teaching an entire class off the bike. Part 4 will provide tips on how to better utilize occasional off-the-bike coaching to correct form and motivate your students, and how to avoid singling them out. Part 5 will focus on coaching intensity from the floor.


ICA member Mark Thomason from the UK tore his biceps tendon. Following surgery, his arm was in a pretty hefty cast for three months and he was not supposed to let it get sweaty. Mark had a great attitude about it (as you can tell in the photo above) and still planned on teaching his classes off the bike. He wrote to ask me for a few tips.

I found myself in a similar position early in my teaching career. In 1999, after foot surgery, I had both feet in soft casts for six weeks. I was a master instructor for the Spinning® program at the time, and was the director of Spinning at my club in Vail, Colorado, the Vail Cascade Club (now called the Aria Spa & Club). I didn’t want to give up my classes, and saw this as a great challenge, albeit a scary one, to hone my coaching skills. After all, we preached off-the-bike coaching in the Spinning program. I did hop off the bike from time to time in my classes, but, could I teach an entire class off the bike? Would it be interesting for my students, or would they be bored? Would I be bored, and could I do this for six full weeks?

My fears proved unwarranted, as the experience was quite amazing and helped catapult me to the next level of being a coach. One of the most important things I learned was to coach intensity from my students’ perspective and not from my own. In all honesty, I thought I already did that, but once I took myself out of the riding picture, I had to pay more attention to their response to what I wanted them to do on the bike. How hard were they going? How hard could they go? How hard was too much? Were my coaching cues sufficient to guide them to the intensity the profile required?

I was also able to notice when they were faking it. While there certainly are times when it’s OK to not to push oneself to the intensity asked by the instructor, as you know, some students want to get out of doing the work all the time.

As a result of interacting more on a one-on-one basis with my riders, I got to know them even better than before. I discovered their goals, both short-term and long-term, and what motivated them or discouraged them. This was a great benefit when I did get back on the bike.

I learned how to keep myself occupied and to not appear bored, which is one of the biggest challenges when teaching off the bike for an entire class. I mastered how to stay focused. I became skilled at walking around, and figured out when it was crucial to be more engaging, even dramatic, in my coaching, and when it was better to encourage silence.

At its core, coaching indoor cycling well requires that you become skilled at public speaking. You will be a better coach if you expand your knowledge and skills in public speaking. The great news is that this proficiency is enhanced when you are teaching off the bike. Why? Because essentially you are on stage, in front of your audience (or, as you’ll see, sometimes behind them) without the bike as a prop. What better way to improve your competence as a presenter?

It is a different situation teaching an entire class off the bike than when you occasionally get off the bike to motivate or correct your riders. Parts 2 and 3 of this series will provide 12 tips on how to teach an entire class off the bike, which is the more challenging of the two scenarios.

Why teach a full class off the bike?
You don’t have to be injured to teach an entire class off the bike. Maybe you are just tired or you feel illness coming on and need to respect your body. Maybe instructing is your full-time job and you teach many times a day, four or five times a week, and riding every class is not humanly possible (without destroying your health). If you are an athlete training for an event (triathlon, century ride, marathon, etc.), there are times when you simply must not ride! But it is so easy to get caught up in the energy of the music that you can forget your promise midway through and end up near or over your threshold.

Serious athletes know, when you need a recovery ride or you are approaching an important event, you cannot take that risk. However, there is no reason to abandon teaching your class in this case. 

If your club or studio has a policy in which the instructor must give up his/her bike for an over-full class, you may find yourself without a bike.

Regardless of the reason, it’s best to be prepared before being faced with this circumstance.

My first exposure to off-the-bike coaching
In 1998, I took a class led by the world-famous Ironman triathlete and coach Dave Scott. He was a guest instructor at a club in Vail. There were twenty full bikes. Fifteen minutes before class was scheduled to start, Dave Scott was at the front talking to some riders, dressed in jeans, a polo shirt, and running shoes. Ten minutes later, I remember thinking, “Wow, he better go change soon!” But no, at the start of the class, he was still in jeans.

He then proceeded to teach one of the best classes I’d ever attended up to that point. He exuded COACH! He walked around, spoke to people directly, kept everyone engaged, and carried a stopwatch. He talked, but not excessively, leaving us time to work on what he had asked for (I remember doing a lot of cadence drills—the first time I had been exposed to them). He used his voice to motivate—it was apparent he knew how to keep a group engaged with voice inflection. No one ever seemed to notice that he wasn’t riding.

That taught me that not only was it possible, but teaching an entire class off the bike was a very empowering method of instruction.

When I was the Spinning coordinator, one of my instructors had to give up her bike to a member for the first time because of a reservation error by the front desk. She emailed me about her experience. She admitted that she was very nervous at first, but afterwards, she was amazed at how much she learned about her students and said that the experience really helped her grow as an instructor. I forwarded that email to all the instructors to show them how empowering this could be.

I welcome your input on this discussion. Have you been forced to teach off the bike for an entire class before, due to injury, an over-full class, or the need to recover? How did you feel? What did you learn? How did it impact your other classes when you were able to get back on the bike? Please leave a comment below.


Part 2 provides you with the first 6 of 12 specific tips for teaching an entire class off the bike in the most engaging and effective way possible.

8 Responses to “Why Would (or Should) You Teach an Entire Class Off the Bike?, Part 1”

  1. MoiraCrewther says:

    I have never taught off the bike before and i have been instructing for about 1 year. I want to but its the fear of perhaps missing a queue with my music. Any pointers on how I can overcome that aspect. Is there any particular music/songs which are good for teaching out of the saddle or is it something you will get better at with practise?

    • MoiraCrewther says:

      Oops, I see all the answers I was looking for in Part 2 😉 thank you

      • part 3 will help you even more! =) You can usually use all the same music you use on a regular class when you’re on the bike, but to be honest, it is a little bit harder to do an endurance ride using mostly introspective longer songs. I’ve done it, it can work, but interval classes with shorter segments (and songs) are the easiest to teach off the bike.

        As to your question about getting better with practice, absolutely. that first time is a little unnerving, you think you’re not talking enough, then you think you’re talking too much, then you think your riders are bored, then you get bored… Your mind plays tricks with you, pretty much like it does the first time you teach anything! The key is to trust yourself, and don’t listen to your mind! Follow all the 12 tips in the next few articles, and you’ll know what to do with your hands, and how to keep them engaged!

        Let us know how your first time goes!

  2. CarolineRigby says:

    I absolutely love teaching both my weekly Wattbike classes entirely off the bike (as do my colleagues at that studio), in fact there is NO instructor bike set up at all! This is partly as there is so much data on-screen that these specialised training bikes give the rider (e.g. pedal stroke quality, L/R leg ratio as well as power & cadence) that we need to be off the bike to help advise etc. I dress in trackie bottoms (is this a US term?)and sneakers, no attempt to look like a ‘Spin’ instructor, we are coaches (or I am trying to be, anyway!). I have never been that interested in being on the bike much anyway, like Renee I didn’t really get why some ‘programs’ (if you can call them that…) insist on instructors glued to the bike! I certainly don’t get all this “wow, can we ride on stage with you” stuff either, what is the point if you aren’t coaching (I know this is Spinning(R) heresy…ahem)? Like in your article, no-one bats an eyelid, they don’t need to look at me, the data in there in front of them, they just need to know what and how to do it! There is a bit of need if teaching on bikes that have no information feedback to the rider, but even then, if you have mixed your music properly, then they don’t even need you much for cadence either! I don’t get so tired now and those instructors who kid themselves it helps them get bike fit are mostly working too hard and not focusing on the class. I feel liberated and once we feel that way it liberates us in other aspects of our coaching too!

  3. Kala says:

    I agree with everything that everyone has said– it IS a scary thing for most of us to take the plunge to get off the bike. I remember the first time I did it and I posted on a forum saying “A whole hour off the saddle!” and people thought I meant I did either a standing flat or a standing climb for the entire hour… Had a little explaining to do with that one… 😉

    Anyway- It’s a scary thing and sometimes it takes that “You have to” moment (whether it be an injury or you have to give up a bike) to get people to coach off the bike, but I have NEVER heard a negative “it was the worst experience” post-coaching off the bike… Now, are there things that I have wanted to improve? Absolutely, but it really is a great tool to be able to walk around and engage on a one-on-one basis in a group setting. Think of it as personal training a large group all at once, not everyone is at the same spot, so by getting off the bike you can really get to know your riders on the exercise level (why they come to you in the first place!) instead of just on the personal “How’s your dog?” level. 🙂 (Which is important too!!!)

  4. JoyRider says:

    Wonderful discussion as usual. Perfect reminder that it is about “their ride” not ours. One of the criteria I’ve used in looking at potential instructors for our studio is whether when I take their class I feel that they are there to get “paid to workout” or if they are seriously concerned that I as a participant am getting the most out of the workout/training.

    An instructor confident enough to get off the bike and seriously coach, obviously isn’t of the first kind, which I would not consider hiring in our studio. That being said, I will admit that despite the fact that outside of the studio I facilitate many workshops, getting off the bike to coach has taken me awhile and I’m still working at being comfortable with coaching while not “showing” But for all the reasons Jennifer and the other commentors mentioned, it is completely worthwhile to learn to do so.

    Lorie

  5. renee says:

    I started my career as a teacher/coach before coming into the fitness industry and I’ve always found it interesting that we are expected to participate with the students. Obviously, when I was coaching football I didn’t put on the pads and teach the kids how to block, run or tackle.

    I have used my background as a teacher/coach to teach off the bike many times, sometimes the entire class and sometimes a song or two. Jennifer gives SAGE advice here. If it seems odd to teach off the bike practice it before your students arrive. My staff often looks at me and asks how can I look so comfortable in front of large and varied groups? What they never saw were the times that I was either in the group fitness room by myself practicing my craft or recruiting small groups of friends and clients practicing my craft in front of them and then asking for constructive criticism.

    You might even think of printing out Jennifer’s advice and taking it into class with you. Print it out on the back of your profile in order to remind you to coach, reinforce, stay positive, RPE, usual visual imagery, have purpose, set goals, engage students, learn, have fun, educate and inspire.

  6. renee says:

    I have taught off the bike several times. sometimes due to an extra rider for class which i gladly give my bike to feeling that i don’t want to turn anyone away from a fun hour of training AND if gives me the opportunity to rest my body AND practice those “off the bike” techniques. i remember the first time i had to do this soon after i became an instructor and i mentally embraced the moment knowing it would take me to a different level. yes, it was a little scary but i am at the point in my life where i don’t sweat the small things so much anymore.
    I learned how to engage with my students in a different way and to be comfortable not talking so much.
    i do get off most every class if for a few minutes to refill their water bottles so they can continue to ride. it’s right outside the door but i always give them a goal and focus beforehand.
    still many great new tips for me here.
    thanks, renee

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