Ask the Expert: How to Work with an Obese or Very Unfit Rider?

(Note: This article originally appeared in 2012. With the new year just around the corner, I thought it was a good time to repost it. You may encounter some unfit or obese riders in the onslaught after the new year. I’ve updated the article with additional suggestions.)

This email I received brings up an immensely important issue—how to work with obese and/or very unfit students. There are many things you can do to make these students more comfortable and increase the chances they will return. But it takes some hand-holding and gentle coaching.

Are you willing to do what it takes?

I received this email from Matt:

Last evening when I taught my class, given that it was the day after Christmas, class was empty sans two brand-new riders. One of them, an obese 16 y/o girl, had never ridden a bike before. After getting her set up on the bike, it became evident that her aerobic base was almost non-existent and she was struggling to ride in gear 1 (we have Keiser bikes).

It was uncomfortable for her to ride in the saddle after a while because the saddles, as we all know, take a little getting used to, but paired with her weight, it was obviously a little too much. To get relief, we stood up, but that seemed to be just as difficult because she couldn’t get the resistance set appropriately. Any increase was too much for her to handle but the low resistance required her to lean on the handlebars.

I used the music as background noise and just rode easily with them to acclimate them to the bike and discussed their fitness goals, how to ride in proper form, and the importance of starting easy but staying with their fitness program. Something I couldn’t have done if it was a normal week.

Any advice on how to encourage and acclimate this type of rider?

Matt, this is one of the more amazing opportunities we can have as indoor cycling coaches and trainers, and how you handle this can plant a seed in this person’s mind that might change their life forever…or not.

I don’t wish to put all the pressure on instructors, because there is so much more to a person committing to an exercise program than just one encounter with an instructor. However, we’ve all read the stories of people who talk about how one particular instructor or trainer was the one that inspired them to seek the path to greater health. It is so rewarding to help someone make that lifestyle change that leads them to a better quality of life. Here’s one inspiring story how a woman went from fearful obese rider to confident instructor.

4 Responses to “Ask the Expert: How to Work with an Obese or Very Unfit Rider?”

  1. Voichi Peters says:

    Dear friends,
    five years ago (after a period of “cowboying” the indoor cycling classes) I decided to learn it properly. The course Spinning Stage 1 was given by the fattest Spinning Master Instructor in the country – when we first saw her we all thought something like: Oooo..Keeey?
    Well…the way she brought her remarkable knowledge to us, with power, fun, love…. no words to describe it. Everybody wanted to trade with her: “give me your big butt madam, maybe then I’ll be able to teach better!”
    She got us in trance – she still does!

    Do you believe that she also started like Matt’s client?
    Yes, she did!

  2. LL says:

    Newbies–fit or unfit–usually come in late, mostly don’t want to take the bikes at the front,or the class is full that I have no choice to ask them to do so..There is no chance to go through the basics with them before the class starts when that happened.
    In this case, I have a dilema: can’t see them and vice versa if they at the back corner, gotta get off the bike to talk to them. Then who will be on the bike to show them the proper forms, cadence??? And how about the regulars who are waiting for my cueing and want a good ride?
    We all instructors must have passion of teaching to face all these issues…I would say we just do the very best we know how when teaching multi-level class, and I believe they should be responsible for their well-beings. We can only take on so much at a time. When we give our best in each class, it will show and people will recognize that we care, and they will come back. If they don’t, their “WHY” is not big enough 🙂
    Thanks Jennifer for your guidance which is a great reminder.
    Le

  3. Kala says:

    How lucky for Matt to be able to be in that type of situation where he was able to sit with the riders and really talk to them. However, I can see how much more an issue this can be with a full class. Sometimes I have been given ALL newbies, but some are already active/fit and are ready to go, and others are not; so although the fit newbies are able, sometimes they are not able to be “alone” with a given task while I am tending to another needy, unfit student. I hope that makes sense… It is a delicate balance to give all students the attention they deserve and sometimes we are spread too thin and one or two people will slip through. I know this has happened in my coaching, but I was always given a “fresh” start with each new semester, so I just tried to reel in as many as possible, and hope that those who don’t return will return at some point…

  4. Moritz says:

    Actually I planned to do an interval class tomorrow to start the new year, but reading your article I think I will take some extra CD’s with less stressful profiles with me in case I have new and unfit beginners in my class …

    Thanks a lot for your hints !

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