Ask the Expert: My Student Puts Too Much Resistance and Pedals Too Slow, Part 1

Over the years, I’ve gotten numerous questions from instructors about how to deal with riders who pedal very slowly with a lot of resistance. These instructors are understandably worried that their students might injure themselves but their pleas for them to reduce the resistance and pedal faster often falls on deaf ears.

In my last Ask the Expert discussion, I answered a question that Margaret had about her student moving her upper body while she climbed. Margaret had a second question about this rider:

“She has indicated to me at an earlier time that her knees are not in the best shape and I have noticed that she always adds too much resistance.”

I had a similar question from another instructor, Beth, who asked:

“I have a student who puts on way too much resistance. I can tell because he always looks like he’s pulling so hard to turn the pedals. It hurts my knees just watching! I try to cue less resistance, but he never does it for long, and always goes back to heavy resistance.”

This subject is so important to us as cycling instructors because pedaling with too much resistance has a high risk of injury, especially for those with any kind of knee, back, or shoulder injury or muscle weakness. Even for riders with healthy joints, if they are older, are new to indoor cycling, or are less fit, excessive resistance and poor pedaling form can lead to a tweaked hamstring or back muscle. It can mean they never come back to your class—or any cycling class.

There are even some riders who prefer this heavily-loaded pedaling because they have the misguided belief it will make their legs stronger; perhaps they think it’s like doing an extended number of leg presses. As a result, their form falls apart both seated and standing. To be able to turn the pedals while in the saddle, they often have to contort the body to get enough torque and it appears like they are mashing the pedals with an over-emphasis on the downstroke. This will manifest itself as shoulders bobbing heavily with every pedal stroke. Out of the saddle, they often have to pull hard on the handlebars to keep the pedals in motion, as if they are playing tug-of-war with the bars. 

So, how do you tell your riders to unload that gear and pedal faster?

I’ll start with an excerpt from my e-book Keep it Real that I wrote back in 2008, in the chapter on climbing resistance. Then, in part 2 of this series, we will discuss the science behind slow cadence, how it applies both outdoors and in indoor classes, and how to encourage your riders to select an appropriate resistance and cadence on an indoor bike.

How much you move your body while climbing indoors is usually related to your cadence and resistance choice. If you load on the gear, causing you to contort the body and pull hard on the handlebars in order to turn the pedals and driving your cadence below 55 rpm, then you simply have a disproportionate amount of resistance for your body’s abilities.

Turn your resistance down; it won’t do you any good as a cyclist (or a non-cyclist for that matter) to pedal that slowly uphill. It’s like a guy going into the weight room and picking up dumbbells that are too heavy for him to lift so he has to rely on momentum to curl them. Almost without fail, this guy never fully extends the elbow while performing biceps curls, never achieving full range of motion. Maybe he thinks someone (that woman over there?) might be impressed, but regardless of what it does for his ego, it doesn’t help his strength much if he has to resort to momentum. It also increases his risk of injury.

The same goes for climbing on a bike with an enormous amount of resistance. Leave the ego out of it; your back will be happier and your legs will get stronger without the excessive strain on the joints or muscles. Besides, cycling requires muscular endurance, not pure strength. 

Most reputable indoor cycling programs suggest a lower limit of 60 rpm. Do you know why this is? This lower limit is the safest cadence for the average, non-cyclist population that attend most cycling classes. It’s that simple; the majority of indoor cycling students do not ride outside so they may not have the conditioning and experience to push greater resistance.

Cadence ranges are not black and white, but the gray areas on either side of the generally accepted range of 60 to 110 rpm are for the exceptions, not the norm. The cadence police won’t come for you if you’re riding at 55 rpm, but you better be doing it with excellent form and not for an extended period. Stronger cyclists (both indoors and outdoors) who have good pedaling technique can certainly do drills at a slightly slower cadence and higher resistance. But they would be just that—drills, not an extended climb at that cadence. 

Outdoors, cyclists aim to climb in a relaxed, smooth, yet powerful manner; improving their muscular endurance with consistent training in an appropriate cadence range helps them become better climbers. If you are seated while climbing and the hill gets steeper, you would shift down if you have more gears available. If you can’t shift down because you are already in your lowest gear, you’d probably stand up for the added leverage, especially if you know this steeper part is not very long. Standing allows you to overcome the increased resistance by adding your body weight to the equation, but standing can spike the heart rate so many people can’t maintain that position for long (unless you are Alberto Contador, a famous now-retired pro rider who stood out from other riders in the peloton because he could ride out of the saddle for longer and more gracefully than most). The other option is to slow the cadence down to reduce the intensity. If your cadence gets to the low 50s rpm, and you have to mash the pedals and contort your body to keep moving, you’d probably curse and grunt and make a vow to avoid that climb in the future until you get stronger or get new gears on your bike.

This scenario highlights an important point: very low cadence isn’t dangerous because it’s low; it’s dangerous because of the amount of torque/force you have to apply in order to climb that hill, or indoors, to turn the pedals on that imaginary hill. If you are pedaling at 40 rpm on a flat road in a low gear at a low power output, there’s no danger to the joints or muscles, but then, you aren’t doing any work. (If you are doing this to recover, it’s not risky to the joints, but there are other reasons to pedal at a higher cadence.)

There is another reason not to pedal too slowly on a climb, especially on purpose. Even if you don’t get injured from an overabundance of resistance, it may impede your path to better cycling fitness. Here’s a story about someone choosing a big gear on a climb and massively regretting it later. Back in the late 1990s, I took my friend Carlos on his very first mountain bike ride in Vail, Colorado. We were both ski instructors on Vail Mountain. He was from Argentina and had moved there for the skiing, but stayed to enjoy a summer in the Rockies. Carlos was young, athletic, and strong, and had done some road riding, so even though this was his first time on a mountain bike, I knew he’d be fine. He was a nice guy, but he definitely had a machismo about him. He told me he didn’t want to do a “beginner” ride; he wanted me to take him into the mountains and experience that exhilaration from mountain biking that everyone was talking so much. 

I took him on a ride that normally took me about two and a half hours. It starts with an extended 45-minute steady climb on a dirt road before reaching the single track trail through the forest. It’s a moderate climb, mostly 4% to 6% grade with a few steeper segments. Halfway up, I noticed that Carlos was mashing the pedals, pulling on his handlebars, and breathing hard. I looked down and saw he was in his biggest chain ring. Going uphill. With a long way to go. (For you non-cyclists, the chain rings are the front rings that the chain goes around. In the last two decades, bike gearing has changed drastically, but back in the days of this story, mountain bikes had three front chain rings. The middle and smallest chain rings were used for climbing. The smaller the chain ring, the less the resistance, the faster you could pedal. The largest chain ring was used to go fast on a flat road or downhill.)  

“Oh my God, Carlos, what are you doing in your big chain ring?” I gasped, incredulous. He looked at me like I was crazy for asking and smiled and said, “I want to get a good leg workout!” 

“Don’t be silly, Carlos, you don’t know what’s ahead! You might want to back it off a bit,” I said as I spun my legs at a much higher cadence in my low gear. Well, he didn’t listen and opted for the “quad workout.” A half hour later, on the steep uphill single track, he was crying in pain (or maybe was he crying out from a deflated ego?) as I smoked him on the rest of that ride. He had to walk the steeper parts. It took us well over three hours to get back and he was limping when he got off his bike. Later, he was gracious enough to say, “You were right, I should have listened to you!”

This wouldn’t be you, would it? You would have shifted to an easier gear, right?

Unfortunately, it may be one of your riders in your cycling class. We all know of someone who loads up the resistance to get that “super leg workout” because they (falsely) think it’s going to give them stronger legs. 

This is nothing more than ego getting in the way of proper form and technique. It also gets in the way of the path to better fitness. Machismo of this manner doesn’t make you a better climber outdoors, and it also has no place in an indoor cycling class.

In Part 2 of this discussion on the risks of excessive resistance, I discuss whether very slow cadence cycling is ever relevant or functional to our riders. I examine some of the science of cadence and the applications in your indoor cycling classes. I finish with tips on how to confront that one person who refuses to listen to your advice on cadence.

 

6 Responses to “Ask the Expert: My Student Puts Too Much Resistance and Pedals Too Slow, Part 1”

  1. love2spin910 says:

    Thanks for turning me on to this great site. Some of these songs are straight from high school. Nice walk down memory lane.

  2. love2spin910 says:

    That’s my comment …. “I like it!”

  3. love2spin910 says:

    great beat – I am cycling in my seat! Just downloaded – can’t wait for next class. Thanks

  4. love2spin910 says:

    I find the biggest challenge for me with both my clients and my students is that their cardio system outlasts their legs. I recently did 2 talk tests with 2 separate clients and the results were the same as the LT tests I ‘ve done in past. They could work harder cardiovascular lay, but their legs begin to slow down significantly where they begin contorting upper body and also begin mashing the pedals. What type of profile should I put together to help in these situations?

    Kim

  5. Jennifer says:

    Thanks Pru for the idea. I’ll put one together.
    for this as well as for some other issues instructors encounter.

    BTW, I missed seeing you in London!

  6. Myriadgreen says:

    I get a few grinders in my Wednesday night class, and having a short handout about cadence to pass out would be fantastic. I’ve explained it and explained it (the health issues, the ineffectiveness), offered to hold the mic up to my right knee to hear what knee damage sounds like, but perhaps a short handout to read once the class has ended may get the message to sink in.
    I guess the issue is that there are several different reasons why low cadence/high resistance cycling is not a wise thing to do so to get it all into one short handout would be tricky!

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