What “Keep it Real” Means…And What It Does NOT Mean in Indoor Cycling Classes

I first created the Keep it Real workshop to present at the 2005 World Spinning and Sports Conference (WSSC) in Miami. Portions of that workshop later became the Contraindications in Spinning® CED. The e-book Keep it Real was then published in 2008. These were the first commercial instances of the term Keep it Real in the indoor cycling world. The idea behind the concept is that even though there are some differences between an outdoor bike and a stationary bike used in indoor cycling classes, the mechanics of pedaling the bikes are the same and should be respected.

Back in 2008 I did a survey on my old blog and asked, “What does ‘Keep it Real’ or ‘cycling specific’ mean to you?” I also posted it on a popular indoor cycling forum and asked instructors to ask their students to respond. I received over 100 responses. Most were favorable, but the negative responses taught me a lot about perception.

Some of those negative responses were as follows:

  • keeping it real means the class is going to be boring
  • you have to stay seated the whole time
  • not enough variety 
  • only geeky cyclists in lycra like it
  • it’s “elitist”
  • the music is not fun
  • the class isn’t going to be as hard 
  • the instructors are monotone and unmotivating

None of these are correct, but these perceptions had to come from somewhere. It’s true, there are instructors with little to no coaching experience who teach “cycling-specific” classes that stay in the saddle most of the time, and play music that doesn’t match their profile. In short, they are boring instructors who have not learned how to coach or to engage students. So yes, “keep it real” has gotten a bad name in some areas because of boring instructors. I wouldn’t like those classes either.

The results of this survey is one reason why I created the Indoor Cycling Association. Misinformation is rampant and there is not enough exercise science or real cycling technique taught in some indoor cycling certifications. Once certified, instructors have little incentive to increase their knowledge, and/or it is just not convenient enough. Education needs to be made more accessible than just at orientations, conferences, or workshops; many instructors simply do not have access and/or the means to travel. And it needs to be more affordable.

There is so much more to being a good instructor/coach than just being a great DJ or group exercise instructor, but before ICA, access to vetted, exercise science–based education outside of one’s initial certification was limited.

The misinformation about keeping it real continues to be perpetuated. An article called “Keeping it Fun” was posted on another indoor cycling website. The author stated that while she used to support the concept of “keeping it real,” she had abandoned it in favor of “keeping it fun.”

This creates the false impression that the two are mutually exclusive; that in order to have fun, you can’t keep it real. That is simply not true.

She suggested that the two concepts—”Fun” versus “Real”—are two completely different classes. But if the equipment doesn’t change, and the science of working our bodies on that equipment doesn’t change, how can they be different? Why should there be a drastic difference in technique? You are still attached to the pedals in both instances, you turn the pedals in the same way, you still sit on the seat the same, and the biomechanics of movement on that machine are the same. The exercise science is the SAME. An example of two completely different exercise classes is BodyPump vs. Pilates, or Zumba vs. Yoga—different movements, different equipment, but riding a bike correctly and riding a bike incorrectly are not two different classes.

There is definitely a schism in this industry and unfortunately, the gap is getting wider. On one side of the gap lies the science, along with virtually all of the reputable indoor cycling certifying agencies and programs. This includes Spinning®, Stages Cycling, Schwinn, Keiser, RealRyder, Cycling Fusion, Indoor Cycling Group, C.O.R.E. Cycling in Canada, and Velocity and Performance Cycling in the UK.

On the other side of that schism…well, you’ve got the “keep it fun” mentality, far away from the science of exercise. I’ve not yet met anyone who can argue with scientific facts that support what they are doing.

So it’s time to put the stake in the ground and make it known exactly what Keep it Real means and what it does NOT mean.

After all, I wrote the book on the subject! 😉 

What does Keep it Real mean?

1. The term means that you respect the biomechanics of turning the pedals, and understand that those rules of biomechanics don’t change from outside to inside, or from a cyclist to a non-cyclist. If it’s ineffective or potentially dangerous for a cyclist, then a non-cyclist has the right to be protected from those dangerous techniques, too.

2. To keep it real means you respect that even a stationary bike is still a bike and that how you fit on it and how you turn the pedals is essentially the same.

The cycling industry (over 100 years strong) has known for a long time that riding with incorrect technique and poor setup can cause discomfort, pain, and even chronic injury, in addition to reducing performance (power output) because of the inability to effectively apply force to the pedals. Hence, pushing the butt back (hovers or tap-backs), lowering the hips (squats or isolations), or bringing the shoulders to the handlebars (various upper body maneuvers) essentially takes indoor riders to the same positions that cyclists avoid because they hurt. How can it suddenly become “effective” in the name of “fitness” when it was never effective before?

3. To keep it real means you respect the rules of physics. Your resistance times your cadence equals your power output (the power equation is Power = Force X Velocity). Most of the popular gimmicks reduce power output and detract from real work, reducing caloric expenditure. So, if the technique is going to reduce your power output (and calories) outdoors, then it means that you understand it will do the same indoors. If you do something that impedes your power output, such as push-ups, squats, or tap-backs, then you are impeding your fitness.

4. It means you know enough about exercise physiology to know that lifting 1–3 pounds or doing pushups while upright will not engage enough muscle fibers to trigger a physiological adaptation and are therefore a waste of time*. The body is inherently lazy; it won’t call in more muscle fibers than are needed for the task. Therefore, strength or fitness gains will not happen. Students shouldn’t be misled that these upper body moves are doing something beneficial when they are not. (*Unless perhaps you are ninety years old and can barely lift your arms, or are rehabbing an injury.)

5. It means you know enough about core training to know that crunching while sitting upright is not working the core. While you are reading this on your computer, place your hands on the desk or table in front of you and crunch (flex your spine). How much core training are you getting? None. It is no different on a bike.

6. It means you know that contracting the abdominals while riding inhibits your ability to ride outside, essentially putting a crimp in your O2 delivery system, hindering the transfer of oxygen to your working muscles. Contracting the abs while riding also restricts pelvic movement and alignment, greatly reducing power. Instead, you encourage your riders to train their core off the bike in Pilates or other core training sessions.

What does Keep it Real NOT mean?

1. It does not mean that the class will be boring. If the students are bored, then it’s the instructor who is boring. Read this article about boring instructors. There are so many other ways to keep a class fun and engaging without resorting to gimmicks or constantly changing positions. In fact, resorting to gimmicks means the instructor can’t or won’t take the time to learn profile design or thought-provoking coaching.

Not being boring also means the instructor knows how to use music effectively to match the message of the profile. This is a skill that every single instructor should polish, and is one of the key skills taught at the Indoor Cycling Association.

2. Keep it Real and Keep it Fun are NOT mutually exclusive. After 10 years presenting at WSSC, I can guarantee you, the Friday night rides at that conference are a huge party in that ballroom, with hundreds of smiling and excited faces on the bikes. The whole room gets into a party groove, but there are never any tap-backs, squats, hovers, push-ups, crunches, or other silly maneuvers.

It’s not just Spinning®. The motto of the Schwinn program is #RideRight, and they have a workshop on motivation called, “Rockstars, Preachers, and Party People—How to Win in the New Era of Coaching.” Their tagline is Who said authentic cycling can’t be a party?

News flash: It can! 

Fun is great…but does “fun” mean the same thing to everyone? Is “fun” the opposite of “boring”? Is it the goal of every student? Should it be the goal of every class you teach? What if pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is your goal, even if some might not consider it “fun”? What if being inspired to engage your mind with your body is your idea of a great class? What if exceeding your self-perceived limitations is what made you leave a class with a happy heart? That is the amazing beauty of indoor cycling; it can have different goals and mean different things to different people. Christine Nielsen has written an excellent article that will challenge your perception of “Fun vs Real.”

3. To Keep it Real does not mean you have to wear a cycling kit, Lycra shorts, or a jersey. Padded shorts are certainly more comfortable, and cycling shoes much more effective, but they are not mandatory. You can wear whatever the heck you want!

4. It doesn’t mean you have to sit in the saddle for long periods. If you are teaching to a group of cyclists training for a specific purpose, then yes, you’ll spend more time seated. But for a typical class, you can still keep it real while changing up the terrain and getting out of the saddle. Of course, you should train your students to sit longer than a minute or two, because it is in the saddle where they build their greatest power and endurance, but by no means do you have to stay seated for 10 minutes at a stretch.

Tom Scotto is one of the best examples of instructors who keeps it real in everything he does. He is an exceptional outdoor cyclist who knows the biomechanics of riding a bike, and his classes are always cycling specific. But his classes are never dull. On the contrary, they are exciting, fun, empowering, and always very different…and he’s out of the saddle plenty.

5. As for the claims that the cycling-specific instructors who keep it real are monotonous or not motivating, I have an idea about how this perception came to be. Over the years, there have been many cyclists who started teaching indoor cycling who thought since they knew about “cycling,” they did not need to get certified. Therefore, they never learned group exercise skills or how to motivate people. It’s highly possible they are pretty boring—I’d probably be willing the class to end quickly too!

The solution is that everyone taking on this role as an instructor should learn all three aspects of being a qualified and engaging indoor cycling instructor: group fitness skills, exercise physiology, and cycling technique.

6. It does not mean you have to be an avid outdoor cyclist to teach a good class that keeps it real. You should, however, endeavor to learn more about riding a bike, and of course, to honor the biomechanics of cycling. I suggest to new instructors who aren’t cyclists to borrow a bike for a weekend, to try all the movements they are considering doing indoors. Ride the bike uphill in and out of the saddle, ride flat roads while pedaling at high and low cadences using low and high gears, and try holding in the abs while riding. Try doing push-ups.. Anyone who does this will be a better indoor instructor for that experience.

Indo-Row is an indoor rowing group exercise class. There are far fewer people who have rowed on a real body of water than who have ridden a bicycle. However, the Indo-Row certification requires instructors to understand and respect the biomechanics of rowing. There are no made-up silly moves on a rower! You wouldn’t go into a class and ask the instructor, “Can I do a biceps curl with this handle? I’m never going to row a real boat, so what does it matter?”

Similarly, you wouldn’t go into a kickboxing class and tell the instructor, “I’m not a real boxer and never will be, so forego the safety stuff…I just want to kick the heck out of this bag!” Punching and kicking safely require a laser focus on proper technique.

Proper technique in all sports and activities should be respected for maximal success and minimal chance of injury. Riding a stationary bicycle is no different.

7. It does not mean the instructor, or the class, is “elitist”; most are not. But, I acknowledge that the “elitist” perception came from somewhere. There is a market for cycling-specific classes targeted directly at cyclists to prepare for outdoor riding. These classes may be filled with cyclists in their club kits, and it’s possible that these riders turned up their noses at those “other” classes that are bouncing all over the place doing silly gimmicks. In that case, it’s easy to label them as “elitist.”

The point is, there are differences in the marketplace, so these classes should be labeled as separate classes from others. But always remember that cyclists are not the only ones that have the right to properly performed, safe, and effective workouts on a bike.

As I’ve already explained, you don’t have to be doing exactly what these cyclists are doing with long in-the-saddle rides; just keep it real, keep it motivating, keep them engaged, and keep them safe while still keeping it fun!

A few years ago I wrote this blog post asking why some instructors openly choose to not learn about how to teach correctly and safely. There are 40 comments on this post which you may find interesting.


 

Many thanks to Rachel Buschert Vaziralli, who provided the image at the top of the page and is someone who shares my passion for real and effective training. Rachel has her master’s degree in exercise physiology, is a master trainer for Schwinn Cycling, an avid cyclist, and a top-level Equinox instructor in the challenging market of New York City. You’ll never do a tap-back, push-up, isolation, or crunch in her classes and they are still full! She preaches the Schwinn motto of #RideRight wherever she goes, and she has the science to back her statements up.

10 Responses to “What “Keep it Real” Means…And What It Does NOT Mean in Indoor Cycling Classes”

  1. nigel says:

    I’m a relative newbie to indoor cycling, joined my local gym for spinning due to the appalling winter weather. I’m an experienced cyclist short and long distance (road, mtb, TT, race, sportive etc.) and on the whole I have found it has improved/maintained my fitness. Its really good to read an article like this, there are some really good instructors out there and some are even willing to give real cycling a go just to see the differences. (though if you are reading miss b – did you really think you were going to beat me up that hill 😉 ) There are some poor instructors too. I’m not sure its just down to which philosophy they subscribe to, just good and bad. It is sad though how few actually have any real experience on the road. A couple of points though. A 45 min session is never going to condition you to the demands of a 10 hour endurance ride, so in my view staying in the saddle is not that important as its really not going make that much difference. You are never going to develop efficiency on a static bike because we are simply not getting feedback in terms of speed/distance/effort, so again I’m not too worried about a bit of bobbing around in class if its fun. It is however, easy to fall in to bad habits, as long as you are aware of them and basically ignore the instructor who encourages them then its fine. A few real hates though. Very high rpm sprinting on low resistance (e.g. 140+rpm) really doesn’t do anything other than loosen everything on the static bike and risk your feet flying out of the usually poorly maintained cleats. Pushing down with the heels out of the seat on climbs is just wrong. mucking about with rapid hand position changes is distracting and its hard to see what its meant to do. Lastly its really important to keep your head up looking forward so as not to lose the important neck muscles developed from say TT riding. But the main point is indoor cycling can be very complementary to outdoor training but you have to still do plenty of miles outdoors to develop efficiency.

  2. Kim, thanks so much for your response! You are the reason why I push for this, despite naysayers who want me to “put this to bed”. There is beauty in keeping it authentic and safe, and it usually equates to a much greater success in fitness, weight loss, as well as performance. Instructors, clubs and studios need to hear more from programs like yours…that they can have full classes with happy clients who LOVE to learn!

    I will never stop waving this flag! 😉

  3. Kim Donnelly says:

    Jennifer,

    Great article! Since opening my studio 4 years ago, I have always fought to Keep It Real. I am a road cyclist and Madd Dog certified and I had taught spinning for years; Your book was the only tool I found that helped me to incorporate my 2 loves. In my opinion keeping it real is THE ONLY WAY TO GO!! In fact, when hiring instructors it is the one thing I insist on. I have a large variety of clientele from cyclists to moms and they all train together and they all reep the benefits. My 75 min endurance class on Tues continually has a waitlist, and it is a true endurance class working primarily Zone 2 and pushing occasionally up to Zone 4 (LT). This class gladly does 20 min in the saddle tempo flats without a complaint followed by a variety of hills and hill repeats……WHY? because we educate them on the benefits of riding at this intensity. People want to know THE WHY. I have been told frequently that we train differently than any other studio, that our classes are more structured but sooooo much fun! People see the benefits of riding properly, with good form and technique, and that keeps them coming back. We keep it real ( in fact our motto is if you wouldn’t do it outside on a bike you won’t do it here), BUT we have fun!! My instructors are all amazing at bringing variety thru theme nights, Top 40 rydes, DJ spins etc so it is never dull but we never stray from our cycling roots. I have the best instructors in the city as far as I am concerned and they all KEEP IT REAL 🙂

    Kim

  4. Chuck Cali says:

    Jennifer,

    Of all the master trainers, cycling coaches, great instructors and experts in our industry you are one of two (Jim Karanas being the other) that had the most influence on my instructing. As such I am very disappointed to see that you felt you had to write this voluminous post.

    After my first ride to one of your classes I was sold. You are at your best when you are on an indoor cycle telling a story. Your rides to famous Tour de France stages are in a category all their own. Legendary even. They stand as testimony that an instructor can deliver an awesome class, touch their riders in special ways and keep it real without ever mentioning a word about training or outdoor riding. Your next book should be titled; Ride the Story.

    I was sold on how your story telling delivery style could motivate everyone in the room. Especially the indoor cyclist. Even back then – when I was first entering the upper stratosphere of Master Trainer level teaching – I knew that full classes and happy, returning riders were what management wanted. Your style all but guaranteed that.

    But I want to be clear. Keep it Real the book was – for me – about education. Or so I thought. I never got Keep it Real as the only ‘right way’ to teach, but as a reference on good teaching/riding form.

    The issue at hand is really instructor education (or lack of). That is why you wrote Keep it Real. Education. The kind of education that goes beyond the eight hour one day certification. It is a fact, knowledgeable, educated instructors, deliver safe and effective classes.

    Your teaching style incorporates keep it real. And no one does your style better. And maybe, that is part of the problem. In the absence of your skill set and experience I hope you can understand that many instructors trying to find their way can get overwhelmed by all this keeping it real. They forget their most important job. Filling the room with riders and giving them a good reason to come back.

    Additionally, boutique studio owners are in the business of indoor cycling. The success of such an enterprise is most often determined by profit and not by how real the classes are. These people have risked much to follow their dream. Finding the right recipe for success could be as simple swapping the word real for fun. Don’t take it so personally.

    When researching for this comment/post I re-read Tom Scotto’s post; It REALLY is about the instructor. True THAT!! All over the world instructors like Kathy Ehrlich-Scheffer, Tom Scotto and you have connected with their riders. They’ve done it hundreds of different ways. Many of which I fear would not pass muster on the playing field of Keep it Real.

    Jennifer, this was another well written treatise but I’m thinking, it is time to give this single minded, all consuming, keep it real crusade, a vacation.

    Perhaps you could start on your next eBook; Ride the Story.

  5. Thanks everyone! And keep spreading the love!
    Annie, where are you in Denver? I need to stop by Epic Ryde next time I’m on the front range!

  6. Jan Lochridge says:

    When you are the big dog in town, all the other little yappers come nipping at your heels. Yet another misguided attempt by the folks at that other organization to differentiate themselves from ICA, much to the detriment of indoor cycling instructors and participants everywhere. You’re the big dog, Jennifer – you teach the truth, and they teach…well, they don’t teach. Keep barking.

  7. Annie says:

    Thank you! We love this article. We keep it real at Epic Ryde in Denver and love passing on the ICA’s support of this notion. It has been shared with our Members.

  8. Pru says:

    A big ‘hell yeah!’ to all of the above. Keep singing it from the rooftops, keep reminding people again and again to keep it as real as possible, keep battling the BS and never surrender to the drivel that fills the world of indoor cycling. If we keep educating people about safe, effective and fun practice, then one day, I hope, proper regulation of IDC will come about.

    Good analogy with boxing. A PT I greatly respect teaches boxercise and would never ever compromise his class from a safety point of view – I’ve been in his class where he’s asked people to leave who were deliberately doing stupid stuff.

    I didn’t mention it because I was not sure if it was fun enough, but to have my whole class spontaneously sing along to the Proclaimers 500 Miles was a highlight recently. And we had a Riverdance-off (no real dancing, but nice big jumps) on a 2 hour ride that toured the UK, musically!

  9. Paula Crowe says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, and to make it open to non-members of ICA so we can share it. Your dedication and passion for the indoor cycling industry is greatly appreciated!!!

  10. Renee Shapurji says:

    vast amount of information here and so glad you opted to make it free content. I think back to our conversation about what IS keeping it real and this helps to tie many of the concepts and idea together.

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