Cadence is a sensitive topic in the world of indoor cycling instructors and indoor cycling programs. Friendships can begin and end in a conversation about it.
The purpose of this article is to share and inform, not to condemn or criticize. It is my hope that after reading this, you will make a simple informed choice to pedal, and encourage others to pedal, at a safe cadence range in your indoor cycling classes.
The Arguments for High Cadence
I have heard all the arguments for why people should pedal at cadences of 120, 130, and even 140+ rpm, such as:
Track riders do it.
Because I can.
Fixed gear riders do it.
It trains pedaling efficiency.
It drives heart rate.
Improves muscle memory.
Rather than argue those points, I’ll tell you a story.
I was teaching a full class. It was a familiar cast of regular riders with no newbies. Everyone was familiar with the safety protocols of the facility and the rules of our imaginary road. I reiterated them anyway.
One of the riders was late to class. She was young and strong. She had no physical restrictions and was an avid runner and indoor cyclist. Let’s call her Mary. She had been indoor cycling for about a year.
Whereas everyone else was well into their warm-up, Mary was trying to “catch up.” The group was pedaling at a cadence of 100 rpm. I established this by playing a song with a tempo of 100 bpm and having them pedal to the beat. Mary accelerated quickly beyond this to about 130 rpm. Her pedaling was smooth and in control.
I would have preferred that she follow my instructions and guidelines, but she was a powerful athlete and I assumed she would rejoin the group as soon as she felt sufficiently warmed up. Mary and I had spoken many times before and after class about different cycling methods; therefore, I knew she was trying to warm up faster by pedaling fast. I had advised her against that, but it was what she preferred.
Mary could pedal smoothly, without bouncing, at 130 or more rpm seated or standing. Mary stood up. My first thought was, “Slow it down. Join the group…”
Suddenly, the cleat in her shoe detached from the pedal. The pedal hit her in the calf. With a delayed response, she hit the brake. We made eye contact as I dismounted my bike to head toward her. She had clipped the foot of the injured leg back into the pedal and was just frozen. She looked down at her leg then back up at me with a look of shock. I ran to her.
The extent of the injury to Mary’s calf was extremely severe. We called 911 and managed to keep Mary as calm as we could while waiting for the paramedics. She was going into shock. The ambulance came and Mary was taken to the hospital.
Mary was lucky to not require extensive surgery and has since fully recovered. She has a 4-inch scar, stories to tell, and is a big advocate of not exceeding 110 rpm on an indoor cycling bike.
Now, I know some of you reading this will start looking for someone or something to blame. You may blame me, Mary, the facility, the equipment, or some combination thereof. Feel free to blame away.
The point that I am making is that this can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Just because you have not experienced it does not mean that you won’t. I hope you never do. I do not want this to ever happen to anyone ever again.
I Now Lead My Classes Differently
This unfortunate experience with Mary’s injury forever changed the way I lead a group exercise class. My teaching is the same, but I lead my riders differently. I no longer am concerned with how strong and experienced an individual rider is, or his or her ability to pedal with control at 130+ rpm. In my class pedaling above 130 rpm is strictly forbidden.
Some of you may say that such high cadences are safe as long as the rider is in control. Well, that’s like saying it’s safe as long as no one gets hurt! You cannot control all the variables of what could happen at such speeds. You cannot control all the variables at the speeds I am recommending either. However, I think that we can all agree that Mary’s injury would have been much less severe had she not been pedaling as fast. Such high cadence is simply an unnecessary increase in risk. The safest and most effective alternative to high cadence in indoor cycling is the obvious—increased resistance, therefore slower cadence.
I’ve shared Mary’s injury with you. I hope the story inspires you to think about protecting yourself and other riders by keeping the cadence below 110 rpm in your indoor cycling classes. Keep higher cadences where they belong: on the track, in specialized racing training, on appropriate bikes, on trainers, and where increased risk is acceptable—outside of group exercise classes like indoor cycling.
Indoor cycling is one of the safest forms of group exercise. Let’s keep it that way. I hope you will consider limiting the cadences you ride at in your classes. Instead, add resistance and pedal harder at under 110 rpm. You will get a great workout—one that is safe and proven to be effective.
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ICA Welcomes Caesar Russell
Caesar is an energetic instructor who will give 100% and ask you to do the same. He has been instructing for over 10 years in a wide variety of unique fitness formats from inline skating to equestrianism. You are guaranteed to have fun, learn a lot, and be challenged in every one of Caesar’s classes.
Caesar, I loved your article. I am also a contributor and I welcome you to ICA.
I’d only say that the top effective seated RPM in my experience is about 110 RPM. I have hardly ever seen anyone pedaling effectively above that. (I could count on one hand in more than ten years of teaching.) Yet, I see instructors asking classes for RPM’s of 110-130.
I agree about the safety risks and I’d say that 100 rpm is a more effective limit for teaching.
Also, 100+RPM’s from a standing position are nearly impossible to obtain and totally impossible to control.
Great story, great tone to the article. I look forward to seeing more.
Early on in our Spinning program at the first place I taught (and ran the program) we required everyone to raise the handlebars after class to the highest point so they would dry off and not rust.
That was actually NOT a wise thing to do because some people raise them ABOVE the highest hole, so they are not seated.
Not everyone checks the handlebars when they get on the bike. I had just started class, a late rider walks in, gets on a bike, and the handlebars were not secured. He puts his weight on them, they fall out, and he pitches forward. His face just grazed the seat slider of the bike in front of him, about an inch from his eye. He had a little scratch and a sore ego, but boy oh boy did we avert disaster! Can you imagine if his eye had hit the corner of that seat slider?
We took very good care of him, management made sure he was fine, and he even came back and rode the rest of class with me!
Needless to say, we STOPPED that requirement of raising the handlebars. Just not worth the risk. What’s a little rust? 😉
A few years ago, I was asked to provide an expert legal opinion, on a similar accident that occurred in a class in a large health club. The handlebar had fallen out of the bike while the participant was warming up. He had pitched forward and suffered a severe injury when the head tube of the bike impaled him in the groin. Before that case, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of the handlebar being pulled OUT of the bike if not secure. Now, I recommend all instructors make sure participants check that handlebars are locked securely into place before riding. If they tend to mount their bikes early to warm up, address the subject anyway — they’ll be more likely to check their bikes in the future BEFORE they mount them.
oh wow Doug. After that accident in my class, I actually had nightmares about the “what ifs” that could have happened. One of them was the scenario you just described. Thankfully he must have been slightly to the left of the head tube, otherwise he too would have had a serious groin injury. Guys, you can all wince in collective, imagined pain at the thought of it!
I am so very grateful that he fell “just right”, so he avoided that, or having his eye severely damaged or even lost, or cutting the side of his head open with the seat tube slider.
I once saw someone flip a bike. This was about 15 years ago – luckily I was a participant and not instructor.
They were going high RPM, low resistance…weight forward on the bars and next thing you know…over he goes.
Luckily no broken bones (just a broken ego), but now as an instructor I often recount that story when I see too many trying for speed.
wow! That could have been incredibly serious!
Very well written! If the workout is just as (if not more) effective at a slower cadence, and safer, then there’s no real argument.
I’m happy to be a part of the ICA community.
And we are so happy to have you! This article is a great reminder that we all need to be vigilant, and to stick to best practices! Thank you so much for sharing it with everyone.
Accidents can and do happen, we can’t pretend that they don’t. It is incumbent upon us, as responsible group fitness instructors, to take every precaution to make sure our classes are taught int he safest and most effective manner possible.
Welcome Ceasar. Great article!