My first indoor cycling experience was horrible. Lured by the promise of a toned butt and legs (and a 45 minute workout), I jumped on a bike in a dimly lit room and followed the teacher’s commands. The music boomed but I felt doomed. I was uncoordinated, even on a stationary machine, and I couldn’t keep up with anyone else in the class. It was years before I gave indoor cycling a second chance.
It was actually my boyfriend who motivated me to try cycling again. He occasionally did a class called RPM at our gym and couples who workout together, stay together right? This time the bike was much more comfortable and I found myself able to sprint and stand at the appropriate times. I did another class the following week and my endurance way much better. That was five years ago. Now, I do RPM once or twice a week depending on my schedule. I like the fact I can target my legs, the workout takes minimal coordination (great if you’re tired!) and it’s only 45 minutes.
Different gyms may offer similar cycling classes, such as Spin, Pace or “freestyle” riding where the instructor determines the workout. The general tips below still apply to these classes, although the format and fitness goals can differ.
If you’re thinking of taking an RPM class, here are my tips for before, during and after your workout:
RPM is part of the Les Mills group fitness offerings, which also includes BodyPump, BodyAttack and CXWorx. You’ll find the RPM format is similar around the world as the workout is pre-choreographed to music. You’ll be mostly listening to cover music, with anything from Fat Boy Slim, Rudimental and David Guetta to Justin Bieber. Different releases come out every quarter, but instructors will usually mix the tracks up after a month (and they usually take requests!).
The format is 45 minutes although you’ll find 30 minute RPM Express classes. Don’t assume they’re easier than the longer ones – the tracks are all high intensity with minimal recovery time. The track names below are unofficial, but used by most instructors I know:
- Track 1: Warm up
- Track 2: Mixed terrain – you’ll be sitting and occasionally standing
- Track 3: Hills – mostly standing, heavy resistance
- Track 4: Sprint – (slight recovery first) mostly sitting, lower resistance but speed-focused
- Track 5: HIIT (high intensity interval training) – bursts of energy, alternating between sitting and standing
- Track 6: Sprint – (usually recovery first) mostly sitting, with sprints of up to 90 seconds
- Track 7: Final track – often the most challenging, up to 7 minutes long with heavy resistance
- Track 8: Cool down & stretch
Depending on whether you’re better at speed or strength, you’ll find different tracks more challenging. I push myself most in Tracks 5 and 7 as I love cranking the resistance up, while the sprint tracks are hard too but I find they’re more manageable because of the recovery time at the start. You can do a “smart start” and leave after Track 5 if you need – just tell the instructor.
Before you leave home
Try to have fresh legs for your first class, i.e. don’t attempt a personal best run beforehand or do squats. Because there’s minimal impact and jumping around, I find I can eat before class without feeling sick (unlike BodyAttack or a run). Don’t apply hand moisturiser, but you can do you legs if you need.
What to wear
Fitted, stretchy pants that are at least knee-length are ideal. Long baggy shorts can restrict leg movement while short shorts might creep up when you stand up and sit down quickly. A shirt with some length at the back is good too, as you’ll be leaning over and may feel self-conscious if your lower back is exposed. Regular sneakers are fine too – you can upgrade to shoes with “cleats” (studs) later if you get hooked.
Several gyms have UV lights in their cycle rooms, so anything white will glow while other gyms will just dim the lights. Occasionally, I’ve done a class with full lighting so make sure you check how sheer your pants are check before you leave home. As always, bring a towel and water bottle. Your towel will be over handlebars so bring a small one (rather than a bulky beach towel).
Aim to be at least five minutes early so the instructor can help you setup your bike. If you arrive late, you may find yourself setting up in the dark! Each gym will likely have different bikes so I allow extra time when I visit new venues too.
If you have to set up your bike up yourself, start by adjusting the saddle to hip height. When you’re seated, spin your legs a few times. Your knees should be slightly bent when your feet are at the bottom. You can move the seat forward and back, along with the handlebars. If needed, you can adjust the bike between tracks throughout the class.
Obviously, there’s a bike. As mentioned, the models will differ between gyms but essentially you can adjust the following:
- Seat height: aim for your hip
- Handlebar height: personal preference, but lower will work your abs more
- Handlebars horizontally: move closer or further from your body
- Seat horizontally: move closer or further from the handlebars
- Resistance: a dial that dictates how hard or easy your legs spin
- Brake: usually a push-style button, in case of emergency
- Pedals: you may be able to secure your sneakers in the cage by tightening straps
Thankfully most of the lingo is self explanatory. Here are the the most common terms:
- Aero: Short for aerodynamic position, simply lean down, move your hands to the “D” or upside down “V” shape in the middle the handlebars and bend your elbows so you’re “tucked” in.
- Racing load: Instructors will refer to this a lot. It’s a resistance level you’ll find in the first or second track, where you can spin your legs with moderate pressure. It should be slightly challenging but manageable.
- Resistance (also load, gear): Make the workout easier or harder by adding or reducing resistance.
- Ride easy: A time to catch your breath but don’t “free spin”.
- Seated climb: Sit in the seat with resistance cranked so it feels like you’re cycling uphill.
- Sprint: Spin your legs as fast as you can with “racing load,” i.e. keep some pressure.
- Stand: Turn the resistance up and stand while keeping your hands on the handlebar.
during the workout
Drink water. Adjust your seat or handlebar position between tracks if you’re uncomfortable or if your lower back hurts. Watch how fast or slow others are spinning their legs as a guide, and listen to cues about adding or reducing resistance. Be sure to sit up and stretch your upper body by putting your hands behind the saddle a few times too (one of my favourite stretches!).
The next day & beyond
You’ll probably have jelly legs when you get off the bike, and you may feel stiff or wobbly as you walk out the gym. That’s normal. I guarantee you will have a sore crotch the next day, and you might even feel like it’s bruised. Rest assured, the pain will subside and over time your groin will get used to cycling. If you’re really struggling, you can buy padded pants for future class. Once, I was in such agony when returning from an extended holiday that I had to put a towel over the seat for cushioning.
Like every workout, you’ll get more comfortable over time as you become familiar with the moves and learn to push your limits. I love seeing how heavy I can take the resistance in climbing tracks and challenging my legs to get stronger. It’s also given me the confidence to try a triathlon one day, although I’ll need to practise swimming first! Les Mills recommends doing two to three classes per week for best results.
QUESTION: Do you prefer indoor or outdoor cycling?