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How the Heck Do Those Spinning Bikes Work?


Written by:
Bobby Kelly
I recently got an email from my client, Cindy, regarding Spinning bikes. Cindy asked if she could take a spinning class to add some variety to her workout. I said sure assuming she had looked into it a little bit or at the very least glanced into the window of the room while a class was going on.

Well needless to say, Cindy didn't have a clue what the intensity would be like nor did she realize the spinning bikes are different than any other bike she had ever ridden before.

For those of you who don't know, the bikes were invented to mimic conditions of actual road biking like in the Tour De France. Therefore, instead of only having the ability to add resistance the way we all are used to doing it, by changing gears, the wheel in front of the stationary bike (flywheel) is weighted. Which means it could weigh between 35 and 55 lbs instead of 1 or 2 lbs. Normally, that would sound like no big deal. But as many of you know, when you decide to stop pedaling on a bike, you normally glide or coast. Well you can't do that on a Spinning bike and Cindy did not realize that until well after the instructor told her to pedal as fast as she could.

After her legs felt like they were going to go flying off... then her instructor said they would start climbing a hill and that she needed to increase the resistance on her bike. The instructor started saying things like -"Take a full turn up! Another half turn... You should be working hard now." "Crank it down so you feel the road... now add big turn clockwise... climbing the hill now... add more resistance by turning it up... now it's really steep."

Cindy had no idea what any of those instructions meant and that is what I am here to clear up right now.

Spinning is a great form of cardio. It is motivating to have an instructor guide you through a program while being surrounded by like-minded participants who are there for the same reasons. You all want to get a good workout, lose some unwanted body fat, keep heart healthy, lighten your own personal stress load and have some fun along the way.

The resistance knob in question is the tool used to add tension to the flywheel so that you feel as if you are climbing a hill or if the knob is loose then you feel as if you are screaming along the open road and cruising. As an instructor, I believe there should always be some sort of tension.

If you have never taken a class, I would recommend it. But here are some things to keep in mind before you do. Spinning bikes are used frequently throughout the day. This means that they have wear and tear on them. Each bike will wear differently and therefore the resistance knob may be tight on one bike and not so tight on another.

Bikes in your gyms have resistance mechanisms that can vary tremendously. If you decide to take the approach of listening to an instructor based on turning the knob to vary your resistance, you may have a very hard time getting through the ride with a specific benefit (strength, endurance, etc).

So What?

Recently I read of a study an instructor did at his club that tested 21 bikes to see the varying resistance for each bike. Here is what he found.

The first measurement was the number of turns from all the way "off" (maximum counterclockwise) up to where he could "feel the road." This is a bit subjective, but not very-even a beginning rider can tell the difference between free-wheeling and a wheel that offers some resistance. The second measurement was the number of turns from "feeling the road" to "that's it-I can barely pedal a full revolution." using his personal limit. How different were the bikes from each other? The table shows the minimum and maximum number of turns among the bikes for the two measurements, and also the total number of turns from bottom to top end.

The differences among the bikes were mostly at the low end. Some riders will feel the road after three turns from the bottom, while others will turn (and turn, and turn) seven full revolutions before anything happens. So if riders start their rides at the very bottom, and the instructor just talks about taking quarter turns, half turns, and full turns, some riders will still be free-wheeling while others will already be into moderate-heavy territory. Rider inexperience, coupled with our human tendency to take the easy path if we can while still obeying orders, will thwart the instructor's intention to guide a ride according to traditional categories of benefit. --Results were found by Gordon Bermant who teaches Spinning in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

I want you to learn a few things from this article. First, if you decide to take Spinning classes it is important for you to be very aware of how you feel and the amount of energy you are expending. This is what you should base your workout on, not the specific instructions.

Second, I am a fan of Spinning and I like the idea of someone pushing you to do you best throughout your training session for 30-60 minutes. If it can't be me, I want it to be someone trusted like a certified group training instructor.

Finally, if you are going to do some training on your own outside of a class setting, remember that not all cardio machines are created equal, especially the spinning bikes. There is a great deal of maintenance that needs to go into a bike and you should be aware that some bikes are easier to ride than others. If you are on a bike that takes 7 turns just to feel the tension, then you will need to take more turns to get you where you want to be when you work hard. If you are on a bike that turns 2 turns and you feel like the road just became a hill in San Francisco, then you will need to adjust accordingly. I like the idea of having variety in your workout regimen. And utilizing a spinning bike can be a good alternative to running on a treadmill or using the elliptical. Cross training is important in my style of training. Learning how to make the ride challenging when you need tough intervals and interpreting the varying resistance to rest when you are in a rest phase is an important part of those intervals.

So drop by a Spinning class. If that is not your thing, take one of the many cardio routines I have sent you over the past 2 years and try one of those programs on a Spinning bike. I think you will like the challenge.

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