Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on January 27, 2012
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Group cycling has become incredibly popular. Started by Johnny Goldberg (known in the trade as Johnny G) in the 1980s, the number of participants has doubled from about 1 million six years ago to well over 2 million "spinners" today. Twenty years ago, Johnny G, now age 50, was not satisfied with his fitness training and looked to augment his ability to compete at the highest level of cycling. He modified an ordinary bike to make it stationary and allow him to vary the resistance while pedaling. This way he could train hard indoors without having to think about avoiding obstacles on the roads.
But the bike itself is just a small part of what spinning is all about. Goldberg created a program with structure and motivation, set it to music, and started teaching his craft to fellow cyclists and exercisers. Word spread quickly about this fantastic workout and in 1992, Johnny G and one of his students, John Baudhuin, formed the company Mad Dogg Athletics Inc. They registered the name spinning as a trademark for the program and their own brand of bikes.
Technically, spinning is taught only by an instructor who has been certified by a Mad Dogg Athletics trainer. However, the terms spinning and group cycling have become synonymous, and today there are many variations of the original program. Group-cycling instructors are often certified through individual health clubs rather than the official training created by Johnny G.
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Walking Into Class
The exercise rooms and routines to get started are quite similar, no matter where you take the class. The bikes are pushed to the side of the room. You pick a bike, tilt it toward you so that you can roll it to a position on the floor facing the instructor, and adjust your seat and handlebar height. If you are just getting started, ask the instructor to advise you on proper positioning on the bike. Your knees should always be slightly bent, even at the bottom of a pedal stroke.
Strap yourself into the cages on the pedals. The pedals are connected to a weighted flywheel that spins with variable speed and resistance depending upon how quickly you move your legs and how much you crank up the resistance knob. Keep the resistance very light when you start spinning. The instructor will turn on the music and give you directions on warming up and easy stretching. The warm-up lasts five to 10 minutes as your muscles loosen up and your heart rate increases.
What happens next depends upon you and the instructor. Group cycling allows you to control how hard you wish to work in an atmosphere of fellow riders, all motivated by the instructor to push a little harder.
A class usually lasts 45 minutes, with a five-minute cool down and stretch at the end.
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What To Wear
You dont need much: a pair of shorts, shirts, sneakers, a towel and a full bottle of water. But for a few extra dollars your ride will be much more comfortable with a good pair of biking pants that have a soft inner pad. Most instructors also recommend biking shoes. Some shoes have special cleats that clip on to the pedals. I wear my running shoes and they work just fine. Make sure shoelaces are tied securely without any long ends that could get caught as you are pedaling.
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Use Heart Rate To Guide Your Training
The intensity of your workout during a spin class will vary. As you change the speed that you turn the pedals and adjust the amount of resistance, you will reach a perceived effort of exertion at which your brain begins telling you to back off. If you are a beginner, listen to these signals. Slow down and lower the resistance until that uncomfortable sensation passes. Keep your legs moving at the lighter resistance. Once you have recovered, start to increase exertion again. As you get into better spin shape, you will gradually push harder.
I highly recommend wearing a heart-rate monitor (cost is about $50 new). Your perceived effort of exertion is a sensation, and, like pain, it is modified by many other factors lack of sleep, stress, etc. Your heart rate is a good check on whether your brain is sending signals of perceived effort at a low work intensity. And on the other end of the scale, you may be surprised at the high level of your heart rate without feeling as though you are working that hard. By the way, it took me over two years of spinning four times a week to ever reach the point of being surprised at how fast my heart was pumping.
To use heart rate to help monitor your intensity, first calculate your approximate maximum heart rate. The most commonly used formula is 220 minus your age. For example, a 45-year-old will have a maximum of heart rate of 175 beats per minute (220 minus 45). If you are already very fit, you can add 10 beats per minute to this number. By the end of the 10-minute warm-up period of a spin class, you want to have your heart rate at 60% of maximum, a pulse rate of 105 for the 45-year-old. Your eventual goal will be to reach 80% to 85% of maximum (about 145 for a 45-year-old) for one-minute periods followed by recovery, letting your pulse fall back to the 60% to 65% range. You might repeat this up to 10 times during the class. More advanced classes reach even higher pulse targets for more extended time periods.
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Why Spinning Is Special
I have exercised regularly for the past 30 years. Before spinning, it was nice. I would feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing a short run or reading while riding a stationary bike for 30 to 40 minutes. Then I attended my first spin class in March, 2001. Forget nice, this was fantastic! I was hooked immediately and looked forward to the next class.
Its the high energy from the loud music, encouraging commands from the instructor who is sweating as much as you while not sounding winded, and your mates riding next to you grinding it out but not competing. And from one class to the next you feel yourself getting fitter.
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Howard LeWine, M.D. is chief editor of Internet publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.