If you've ever taken a spin class, you're familiar with the heart-pumping, loud music-playing, instructor-yelling sweat fest that is indoor cycling. Spinning can give you an incredible workout: If you know any spin devotees, you've probably noticed they're in pretty great shape. Cyclists and triathletes will sometimes use spinning in their training programs, but indoor cycling is very different from riding outdoors. There are a few key differences to be aware of so you can make sure the types of workouts you choose are best suited to your goals. Always talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Flywheels and Drivetrains
The biggest difference between spin and road bikes is that a spin bike has a 30- to 40-pound "flywheel," which provides the bike's stationary resistance. The flywheel is what keeps the pedals moving after you stop pedaling. Because your legs have to work against the flywheel's momentum to slow or control pedaling, your hamstrings are constantly engaged. When you're riding outdoors, you're pedaling against varying resistance from wind and the road. This places more of the workload on your quads and hip flexors to generate momentum. The momentum of the flywheel and the control of a stationary bike lend the spin bike to higher cadences than road bikes -- but this doesn't always equate to a more intense workout. Often, people in spin classes are pedaling very fast against very little resistance, so they aren't actually working that hard.
Terrain and Environment
The environment of a spin class can be exciting and interesting with the right instructor and music. However, some people find stationary cycling to be boring compared to the constantly changing scenery of outdoor rides. Also, the "climbs" you perform on a spin bike are not equivalent to the unstable road bike climbs on variable terrain. A spin bike doesn't afford you the side-to-side movement and upper body and core engagement that a road bike does. You cannot turn or lean on a spin bike, and you're not required to balance. As a result, the body mechanics used for a spin bike are different from those for a road bike.
The element of control is a major difference between spin and road bikes. The environment of an indoor cycling room or studio is controlled for temperature, and there are no weather threats such as rain or wind to contend with. When you don't have to stop and go in traffic or deal with unknown weather and terrain variables, you can control the intensity of your workout better. If you're training for heart rate or lactic threshold, riding on a stationary bike allows you to precisely control resistance and cadence in order to reach your desired intensity. Since you don't have to worry about traffic, turns or dead ends, you can continue riding while maintaining a specific level of effort for a specific amount of time on a spin bike.
Spinning is a good cross-training option for cyclists, runners and triathletes, but it's important that training on a spin bike isn't considered a substitution for road riding. Cyclists, especially, need to develop muscular strength and endurance in their quads and hip flexors, and the spin bike isn't the best way to do this. While athletes can certainly use spin bikes to improve aerobic endurance, they should still allow sufficient time on the road bike to work other leg muscles and practice road riding skills.
- Workouts in a Binder for Indoor Cycling; Wes Hobson and Dirk Friel
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.