The Many Benefits of Spin Class That Prove It’s so Much More Than a Leg Workout

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Photo: Getty Images/RichLegg
Ahhh, the joys of riding a bike. You can leisurely zoom around your neighborhood or trek across a town on vacation. Or, you could remain totally in place... in your home... while getting your heart rate up and sweat dripping down. The benefits of spin class abound, and if you've never hopped on a bike to check off your cardio for the day, allow me to tell you why it's such a top-notch workout.

Riding a stationary bike in a fitness studio (or at home while streaming a workout) is quite different than your run-of-the-mill bicycle riding. “You’re going in for an experience that involves an elevated heart rate, lots of support, and loud music,” says Kendall Toole, Peloton instructor. “Spin classes are a great way to get lost in an experience that helps your body and mind as you get lost in something that takes you away from the day-to-day life.” Keep scrolling for all of the perks of taking a spin class, how it impacts your body, and tips for getting the most out of your sessions.

Spin class benefits

As you would imagine, pedaling really, really hard and going as fast as you can for extended intervals is challenging for your lower body, in particular. But trainers say that cycling is a full-body workout. “A common misconception about cycling is that it’s only a leg workout,” says Toole. “Of course your main muscles that are prime movers in the workout are your quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors, plus your glutes. But you’re also working your entire core, and that involves more than your rectis abdomonis and transverse abs—it includes your lower back.”

That's because there's a good bit of muscle control that's required to stabilize your trunk. “It’s all about supporting the body—the better your form is on the saddle, the more stability is required in order to make sure that you’re finding that power when pedaling through different portions of the class,” says Toole, nodding to sprint intervals particularly. “And, most importantly, you’re working your cardiovascular capacity too.”

Besides all of the muscles that you’re working while cycling, the bikes in spin class and techniques used challenge you in various ways. “There are two key things that you’re looking at while riding,” says Toole. “You have your cadence, or your speed, which is controlled by how quickly you move your legs. Then you have your resistance. When you turn it, it gets heavier, so you’re emulating the experience of going uphill or downhill.”

Another element that gets worked in a spin class is balance. Oftentimes, a spin instructor will have you stand up and down in the bike seat, or saddle. “We call up and downs out of the saddle a ‘jog,’ where you take your body out of the seat and shift your weight,” says Toole. “It’s like you’re actually flying, especially when your speed is up and your body is lifted off of your feet—you’re finding that power and holding your core and using your balance and stability to keep yourself moving forward.” Standing up on the pedals is something you’ll often do in sprints, or as a drill to get your heart rate up as it tests your balancing skills.

What to expect in an at-home spin class

Whether you’re getting your spin class sweat on in your fave cycling studio or on your at-home spin bike, you’re going to reap the same benefits (number one being: feel-good endorphins). "In a spin class, everyone is focused on doing their best," says Toole. "At a certain point, you can get lost in the workout, your endorphins are rushing, you're sweaty, and you're feeling great. And that's why you keep going back." But certain major differences can make spinning at home different than the studio experience.

Riding your at-home bike, you can spin on your own, or you can stream one of a number of spin class apps that you can download. Major ones include Peloton ($13 per month for a membership with a 30-day free trial), Studio SWEAT onDemand ($20 per month), CardioCast ($10 per month), and the Variis app ($40 per month). Toole notes that the studio standard for the length of a spin class workout is between 45 to 50 minutes, but many apps—like Peloton—offer everything from five minute classes all the way up to a 90-minute endurance ride (and everything in between). "Our most popular classes are in the 30-minute to 45-minute range," she says. As for what to keep in mind for your best at-home workout, here are her tips:

1. Have the proper bike setup: "If your setup isn't correct or your form isn't proper, it can take away from the power that you create on the bike, and it can stress your body," she says. "A lot of times the seat can be put down either too low or too far forward, which can give you an arch in the back and really stress the lower back muscles and make you feel contracted." The key is to have the seat height give you a 10 or 20 percent bend in the knees, and when your knee is bent right before you push on the pedal, your pedal is directly above the toe box. "You should be in a straight line from your knee to the ball of the foot," says Toole. "Make sure you can really push down and create the level of output that your body needs in order to get a better workout out of it." If you need help, she points to YouTube, which has plenty of tutorials for setting your bike up properly.

2. Challenge yourself: According to Alex Harrison, PhD, sports performance consultant, you want to make your spin class uncomfortable (as far as your effort goes). "All of the best training adaptations come from suffering when it comes to cardiovascular fitness," he says. "The biggest VO2 max and threshold improvements are going to be seen with two to three really challenging sessions per week." Also, Toole says that it's common to think that you'll plateau if you're spinning at home for days on end. But there are easy ways to make sure this doesn't happen. "A lot of spin class apps let you track your progress, which shows your output for each class and what your personal best is," she says. "You'll know if you should up your resistance a little more or speed up, or take your numbers a little higher in your next workout." Her pro tip? When your instructor calls out a resistance range, add one more point than you usually do, which results in you continually creating more strength in your body.

3. Take advantage of the community: When you're using a fitness app like Peloton, you can choose to take spin classes live with hundreds of other people. "There are so many different features that allow you to connect with a leaderboard," says Toole. "Or you can compete with yourself and that personal best number that you have."

4. Drop your worries: Harrison strongly recommends dropping your workout fears and trying not to hold back. "Push yourself! Anxiety about how you’ll do or if you’ll be able to make it until the end of the class will limit how much you get out of it. If you have to recover for a second then jump back in, do it." His take? You'll be even more proud of yourself than if you wondered "what if?".

5. Listen to your body: Even when taking an at-home spin class, Toole says that you have plenty of support. "But the key thing is to always listen to your body—if something is giving you an alert that it's uncomfortable, it's because something is going on," she says. Make sure that you have body awareness and keep your form proper throughout your workout. She recommends placing your bike near a mirror so that you can watch your form firsthand and make sure everything's in its proper place.

Spinning classes in the studio

Although the nation's fitness studios are closed for the time being due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this doesn't mean that they're never to open back up and that you'll never be able to ride with an IRL class ever again. This is great news, because in-studio spinning is quite the experience.

If you've never been to a studio class before, Toole acknowledges that the first time can be intimidating, which is only exacerbated by the act of clipping into your bike. "Know that this is going to be awkward the first time as you find a way to attach," she says. "But know that there are always instructors to help you through that."

Besides getting set up, expect the spin class to be an immersive workout. "Usually the lights are dim, there's loud music, and your mind and body get lost in the exercise," says Toole. Be sure to arrive at class early, bring a water bottle and a towel, wear a comfortable workout outfit, and wear the proper sneakers (some studios let you rent cycling shoes that clip in). Once things get started and your legs start pedaling harder and faster, your heart rate is going to spike, you're going to get sweaty, and you're going to have an exhilarating, fun time.

BTW, this is what it's like to take an *underwater* cycling workout: 

This is what to know if cycling gives you knee pain. And here are expert-approved spinning safety tips you should know about before clipping in. 

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