By Steve Barnes
I don’t know exactly how many times a person gets asked “Is this your first time?” but I can pretty much guarantee it’s a question your instructor will ask you the first time you go to a spin class. And there are quite a few good reasons for that question. Spinning is a little bit like the backgammon of gym activities—it looks like there’s nothing to it (just get on the spin bike and start moving your legs around), but once you get started you begin to see that there’s a world of subtleties involved. The slightest adjustments in your bike, your clothes and your attitude can make the difference between a frustrating, exhausting experience that you get next to nothing out of and one that’s more like a party—one that might leave you sweaty and a little out of breath, but can also leave you feeling more energized than you were when you started. If you raise your hand, and get a few pointers from someone who knows what they’re doing, you won’t be sorry.
Finding a spin class couldn’t be much easier. Just about any gym you go to—from the YMCA to Equinox—has its room with the rows of bikes, the low lights, and the beefed-up sound system. And while there be something kind of forbidding about the spandex-clad hardcore spinners, don’t let that stop you. Spinning is something you can easily adjust to whatever level makes you comfortable. Not so comfortable that you don’t break a sweat, mind you, but comfortable enough to feel like you’re in control of what you’re doing.
The first thing to do is make sure the bike is adjusted to your body. And while it’s usually best to have someone help you adjust the bike at first, there are a few simple rules that can help out if you’re doing it on your own. On most bikes, the seat can be adjusted up and down as well as back and forth. As far as height goes, you should have the seat high enough so that your knees are bent slightly when your feet are in the pedals and you’re in the saddle. And there are different schools of thought about how far back you should sit, but a good rule of thumb is to rest your elbow on the front tip of the seat, and then pull the seat back enough so that your fingers just touch the handlebars. The handlebars should be up just high enough so you can reach out to the end of them without feeling like you’re completely turning into a pretzel.
There are several reasons for making sure the bike is adjusted properly. The most important is that you can hurt yourself if you’re riding in an uncomfortable position. A seat that’s too low makes you work way too hard, and you can strain your back and legs. A seat that’s too high—well, just ouch, that’s all. Don’t do it.
Also: don’t forget about your feet. Some people use spinning shoes—special shoes that firmly clip to the spin bike’s pedals. The advantage of them is that they’re supposed to encourage proper form, and make your pedal stroke more efficient. I don’t use them myself, but know lots of people who swear by them. You will almost never see an instructor who’s not wearing them. And while special shorts are not a necessity, there is something to be said in favor of a padded seat when you’re pedaling away for forty-five minutes or more. But even if you don’t opt for spin shorts, make sure that what you’re wearing is comfortable. You don’t want to be thinking about clothes that are working against you when you want to be concentrating on your workout.
So once you’re settled on the spin bike, you can turn your attention to the workout itself. One thing to realize is that all spin classes are not created equal. It isn’t just that there are great spin teachers, as well as some on the far side of average, it’s also that there are many different styles. Some people are focused on trying to duplicate the experience of riding on the road as closely as possible. For them, if a motion is something you wouldn’t do when riding a bike on the road, you shouldn’t do it in spin class. Others look at the class as aerobics on wheels. Some people are speed demons, and others encourage you to work with as much resistance as you can stand. The bottom line here is to find the style that you like. Personally, I like mixing it up as much as possible. Adapting to a new style keeps things from getting boring. The other thing I often look for is an instructor who uses music I like, and really incorporates that music into the workout. Somehow it’s easier to keep on going when you’ve got a good beat carrying you along.
The list of spinning’s benefits is a long one. It’s a surefire calorie burner, so if keeping your weight under control is a priority, spinning is a good option. One instructor had a great comment about that. A spinner in class was worried that spinning with too must resistance would build her up and make her butt big. “Spinning doesn’t make your butt big,” the instructor said. “Food makes your butt big.” But weight control is not the only strong point of spinning. It also helps you build strength and balance, and is a great way to keep your heart in good shape. Most instructors also include stretching before and after the class, something that just gets more important with every passing year. It may be tempting to skip the stretches, but that’s not a good idea.
As the weather turns colder, making bike rides outside less of an option, spinning is a way to duplicate the fun of riding outside. And one of the best things is that, just like backgammon, it’s a sport that can grow along with you. As your skill and strength increase, you can keep pushing the envelope. From the outside, it may look like spinners are on the ultimate gym hamster wheel. But once you get on the bike, you’ll likely see for yourself how much variety and entertainment it offers.
Steve Barnes is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in such publications as ARTnews and the Wall Street Journal.