Up until the late 1990s, cardio workouts shared a similar vibe: shiny, Lycra®-clad bodies stepped, kicked and punched to high-energy dance music. Music was motivational but often generic. Cuing techniques mostly involved giving students notice that a new 8-count foot pattern was coming up.

Indoor cycling changed everything. Even before yoga became mainstream, cycling classes ushered in a more introspective focus: We placed bikes in dark rooms (sometimes with candles), and our approach to music was “anything goes” (some instructors even played Beethoven). It was clear from the first cycling class I taught 15 years ago that this type of workout required a different set of teaching skills. Choreography took a back seat as the music took over.

Indoor cycling instructors are part DJ and part coach. The best cycling teachers pair rhythmic coaching cues with powerful tunes that transport riders to an inspirational place. Here are several tested and true ways to take your students on a magical, musical ride.

Play Music Before the Ride Begins

Why not begin the experience the minute students walk in? Play preclass songs as a way to get riders in the mood. “Choose music that matches the feeling of your ride,” says Denise Druce, MPH, a Schwinn® master trainer and cycling instructor at 24 Hour Fitness® in Salt Lake City. That means no AC/DC if your playlist is packed with J.Lo and Pink. But if hard rock is your thing, hypnotic Pink Floyd remixes can put participants in the right mindset.

Scan the Room to Choose Tunes

Beware of getting locked into a preset playlist. First, see who is in your class. Your 50-somethings may love the Rolling Stones, but your 20-somethings may be all about OK Go and Rihanna. “I play Top 40 with new classes, rock when there are more men, and ’80s and ’90s tunes if students are in their 40s and 50s,” says Irini Scordi-Bello, MD, PhD, a Spinning® instructor at New York Sports Clubs in New York City. Of course, some students can’t be pigeon-holed: “I have a 73-year-old who begs me to play Lady Gaga,” says Hardy Pollard, a cycling instructor at The Houstonian in Houston.

Stay Flexible

Even though iPods and MP3 players hold thousands of songs that can be grouped into preset playlists, some instructors use the same music over and over. If you’re still using CDs, graduate to an iPod or MP3 player so that you’re not shackled to the same tired tunes. Let’s say you play a powerful diva song like “The Pressure” by Haji & Emanuel, and you have preprogrammed a soft-rock song to follow. But now, to capitalize on the energy you just created, you want to play “Knock on Wood” by Amii Stewart or “Show Me Love” by Robin S. So do it! Don’t be afraid to veer off your playlist and play a song that’s more suited to the moment.

The key is to have your iPod at your fingertips. If your stereo has only a short iPod connector cord, buy a 3.5-millimeter male-to-female audio extension cable and keep your music player on your handlebars. Make sure the adaptor has two stripes to signify that it’s a stereo, rather than a mono, cable. Otherwise, your sound won’t come out of all the available speakers.

Map to the Music

As much as some instructors prefer to emphasize coaching, the music should not take second place. Learn the nuances in each song and use them to help students perform. Some instructors come prepped with a map of their ride and throw on any old music. This guarantees a disconnected ride. “Instead, let your songs determine your choreography,” says Pollard. That means you can climb but should not sprint to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty or “Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking” by Snow Patrol. Conversely, trying to climb to a song that makes your riders want to speed up will generate friction that disrupts the flow.

Pay attention to musical changes. It may be best to climb during the chorus and stay on flats at a faster rpm (revolutions per minutes) during the verses rather than stay at the same rpm for the entire song. You can sprint to the first couple of minutes of “Walk” by the Foo Fighters, for example. However, if you save the sprint for when the music gets progressively faster (at minute 2:06), you’ll give students a blast of energy they would otherwise miss. “When I really feel the music, I’m able to push myself more,” explains Mimi Albert, a club member in New York City.

Always Use a Microphone

Some instructors pride themselves on not using a microphone. This is a big no-no. Without one you can’t possibly create a motivational mix of perfectly synced vocal cues and music—not to mention you will damage your vocal cords. No one can hear you unless you turn down the music, and low music volume saps the energy out of class. Even if you believe your voice is strong enough, chances are it’s not. If you are audible, you probably sound like you’re screaming. So if your facility doesn’t provide a microphone, get one.

Go Easy on the Techno

Some cycling teachers play all techno, all the time. “Sometimes I end up thinking, ‘How much longer do I have to listen to this garbage before we get to a good song?” says Mick Emmett, a cycling class member in New York City. “I get so distracted counting down the minutes until the bad song ends that I lose focus on my technique.”

Although all-instrumental or highly electronic songs have subtle nuances that techno lovers appreciate, to many people techno is elevator Muzak® with a beat. “The class feels like one never-ending song,” says Carlie Volin, an avid cycling enthusiast in Bethesda, Maryland. “I love when I know a song and can sing along, because that pushes me to go harder.” Most people prefer familiar music. So it’s best to use brain-throbbing techno or all-instrumental music in small doses—just one or two songs per class.

Of course, some instructors can make techno work. Pablo Toribio, owner of Pablo Fitness and an instructor at Reebok Sports Club in New York City, includes mostly instrumental or club-style dance songs. “I agree that some techno songs make you want to pull your hair out,” he says. So how can he tell what works? “It’s the feeling you get from the music,” he says. “I always cycle by myself to a song first, and I imagine the ride. You must learn all the changes in the song and match your rpm and the energy you project with each part of the music. If your song has a moment of excitement, enhance it with your moves, coaching and energy.”

Identify Which Songs Work

Of course, a popular song won’t always create the right vibe. “If the song recording is poor or your sound system is bad, even a great song won’t come across and people will have a miserable experience,” says Pollard. Some songs are terrific at first but lose their luster after a million plays. “I end up hating songs like ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon 5 or anything by Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry because they are so overplayed,” says Cindy Clarke, who takes bike classes in San Mateo, California. “The songs get monotonous the more you hear them.”

Here are some good ways to discover inspirational songs:

  • Take classes from instructors who are known for their music.
  • Join Facebook groups that specialize in indoor cycling education (Spinning Instructors, Music for Spinning and Schwinn Indoor Cycling Official Site are examples).
  • Follow other instructors on iTunes Ping to sample their playlists.

Avoid Chopping Off Songs

Although spontaneous song selections can help maximize the musical experience, they also leave more room for error. Choosing a so-so song is always a risk. And if you cut off a song before it’s over or you don’t transition fast enough, you can break the musical spell. It’s frustrating for students when a song they like is cut off. Make changes seamless by cuing your iPod to your next selection while the current song is playing. Then, during the last 10 seconds of the current song, switch back to the next song and be ready to push “play” the second your current song ends. To end a song early, maintain the flow by waiting till the last beat of an 8-count before you make the change.

Speak Between Vocals

Perhaps the most common mistake cycling instructors make is coaching during song vocals. When this happens, class can deteriorate into noisy chaos, with students unable to hear and enjoy the song—or to understand your cues. Every song has gaps between lyrics or all-instrumental breaks. “These interludes are when you should do most of your cuing,” says Melissa Morin, senior director of group exercise programming for New York Sports Clubs with facilities in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. If you can’t fit your coaching tips into these quieter moments, you may need to learn how to cue more succinctly.

Add Visuals

Some classes help transport riders to a motivating mental place with video screens that show rolling countrysides or other terrain. Pollard plays mood-generating and escapist music videos to packed classes at The Houstonian. “I research on YouTube and then create DVD playlists showing videos like Rihanna’s ‘S&M,’ mash-ups that mix old and new songs like AC/DC with Adele, and even live concerts such as ‘Ring My Bells’ by Enrique Iglesias and ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC,” says Pollard.

Modulate Music Tone, Type and Volume

Controlling contrast—the highs and lows in your class—is the key to creating a ride with that extra something. “If music is always loud, it’s not only difficult to interact, but students may tune you out,” says Jay Blahnik, Schwinn program developer and master trainer based in Laguna Beach, California. “Use music as a backdrop or a focus by working with its ebbs and flows.” And pair the mood at the end of one song to the beginning of the next. For example, follow a superstrong, high-intensity ending such as “Burn It to the Ground” by Nickelback or “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige with a softly powerful song such as “Kootchi” by Neneh Cherry or “The Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd.

Vary Your Voice

Your voice is an instrument, too. That doesn’t mean you should sing into the mike—it can be extremely annoying to others—but do modulate how you speak to match your music. “I’ll play something that’s high intensity and follow it with something spacey or quiet to give participants’ ears a rest,” says Pollard. “If I put on ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins, my voice changes and gets as soft as the song.”

Rescue a Bad-Music Moment

Sometimes a song just doesn’t feel right. Since stopping to change it midway will make things worse, how can you salvage those minutes? “Drop the volume and amplify your voice and coaching,” recommends Toribio. Walk around the room and connect. Encourage individual members to work harder or compliment them on their efforts. “You can still make your class flow with bad music. Just let the music inside of you—your passion and energy—shine,” he says.