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More Than Just Legs: Refining the Ride

Help indoor cycling participants stay safe with targeted cuing.

When people want to explain how simple something is to learn, they often say, “It’s like riding a bike!” But is riding a bike really that simple? If you think so, and you’re an indoor cycling teacher, you may be neglecting crucial form cues that would help students enjoy a more efficient, injury-free ride. This sagittal plane activity isn’t as cut-and-dried as it may seem. There are many opportunities for misalignment, discomfort and poor form. A good way to approach form cues is by addressing the body in four zones, from head to toe. Focus on one zone at a time, and keep your cuing as concise as possible.

Zone 1: Head and Neck

Instructors often forget or ignore this first zone, as emphasis is typically on the feet and legs. However, students who crane their necks and turn or tilt their heads for a better view of the instructor will inevitably leave class with unnecessary neck tension. Cuing proper head and neck placement can prevent this—and also help participants more accurately mimic an outdoor ride.

The following cues will make it easier for students to find proper alignment:

  • “Are you lifted through the crown of the head? Is your head centered, or does it tilt more heavily to one side?”
  • “Is your gaze too high, causing you to ‘throw back’ your head? Is your gaze too low, putting stress on the neck extensors?”
  • “Imagine your neck as an extension of the spine.”
  • “Allow your gaze to go toward me only occasionally. Stay relaxed through the neck rotators for most of your ride, keeping your mind focused and looking at the ‘road’ ahead.”
Zone 2: Upper Back, Chest, Shoulders, Elbows and Hands

Zone 2—especially the upper back and shoulders—is an area that instinctively stores tension. By verbally bringing attention to this zone, you will help students recognize and respond appropriately when they feel strain and overexertion—during class and throughout their everyday activities. Proper cuing in zone 2 is especially critical for students who suffer from kyphosis, shoulder problems, tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome. By keeping the spine long and chest as open as possible, students will also establish a more effective breathing rhythm.

These cues will give students clues about optimal form:

  • “Is your thoracic spine overly rounded (hunched)? Lengthen the spine so you can ride through the air like a long arrow. Allow the heart to come forward in the chest cavity; feel it leading your ride.”
  • “Is your chest open and broad? Are the shoulders in the ‘back pockets’ or the ‘front pockets’ of the clavicle? Keep them strong in the back body to promote good posture while you ride. Avoid shrugging the shoulders and collapsing the chest.”
  • “Are your elbows locked or unstable? Find that perfect combination of strong but soft, supportive but not rigid. Keep your weight out of the upper body.”
  • “Do your elbows fly straight out to the sides? Keep them fairly close to your body but not tucked into the rib cage.”
  • “Check your grip. Are you white-knuckling the handlebars? Are there wrinkles in your wrists? Relax your fingers loosely around the handlebars, rolling forward into the fingers to lengthen the wrists.”
  • “Use an overhand grip during your ride, and place your hands at the appropriate spot on the handlebar, based on the drill being performed. For seated drills, use position 1 or 2 (on the center of the bar or at its nearest corners). Save position 3 (the farthest corners of the handlebars) for standing drills, to keep the spine and arms from over-reaching and stressing the shoulder and elbow joints. Change your grip often if you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or weak wrists.”
Zone 3: Lower Back, Abdominals and Hips

The core of the body is a vital focus in all group exercise classes, cycling included. Students who do not understand how to engage the core muscles will bounce more in the saddle, which can lead to that “unpleasant pain” that deters many from returning. By intelligently cuing zone 3, you will help students enjoy a more comfortable ride by stabilizing their hips (to support their knees) and training their abdominal muscles (to prevent lower-back pain and strain).

Try out the following scripted tips with cycling students:

  • “Maintain normal spinal curvature during your ride. If you feel your lower back is arching too much, pull the navel strongly to the spine. Check that your pelvis isn’t tipping forward, causing your belly to ‘spill out’ and lumbar spine to cave in.”
  • “Imagine a corset wrapped around your midsection. Tie it tightly, firming up the core. This strong core is like a brick wall that your legs can push off of as you cycle.”
  • “Are your hips stable and level, or do you feel them lifting side to side as you pedal? If so, increase your tension and concentrate on keeping the hips ‘quiet.’ Place your hands on your hip bones to feel if they are equal front to back, side to side and top to bottom. If your hips are skewed, you may feel discomfort or pain in the spine and knees.”
Zone 4: Thighs, Knees, Shins and Feet

Zones 1–3 directly impact zone 4, which is why they precede it. Falling last on the list, however, does not make zone 4 any less critical. The lower body may seem so obvious that instructors fail to cue this zone adequately. Often, instructors provide only minimal form cues for the legs and feet, taking proper pedaling alignment for granted, when it is actually complex. Through more visual, specific cuing, instructors can help students avoid knee, ankle and foot problems while experiencing a smoother, more efficient pedal stroke.

These cues will help participants focus on good form:

  • “Look down at your thighs. The belly of the quadriceps should be facing directly upward. If you tend to externally rotate the hips and thighs, your quadriceps will face out to some degree, causing the inner thighs to face the ceiling and your knees to fall out. This turned-out posture will lead to major knee and hip pain over time.” Note: Cue hips and thighs before cuing knees, as the knees do not initiate this action. If a student pulls in her knees without properly placing the quadriceps, she can injure the knee joint.
  • “Are your knees tracking in line with the hips and heels? Open the sit bones, roll the thighs into the center and pull the knees into alignment, engaging the inner and outer thighs. Be sure the knees do not extend past the toes as you pedal, as this places excessive sheer force on the kneecaps.”
  • “Are your right and left shins symmetrical? Do you feel too much exertion in the calves and shins? Allow the power to come from the larger thigh muscles, using the calf and shin muscles to follow through with ease.”
  • “Are your feet fairly flat as you pedal, or are you leading with the toes? Are you rolling into the inner or outer edges of your feet? Find balance.”
  • “Are your feet snugly in the cages, not too tight or too loose? If you are clipped in, are the clips aligned? Are your shoes sturdy enough when you perform standing drills, or do you feel the pedals digging into the soles of your feet?”
  • “Do your toes go numb as you ride? Check that your shoe size is true and that your toe strap is not too tight.”
Safety First

While these cues may seem finicky, each one is important in ensuring the safest, most comfortable ride for all your cycling participants. Using all these suggestions in one class is not necessary—in fact, it would likely be overwhelming. Pick and choose one or two from each zone and spread them out. Cycling is a great, therapeutic cardiovascular exercise. However, in the hands of a poor instructor, it can potentially be hazardous even to an experienced rider. By assessing and cuing specific form cues for each body zone, you can create challenging, safe classes for any fitness level.

What About the Beginning and Ending?

The warm-up and cool-down sections of a cycling class are more than just bookends for an exciting ride. You know this; however, to encourage participants not to skip these stages, you may need to remind them of what goes on physically during a proper warm-up and cool-down. You can also inject some fun. Incorporate a fitness-related quiz or question into the warm-up to help riders be more present in their bodies while you explain the class’s profile. During the cool-down, engage participants by inspiring them to recognize and acknowledge the good work they’ve done.


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