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Indoor Cycling Is Still on a Roll

Indoor cycling is now a mainstay on most programming schedules. In fact, the number of clubs offering indoor cycling classes increased by 24 percent from 1997 to 2002, according to the 2002 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey (see October 2002 IDEA Fitness Manager). Here’s what innovative fitness professionals are doing to ensure that riders remain in the saddle.

Drills & Thrills

San Francisco-based cycling instructor Laura Sachs employs a number of innovative cycling drills. “I use a 25-minute climb drill, with one variable change every 2 1/2 minutes,” she says. “Variable changes include switching gear intensity or shifting position, and then holding that change for the full 2 1/2 minutes. I also graduate speed drills from 30 to 45 to 60 seconds, [providing] a rest after each drill.”

Drawing on lessons learned as a speed skater, Heidi Hill of Boise, Idaho, favors a drill designed to help riders control their cardiac output. “Since cycling is so intense, people tend to use a lot of unnecessary body movement, such as rocking their shoulders back and forth. That can cause the heart rate to soar. I have my students take a deep breath during the downstroke on the right leg and then exhale very slowly on the left leg downstroke. This forces them to be accountable for their breathing.”

Another drill Hill uses to control respiration involves a numerical grading system she calls “RPE.” “My students know that a 1 means respirating at normal, a 5 means
respirating hard, and a 6 is very hard and associated with lactate threshold. We always ride at a 5 to 6 and sometimes reach 7. I can tell by looking at their leg speed where they are on that scale and if I am losing them to oxygen deprivation.”

Keiser master trainer Tom Seabourne performs what he calls “speed play” drills in the cycling workshops he holds across the country. “These drills [work] like a roller coaster in manipulating cadence, resistance and body position in accord with the music. The students follow in a trance-like state and reach higher threshold levels than they would during a normal ride.”

Seabourne also uses drills for heart rate training. “I individualize the drill to match each person’s goal. For example, one person may be doing steady state between 50 and 60 percent of maximum heart rate, while another is doing 30-second intervals.”

Mind Games

To keep clients motivated, Sachs includes a mind-body component in each cycling class she teaches at the Western Athletic Club in San Francisco’s downtown Bank of America building. “I ask participants to close their eyes and then I present various scenarios, such as riding along the Hawaiian coastline listening to the sound of the ocean and smelling the sea air. Or I tell participants to envision a specific goal they are ‘riding toward’ in their personal lives and see themselves moving toward that [goal].”

Lawrence Biscontini also uses a mind-body approach in his Yo-Cycle classes, which offer a yoga component. “We start [class] on the floor, proceed to cycle and then finish on the floor using yoga mats. During class, we practice breathing techniques and incorporate both yoga [poses] and t’ai chi moves into the ride,” says Biscontini, who teaches at the Golden Door Spa at the El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

Seabourne likes to incorporate a mix of imagery in his cycling workshops. “I simulate the Race Across America and have riders start with their back wheel in the Pacific Ocean and finish with their front wheel in the Atlantic. I also use imagery to help students imagine their blood flowing to their muscles while they’re moving through the dynamics of a perfect pedal stroke.”

A different angle comes from Shannon Griffiths, who heads instructor training for Schwinn as education manager for the Nautilus Health & Fitness Group. By evolving from single workouts to longer-term goal-oriented “programs,” Griffiths says, participants commit to a series of classes. Each week, cyclists focus on clearly stated goals that systematically lead up to a big goal (much like training for a marathon). “This enforces the ‘training smarter’ versus ‘training harder’ mentality and makes our participants feel like they are improving, getting stronger, getting more powerful
. . . cultivating their success.”

The Magic’s in the Music

Like the others interviewed for this article, Seabourne says music is an essential element of his workshops. “Without music, no one would come to indoor cycling classes!”

“What really makes indoor cycling unique among group fitness classes is the opportunity not to use the standard canned ‘aerobic’ music,” says Krista Popowych, program director at The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. “[Cycling] music choices become limitless and can be used to reflect the instructor’s personal style or requests from participants. Theme classes that feature different music styles, like country, top 40, hip hop or classical, can really attract participants. Have members bring in their favorite songs, and encourage the whole group to join in and sing the lyrics.”

“Music is the most important element of my classes,” says Aileen Sheron, a former master trainer for Star Trac’s Precision Cycling program who now teaches at the Sports Club in Irvine, California. “It creates the proper mood, enhances the energy in the room and provides the road map for the ride.”

Music may be just what the doctor ordered, according to David Fletcher, a general-practice physician who teaches indoor cycling at the Indiana University Student Recreational Sports Center in Bloomington. “I often use the rhythm of the music to help regulate pedaling speed, since indoor cyclists tend to focus only on high-pedal cadence. I try to balance that by using the rhythm to dictate speed and adjusting the resistance level to modify intensity. While participants won’t usually focus on these [technical] details, they will focus on the music.”

Catering to Special Markets

More and more indoor cycling classes are now being designed to appeal to a specific demographic. For example, Sheron has targeted pregnant clients in some of her cycling classes. “I have found this to be a great cardio workout for this population. Certain adjustments need to be made for comfort—elevating the bike’s handlebars, for examples. Also, you need to lower the intensity for these participants.”

Tapping into a growing market share, Seabourne has created an indoor cycling format for older adults that differs from his regular workshops. “I make sure the music fits their taste and I also incorporate sing-alongs,” he says. “With seniors, there is no need for speed; it’s less about performance and more about camaraderie. I keep the revolutions per minute low, between 60 and 90. Because safety is a huge priority with older riders, each student is allowed to dictate the pace of his or her own workout.”

The nonphysical needs of seniors are also distinctly different from those of younger riders, says Seabourne. “With older adults, it’s very important to talk with each participant during each class. Greeting each student who walks in the door is also a must. I have found that class discussions work well with this population. The topics I choose to discuss include food, restaurants, local events, gardening, etc.”

Handling Challenges

Like any fitness modality, indoor cycling is not without its difficulties. The challenges run the gamut from injury prevention to equipment concerns.

Hill points to the lack of qualified instructors teaching indoor cycling classes. “Technique is not taught at all,” she says. “Instructors need more education to help them theoretically plan out how to logically train clients on a bike. The most important safety issues that could prevent long-term injuries are being ignored. Better coaching skills are needed, especially specific skills to teach imagery and biomechanics.”

In addition, Griffiths feels that instructors can emphasize the wrong elements in a class. “Instructors are under the impression that they have to continually ‘change’ things to keep people interested. Some cycling classes have become quite gimmicky, adding in items that aren’t cardiovascular-specific or are dangerous. That makes classes harder and out of reach for the newcomer.”

The riders themselves can present a challenge for instructors. “We make every effort to simulate real outdoor riding situations, hoping to attract outdoor cyclists,” says Fletcher. “The challenge often lies in convincing outdoor cyclists that indoor cycling can provide definite strength and fitness benefits. Another challenge is providing classes suitable for participants at different fitness levels. This can be accomplished, though, by offering many options for resistance level, body position and recovery periods.”

Biscontini’s spa visitors are also a varied mix. “We get first-time riders and experienced riders who all expect very different experiences. Thankfully, our instructors are well trained in addressing this situation. Another common complaint among first-time riders is discomfort in their seat/
saddle area.”

Equipment setup and maintenance can also create problems. “Getting one [cycling] group out and another in during peak hours is often difficult,” says Sheron. “Instructors need to adhere to strict time schedules to keep things moving smoothly. Just trying to keep all the bikes up and running is a real challenge to the maintenance staff.”

The Money Angle

Only one of the experts interviewed for this article worked at a facility that charged members a separate fee for indoor cycling classes. This is in keeping with the results of the 2002 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, which found that only 21 percent of clubs polled charged extra for these classes. Interestingly, this represents a 6 percent decrease since 1997.

Speaking for The Fitness Group, Popowych explained her club’s pricing plans.
“We have implemented a number of [fee] options this year, including our EEP (easy payment plan), which allows members to purchase an unlimited number of [cycling] classes for only $16 per month (with a minimum yearlong commitment). We actually market this to members as ‘being able to attend as many classes as you want for only $3.99 a week.’ We also provide visit cards, drop-in rates and shorter-term (17-week) registrations.” To market its program, The Fitness Group produces special flyers that promote the club’s cycling roster and shows the weekly class schedule at a glance.

Although the Sports Club in Irvine doesn’t charge extra for its cycling classes, Sheron said that cycling can generate other revenue streams. “Special cycling events can provide additional revenue if you charge a fee. For example, you can conduct an indoor cycling marathon and charge extra—or host a specialty event like a ‘Roof Ride’ by moving all your bikes to the top of your building. Bring in live music and let the participants experience a class under the stars!” u

Experts’ Cycling Tips


  • Learn as many different indoor cycling programs as possible to stay competitive.

  • Get certified through a qualified national agency.

  • Learn how to fit riders on the bikes properly, to ensure safety and comfort.

  • When designing a class, include drills that teach basic skills such as correct pedaling, climbing, posture and breathing techniques.

  • Get off your own bike during class to check for proper form and build rapport with your participants.

  • Videotape parts of an actual outdoor bike event so you can simulate the moves indoors.


  • Invite your mind-body instructors and personal trainers to join the cycling staff; they can offer much insight about visualization techniques and proper biomechanics.

  • Prior to implementing an indoor cycling program, contact various certifying agencies and cycling organizations for advice.

  • Offer 20-minute introductory cycling classes to entice beginners to your program.

  • Host special cycling events to generate additional revenue and attract new participants to your program.

  • Create and stick to a consistent method that members must comply with when reserving bikes.

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