Are You Just Spinning Your Wheels in Spin Class?

It seems like over the past few years, spinning has become all the rage.  I mean, it’s commonplace now for girls (and myself for that matter) to revolve their day around spin class.  “Okay so first we’ll go to brunch, and then go to spin, and then go back to boozy brunch.”

More and more companies are catering to a wide variety of people with different types of spin classes.  They range from highly competitive score-based classes like Flywheel, to EDM techno-ish classes like SoulCycle.

Spinning now has broad appeal to people from a wide variety of backgrounds with different goals.  And of course, it’s probably fun regardless of what you’re actually going there for. Some would even say that certain classes have a cult-like appeal, as companies have positioned themselves as lifestyle brands with their own clothing, hashtags, and god knows what else surrounding it.

On to the positives first, though. Spinning is great because it’s easy for people of all shapes and sizes to hop right into a class without any prior experience. It at the very least gets people out of their homes and off the couch. It also provides a great cardiovascular workout, and since you’re on a bike, it is very low impact compared to running, where the constant ground contact may cause injuries.

This is the beauty of all these spin classes.  They are easy for almost everyone to hop in and out of.  You feel good leaving them because you get a great sweat going and expend a good amount of calories.  On average, a 40-minute spin class burn about 475 calories alone (Falsetti, 2015): http://www.sportinn.mk/gallery/Pages/Heart_Rate_Calories_Burned.pdf.

So if spin classes are great, what’s the issue?  

The issue is that far too many people are using spin classes as their only form of exercise.  This might not seem like a problem on the surface, but in reality it will likely lead to some nagging aches and pains down the line. You’re basically just spinning your wheels here, both literally and figuratively

Obviously, spinning is based off of the sport of cycling.  Cycling in and of itself is a very cyclical sport (duh).  There are many sports that are cyclical in nature, but the issues with cycling become apparent when you look at what this cyclical motion actually entails.

In a spin class, you’re seated on a bike and hunched over the handlebars out in front of you.  Furthermore, the majority of people are also seated all day, albeit in an office chair with a keyboard out in front of them.  If you take a side by side look at the two positions, it’s apparent that the spinning position greatly emulates the seated desk jockey position.

You might have heard that “sitting is the new smoking” in regards to the negative effect sitting and leading sedentary lives have on one’s health. This is almost indisputable, and there is one solution to this new phenomenon: sit less, get up, and move more! So why is it that it would be a good idea to sit in an office chair all day, get out of work, sit on the subway or in your car, get to the spin studio and then sit while you workout?!  That’s no good.

Due to the long periods of time people spend sitting at a desk for years and years on end, a surprising amount of the population exhibit what it termed lower and upper crossed syndrome.

Now, this picture is a simplified version of an overly complex set of circumstances, but it’s important to understand the basics of why cycling can further exacerbate these patterns, and what it may lead to when it’s a chronic issue down the road.

Let’s start with lower crossed syndrome.  By sitting regularly for long periods of time, we are putting the muscles that flex the hip (and bring the knee up) in a shortened position over and over and over again.  To compensate for this, we end up hanging out on our lower backs, which also shortens the muscles in that region. Human beings are inherently lazy, so we do as much as we can to avoid spending energy and activating our muscles.

You can see the results of this in the picture above. This pattern leads to excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which can cause low back pain if left uncontrolled.  The pelvis is naturally tilted slightly forward, but this pattern causes the pelvis to crank more and more forward. This puts more strain on the lumbar spine and lengthens the glutes, hamstrings and abs.  So now you’re in a crappy position, and can’t effectively work your hamstrings, glutes, and abs because they are inhibited. And we all know this is no good, because everyone wants a six pack and a peach emoji butt.

The reason spinning ties into this is because it exacerbates lower cross syndrome rather than reverses it. Spinning only works through a small range of hip motion, and you would almost never achieve full hip extension on a spin bike. Compared to running, spinning lacks that hip extension that you get when you’re running.

Similar mechanisms also exacerbate upper crossed syndrome in spinners. For this, it’s easy to imagine the 90-year old you see walking down the street who is hunched over his cane with his head looking forward.

This guy may be a beloved character, but you don’t want his posture.

Basically, upper crossed syndrome is defined by a forward head, rounded shoulders, and excessively rounded upper back. I hate to break it to you, but guess what?  Those handlebars that force you to lean way out in front on your spin bike feed directly into this posture.  Besides making you look like the hunchback, this can also cause shoulder and cervical spine issues down the line.

My last point of contention here is that many people use spin class as their only form of exercise.  Besides what has been mentioned above, this also limits your ability to alter your body composition because you won’t be building much fat free mass.  Despite what the instructor tell you, doing those super high-rep, 5-lb bicep curls really aren’t going to do anything to help you add lean muscle.

The reality is that you have to train all muscle groups through progressive overload to actually make changes and gain some muscle.  The other issue with using spin as your only form of exercise is that you only move in one plane of motion (sagittal – up and down motion), when there are two other planes of motion (frontal/side-to-side and transverse/rotational) through which the human body is capable of moving.  This can lead to overuse injuries and very weak stabilizer muscles (read: a weak core), similar to what is seen in runners who only run.

The Key Takeaway

The point here is not to bash spinning, but hopefully to help you realize that there are other things that you should be doing.  Spin is a great tool to burn calories and increase your cardiovascular capacity. But it shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolbox to reach your fitness goals.  Just like how you can’t fix everything with a hammer, you can’t reach your fitness goals with just one specific modality. If you insist, you might just end up hitting your thumb with that proverbial hammer by using it so much.

by Dan Cerone

Dan Cerone

ceroneDan Cerone is the Director of Programming at Halevy Life.

Dan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Human Performance, which were both completed at Ithaca College. In addition, Dan is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Functional Range Conditioning FRCms, Functional Movement Screen Specialist (FMS), and Kinstretch Instructor.

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Dan completed a coaching internship at one of the country’s premiere strength and conditioning facilities where he worked with a wide variety of athletes, but mainly professional and collegiate hockey players. More recently, Dan worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Ithaca College where he programmed and worked with numerous varsity teams.

Dan is a competitive powerlifter who has placed first in multiple competitions.