Knowledge Level: Intermediate
During the winter, many cyclists struggle with the weather, darkness and simply finding the time to get out on their bikes.
Indoor trainers such as turbos and rollers are an option but finding the motivation to toil away in solitude on one of these devices can be tough. The warmth, dry and social side of a gym or health club certainly has an appeal during the winter months and, especially if you already have a membership, it makes sense to use it.
Strength work and flexibility work is great, especially if you follow these routines, but what about the wide range of group exercise classes that most gyms and health clubs offer? Here we give you the low-down on what to expect from a range of classes and, with input from Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist with the Great Britain Cycling Team and Martin Evans, head of strength and conditioning with the Great Britain Cycling Team, how much benefit they will be for your cycling.
What is it?
Spinning is a group cycling class on fixed gear (you can’t stop pedalling) bikes with heavy flywheels. Resistance is self-regulated but cues for raising or lowering it are given by the instructor. On most Spinning bikes the resistance adjustment mechanism is fairly basic and doesn’t allow you to quantify the load. Cadence is governed by the beat of the music but the instructor may also ask you to double or half the tempo.
Unless you’re lucky enough to attend a gym with a fleet of Wattbikes, speed, distance and power feedback is typically nonexistent making objectively monitoring progress almost impossible but you can take your heart rate monitor with you to keep an eye on intensity.
It’s usually possible to get a reasonable approximation of your riding position on the road and many Spinning bikes have SPD clipless pedals. How relevant the class is to your training will largely depend on the instructor. Try to find classes where the instructor is a cyclist and remember to take water and a towel, you will sweat!
Phil says: “With so much standing up and sitting down, lots of sprints and high end efforts, you should always wear stiff soled cycling shoes. Trainers are just too flexy and you’ll end up with pain in the arches of your feet.”
Martin says: “The high levels of resistance you can achieve means that it can be a great way to get a very cycling specific strength session.”
What is it?
Yoga is an umbrella title for a range of forms, styles and approaches. It includes the extremely athletic and physically demanding Ashtanga or Power Yoga, Iyengar Yoga with its props, straps and cushions and even Bikram Yoga that takes place in specially heated rooms.
Some classes stick to the physical side of practice whereas other more spiritual ones might have you relaxing, meditating or even chanting.
Many instructors fuse the different styles so, knowing which class to chose, can be confusing. If you’re going to a class at your gym or health club, talk to the manager or the instructors, explain that you’ll be practicing yoga as a complimentary activity to cycling and they might be able to point you in the direction of a suitable class.
Often yoga classes work in blocks so that everyone is starting at the same level and works through learning the positions and sequences together.
Try to find a fairly small class of ten to fifteen people as individual attention from the instructor is vital. You’ll think you’ve got a position right and then the instructor will make a microscopic adjustment to you and it’ll feel a whole lot different and usually a lot more painful.
Phil says: “There are so many types and styles of yoga, so you have to find the right one that suits you. In general though the main benefits to cyclists will be learning to control breathing and deep muscle relaxation.”
Martin says: “The focus on breathing, relaxation and body control can be excellent for cyclists. Breathing properly is very important and deeper abdominal breathing can really help cycling.”
What is it?
Pilates is a training system that was developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates. He developed it primarily as a training and rehabilitation method for dancers and that link to dance and dancers remains today. It emphasises mindful control of the body to build strength, endurance and flexibility of the so-called “core muscles”.
Jospeh Pilates referred to the core as the “powerhouse” of the body and, although it’s not the panacea of fitness that many Pilates enthusiasts and core training evangelists claim it to be, some riders could benefit from working on it. As part of the mindful body control approach Pilates, like yoga, places an emphasis on breathing techniques and relaxation.
The most common, accessible and affordable type of Pilates workouts are known as mat classes. Most gyms and health clubs offer these although the quality and experience of the instructor and class can vary massively. Don’t be afraid to ask about the instructor’s qualifications and speak to class regulars.
As with yoga classes, because precision is essential for Pilates to be effective, look for smaller classes where the instructor can ensure you’re performing the movements correctly. Without the correct instruction, focus and intensity, Pilates mat classes can be a bit of a nothing experience.
Although they’re finding their way into general gyms and health clubs, Pilates Reformer machines tend to be the preserve of specialist centres. Using a combination of springs, pulleys and your own body weight to create resistance, with the right instruction they can deliver an effective workout. Some larger centres offer classes on a fleet of Reformers but more commonly Reformer work tends to be a one to one experience.
Phil says: “Group mat classes are okay and certainly better than nothing but, to get the most out of Pliates and the very precise movements, it’s worth initially investing in some one-to-one instruction to get the movements exactly right.”
Martin says: “The low load control of limbs through a wide range of movement can be beneficial to cyclists who spend a lot of time locked in one position. It can be an ideal recovery session that can be included year round.”
What is it?
Boxercise and combat classes use combinations of punches, ducks, sways and sometimes kicks to raise your heart rate. There is rarely any actual physical contact although, in some classes, you may pair off with a partner and work with one of you punching and the other holding focus pads as targets. Traditional boxing exercises, such as skipping, as well as bodyweight exercises such as press-ups, squats and sit-ups are also often included.
Phil says: “Cyclists don’t do a lot with their upper bodies so this can be a great way to get a really intense general cardiovascular workout. The downside of this is that, with poorly conditioned upper bodies, it’s easy to overdo it, so take it steady. Be especially careful with shadow boxing as, when you hit nothing, all the deceleration load is taken by your joints.”
Martin says: “Can be good for all round general off-season conditioning. Be careful though. Cyclists are predisposed to a slightly hunched posture and, throwing too many punches, can lead to shoulder problems. Build up slowly.”
What is it?
Traditional circuit classes have a number of exercise stations that form the circuit. You start at one, perform that exercise for a set period of time and then move straight on to the next. One circuit is complete when you’ve worked at all the stations.
Bodyweight exercises such as squats, lunges, press-ups, dips and sit-ups are most commonly used at circuit classes but you may also find stations with free weights, kettle-bells, step boxes and skipping ropes.
Stations normally alternate between upper and lower body exercises so rest time is minimal and your heart rate should stay fairly high. Although an emphasis is often placed on speed, keeping moving and the number of reps you can squeeze into the time, make sure your technique is good and, if in doubt about any exercises, ask the instructor.
Phil says: “Circuit training can be an excellent compliment to time on the bike but, if it’s new to you, take time to learn how to perform the exercises correctly.”
Martin says: “Solid general conditioning but there’s always an injury risk to jumping into movements that the body isn’t ready for. Build up gradually and get the form right. If you’re bringing a new activity into your training, give it 6-8 weeks and, for the first 2 weeks, keep things light, easy and low level until you’re sure your body has adapted. You can then ramp things up for the remaining 4-6 weeks.”
What is it?
You’ll be heading out into the cold and wet for this one and expect to be rolling around in the mud too. The instructors are often ex-military and will put your “squad” through an assortment of physically demanding drills including running, bodyweight exercises and relays.
Expect to be shouted at and to be pushed hard but, with a real emphasis placed on team exercises, there’s usually a great feeling of camaraderie and group motivation. Be aware of maintaining good technique and remember, you’re not really in the army, so you can say no if an exercise doesn’t feel right.
Phil says: “Can be a great workout but, like all training, it’s a question of load management. You need to push to stimulate adaptation but push too hard or too soon and you’ll risk breaking down. Learn to do the exercises well and build up gradually.”
Martin says: “Just like circuits, ease yourself in gently. The exercises in these classes can often be fairly extreme and they like to try and push you to your breaking point but this is a recipe for injuries”
Dance Classes (eg Zumba)
What is it?
If you’ve ever been to a cycling club Christmas dinner, you’ll know that the majority of cyclists aren’t exactly the best movers. Dance classes use choreographed sequences of moves that are set to music and are designed to raise you heart rate. It can take a while to learn the sequences and, unless you’re fairly gifted in the rhythm department, this can be a limiting factor to the quality of workout you get.
Phil Says: “Brilliant for balance and coordination. Ballet dancers probably have the best skill acquisition of any athletes.”
Martin Says: “The vastly differing ranges of movement to cycling will make you a better functioning human being. You’ll be more coordinated, more agile and more athletic, no bad thing for a cyclist!”
What is it?
Resembling a cannonball with a handle and originally coming from Russia, classes using these weights have become extremely popular.
Using often dynamic and explosive movements, such as snatches and jerks, the intensity of these classes is usually high and often feels more like cardiovascular exercise rather than regular weight training.
You’ll normally self-select the weights you use and, if you’re new to the class, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and go lower until you’re confidant with the correct technique for all the exercises.
Phil says: “Build up slowly and, if in doubt, choose a low weight to start with. Anyone with wrist or shoulder issues should be cautious on embarking on such a programme but it doesn't preclude them from trying.”
Martin says: “Kettlebell classes can provide a good means of general conditioning for cyclists. What I like about many kettlebell exercises is that they force you to use your body in a coordinated manner. For example a KB swing, performed correctly, offers a very effective way to train the hamstrings, glutes and abdominals. As with a lot of the other classes, it is paramount that exercises are performed with solid technique and that load or volume is progressed sensibly.”