Cycling Workouts: Getting Started The Right Way

You don’t need fancy workout clothes or expensive gear—just an urge to hop on the bike.

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Ever find yourself in a workout slump? Whether it’s hitting your mat in downward dog, jogging a few miles on the treadmill, or maybe swimming laps in the pool, the exercises that once motivated and energized you can start to feel a little monotonous—and they may even stop yielding results after a while. If you’re in a fitness funk, it might be time to break out of your routine and try something new—like cycling.

Cycling workouts, sometimes also called spinning or biking, are a low-impact aerobic exercise that gets your blood flowing and heart rate elevated. Cycling can help you burn hundreds of calories an hour and can provide your body with mood-boosting endorphins.

Whether you’re pedaling indoors at a boutique spin studio with club-like lighting and inspiring music or you’re just trying to burn a few extra calories on your commute to work, cycling workouts can be a great way to switch up your exercise routine and stay in shape.

If you’ve never tried it before, you might feel intimidated to get started. This kind of exercise requires some preparation, a bit of gear, and knowledge of safety. But mostly, it requires a will to try.

“Anyone can do it, whether you’re an athlete or a first-timer, or even if you’re recovering from an injury,” says Dani Iannone, lead instructor at Prime Cycle, an indoor cycling studio in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Ready to hop on the bike? Here’s what you need to know about getting started with cycling workouts—the right way.

Is cycling right for you?

Walk by one of those cult-followed cycling studios where instructors are elevated to the level of gurus, locker room amenities rival what’s available at most five-star hotels, and people strut in wearing leggings with three-figure price tags, and you might wonder if it’s the right sport for you.

Those trendy studios might have the most visibility, but cycling is actually a down-to-earth, accessible sport that anyone can get into, says Iannone.

“There are so many different styles and ways to ride,” she explains. “You can go for traditional cycling, come to a boutique studio like ours for a rhythm ride, try it at your local YMCA, or even take it up to a competitive level, if you’re an athlete.”

Iannone, who has lower back issues from her years as a dancer, says that even people who have injuries, physical disabilities, or high body mass can find ways of safely hopping on a bike and trying a cycling workout. If you have injuries or a medical condition that has you second-guessing cycling, talk with your doctor to see if it’s a good fit for you.

The price of classes and equipment can also be a deterrent for beginners, but Iannone says there are ways to keep the costs of cycling down.

“If this is something you want to do, you can find a way to make it work within your budget—you just have to reevaluate where your money’s going,” she says. “Change your priorities from going out or making frivolous purchases to investing in your health instead.”

As long as you have the motivation, a positive attitude, and a desire to give it a shot, there’s a cycling workout for you.

“If you can walk through the door, you can take a cycling class,” she says.

Indoor Cycling vs. Outdoor Cycling

People divide cycling into two worlds: indoor and outdoor. Each style has its own distinctive benefits and challenges, but discovering which one you prefer can help maximize your enjoyment of this type of exercise.

“The biggest difference, and it’s a pretty obvious one, is that when you’re cycling indoors, you’re on a bike that doesn’t go anywhere,” chuckles Iannone. “Some studios have tried to recreate the outdoor experience with visuals on big 3D screens and special effects, though.”

Some cyclists find that the experience of watching the world whoosh by when they ride outdoors keeps them more engaged, but others rely on the momentum of their classmates at an indoor cycling class to stay motivated.

The equipment for indoor and outdoor cycling also differs. When riding outside, it’s best to use a traditional road or mountain bike. You also need a helmet and other safety gear, like a bell and reflectors. For indoor cycling, you use a stationary bike with a fan or flywheel that allows you to adjust the resistance level.

Cycling workouts challenge you in different ways, depending on whether you try them at the gym or on the road. Indoor cycling is about listening to the instructor, keeping your heart rate up, and generally pedaling fast. When cycling outdoors, on the other hand, you’ll face terrain challenges (like hills and trails), focus on staying safe in traffic and around road obstacles, and use more muscle strength. You’ll also experience what it’s like riding with and against the wind and navigating different weather conditions.

If you’re a beginner, you might want to try an indoor cycling workout first. That way you can get one-on-one attention from a helpful instructor and learn the general moves and correct posture before you take your cycling workout outside.

Equipment You Need for Cycling

A few pieces of essential gear can help you get started on the right pedal.

First, you’ll need to select the proper clothing. Indoor cycling classes can make you sweaty, so look for moisture-wicking materials that allow for ample range of motion.

“Breathable leggings or shorts, a tank top, and a supportive sports bra are best,” says Iannone. “But it doesn’t have to come from an expensive store. People get into the high-end athletic clothing and they think you have to look a certain way to go to class. You can come in wearing anything that makes you comfortable and keeps you cool.”

The same kind of clothing is generally fine for outdoor cycling, but you’ll need to bundle up a bit more if the weather’s cool. Be sure to wear bright colors when riding outdoors, though, so drivers can easily spot you.

You’ll also need a pair of cycling shoes, which have stiff soles and mechanisms that allow you to clip your foot into the pedal, helping your energy transfer to the bike with efficiency.

“Most studios have cycling shoes available to rent, but if you really get into the sport, it’s worth buying your own pair,” says Iannone.

As for accessories, bring along a small towel, water bottle, and a headband.

Bikes are obviously available for use at studios and gyms. If you want to practice your own cycling workouts at home, you need to invest in a stationary exercise bike or a high-quality road bike to ride outside. Bike stores are the best place to go for personalized recommendations.

Your First Cycling Class

Walking into your first cycling class can feel intimidating. It seems like everyone else is a total pro who knows exactly how to clip in their shoes, grip the handlebars, and start pedaling. How can you make sure your first cycling workout is a success?

“Get there early, introduce yourself to the instructor, and let them know it’s your first time,” says Iannone.

The staff will help you find a space with a clear line of sight to the instructor, get strapped in, and show you the correct way of sitting on the bike.

“Posture is really important. You want to sit slightly lifted, rather than hunched over, with no strain on your back,” explains Iannone. “Your chest is lifted, your core’s engaged, and you have a light touch on the handlebars.”

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center offers a graphic guide to proper form for cycling workouts.

Cycling can be a (literal) pain in the butt, especially for beginners. That’s why many studios offer bike seat cushions. If you’re struggling with your seat, just ask to borrow one.

You might be surprised at the level of intensity of most cycling classes. It’s a rigorous sport! But cycling workouts are not a competition—go at your own pace, and don’t compare yourself to others in the room.

“Expect to be challenged at your first cycling workout,” says Iannone. “You’re probably going to walk away feeling that it was intense, inspiring, and kind of a ‘wow!’ experience.”

Cycling Interval Workouts: What to Know

Cycling workouts are more varied than just pedaling as fast as you can for as long as you can. Incorporating intervals of high intensity and active rest maximizes the benefits of the exercise.

“Cycling interval workouts are very similar to HIIT (high-intensity interval training),” says Iannone. “This kind of training increases your stamina and endurance, makes you a better athlete, and helps your body become more efficient.”

There are a few things to focus on during cycling intervals. First and foremost, monitor your heart rate. You’ll need to understand your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate (i.e., how fast your heart beats when you work your hardest).

During your intervals, push yourself to 70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate, says Iannone. Then bring it back down to a more moderate level for about 30 seconds before you pick things back up again.

Second, pay attention to your cadence, which is measured by pedal stroke revolutions per minute (rpm). Most stationary bikes have a gauge that can will measure your cadence.

“Some studios don’t care about numbers, but I think watching your cadence is really important because you want to know the level of your work,” says Iannone.

The resistance level of your bike also plays a role in cycling interval workouts. You’ll move between various levels of resistance, depending on the interval. The higher the resistance, the more strength you’ll need to pedal the bike.

“If you’re pedaling really, really fast, it might be time to turn the resistance up a notch,” says Iannone.

Finally, your instructor may have you change positions on the bike for each interval. These postural adjustments will help you work different muscle groups and improve your balance.

“You won’t just be in the saddle the whole time,” says Iannone. “You might be sitting or standing during intervals. You might also get up and go back down, which is called a jump, and even do presses with your arms on the handlebars.”

Try this cycling interval workout.

Need some inspiration to get started? Iannone created a cycling interval workout based on her classes at Prime Cycle that you can try on your own—complete with a killer playlist! Give it a whirl, and let us know how it goes:

Each section of this workout consists of intervals that are 30, 45, or 60 seconds long, depending on how hard you want to push yourself. Your intervals will consist of building the intensity (typically increasing the cadence by 10 to 20 rpm, but you could also increase the resistance, instead), slowing down for 30 seconds to reduce your heart rate, then speeding back up for your next interval. Repeat this a few times for each song. 

1

How Deep Is Your Love

Calvin Harris and Disciples

Seated on the bike, pedal at a base of 110 to 116 rpm. During the intervals, try to push it to 125 to 130 rpm.

2

Questions

Chris Brown

Increase your resistance by turning the knob two or three times. You’ll be at an easy-to-moderate climb with a base cadence of 52 rpm. Pick it up to 65 to 70 rpm for each interval.

3

So Excited

Fat Joe

Turn your resistance knob two more times to take it up to a heavy climb at a base of 44 rpm. You’ll have a lot of resistance, so instead of increasing your cadence, turn up your resistance a little higher for each interval, then bring it back down in between for rest.

4

Housework

Jax Jones

Take off half your resistance and increase your leg speed for a seated flat downhill ride at 120 rpm.

5

HUMBLE. (remix)

Skrillex, Kendrick Lamar

Next up is a moderate climb. Turn the resistance knob once or twice and hit at least 64 rpm.

6

Lose Control

Missy Elliot

Continue your moderate climb at a slightly higher cadence (68 rpm).

7

7/11

Beyoncé

Pick up your cadence to go at jog pace at 76 rpm.

8

I'm a Fan

Pia Mia

Increase your resistance by one turn and pedal at 50 to 52 rpm.

9

Titanium

David Guetta featuring Sia

For your final push, drop your resistance slightly and pick up your speed to about 64 rpm.

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