Spin class is in a class of its own when it comes to cardio workouts. Crushing the pedals to the beat of the (usually really loud) music, infectious instructor energy and maybe a touch of competitive spirit with the person riding beside you makes this form a cardio almost addictive.
But is spinning, also known as indoor cycling, the best use of your time, depending on your wellness goals? And what are the potential risks people rarely hear about? Let’s take a look at spin class benefits, set the record straight on some of the bad press and learn how to dive into a sensible indoor cycling routine to maximize the benefits of spinning.
What Is Spin Class?
Indoor cycling, also known as spinning or spin class, involves pedaling on a stationary bike, also known as a flywheel, using various levels of speed and resistance. Different positions on the bike are also used to target different muscles. Spinning is actually the trademarked name associated with one particular type of indoor bike, but it’s synonymous with “spin class” and “indoor cycling.”
The spin class definition? It’s a form of exercise using a stationary bike with that focuses on (1):
- High intensity
The concept of riding an indoor stationary bike has been around for some time. In fact, there’s a photo of a woman indoor cycling in the Gymnastics Room of the Titanic in 1912. And long before that, Francis Lowndes patented his “Gymnasticon” in 1796. Other early indoor cycling models resemble a bike set up on rollers. (2)
Things are much different today. Modern-day spin classes generally include charismatic instructors, music and lighting effects. A small study even found that an indoor rider’s sense of pleasure was significantly higher when riding to music during class. Music and dimmed lighting during spinning class actually led to riders feeling less tired after a ride. And interestingly, the music and lighting didn’t cause participants to work harder, but they enjoyed the class more. (3)
Technology also brings even more spinning class opportunities. The Peloton bike, for instance, allows home riders from all over the country to take live and on-demand indoor cycling classes with instructors and riders in New York City.
Top 6 Benefits of Spinning
1. Weight Loss/Calorie Burn/Better BMI
Is spinning a good way to lose weight? Many studies suggest it is, but even if you’re taking indoor cycling classes and don’t see the scale budge, don’t panic. In a small study of female adolescents, researchers found a 16-week spinning program didn’t result in weight loss but did improve BMI chart readings and reduced body fat percentages. It also triggered healthier blood glucose levels. (4)
In another small, but promising, spinning weight-loss study in Italy, researchers found that women leading a sedentary lifestyle experienced the following results without making any changes to their diets.
After 24 spin classes: (5)
- 2.6 percent decrease in body weight
- 4.3 percent reduction in fat mass
- 2.3 percent increase in lean mass
- 6.5 percent lower resting heart rate
After 36 spin class sessions:
- 3.2 percent decrease in body weight
- 5 percent reduction in fat mass
- 2.6 increase in lean mass
- 9 percent lower resting heart rate
- Increase in cardio-respiratory fitness
How many calories do you burn in a 45-minute spin class? That’s a question I get a lot, and of course, the answer varies depending on a number of factors, including your weight and intensity of your workout. But a general calorie-burn range is 400 to 600 calories per hour.
Calorie burn isn’t the only benefit, though. Spinning two to three times a week for three months has the power to greatly increase your exercise capacity, along with lowering triglyceride and cholesterol levels, too. (6, 7)
2. Time-Crunch Friendly
If you’ve only got 20 or 30 minutes for a workout, indoor cycling interval training is a great option because it also pumps up your post-workout calorie burn. Post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), also known as the “afterburn effect,” means your metabolism is revving even though you’re not exercising anymore. It’s one of the top benefits of high-intensity interval training. That’s why so many spin instructors work intervals into spinning classes. (8, 9)
3. Better State of Mind
In psychology, “affect” means how someone experiences feelings or emotions after interacting with some sort of stimuli. A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Mental Health found that taking an indoor cycling ride at home or in an instructor-led class improves your post-exercise mood while diminishing negative emotions. However, participants reported enjoying the instructor-led indoor cycling session more than the solo spin workout. (10a, 10b)
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Complications found a 12-week spinning class also lowered anxiety and depression symptoms in participants. The spinning workouts increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, which helps alleviate central nervous system dysfunction. (11)
4. Leg and Bum Toning
Is spin class good for toning your bum? I consider it a solid butt workout, but recommend using it as a supplement to gluteus medius and gluteus maximus resistance training, not a substitute. (In other words, you’re not off the hook when it comes to clamshells and squats!)
What muscles are used in spinning class? Here are some of the main ones:
- Lateral head of the gastrocnemius (12)
- Gluteus maximus (13)
Indoor cycling is most commonly known for its cardio benefits, but we now know it can build lower body muscle, too. In 2015, a team of researchers from Japan and the U.S. published a study showing that indoor cycling takes longer than traditional resistance training to build muscle due to a slower hypertrophy rate. Still, spinning does build muscle, particularly in older riders. The researchers concluded that “higher-intensity intermittent cycling may be required to achieve strength gains.” (14)
5. Better for Joints Than Most Other Cardio Exercise
If your joints are begging you to give up on high-impact, long runs, spinning could help fill your cardio void while salvaging your joints. As always, check in with your doctor before beginning a spinning routine. They’ll want to clear you if you have any heart issues, injuries or, recent surgeries or other pre-existing conditions. (15)
Whether you’re taking online spinning classes on a Peloton bike or heading to your local gym for a class, one thing is for sure: spinning builds community. And in the exercise world, that also brings accountability and consistency. Who knows, someone in your new spinning class could end up being the inspiration you need to really get back on track.
What You Need to Know About Spin Class (Before Going!)
This is really important if you’re about to hop on a home spin bike or head to a spin studio: Know your limits, monitor your heart rate and resist the urge to overtrain. There are some legit spin class horror stories out there. (Yes, lawsuits about pedal lacerations and getting stuck in pedals are a thing). (16, 17)
But if you use your head, prep properly and understand your limits, hitting the saddle for a ride could be the start of a truly positive, life-changing experience. Before we jump into a spin class Q&A for beginners with one of my favorite indoor cycling instructors, let’s first clear the air regarding some recent bad spinning press.
It’s true that rhabdomyolysis is a risk when you go too hard too soon with most forms of exercise, including indoor cycling. Also known as “rhabdo,” the complex condition involves skeletal muscle quickly breaking down. This leads to the leakage of muscle proteins and other muscle breakdown products from the cell and into the blood. Myoglobin, creatine kinase, aldolase, lactate dehydrogenase and electrolytes are all things that can start leaking out of cells and into the bloodstream when rhabdo sets in.
Symptoms range from none to life-threatening acute kidney failure. And spinning is sometimes the culprit, along with other forms of exercise like CrossFit, weightlifting, long runs and exercising in hot, humid weather.
A new term coined “white-collar rhabdomyolysis” developed as more and more sedentary and untrained working professionals started coming down with the condition due to training too hard too soon. Related to that, a 2016 study published in Internal Medicine Journal found that cases of spinning-induced rhabdomyolysis are on the rise.
Korean researchers found that spinning could be a significant cause of rhabdo in young, unfit women. And symptoms can be severe, requiring hospitalization. The study authors recommendation? Take it easy during your first spinning sessions. Don’t push too hard. (You’ll still get a great workout.) (18)
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