10 of the Most Common Indoor Cycling Mistakes

Our friend, Schwinn Master Trainer and Fitness Expert, Rachel Buschert Vaziralli, wrote this awesome blog on things people do wrong in indoor cycling classes. We liked it so much, we wanted to share it with you!

Rachel breaks down the most common errors in cycling class, how they effect the body (short term and long term), and how riders can recognize them and self-correct. As an avid outdoor cyclist, she explains how the science of outdoor cycling can inform your indoor cycling habit.

1. Sitting incorrectly.

No matter what you do, whether you wear those dorky diaper-like cycle shorts or take a stack of towels to the seat, the saddle will never be a couch! But, learning how to sit on it correctly can make a world of difference for your comfort level and help protect the (male and female) jewels.

Believe it or not, gel covers generally do not help the situation. Gel covers can:

  1. Cause more friction (on a bike seat, friction is not your friend), or
  2. Cause you to shift more from right to left causing excessive “tugging” of the lower back muscles.

Advice:Make sure not to posteriorly tilt your pelvis (AKA don’t sit with your tail between your legs). Instead, sit towards the back edge of saddle (almost like you’re sticking your butt out, with a neutral spine). Use resistance, and come on, get some diaper shorts already!

incorrect pelvic tilt cycling rachel buschert

2. Improper seat height.

Most cyclists ride way too low – probably because when you’re too high you know it, but when you’re too low you might not (unless you want to go back to the good ol’ days of tricycle riding). Whatever the reason, riding too low can be problematic:

  • Ultimately, you’ll be less comfortable in the saddle.
  • You risk knee, hip, and lower back injuries.
  • You can’t generate as much power, robbing yourself of your maximum potential calorie burn.

Riders are commonly told to set their saddles to “hip height”. However, alone this is an imperfect approach; it often sets the rider up too low (and sometimes even too high) because two bodies of equal hip-to-floor leg length may have different pelvis width or inseam length.

Advice for adjusting seat height: To find the ideal height start the saddle at hip height (defined as the crest of your ilium), but then get on and pedal. Continue to bring the seat up one notch at a time (pedaling between each height adjustment) until you find the highest you can go. You are too high if you are:

  1. Hyperextending the knees (look for this while pedaling, not while stationary)
  2. Pointing the toes during the down stroke (put resistance on the bike to check this)
  3. Hips rocking excessively side to side

The best approach is to find that “too high” setting and drop it down one notch.

Advice for adjusting horizontal seat location: Bring the crank arms of the bike to be parallel to the floor – 3:00 / 9:00 – and drop a plumb-line (stop watch or iPhone headphones, for example) from the tip of the knee of the lead leg. Make sure the weighted end falls directly over the ball of your foot (the widest part of the foot). If it does not, adjust the saddle forward or backwards until correct. Note: Saddle height effects the fore/aft positioning of the seat, so when you change one adjustment you must re-check the other.

bike person plumb line 2 rachel buschert

Advice for adjusting handlebar settings: Handlebar set-up is based purely on back comfort. There’s a myth that setting handlebars low works your core more. The key is to get into a comfortable position that allows you to ride as hard as possible (Cardio. It’s what will uncover those abs). You can set it up like a beach cruiser or a time trial bike, up to you!

3. Extending arms all the way out while seated.

Although this might be an appropriate position while standing (assuming your arms are long), for most people, this position while seated is a no-no. In your seat, you should be able to place your entire hand on the handlebar (not just fingertips), shoulders away from the ears, with a slight bend in the elbow.

Takeaway: You might feel like you’re getting a good stretch when reaching all the way out, but over-reaching causes stress on the spine and the back muscles which will leave you with a sore back instead of a sore bum! Leave the hour-long stretch for yoga.

4. Pedaling too fast.

Speed is awesome, but if you don’t back it up with resistance, you won’t achieve power (you may as well jump on a docked citibike & pedal backwards).

cycling too fast is bad for you 10 mistakes rachel

Power = speed * resistance, so speed without resistance is not powerful. Typical flywheels weigh 30-50 pounds which means they can generate a lot of momentum, allowing riders to pedal at fast speeds (110+ RPM) without the rider doing any work (and yes, you should be working in a cycling class!)

Too-fast speeds also cause excessive tugging on the ligaments and tendons of the hips and knees. When the legs spin at over 110RPM, the rider stops engaging the quadricep muscles, which act to stabilize the joints. This can lead to labral tears and other injuries (…knee surgeries) when repeated frequently. Don’t forget that going too fast inside actually translates to a very slow outdoor speed and lower overall caloric expenditure.

  • When enough resistance is applied, the hips will not bounce; you will feel the most work from 2:00-4:00 in the pedal stroke, and your legs will not feel happy (don’t worry, they’ll be happy later when you go shopping!)
  • When you cheat the resistance, you don’t get a good workout and often end up sitting improperly (refer to #1 above). Pushing through resistance makes the rider lighter on the saddle, and the hips usually shift automatically into proper position. Without resistance, you sit very heavily into your “sits bones” and literally grind your butt into the seat, often ending up in poor posture.
  • It is a myth that resistance causes bulky legs. That’s 1992 talking. It’s 2013, time to dispel that myth once and for all!
  • Pedaling without resistance, regardless of speed, isn’t hard work. Not to mention: You don’t burn 1200 calories in a 45 minute class like some people claim. You’re lucky if you can burn 600 – and without resistance you’re more likely to burn 100. So PUT THE CAKE DOWN and TURN THE RESISTANCE UP!

Takeaway: A rider’s maximum speed should be 110RPM. Ideal for power production (AKA increased calorie burn) is 60-90RPM. Use resistance, stay between 50-110 (60-90 ideal) and ride the bike instead of letting it ride you!

5. Pedaling too slow.

Resistance is awesome, but if you don’t power through, you’re getting nowhere. If you crank up the resistance too much it can allow you to go so slow (under 50RPM) that if you were outside you’d be inching your way up a hill and drastically reducing your calorie burn. You want to train to be able to climb up hills quickly – elite cyclists can often CLIMB hills at 90RPM!

You might think that going this slow achieves something because you have to push really hard with your legs, but in reality your power output is dropping as well as your heart rate. Not to mention – if you were on an outdoor bike you’d be going at a snail’s pace and might even just fall over.

Learn to maintain a faster and more efficient pace in class by staying at 60RPM+ on hills, or you may as well dismount, and march in place next to the bike as if you were walking your bike to the the top.

Takeaway: A rider’s minimum speed should be 50 RPM. Always find a resistance level that is challenging for your legs AND your lungs (not just your legs).

6. Standing with hips all the way back over saddle or standing straight up with a vertical spine.

Believe it or not there’s only one correct way to stand on the bike – with your hips over the cranks and torso slightly pitched forward. Any other way places sheer force on the knees, wearing away cartilage. It also puts excessive load on the lumbar spine, putting vertebra at risk of herniation, and decreases power production. There’s a common myth that standing in different positions is beneficial because it works “different muscles” – the truth is, if you slide your hips forward or back you do start recruiting different muscle fibers because you’ve put yourself at a biomechanical disadvantage. The body compensates by firing muscles not typically used in cycling in order to protect itself from injury.

Don’t take it from me – get on a bike that measures power and you’ll see that power decreases in every position other than hips over the cranks.

7. Pretending to turn the resistance knob.

Faking gets you nowhere, in the cycling studio or in the bedroom, ’nuff said.

Advice: Turn it or don’t, but don’t fake it!

How you do anything is how you do everything busch

8. Wearing sneakers.

Assuming your cleats are straight and symmetrical, clipping into the pedal keeps you locked into proper position. Better alignment means a lower chance of injury. A sneaker is designed for shock absorption, but in cycling you don’t want any of your power to be “absorbed” by the shoe before hitting the pedal. As such, the rigidity of the cycle shoe can allow you to more comfortably hit maximal power (and maximum calorie burn.)

Advice: Investing in a cycling shoe is worth it, and for reasons other than “looking like a pro” – your feet, knees, hips and waistline will thank you!

9. Standing with elbows on bars or while in “aero” position.

Professional cyclists stand on a bike when the terrain gets too steep or the gear is too high to maintain cadence (think STEEP hills and finish-line sprints). This position gives the outdoor rider more leverage and torque, preventing the rider from losing momentum and enabling him/her to keep the cranks turning.

If you’ve added the proper resistance in class to mimic these scenarios, when you stand you will feel the resistance supporting you from underneath; you won’t need to “death grip” your handlebars. If you have to put your forearms or elbows on the handlebars, you might as well sit down and coast. Putting the weight of your body into the handlebars takes the work out of the legs and decreases power output. This is counterproductive, since the entire purpose of cycling is to…. drum roll please… work the legs (and lungs).

You’d never see a triathlete standing on a hill while in the aero position, nor do aerodynamics help a rider on a bike that’s not actually moving.  Sometimes riders do this to hold themselves up when resistance is too low. Also note that if you can stand with the hands close together, your resistance is also too low – the right load on a flywheel will naturally incline a rider to keep arms wide and establish a slight (but not excessive) rock from side to side.

Advice: It is better to sit then to stand in an improper position or with improper resistance.

10. Doing your own class.

If you’re new and not sure if you’ll like the class, choose a bike by the door so it’s less distracting if you make an early exit. Trust me, every instructor would rather you leave the class than stay and not participate, or stay and put headphones in because you don’t share the same taste in music or volume. If you have your own agenda or are picky about music, choose a bike on the main gym floor where you can do your own workout with your own iPod – otherwise you are taking a bike from someone who wants to participate! It is also distracting to those around you that are trying their best to follow the class. Indoor cycling classes are group fitness classes, so be prepared to ride with the group.

Advice: If you need to modify due to injury or pregnancy, or if you need to leave early etc., simply inform the instructor before class begins.

Rachel Buschert Vaziralli is an international fitness presenter, Schwinn Master Trainer, creator of the FACE FEAR FITNESS brand and CEO of Rachel V Fitness LLC with over 12 years experience teaching at a variety of NYC’s most elite training facilities and is currently exclusive at Equinox NYC. As a professional dancer and competitive athlete, she brings musicality, athletic intensity and inspirational coaching to all her classes. She believes that you “will get what you give” and that everyone has the power to find their own inner athlete. You can also find Rachel on facebook and follow her on twitter.