The first thing you notice when you stand outside of the SoulCycle studio in West Hollywood is all of the sweaty and visibly fatigued folks that emerge from the frosted glass doors. It sends a clear image, step inside and be prepared to work. The other message it sends to onlookers is that this is a place where I’m going to get a good workout in. Why wouldn’t I? Just look at them? Their Lululemon yoga pants and bedazzled electric blue waist coats barely cover how toned and fit they are!
So inside we stepped, me, my better half and our friend who regularly attends class there. Aside from setting my own bike up, I tried to hide my experience as a veteran cycling instructor as I wanted to get the full experience that a newbie would get. Under my saddle I found a pair of 1-lb weights cradled there. Our friend warned me that new riders trying to “show off” by using heavier weights would be unceremoniously ridiculed for their poor decision when they could no longer keep up with the workout. I asked the rider next to me what he used and he suggested I use at least two pounds. I chose the three pound weights to match his. Yeah, I know, I couldn’t turn off my ego entirely.
The other thing I noticed about the class was how close together the bikes were placed, and I mean close together, as in your face is in the butt of the rider in front of you and you are essentially rubbing elbows with the riders to either side. I later found out that this is to share the energy between riders and it also serves to accentuate the choreography of the entire line of riders as they pop up and down in unison, making for a very energizing and sweat-flinging demonstration of solidarity. The class ought to come with a warning to avoid gas creating foods before riding. In short there is no personal space, and oddly it isn’t such a bad thing once you start going, probably because the heat and vapor haze in the room tends to numb your senses after a few minutes.
And then it began. No warm-up to speak of , we head right on into it. Jumps, more jumps and more jumps. Spin your ass off as quickly as you can – oops did I say that? No not ass, but the word Spin. That’s trademarked. The vast majority of the class is held out of the saddle save for a few moments where we spin (lower case word) free. Surprisingly the emphasis on the use of hand weights was grossly over advertised. We did Pilates-like arm movements for the duration of only one song, Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, which lasts for roughly four and a half minutes. Sound easy? Click on the link and the hold your arms out and pulse them up and down while watching the YouTube video and let me know how you feel at the end.Are you burning a huge amount of calories? Nope, but you are creating resistance to your delts and traps, etc and it’s better than sitting there with your arms at your sides as you read this.
So why all of the media attention? And why all of the criticism, like this article entitled How to Waste An Hour of Your Time in a Cycling Studio, by Jennifer Sage of the Indoor Cycling Association.
Is SoulCycle the indoor cycling alternative we’ve all been looking for? Does it create finely toned physiques and improve the health of its participants? Or is SoulCycle the devil incarnate or as one critique asserts is a complete waste of time and suggests that its mere presence and public popularity is contributing to ruining the industry?
So do I have a dog in this fight? No more than when providing an educated opinion on any exercise class or fad. Yes I’m a purest and I when I teach cycling I teach based on solid principles, but hey guess what, Spinning isn’t true cycling either, nor is Reebok Cycling nor are many others. Oh and by the way, Zumba isn’t dance but it doesn’t mean that taking the class is a bad thing to do. If you want real cycling indoors then climb on your rollers or Computerainer – it’s as close as you’re going to get. Indoor cycling attracts people from all walks of life and with varying goals, not all of which may agree with yours.
As I’ve gotten older I recognize that like most everything else in life, this argument can be solved by managing expectations, communicating those clearly, and then following through.
Here is my revised priority of what I like to see offered in the fitness industry and how I score SoulCycle:
- Get people off the couch – Offer opportunities that inspire people with different objectives to embrace a healthy and active lifestyle – Check, SoulCycle is one such option, and hey guess what it isn’t the only one. SoulCycle appeals to folks who want to dance, do things as a group, and sweat. If the alternative is sitting at home on the couch watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, what is the problem?
- Be safe, but don’t insist on policy without purpose – The goal is to keep people healthy and active once they embrace the lifestyle. Significant injuries prevent this. Base jumping without a parachute is probably not a good idea. Too many jumps or pedaling too fast – staples of SoulCycle – are not the end of the world. Be able to help participants avoid those harmful without casting a blanket to protect everyone against every possible scenario. Newsflash, always being safe isn’t fun. Some people don’t mind a few cuts and scrapes, others do. Again, manage expectations.
- Use intelligent instructors – Notice I didn’t say “certified” instructors. Beyond basic safety and repeating what is in a training manual, instructors of any fitness discipline should be able to actually apply those learnings to a wide variety of situations and know when they can leave well enough alone, when they should offer alternatives and when they should strongly suggest that the participants don’t do something altogether. Jury’s out on this one, not just for SoulCycle but for every fitness discipline out there. In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve definitely seen my share of cowboys and crappy instructors that are successfully certified by multiple agencies, and that never seems to change.
- Make it fun or make it extreme – Either is fine and both is great also, but you actually have to know you are doing it. You can’t go into a Zumba class and teach like Bob Fosse. You’ll make them cry and usually crying isn’t fun. Fun or extreme hardness are both equally effective at attracting participants and helping them to get off their assess. SoulCycle is flat out fun unless you are sitting or standing or jumping there being pissed off that the class doesn’t adhere to specific safety principles. That’s like being Ferris Bueller’s sister, and the only guy who liked her in that movie was Charlie Sheen. SoulCycle is also hard. Seriously, you try bouncing up and down on a saddle without hurting yourself. That’s hard.
- Know your audience and tailor your class to them – As group cycling instructor, you aren’t going to teach octogenarians in the same way you’re going to teach to members of Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, a pro cycling team. So why argue that what one instructor does for one group is wrong?
My summary? If SoulCycle is inspiring folks to embrace healthy and active lifestyles AND isn’t sending anyone to the hospital, more power to you. Is it for me? Not sure. Like I said, I’m still a cycling purest and for me, 8 by 3-minute sprint intervals with 90 second recoveries still get me more excited than isometrics to Robin Thicke and bouncing up and down on a saddle while wondering if I chose the right food the night before. To each her own.