Spinning 101: The Best Spinning Tips for Beginners

The climb up the pass was tough, but now you have an eight-mile descent to really hang it out. You're flying in your 53x12, really spun out.

Suddenly, a guy comes whipping around you at high speed. You want to catch his draft, but as you try to pedal faster you find yourself just bouncing all over your bike.

He's gone.

At the next rest stop you see the guy and ask him what gear he was in, imagining it was a 55x11 or some other superhuman gear. "53x13" he replies, then adds, "Yeah, I remember seeing you. You really ought to work on your spin."

Damn, there's that advice again!

Ever since you began riding, you've been hearing, "Work on your spin." But there are two problems with that advice.

  • First, most of us just like to go out and ride. We like the feeling of riding, the wind, the view and the effort. The idea of working on your motor-control program for pedaling technique is just a little, well, tedious.
  • Secondly, most people who give that advice don't really explain just exactly how one works on spin.

Well, it turns out that working on your spin is not really work at all — it's relaxing. In fact, as you spend just a little time "relaxing" on your spin, you will find that all the other aspects of cycling that you love so much will be enhanced because you will be less fatigued and better able to deal with a wide variety of riding situations.

Spinning: What Is It?

If you belong to a gym, or have friends who do, you have probably heard of a phenomenon called "Spinning."

Your friends might have told you it's indoor cycling or a trainer workout or cycling's version of a step aerobics class, but none of these definitions really pegs Spinning for what it is.

Invented in 1987 by bodybuilder cum RAAM cyclist Johnny Goldberg (aka Johnny G), Spinning is, basically, a non-impact indoor bicycle ride that simulates, through instructor motivation and the assistance of a resistance knob on the spinner bike, an outdoor ride.

The course's basic precepts are athletic training principles, such as using a heart-rate monitor combined with mental "empowerment" techniques.

The result is a program which has been called everything from revolutionary to ridiculous. We decided to see for ourselves why there are more than 1000 fitness clubs nationwide with Spinning programs and took a class at Johnny G's headquarters in Culver City, California.

Situated in an old bread factory, the 41-bike facility regularly fills up during high-traffic workout times, like weeknights. The Schwinn Spinner is a stationary bicycle with a weighted flywheel, a special multiposition handlebar unlike anything you've ever used before and a fully adjustable (fore-aft and height) seat.

Pedal choices are clip and strap, SPD or Look. If you're dead set on using Speedplay or Time, you'll have to bring 'em yourself. For attire, wear your riding shorts and the most breathable top you own.

After choosing a bike and fitting it, you receive a pair of headphones and climb aboard.

The instructor (who has taken a nine-month certification course) takes you through a series of intensity levels during the course of the 40-minute workout, encouraging you with words and upbeat music piped into your headphones, which ranges from old Chicago tunes (I heard "25 or 6 to 4") to John Tesh's latest and greatest (if there is such a thing). 

There's more than one spinning workout: Recovery, advanced spinner, power and endurance classes are offered in addition to the basic course.

The result?

The coolest thing about the Spinning class is you set your own intensity level with the resistance knob on your bike. No one else knows how hard or easy your bike is set, so you can hammer hard or lay off if you're having a bad day.

The worst thing is there are no fans, so you end up looking as though you've taken a dip in the sweat swimming pool. I normally hate indoor cycling, viewing it as one step removed from sensory deprivation, but the Spinning class was much more palatable than any roller game or race video motivation techniques I've tried.

 I'm even going to go again. Johnny G's headquarters charges $12 for a one-time Spinning class, but prices will vary depending on your local athletic club, which may or may not include a program for free.

Keys to A Silky Smooth Bike Spin

  • Relax your quads and calves. 
  • Push down on the pedal with hip extension by using your glutes and hamstrings. 
  • Let your heel drop so that, when the pedal is at 3 o'clock, your heel is level with, or just below, the pedal axle.
  •  Use your hamstrings to pedal through the bottom of the stroke using a motion identical to scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe.

How and Where to Spin

On the road

Next time you're out on your favorite ride, find a portion of the road that is slightly downhill and/or has a tailwind. Leave the bike in a small gear, and as your pedaling rate increases, fight your instinct to shift up.

Let the revs come up until you find yourself starting to bounce. Now you are ready to relax into a spin. First, stop using your quads. Just relax them and use only hip extension to push down on the pedal. This motion may not come naturally, so at first you may have to mentally emphasize it.

Just do like the aerobics teachers say and "squeeze, squeeze, squeeze your buns." As silly as it sounds, it really works. You'll find that you can drive the pedal down with just your glutes and hamstrings.

Next, relax your calves and ankles so that when you push down on the pedal, your heel drops slightly, and you get a stretch in your Achilles tendon. This is an important step because it sets you up for the key and final element of spinning: the scrape through the bottom (see sidebar on next page).

As the crank reaches a 4:30 or 5 o'clock position, use a scraping motion to deliver torque to the cranks. Continue that scrape across the bottom of the pedal stroke to the 7:30 or 8 o'clock position.

As you practice this motion you will develop a seamless transition from the pedal push (with your heel dropped) to the scraping motion. Keep an eye on your cycling computer and see how fast you can spin.

On rollers

There's something about riding rollers that really allows you to concentrate on your spin. Somehow they amplify any flaw in your pedal stroke and, therefore, provide excellent feedback. They do not provide much resistance, so it is easy to get up to a high rpm in just about any gear. Indeed, many coaches insist that their riders use rollers to work on their spin.

For instance, the Australian national team kilo and pursuit riders do roller workouts that include six-minute bouts at 160 rpm.

The steps involved in relaxing during your spin are the same on rollers as they are on the road, but with rollers you never hit an uphill or a head wind — you just keep right on spinning.

As I described for road riding, just start rolling up the rpm. When you start to feel yourself bouncing on the seat, begin to relax into a spin. Start by relaxing your quads and then your calves. Let your heel drop so you can smoothly transition from the push down to the pull back.

On the rollers, you can set up a progressive training plan. For instance, let's say on your first time you start to bounce at 100 rpm. To determine rpm, count your pedal strokes for six seconds and multiply by 10. You should try to smooth out that 100-rpm cadence and hold it for one minute.

Recover for a few minutes at a lower rpm, then go again. Repeat this five times for a total of five minutes at a high rpm.

The next time you try this, you will probably find you can do 110 or 115 without bouncing. Just find your "bounce limit" (the cadence above which you bounce on the seat) and then slightly exceed it for a minute at a time. 

Once you get to 120 rpm, you may want to start adding time so you can work up to five minutes at 120 rpm. Then start to add rpm again. These are just general ideas about how to be progressive.

You can devise a progressive program that works for you and keeps you motivated. The main point is to increase both your pedaling rate and the time that you can sustain that rate.

Wind or Magnetic Trainers

Most wind trainers provide too much resistance to allow you to effectively work on your spin. Magnetic trainers may work, but keep them on the lowest setting. Provided that you can get the resistance to an appropriate level, follow the same steps described for rollers.

Keys to Spin Development

  • Find your bounce limit.
  • At that cadence, use all the strategies described previously to smooth out your spin and eliminate the bounce.
  • Spend a progressively longer time at or above your previous bounce limit.
  • Aim for a long-term goal of about five minutes at over 120 rpm.

Spinning class

Okay, okay, I know what you're thinking: No self-respecting cyclist would go to a spin class. Right? Wrong!

Look, motivation is where you find it. If you have trouble riding at home in front of the TV but you need to train, why not seek out company? Think of it as a group ride.

One cyclist I know had a history of getting sick when he rode in the cold. Consequently, he would avoid riding during the winter so when springtime came, he'd be in pretty bad condition. Last year he started going to spin class and, as a result, was in his best off-season form and had his best racing season ever.

Just keep the resistance to a manageable level and relax on your spin. Of course, the drills the class instructor puts you through may not allow for the real systematic increases that rollers do, but just go with the flow, and when you feel the bounce, relax it out.

But wait, there's more! Improved spinning is just like those cheesy TV advertisements where with every thing you buy, you get a free gift. In this case, along with a better spin, you get more endurance and more power.

More endurance

The benefits of developing a smooth spin go well beyond just that one mountain descent. You will begin to use your hip extension more and more in all your pedaling, not just the high cadence.

This will really improve your endurance because the glutes and hamstrings are much more adapted to aerobic exercise (i.e., higher capillary and mitochondrial density) than your quads.

Also, you'll find that your back will become less fatigued on long rides because the action of pedaling through the bottom of the pedal stroke serves to stabilize you on the seat, reducing the rocking motion of your hips and lower back.

More power 

Ever notice how some riders can power out of turns in the saddle with no perceivable motion? The key to that acceleration is the action through the bottom of the pedal stroke. It really locks you down on the seat and allows you to push harder on the pedals. The result: less wasted motion, more power and a better seated aero position.

Learn to spin and you'll get it all: better endurance, less fatigue, a smoother style, higher top speed and better acceleration. Now isn't all that worth just a little relaxation?

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