Getting Started in Indoor Cycle Class

Photo: ronklob

You may be wondering how to get exercise during the winter. Indoor cycling (or spinning) classes are a great solution. Even if being led by an instructor who shouts commands may seem ridiculous, the benefits to fitness are tremendous. You can get a great cardio workout in a short amount of time within a safe, temperate environment. If you've wondered about this workout option or want to get more out of class, consider these tips on getting started and getting the most from your time.

Know what you're getting yourself into

You'll ride a stationary bike in a cycle studio, surrounded by fellow athletes-in-training. An instructor will lead exercise sessions, generally lasting from 30 to 60 minutes. A typical workout will attempt to simulate an outdoor bike ride that may include sprinting (spinning the bike pedals really fast), climbing (turning a knob to adjust resistance for a more difficult gear), and working recovery (pedaling at a slowed pace and/or lower resistance). Often there is music accompanying the rides and cyclists are advised to pedal at a speed that is in sync with the beat.

Some may think that they are not in good enough shape to attempt a cycle class. These thoughts seem odd to me because you can easily adjust the workout to your own pace and strength. But be careful to avoid elevating your heart rate to dangerously high levels through overexertion and letting your heart rate drop too quickly by stopping suddenly.

Follow the sign-up process and get to class on time

Start by getting a class schedule and learning the rules about class registration processes, which can be quirky. If there is not a formal sign-up procedure, find out how early most people arrive for class and whether classes are generally full.

My gym (the local YMCA) requires participants to sign up for classes. You can call as early as 24 hours ahead of the hour that the class begins. For example, if a Tuesday class starts at 8:20 a.m., then call as early as 8:20 a.m. on Monday. Competition is fierce, so late callers are placed on a waiting list. Another local gym takes participating members on a first-come, first-serve basis for each class. It also allows non-members to take a class for a fee.

Make sure you get to class on time or early. One of the most compelling reasons is to keep your reserved space. The instructor may assign reserved spaces to those on the waiting list if you don't arrive at the specified time (for example, if you haven't arrived for a 8:20 a.m. class by 8:15 a.m., then you lose your space). A few more reasons to arrive early are to:

  • Find a bike in a location that you prefer (you may want to avoid cycling next to the loud speakers or find a spot that allows you to see the instructor)
  • Have plenty of time to set up your bike
  • Start warming up

Lastly, some instructors will not allow you to join a class in progress, so late arrivers don't get a chance to participate.

Bring water and a towel

Many classes require participants to bring water and a towel. Some folks may forget these items and may buy a single-use water bottle at the gym and substitute paper towels for a real towel. Pack your gym bag (or your car trunk) with an extra water bottle and towel to save money.

Consider using oversized hand towels or smaller bath towels. These cover the entire handlebar area and help you avoid getting and giving germs.

Drink water and eat before class

Exercising while thirsty or hungry may cause you to restrict your activity, counteracting the purpose of participating in this fitness class. If you're planning a vigorous workout, drink some water and eat normally the day of the class. To boost your energy, try a smoothie an hour or so before your workout. (I make mine with yogurt, orange juice, frozen bananas, and blueberries.)

Leave the energy gel or similar products at home. Since you're exercising in a controlled environment, you don't have to worry getting stranded on your bike 30 miles from home or slowing down your riding group because you're tired. If you start feeling sluggish, slow your pace or lower the resistance.

Dress appropriately

A basic t-shirt and shorts should work fine, though many people will wear a top with moisture-wicking capabilities and cycle shorts (close-fitting shorts are helpful as they won't snag on the seat when you stand using the pedals as support). Some folks wear long-sleeve shirts and sweatpants, but they will often become uncomfortable, feeling nice and warm as the workout begins but getting too hot as the session continues.

Cycle shoes are an extra and possibly unnecessary expense. If you are a beginner, wait to see if you'll enjoy the classes before buying extra gear. If you plan to cycle outdoors or anticipate using clipless pedals in the future, cycle shoes for indoor class can be helpful. You'll be more likely to strengthen the muscles that you'll use in outdoor cycling. You'll also become more accustomed to the feel of wearing the shoes, clipping in, and clipping out. Choose shoes that will fit a stationary bike and can be used on your bike (note that you may need to buy new pedals for your bike).

Learn to set up your bike

Your instructor should be able to give you guidance on proper bike set-up. The gym may offer an introductory session to guide you through personalized set-up and explain basic guidelines, such as the meaning of instructions pertaining to adding resistance, increasing speed, doing an active recovery, etc. Make adjustments based on your comfort level and outdoor riding style. If your knees start hurting, for example, you may need to change your settings (or lighten the resistance until you become stronger).

Before each class session, check the bike before you start your set up. Wipe off residual sweat from earlier classes, or choose another bike depending on your "ickiness" tolerance. (Also, remember to wipe down and clean your bike before you leave class.)

Adjust your ride

You may need to make adjustments to the ride based on your goals. Generally, it's easiest to follow the cues of the instructor and make minor adjustments to speed and/or resistance. For example, the instructor may be focusing on strength when you are interested in gaining speed, but you can quietly make changes that suit your needs without distracting other cyclists.

Some instructions may be hard to follow — such as when the instructor asks you to create enough resistance to simulate a standing climb and then tells you to sit down and pedal (I find this task nearly impossible to accomplish: if there is enough resistance to hold my weight standing, then there is too much resistance to pedal when seated).


Don't leave without stretching, though some routines can be confusing. Listening carefully to the instructor and following the lead of your classmates can be helpful but invariably someone stretches to the right while another is moving to the left. Stretching at home (using routines specific to cycling) can be useful in understanding various techniques.

To help your muscles recover from the workout, consider drinking a glass of chocolate milk, which has been reported to have benefits exceeding sports beverages.

Indoor cycle classes won't give you all the skills you need to excel in cycling. To hone real-life cycling skills (e.g., climbing, descending, outrunning dogs, and avoiding hazards), you'll need to ride outside: brave the cold now or wait until spring for nicer weather. Classes will definitely help your conditioning, though, so that you can build and maintain a base of fitness that will last year-round.

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Guest's picture

I went to an indoor cycling class (first and only) a few months ago and wish I had this article first! I had no idea what I was doing and I had to take a break in the middle of the class which really messed me up from no cool-down. Then I didn't know how to stretch properly afterwards and felt like I barely made it back to the car. Long story short I went home and took a long bath and went straight to bed! Maybe with this advice I'll try to take another class sometime.

Julie Rains's picture

I hope you do get to try it again. If you are getting started in fitness in general, it's helpful to learn about what certain heart-rate levels feel like. If you are working out in a gym, then many of the pieces of cardio equipment will give you heart-rate readouts (you could also buy a heart-rate monitor but that may be an unnecessary expense).

What I did is look at my heart rate is when I got started (perhaps 90 bpm) and when I started to feel tired (which may be 120) and when I was really pushing it (which may be 160 or more); and noticed how I felt at those points. So when I was in cycle class and started to feel at my peak, then I could settle down and stay at that level. You can find what gives you a good workout being exhausted for the rest of the day.