Last week a New York Times article brought to light for many, a rare medical condition that can be caused by high intensity exercise. Rhabdomyolysis (or Rhabdo,) results when muscles begin to break down, leading to extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and even kidney failure. The article cited new “indoor cycling” participants as being the most affected. (See why I’ve put in quotes at bottom of page.)
Rhabdo is not a foreign term to fitness professionals. Responsible instructors and trainers are aware of the risks of extreme exercise, and more importantly, how to properly program sessions and classes to include modifications, progressions, and a sufficient warm-up in order to prevent these types of harmful results.
The article spawned subsequent media coverage, which (of course) invited lots of public reaction. Many readers and viewers sharing examples of bad experiences they’ve had in group training settings; those who felt they were injured as a result of instructors “screaming” at them to “push past their limits.” Many swore off any type of group exercise in the future because of said bad experiences.
This made me sad because it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. And, it’s definitely not always that way. There are plenty of safe and effective group programs with non-screaming instructors who know how to pump the aggression brakes if need be.
More importantly there are ways you can advocate for yourself and your well-being if and when you’d ever find yourself in a similar situation.
First let me address the aspect of the “screaming” instructor. We all have different styles, and screaming isn’t mine. As an instructor it doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend a day at work, and as a participant I wouldn’t want to be yelled at either. So I don’t know what to say about that other than I wouldn’t blame you for not going back to that particular class. I think those instructors are few and far between though, so don’t be discouraged to try a different one.
But what if the instructor isn’t screaming? What if he/she is enthusiastically, and with good intentions, motivating you with phrases like “don’t quit!” or “you can do more than you think you can!” or “it’s time to push past your limits!” or my personal favorite (sarcasm,) an instructor gloating about a participant throwing up after the last session.
The message that the NYT article conveyed was for those who are new to an exercise program to “ease into the workout” in the beginning and “listen to your body” if you feel it getting too much for you.
But how do you know exactly what “easing into it” means and how do you know if it’s too much? Especially if you’re new to indoor cycling and you’re not really sure how intense it’s supposed to feel? After all, if the instructor is encouraging you that ”you can do more than you think you can” perhaps you’re supposed to feel like you might have to be carted out afterward?
It’s an understandable dilemma.
My intent with this post is to arm you with the confidence to make the right choice for you, regardless of what’s going on around you, regardless of what the instructor encourages you to do, and to not feel one iota of guilt or weakness in doing so.
The most important thing you can do is remember the purpose of that first session. With regard to indoor cycling your objective is to get a feel for what it’s all about; test the waters. This is where you begin to make a connection between your mind and the speed of your legs, the feel of various levels of resistance under your feet, decide if the height of your handlebars and seat, are in fact, the right specifications for you, and get an overall sense of the format.
You’re not going to get in tip-top shape in one single session anyway, so you might as well focus on setting the stage so that all your future sessions will be as effective as possible. That way it will be possible for you to get you in tip-top shape!
If you hired a personal trainer, she wouldn’t immediately launch you into an all-out high intensity assault within 5 minutes of meeting you. Instead she’d use that first session to assess your baseline stats in order to plan the smartest path forward.
The same should be thought of for your first indoor cycling class. If you keep that in mind when you first get on the bike, you’ll be less likely to be pressured into riding it like you stole it.
So now that you understand what the purpose of the first session is, let’s talk about why no one other than yourself is in a position to advocate for how hard you should push yourself that first class.
Unfortunately there are three forces happening simultaneously in fitness today that might be contributing to your confusion:
First, we’re in a phase right now where intensity for the sake of intensity if vastly accepted. Secondly, there is no shortage of online sources, regardless of merit, promoting this theory. Third, the fitness industry is relatively unregulated with regard to instructors and trainers.
Let me start with the latter point. While most facilities require that their instructors maintain a current primary certification in addition to whatever niche program they teach, not all of them do. A primary certification helps ensure instructors know, at the very least, the fundamentals of exercise science.
The truth is that it is perfectly legal to lead a group exercise class without ever having had to prove you understand the basics of physiology. Which means it’s entirely possible that an instructor who is encouraging his/her class to “push past their limits” doesn’t actually have an understanding of what that means from a physiological standpoint.
This is definitely not to say an instructor should be discredited for not holding a primary certification. After all, a primary certification doesn’t magically give you the charisma, presence and personality necessary to lead a group.
And, to be clear, the majority of studios, gyms, and cycling programs do an excellent job of qualifying and screening their instructors to ensure they deliver top-notch class experiences; ones that are inclusive and appropriate for all levels of participants.
But obviously if they all did, people wouldn’t be having the bad experiences that led me to write this…
Which brings me to my first and second points about intensity, intensity, everywhere intensity.
Years ago when training protocols began to shift to include the research-backed benefits of high intensity interval training, the “if some is good, more must be better” mentality started to take over. Big time. It didn’t take long before the “interval” aspect was thrown aside and intensity on steroids was everywhere you looked.
Problem. Recovery is a massively huge super duper important component to training. Rest is necessary to make the science of it all work. And I’m not talking just the work/rest ratio in a single training session. I’m also talking about the work/rest ratio in your weekly training schedule.
Liken it to Newton’s third law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Or if you prefer, think about it in terms of yin and yang. Either way, you can’t truly work at maximum capacity without adequate amounts of rest. And if you don’t schedule rest, it’ll force itself upon you in the form of burnout or injury.
But here’s the obstacle: There’s not a lot of perceived glory in participating in a low impact, moderately-intense recovery workout. It’s not Instagram-worthy. You don’t get the same immediate gratification like you do when your legs feel like jelly or when you work so hard you’re forced to collapse on the floor upon completion.
To date, not one of my clients has ever texted me after a recovery session to thank me for allowing them to properly restore their muscles. I only seem to receive thank you texts when they can’t walk up stairs for 2 days after a session. Even though one is just as important as the other in the overall goal.
Quite frankly, as a coach it’s much easier to lead a group of people whose main objective is to go balls to the wall. It takes more effort to strategically plan and present a session with smart progressions and modifications so every level can feel accomplished.
And I don’t know this for sure, but I have to imagine there are not as many people searching Youtube for “mixed intensity, sensible and smart workouts” as there are “high intensity workouts.” Which means there aren’t as many people clamoring to produce them. Which is why you’re inundated with that message.
Somewhere along the way it was decided that if you don’t feel like death after every workout, it doesn’t count.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to feel like you are going to die after every workout. You should not feel like you are going to die after every workout. There is no benefit to you throwing up during or after a workout, and if an instructor thinks that there is I’d love to know how they decided that.
Unless you are training to survive actual life and death situations, there is no reason to simulate this experience in every group exercise class!
Most of us are not interested in pushing past the limits of what the body can handle – we have to show up at work tomorrow. We have lives outside of the gym that require us to be able to function the next day. Lives in which not one person gives a damn about the speed of our sprints.
If you are indeed training for a grueling athletic event, or you are looking to test the limits of what your body can handle, then your parameters and mindset will be different. Hopefully you have a coach or personal trainer who has worked with you to understand how far you should push yourself in a group setting.
But most of us are training simply because we want to feel comfortable in our clothing and we want to be fit enough to enjoy life. We believe in group exercise because of the camaraderie, healthy motivation, and fun. We’ve made friends through group fitness. We don’t mind working out if someone else has figured it out for us. And, most importantly, it gets us results!
Don’t get me wrong, high intensity has (and should have) a very important place at the fitness table. It has proven benefits. Getting on that bike, zoning out and pedaling to the beat of the music, sweating, breathing hard, feeling like you gave it your all….it rewards us with endorphins like nothing else. It entices us to keep coming back, which gets us stronger and fitter.
And there will be plenty of time for as much of it as you want – after you get the first class under your belt!
Wether you’ve had a bad experience in the past, or have been thinking about trying it for the first time – go ahead and jump on that saddle! Here are some tips to help set you up for success:
- The resistance and cadence numbers suggested by the instructor are just that – suggestions. They are not a scientific formula for success. Always stay on the lighter side or even below these numbers during your first session.
- If your legs start to feel weak or shake and you’re having trouble maintaining a “running” position (standing up straight over the pedals) at any point during the session, dial it back for the remainder of the ride. Bring your resistance and cadence back to warm-up levels and do not attempt any more running, standing climbs, or sprints at this point because you’ll have a greater chance of getting injured. This is your body telling you you’ve already gotten what you’ve came for today.
- If you need to get off the bike for a minute, do so. That bike seat can be a biotch if you aren’t used to it (there’s no shame in using a gel seat to make it a little more bearable.) Stand up, stretch for a moment, and hop back on. You wouldn’t be the first person to ever do so.
- Remember this: The great thing about group cycling is you can take it as easy as you want and you won’t be holding up anyone else in the room, which totally takes the pressure off you to keep up. They are still free to go as hard as they want. And they won’t notice you anyway – they’ll be wrapped up in their own ride.
- Come hydrated and drink lots throughout. Pre-game with plenty of water beginning the night before your first session. It will make a big difference.
- Train with a heart rate monitor, and be familiar with your heart rate parameters prior to that first session. This helps take the guesswork out of knowing how hard you should be pushing.
- Pay attention to your bike’s computer data and record it after class. Many studios give you access to an app that tracks your stats. This info will help you correlate actual hard data to the way you feel after a session, which will help develop your natural intuitive feedback. And intuitively understanding your body’s limits is an incredible asset.
- Reframe the instructor’s motivation in the context that will best serve you. For example, “you can do more than you think you can” could simply mean for you that you worked up the nerve to come to class in the first place. And some phrases just won’t apply to you until your second or third class: “push past your limits” might mean that previously you were able to stay in a seated climb for 4 minutes without standing up to stretch, but this time you’re going to try and get to 5. Your “limits” don’t have to be pushed in a monumental way.
- Remember that just because it’s suggested, doesn’t mean it’s gospel. Be respectful of class etiquette, but don’t blindly follow instruction if it doesn’t feel right for you. Ask for clarification or help afterward, and if it still doesn’t feel right, still don’t do it. You are the best advocate your body will ever have.
*I made it a point to put “indoor cycling” in quotes above because most of the media coverage used the word spin incorrectly. Spinning® is actually a trademarked term and does not represent all indoor cycling programs. Therefore “spin class” is not actually a thing. I found it misleading when the media used the headline “spin class dangers” over stock footage of a class that was clearly not a Spinning® class.
You might also be interested in this article with tips to help make group exercise classes work best for you.