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In-Your-Face Fitness: SoulCycle's mix of cycling and upper-body workouts raises concerns

It's seen a rapid expansion of classes, with two studios opening soon in the L.A. area. But some have concerns about the combo method. One of its founders says, 'It's actually very safe.'

November 28, 2011|By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

I agree. I know that when Rush's Alex Lifeson is ripping out a righteous guitar solo on my iPod and I (stupidly) let go of the handlebars to play along on an air guitar, my leg power decreases significantly. You need a firm grip on the handles to create maximum pedaling power. Replacing this lost power with a variety of upper-body movements isn't going to compensate, thermodynamically speaking.

But that's a minor issue. Lean bodies are made in the kitchen anyway.

So let's examine the training effect of this upper-body workout. To build muscular strength and size, you need to activate your larger, fast-twitch muscle fibers, and this requires heavy lifting. If you can lift a weight more than about a dozen times, you've switched to the smaller, slow-twitch fibers; you're getting an endurance workout.

On the videos I've seen, the slight angle at which SoulCycle has participants do push-ups and core work makes the resistance too light to activate the fast-twitch fibers. As for the use of weights, I'll just quote Sage: "Lifting a 1-pound weight isn't going to do anything. It's useless."

When I talked to Rice about this, she said she finds this hard to believe. After all, she told me, people's arms do get tired after lifting those weights for five to eight minutes. She also said that SoulCycle clients are seeing upper-body benefits, like appearing more muscular.

What Rice doesn't seem to appreciate is that you can make your arms tired by curling a soup can while watching TV — but it won't build your muscles. The muscle tone Rice describes can be explained by simple fat loss. The classes will burn calories, and people who engage in intense exercise often adopt more healthful diets. When people lose the fat covering their torsos, of course they will look better, but they won't be any better at opening pickle jars.

But this isn't my biggest issue either. If you only do lots of intense cycling and never build your upper body, it's still light-years better than driving a couch.

My primary concern with this type of a workout is safety.

"When you start bobbing and weaving and doing push-ups on a bike while your legs are spinning, you risk hurting your low back," Sage told me. There are too many opposing forces taking place, and with your shoes hooked into a set of pedals, this puts undo strain on the lumbar disks, she said.

What's more, all that shifting in the saddle keeps changing the angle of the knee joint while pedaling, Sage said. This can lead to overextensions that cause trauma to the muscles and connective tissues, including ligaments and patellar tendons.

"It's like they took my book and read all the stuff on what not to do and turned it into a company," said Sage, who hasn't taken a SoulCycle class herself but has discussed them with people who have (including some certified indoor cycling instructors). She has also watched numerous SoulCycle videos, she said.

Tom Scotto, an elite-level coach with USA Cycling in Boston, has some serious reservations about SoulCycle's classes. "There are a number of risk violations taking place at any given moment in one of those classes," he told me.

Scotto agrees that there isn't much value in an upper-body exercise that can be done on a bike and that it's "dangerous to encourage any movement that would hinder or affect the mechanics of pedaling during an indoor cycling class."

I told Rice that two experts had serious doubts about the safety of SoulCycle's upper-body workouts. "It's actually very safe," she replied. "You're not standing up when you're using the weights. We also have them add a lot of resistance so you're not spinning too fast while doing weights."

I relayed Rice's defense to Scotto, but he wasn't buying it. Proper cycling requires relaxed core muscles, he said, and sitting up engages the core.

Rice also told me that "we've had almost no injuries and we see thousands of people every week." I'm not surprised they haven't seen injuries — my concern is that the damage could be cumulative over time. People could get micro tears and incremental disk bulges and one day just stop going to class because they couldn't take the pain.

But don't just take my word for it.

Irvin Faria is a professor emeritus of kinesiology at Cal State Sacramento and has written many research articles on cycling. After reviewing a number of SoulCycle videos, he told me that "the upper-body exercise is of very limited value. … To avoid lower back injury, bouncing on the saddle while pedaling should be avoided. I would also avoid upper-body twisting."

I also spoke with Manhattan-based Martica Heaner, who not only has a doctorate in nutrition and physical activity from Columbia University but also has been an indoor cycling instructor for 15 years. She even took a SoulCycle class once.

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