could I get a little more cycle in my soul? SoulSycle, that is

Below is my introduction to New York City’s SoulCycle scene, along with professional commentary from personal trainers, professional spin instructors and of course, SoulCycle instructors themselves.

photo courtesy of wordbyjessie.com

photo courtesy of wordbyjessie.com

Regulars clicked their indoor cycling shoes into the pedal clips, first the left, then the right. Kendra, a petite blonde built of pure muscle, swaggered across the room and slipped into her instructor’s bike. The lights flicked off. We were drenched in darkness on our indoor cycling bikes. Except I couldn’t figure out how to lock in my right cycling shoe and the front-desk assistant was bolting for the studio door. Without a warning, electro-dance music beat into the lightless room from all angles silencing the blur of ten whizzing flywheels. Excuse me? Excuse me! Three candles on the instructor’s podium in the front of the room pierced the darkness. Twisting my right foot over the pedal, unable to communicate with the assistant over the music, I finally felt the click.

“I just realized something,” Kendra purred over the music to her 10:30 Wednesday morning class. “I just realized that we’re all girls in here today!” A wave of cheers crashed over the music.

Together, the ten or so of us careened up and down hills, felt the rhythm of the music swell and listened to it within the muscles of our legs and our core as we rode. We swayed to the left and the right while “running” on the bike, crunching our obliques and bending into simulated push-ups. We sat tall and strong, balancing our bodies while holding 2 pound dumbbells out in front of us for countless minutes. We obeyed as Britany Spears commanded us to work harder while Kendra’s deep, entertainer-like voice guided us through a sweaty journey of pleasure through pain for which SoulCycle is famous. “Bring it on” she cooed. And we did.

As a former track athlete and current fitness enthusiast who spins four times a week, alternating with four mile runs and one mile swim workouts, I could not, as a newcomer to Manhattan, ignore the buzz of SoulCycle in my ear. I eagerly invested 34 dollars – a grocery bill – into my wellbeing (I hoped) and stepped into the spacious walk-in closet-sized location scraped out of the bricked buildings and paved streets of East 63rd. But somewhere between entering the stuffy studio room and stretching out my sweat-drenched body 45 minutes later, I noticed a few things about the class that felt counterintuitive to all that I had learned from experienced spin instructors. And after speaking with personal trainers, physical therapists, chiropractors and experienced spin instructors, it seems that in fact, these inklings proved true.

In the world of spinning(which SoulCycle instructors say is not technically a blanket term – indoor cycling is more accurate), there are nonnegotiable cycling no-no’s: contraindications, or inadvisable and dangerous exercise practices such as alternating from position one (in the saddle) to position three (hovering over the handlebars) without gripping the handlebars for stability. While many contraindications can lead to injury, they are typically preventable.

The first sight in the SoulCycle room made my knees weak and my butt clench: bouncy bottoms. Three girls in the front row bowed their ponytails and matched their speeds to Kendra’s, but it seemed their legs couldn’t keep the 50 pound flywheel snowballing in momentum under control. They were, as Ed Hall, a burly spin instructor who is a favorite at New York Sports Club (NYSC), says: “free spinning.” So their bottoms bounced forcing their fragile knees to absorb an amount of pressure enough to cause a tendon tear– and worse, the flywheel was doing all the work.

Elizabeth Guerrero, a spin instructor at NYSC who pushes me to my lactate threshold nearly every Tuesday at nine in the morning, has seen countless spinning injuries during her 14 years as an instructor. Knee injuries, for one thing. “It’s true, you can injure yourself spinning – just like you can with any other class,” she says. “But I told [my students], you have injuries on your knees because first of all, you’re not spinning with any resistance on the bike.” While on a sprint or a pick-up, Guerrero says it’s the same as on a hill: push and pull from your hips down. With too little resistance on the bike, excess pressure is placed on the knees instead.

photo courtesy of purposegeneration.com

photo courtesy of purposegeneration.com

Serena, a SoulCycle instructor recruited less than a year ago whose name has been changed for the sake of this article, reflects similar concerns. “They always, always, always hammer it in to keep resistance on the bike and make students know that it’s important,” she said in reference to her three-month training program. Although all instructors are required to have CPR/AED training, the rest of their training program lays in obscurity – one of the many components of the brand that SoulCycle PR personal prefers not to disclose. “We really emphasize in class how big of a safety it is,” Serena said. And yet, the uncorrected bouncy bottoms?

Apparently SoulCycle’s competitive auditions and training program are so thorough, according to current instructors, that the “Master Instructors” who do the hiring effectively weed out the instructors who aren’t good. Then again, when “good” skills are sieved from “bad” skills, the precipitate that results is often inconsistent. Conversations with Mad Dogg certified spinning instructors (the creators of spinning and the world’s largest equipment-based education company), for example, differ starkly from instructors at SoulCycle. While Mad Dogg instructors speak of contraindications, the kinetic chain (alignment based on successively arranged joints) and biomechanics, the SoulCycle instructors speak of musicality, choreography and “the experience.”

Skilled spin instructors have the vigilance to scout for and correct contraindications before they become a dangerous habit.  Smooth pedal strokes, for example, is an art which Mad Dogg-trained instructors hammer into their students in any given class. During that first session at SoulCycle, my eyes didn’t catch it, but the second and third time I returned, this time to Rique’s spunky classes, it was inescapable. The SoulCycle pedal strokes look like a one-footed cadence check with a deep-seated twitch (no pun intended): as one knee explodes at the top of the rotation, the shoulders jerk sideways to the beat of the music. Experienced riders, it seemed, had the interpretative, spasmodic pedal rhythm, nailed to the beat more than others. The girls who rode the class on the instructor’s bike – a highly paid compliment within SoulCycle – always had perfect jerk form.

Some of these movements discouraged by Mad Dogg instructors, however, are encouraged by SoulCycle instructors. Dancing on the bike, for example. Not only was I told by SoulCycle instructors to exaggerate my upper-body motion as I ground the resistance out in third position, but I was told to bend into simulated push-ups. To my own fear, I even struggled to keep up with Kendra’s beat, switching between the four hand positions (SoulCycle’s unique bikes add a bar midway between second and third position). Rique’s classes were different: less interpretative dancing, but more pushups and tap-backs (hovering low over the seat in three). At one point, he instructed us to grip the far side of the handlebar with both hands and lean into tap-backs, in which I pulled my arms and leaned on my knees for balance.

Guerrero, however, is quick to point out the bad body-mechanics of crunching, pushing and lifting on a bike. Although Serena scoffs at the comparison between indoor cycling and outdoor bicycling, because they’re “two different things,” Guerrero stresses that the reason is more methodological than ideological. “Even though this is a stationary bike, we are expecting you to look forward [like you would on an outdoor bike] because your head should be in alignment with the spine.” Even in an informal survey, seasoned personal trainers, chiropractors and physical therapists all agreed on one thing: bending or twisting while pedaling on a bike is a disruption of the natural kinetic chain and likely increases risk for injury.

photo courtesy of the LA Times

photo courtesy of the LA Times

Alex Kalinkos, a personal trainer specializing in reversing injuries, shakes his head at fusing certain upper-body movements while on a spin bike. He says that doing so would set off a domino reaction skewing the body’s alignment starting with the hips. “You can feel the muscles in your hips shorten,” he says. “Once those shorten and they’re going to stay short like that, your alignment is going to be screwed up from that point on.” The excessive strain on those constricted muscles while doing pushups hunched over, for example, causes the shoulder muscles to compensate unnaturally for the irregularity, throwing off the entire body’s natural muscle movement.

As for the five minutes of physical agony lifting 2 pound dumbbells (each bike comes equipped with dumbbells ranging from 1 to 5 pounds), Victoria Watson, a Mad Dogg spin instructor says, is good muscle endurance training which can help build long, lean muscle. But lifting while pedaling? “I have so much concern with using dumbbells on a bike,” she says. Many instructors and personal trainers agree that lifting even small dumbbells while spinning is a not only a setup for injury due to distraction of proper alignment, but also a distraction from the real reason a rider is on a bike: working the legs.

The tragedy, Guerrero says, is that traditional spinning is a natural full-body workout, especially when high resistance is incorporated into the workout. The power to pedal comes from the legs, hips and core muscles of the lower body. In third position, the arms flex naturally as they work to stabilize and align the naturally swaying body.

When I asked Serena what the possible benefits of choreographic rides were, she said dancing on a bike allows the body to access otherwise inaccessible muscle groups in a constant full-body movement. Apparently, the bikes are specially designed to keep the core engaged and the length in the spine. Kalinkos however, who trains SoulCycle riders, says that bending, twisting and lifting on any bike is dangerous. According to the consensus of spinning instructors independent of SoulCycle as well as physical therapists and personal trainers, twisting and exaggerated leaning while on the bike – especially in position three – disconnects the spine and can damage the back. It’s true what Serena said about constantly maintaining resistance so as to provide natural support and balance, but that too is what the handlebars are for – “for the sake of balance, you know, not leaning on the handlebars but just lightly enough so you can balance,” says Watson.

SoulCycle’s training methods are impenetrable to the public. Even Patrick Connolly, a SoulCycle instructor of one year, says he had to be vague about their preparation. They were taught how to build classes with the SoulCycle formula and of course, how to build playlists. At least one thing between both SoulCycle instructors was agreed upon: so-called Master Instructors (a play off of Mad Dogg’s Master Instructors) did the hiring and they were more likely to select those with personality rather than triathletes, as Janet Fitzgerald, a Master Instructor, said in an interview with New York Magazine. Indeed, both Serena and Connolly were theater majors, although with some sort of athletic background.

Connolly says there are a few ways to distinguish yourself above others as a talented instructor: One way is music. “Some people just have amazing, amazing beats,” he says emphatically. True too that SoulCycle is an experience-fueled class with the only other aspect trumping the tunes being the rider-instructor connection.

When Mitch, a member of Equinox in LA, was first dragged into SoulCycle by a friend, he left feeling as peaceful as a couple sitting on a park bench, smiling and wordless. His four-a-week classes have since become likened to a religious experience. For Mitch, it’s the rare combination of the chemical-endorphin high with positive energy that keeps him returning for more.

During the dumbbell section of the workout – a controversial fusion method initially unique to SoulCycle – some instructors tell their riders to put their positive attributes on a platter and give them out as they hold their weights in the air. Even Angela, an L.A. instructor who Mitch believes is excellent (and she ran with the USA Track and Field Team to prove it), calls her sessions “church.” “She has an incredible following of people,” he says admiringly. “She has a couple of lines – a philosophy that she instills into her pupils – combined with her ability to take you to a level where you breakdown, which makes for an advanced class.”

When I probed further, Gabby Cohen, the PR and Marketing Director of SoulCycle politely declined an official interview. “We really don’t like to be compared to other workout techniques,” Cohen said in a cheery voice over the phone. “And we really don’t like to give out our secret sauce of how our instructors are trained, it’s just not something we like to talk about. Okay?” Okay.

The fitness market has been watered down with personal trainers with questionable backgrounds, according to Jeremy Meschino, a physical therapist and personal trainer. What’s worse, group fitness instructors can take an online quiz and gain certification in less than a day. This has led to avoidable injuries from those who use improper body mechanics. Kalinkos, Meschino and Dr. Cucci, a chiropractor who has taken to leaving his card at Equinox for the SoulCycle goers (luckly, this has become somewhat of a joke) have all seen it happen. Mitch was injured by Cross Fit himself, which was partially what led him to replace the competitive nature of that craze with another: SoulCycle. While Cross Fit rejuvenated Olympic lifting, group fitness classes like Barry’s Bootcamp, Flywheel and SoulCycle all raised the bar so that instructors are challenged to mediate between fitness DJ and trainer. This is partially why dancers are frequently encouraged to become group fitness instructors rather than the other way around. Connolly openly admits that an estimated over 50 percent of the instructors at SoulCycle don’t have personal training backgrounds and that a large portion have a background as dancers, actors and the like.

 

At 9:30 Wednesday morning, my third class, I sat on bike 32 in the back corner of the East 63 SoulCycle studio. Rique, a Master Instructor with great patience and a strong connection with the riders, taught the class. I watched myself in the mirror clouded from our perspiration and saw how the Soul twitch was an acquired skill – one that would shatter my years’ worth of smooth, near-perfect pedal strokes.  I listened to the sound of Rique’s smooth voice encouraging us with a shout of yeah-yeahs and watched as he walked up to riders in the front row and placed his hands on their handlebars as if conducting the Soul vibe through his fingertips. At the top of our steepest hill he told us to stop moving our legs. How do you feel? He faced the girl riding the instructor’s bike. Amazing! I leaned, pushed and pulled and tried failingly to pedal out the Soul jerk. At least by this third session I did learn one thing successfully – an attendant finally explained to me how to click in my shoes.

photo courtesy of Foam Magazine

photo courtesy of Foam Magazine

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