It’s no secret that many spin classes can get intense. And while you’re trying to keep up with the beat (and the show-offs in the first row), you might just unwittingly be doing more harm than good to your body.

By Yolanda Wikiel
Updated February 19, 2016
Boston Globe/Getty Images

With the help of NuYu Revolution’s Susan Rappaport, who created her signature Posture Cycle® class with proper body alignment in mind, and Dr. Robert G. Silverman, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist, here's the advice you need to know on how to break the cycle of cycling missteps.

Boston Globe/Getty Images


Cycling shoes are designed to provide you with a more secure stroke, so when you’re not properly strapped in, it can cause you to push down on the pedals and put unnecessary stress on the knees, says Rappaport. On top of that, you also won’t fully be working your quadriceps and hamstrings. You may even notice your feet will start to feel numb or hot. Once you’re clipped in, mastering the correct pedal stroke—pulling up on the pedal to create a consistent circular motion—will come more naturally. This allows you to keep your groove even when it’s time to pedal while standing.


You’ll know you’re guilty of this if both your knees are constantly bent. A low seat position puts undue pressure on knee joints, but it shortchanges your workout, too. “Your quadriceps have to work harder, leading to a labored pedal stroke and muscle fatigue early on in the ride,” Silverman says. “You also won’t be able to generate as much power from the shortened range of motion.” The best way to find the right seat height is to bring the seat to the height of your hipbone before you get on. Once you’re in the saddle, start adjusting. Make sure your legs reach the bottom of the pedal stroke with a slightly bent knee and flat foot.


The most obvious sign your seat is too high for you is that your you-know-what will hurt. Aside from that, you’ll also notice that in order to reach the pedals, it forces your knees to extend too far. “In time, this will cause damage and pain to the knee joints, hips and back,” says Silverman. While pedaling, your hips and buttocks should remain centered, with no sideways movement.


While you’ve been trying to go as fast as possible, you may not have noticed that your shoulders have creeped up to your ears and your spine has now curved into the letter C. This poor posture can lead to back pain (obviously), but another fallout is that you won’t be working your core. “Hunching over the handlebars puts weight on your arms and back and keeps you from holding up your body with your core muscles,” Silverman says. To perfect your posture (and get those abs activated): Lengthen your spine, roll your shoulders back, and envision lifting your ribs off your hips as you hinge your upper body toward the handlebars. Adjust the handlebars so you can place your entire hand on the bar while keeping a slight bend in the elbow. “Snag a bike near a mirror so you can correct your form throughout the class,” says Rappaport.


Sure, you want a challenge, but when you amp up the resistance higher than what your body can handle, you may be opening yourself up to a world of hurt. What happens is other muscles ineffectively attempt to assist your legs, for instance, your neck and shoulders tense up and your toes start to grip, says Rappaport. “Then your body curls forward in order to help get the pedals moving, which in turn can limit your air supply—a counterproductive move if you’re trying to push it to the limit.” It’s much better to work at a level in which you can maintain your posture and your breath (if you can talk, you’re good). To make sure you keep your neck loose, nod yes and no throughout the class, suggests Silverman.


On the other hand, it can even be detrimental if you take it easy. When the resistance is too low, your legs spin around the pedals too quickly with little support and your body ends up bouncing from side to side, putting your back at risk, says Rappaport. The sweet spot? When you feel tension under your feet and can still keep in sync with the music.


When you hold the handlebars too tightly, you end up with unnecessary tension in your shoulders and back. Leaning into your handlebars can even put stress on your wrists. Instead, shift your weight back into your lower body and gently rest your hands on the handlebars. “There should be no crease in the wrist nor should they be hanging downward,” says Rappaport.


You won’t be working at your optimal potential. Even breathing shallowly may hold you back as you’re pumping away. “Taking deep, even breaths throughout a workout helps you better tolerate the tough parts, and afterwards, recover more quickly,” says Rappaport.


An awesome playlist would make anybody want to dance in the saddle. But, remember, swaying makes balancing that much harder. And that lack of balance is what Silverman says causes you to grip tightly onto the handlebars, putting harmful pressure on your shoulders. Instead try to channel the beat into the cadence of your pedal strokes.


Another culprit is the “tap back” move popular in many spinning classes, in which you drive your hips backward and hover over the seat to activate the glutes. But when you bend your arms and fling your upper body forward to accentuate the movement, you put tension on your shoulders and miss out on the butt-busting benefits of the exercise. To correct your form while you travel back and forth on the bike, Silverman recommends keeping your arms long and close to your sides, with a very slight bend in the elbows.


Although this cross-training approach to work the upper-body while cycling is a common practice in most cycling studios, Rappaport calls it a movement that’s not biomechanically sound and that could lead to an injury, such as a slipped disk. “When you are weight training—even with just two- or three-pound weights—you should have two feet firmly planted on the ground in order to maintain proper alignment.” That’s something that can’t be guaranteed while you’re pumping the pedals. Silverman agrees: “Weights are best kept in the weight room.”