Health & Fitness

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

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I'm an outdoorsy type, and you won't get me on a stationary bike unless there are a few inches of snow on the ground. But I've pedaled my way through enough indoor-cycling classes to know that instructors need to be engaging and entertaining to keep you coming back.

Which brings me to SoulCycle. It's a hot name in fitness, and it's on its way to Los Angeles. This 5-year-old New York City-based chain of indoor cycling studios became famous for merging upper-body exercises with traditional stationary bike workouts. Throw in some candlelight, a whiff of aromatherapy to cover the B.O. and charismatic instructors shouting encouragement over upbeat dance music and you've got a cardio class with a devoted following.

Some of SoulCycle's followers are folks you may have heard of, including Brooke Shields, Chelsea Clinton, Anderson Cooper and Tom Cruise, according to media reports. What's more, actress and talk show host Kelly Ripa gushed about the place in an on-air segment last year: "This class, SoulCycle, is more than an exercise class. It really is an inspirational class that is as good for your brain as it is for your body." With buzz like this, it's not surprising classes sell out within minutes of being posted online.

SoulCycle is emphasizing the primary thing I've highlighted to my clients and readers: the importance of finding an exercise you love and embracing it with fervor. And it appears to be working. The company has expanded well beyond its Manhattan base. Studios are slated to open in West Hollywood in January and in Brentwood in the spring, with more California locations to follow.

Exercise adherence is all about feeling the love, so what's not to love about SoulCycle?

Plenty.

SoulCycle takes an enthusiastic approach to exercise that I want to endorse. But I give this company a failing grade for exercise physiology and biomechanics. The whole idea of working one's upper body while pedaling a stationary bike is not only counterproductive, it can be physically detrimental over time, according to several experts I talked to.

Unfortunately, neither of the co-founders, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, is an exercise physiologist or a certified cycling instructor. (Before opening SoulCycle, Rice was a Hollywood talent manager and Cutler sold luxury real estate.) Rice told me they worked with an exercise physiologist to create the routines, but that still doesn't erase my concerns about safety or efficacy.

Rice and Cutler rented an old dance studio in 2006 and made a point of hiring dancers and actors to teach the cycling classes after attending an unaccredited nine-week SoulCycle training program, Rice told me. I browsed through the instructors' head shots on the company website, and most of them look like they could star in a soap opera or an episode of "Glee" (not that I'm in the habit of watching either).

Elements of the classes are scripted — from the lighting to the music to the instructors' performance. "Every class is a mini production," Rice said. "People with a theatrical background can bring value to that production." The laudable goal is to help people see exercise as more than a means to an end and actually enjoy the class while they are taking it.

These classes are based on the theory that it's a good idea to include upper-body exercises in an indoor cycling class, and therein lies my problem with their approach. According to Rice and the many SoulCycle videos posted on YouTube, class participants do push-ups on the handlebars, high-repetition lifting with 1-pound weights and a bunch of abdominal twists, crunches and working of core muscles — all while pedaling. (I haven't been to New York to take a SoulCycle class myself.)

This type of hybrid exercise drives Jennifer Sage crazy. Sage has a degree in exercise science, spent 12 years as a Master Instructor for Spinning (a trainer of trainers), wrote a book on proper indoor cycling technique and serves as executive director of the Indoor Cycling Assn. in Eagle, Colo. She's been railing against this kind of workout for years.

I'm on Sage's side. I think a bicycle is no place to attempt an upper-body workout.

Let's talk specifics about what's wrong with this practice, starting off with calories.

I consider caloric burn to be just about the least important thing exercise does, but it's still worth mentioning. "I think the incorporation of weights and core probably are burning more calories than your regular run-of-the-mill class," Rice told me.

Sage thinks differently. "You're probably going to burn less calories because your power output is going to drop," Sage told me.

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.

"There is an illusion that they are working out harder because high repetitions can cause a burning sensation, but it doesn't accomplish anything," she said. In fact, she added, most people get more of an upper-body workout carrying their gym bag to the studio.

You don't need a degree in exercise physiology to teach an indoor cycling class. Any cycling aficionado can provide safe and effective instruction after getting a good certification that focuses on proper technique. However, having the attitude and exuberance to be an engaging instructor is a rare talent. From personal experience, I know that a great instructor makes all the difference.

I have no doubt that SoulCycle seeks out that kind of talent and that it's helped them create loyal customers. If only they would reconsider the upper-body stuff.

I think Heaner summed up the problem nicely: "If there is not a real benefit and it poses a risk, then why do it?"

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.

james@bodyforwife.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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