As a certified Spinning® indoor cycling instructor, I’ve recently noticed a trend in seeing some of my class participants integrating backwards pedaling into their workout. Not per my advice, of course. Outside of telling them the bikes are not made for backwards pedaling and the unnecessary stress they may be placing on their knee joints, I felt compelled to conduct a review of the literature on this topic and follow up with my class participants next week.
Spinning®, one of the premier international indoor cycling certifications, does not recommend pedaling backwards. Here’s why.
Pedaling backward is risky on a fixed gear bike. If riders try to quickly stop the flywheel while pedaling backward, the compressive forces on the knee joint can be sufficient enough to tear cartilage or the meniscus. Also, pedaling backward may hyperextend the legs, which could damage the ACL or other soft tissue of the knee joints. Aside from being risky, a further reason not to do it is that there is no physiological advantage to it. A study in the Strength and Conditioning Journal showed that muscle contribution and metabolic cost were the same for pedaling forward and backward. Lastly, this movement puts the bike at risk as well. Pedaling backward may eventually unscrew the pedals from the crank arm.
Source: (Spinning®, 2015, Retrieved from http://www.spinning.com/en/spinning_program_faq)
Of course, I probed a little deeper and looked for the study referenced above in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. I could not find it. After asking around a few professional networks, it is believed the SCJ article was in reference to the ACE study I discuss below.
In May 2015, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted an independent study to determine if and how pedaling backwards increases sports performance. Important note, the research was conducted on Cascade recumbent bikes (and not a Spinning® or standard upright indoor cycling bike) that have bi-directional resistance throughout the entire 360 degree motion of the pedals.
The study revealed that pedaling backward on the Cascade cycle elicited higher heart-rate and energy-cost values than when pedaling at identical workloads in the forward direction.
“Pedaling backward…has been observed to reduce pressure on the tibiofemoral joint which may offer value in the rehabilitation of meniscal problems or tibiofemoral osteoarthritis.” ~ACE Chief Science Officer Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D
Dr. Porcari and his research team recommend treating backward pedaling on a Cascade recumbent bike as a change of pace and a form of cross training to better target the quadriceps. The improved quadriceps strength resulting from pedaling backward may eventually produce an enhanced cycling experience by making pedaling forward mentally and physically easier.
Read about the full ACE study here.
Check out what John Macgowan, a 20 year veteran indoor cycling instructor, had to say about the ACE study. He concluded:
There doesn’t appear to be enough positive benefits, in contrast with the possible injury. Not to mention pedaling backwards just looks wrong/goofy, So I can’t see including it in my class.
Me too, Mr. Macgowan, me too.
So let’s wrap this up!
Should we or should we NOT pedal backwards on our indoor cycling bikes?
Nope. Thou shall not pedal backwards on your indoor cycling bike.
The reality is that you still may consider doing it anyways. (Aren’t you adventurous?!?!) So, here’s a short list of what I believe we should all do if and when we consider pedaling backwards in our indoor cycling class or on our personal indoor cycling bike. WAIT! Before you read this list, remember that I believe, “Thou shall not pedal backwards on your indoor cycling bike.” Okay, please continue reading.
- Check with the manufacturer of your bike and find out if pedaling backwards is safe for the bike. More than likely, it is not and will result in unnecessary wear and tear and decreased safety on the bike.
- A good rule of thumb is to NOT do anything you would NOT do on a REAL BIKE on a REAL OUTDOOR ROAD. Marinate on that for a minute. (How would you climb an outdoor hill while pedaling backwards? How far would you get sprinting pedaling backwards on a flat road?)
- Advice participants with prior lower body injuries or ailments to consult their physician PRIOR TO insisting that they integrate backwards pedaling into their cycling workout.
Enjoy this 45ish minute interval ride on-your-own at the gym. This ride requires an indoor bike with a cycle machine that shows your RPM speed. Otherwise, you need a metronome to help you gauge your cadence OR you can go old school and count the number of times your pedal completes a full rotation over a duration of 10 seconds.
70 RPM 11-12 rotations
80 RPM 13-14 rotations
90 RPM 15 rotations
100 RPM 16-17 rotations
110 RPM 18-19 rotations
0:00-3:00 | Seated Flat | 80-95RPM | Warm-Up. Gradually increase cadence. RPE 3.
3:00-5:00 | Seated Flat | 80 RPM | Stay disciplined at this cadence with light resistance. Continuation of your warm-up. RPE 3.
5:00-7:00 | Standing Flat | 70 RPM | Add enough resistance to support your weight out of the saddle. Come up to Hand Position #2. RPE 4.
7:00-9:30 | Jumps | 70 RPM | 10 seconds in and out of saddle from Seated Climb (small incline) in Hand Position #2 and up into Standing Flat in Hand Position #2. RPE will elevate to 6 because HR will increase!
9:30-13:00 | Seated Flat | 80-100 RPM | Recover. Allow heart rate and breathing to come back down. Start at lower end of cadence range. As you feel HR recover, gradually increase speed and hold at steady rate. Slow, deep, intentional breathing!
13:00-15:00 | Seated Flat | 90 RPM |
15:00-17:00 | Standing Flat | 80-90 RPM | RPE 4.
17:00-18:30 | Jumps | 90 RPM | 10 seconds in and out of saddle from Seated Climb in Hand Position 2 and up into Standing Flat in Hand Position 2.
18:30-21:30 | Seated Flat | 80-100 RPM | Recover. Allow heart rate and breathing to come back down. Start at lower end of cadence range. As you feel HR recover, gradually increase speed and hold at steady rate. Slow, deep, intentional breathing!
21:30-23:30 | Seated Flat | 100 RPM
23:30-25:30 | Standing Flat | 90-100 RPM
25:30-27:00 | Jumps | 100 RPM | 10 seconds in and out of saddle from Seated Climb in Hand Position #2 and up into Standing Flat in Hand Position #2. RPE will rise to 7/8 due to jumps!
27:00-30:00 | Seated Flat | 80-100 RPM | Recover. Allow heart rate and breathing to come back down. Start at lower end of cadence range. As you feel HR recover, gradually increase speed and hold at steady rate. Slow, deep, intentional breathing!
30:00-31:30| Seated Flat | 95-110 RPM | Option to ride at lower end of range to maintain steady cadence.
31:30-33:30 | Standing Flat | 100-110 RPM
33:30-35:00 | Jumps | 100-110 RPM | 10 seconds in and out of saddle from Seated Climb in Hand Position #2 and up into Standing Flat in Hand Position #2. RPE will rise to 7-8 due to jumps!
35:00-36:00 | Seated Flat | 80-90 RPM | Recover.
36:00-37:00 | Jumps | 80-100 RPM | Slightly add resistance. RPE 4. Complete 4 jumps up into Standing Flat in HP#2 and back down to Seated Flat in HP#2. RPE will rise to 7/8 due to jumps!
37:00-38:00 | Seated Flat | 80-90 RPM | Recover.
38:00-39:00 | Jumps | 80-100 RPM | Slightly add resistance. RPE 4. Complete 4 jumps up into Standing Flat in HP#2 and back down to Seated Flat in HP#2. RPE will rise to 7/8 due to jumps!
39:00-40:00 | Seated Flat | 80-90 RPM | Recover. Allow heart rate and breathing to come back down. Slow, deep, intentional breathing! RPE 3.
40:00-43:00 | Seated Flat | 80 RPM | Cool-down. RPE 3.
Calf, Quad, Hamstring, Hip Flexor, Shoulders, Back, Neck…
Recently, the internet and social media sites have become inundated by videos showcasing “trendy” cycling classes in various cities across the United States. My first reactions to witnessing these classes were disbelief and fear. Although classes may look very engaging and entertaining, I sincerely fear for the safety of each and every person in the classes — instructors included.
The video originally posted to this blog post was removed from this site; however, here’s a link to it.
Here’s a quick overview of my initial concerns about these classes. For clarity purposes, I refer to these trendy cycling classes as TCCs.
Concern #1: If you wouldn’t do it on a road bike, then it has no business being in a cycling class. Several TCCs have riders taking not one, but BOTH hands off the bike during the class. This is a big no-no. Each and every time you take one or both hands off the bike, you increase the likelihood of falling off the bike (i.e., injury). Similarly, fast cadence (pedaling) + 1 or 0 hands = a recipe for disaster. Likewise, pedaling in a standing position with one or no hands on the handle bars equates to a significant chance of injury.
Rapid, bouncy, up and down movement on the handle bars and/or saddle of the bike compromises proper form, increases strain on your back and other points along the kinetic chain, and minimizes your ability to properly target specific muscle groups during your workout.
Concern #2: Indoor cycling and our love-hate relationship with the resistance knob. In the TCC videos I watched, it looked like cyclists, including the instructor, used light resistance on the bike, regardless of cadence (i.e., speed of pedal rotations). I’m pretty sure there is a resistance knob on the bikes, but it looks like there was one pace–FAST–in these classes. It’s possible that video footage was only taken of the more exciting, fast-paced parts of the classes. It’s also possible that these classes are primarily fast paced, or high cadence classes. A good group cycling class will use the resistance knob to regulate heart rate, increase strength, build endurance, and promote active muscle recovery.
Concern #3: A word about brands and trademarks. The majority, if not all, group cycling certifications are trademarked. In other words, a person who is not a certified Spinning(R) instructor cannot lead a cycling class named, “Spinning.” It doesn’t hurt to ask TCC instructors about their cycling certifications, if any. Keep in mind, not all gyms require group fitness instructors to hold certifications.
Most popular and accepted certifications:
Mad Dogg Athletics Spinning
Les Mills RPM
Concern #4: Is there a method to the madness of TCC structure? Are instructors monitoring heart rates or rate of perceived exertion? Is there intentional progression and regression of speed, resistance, and bike position? Are instructors correcting your form on the bike? Are TCCs choreographed performances on a bike with the latest and greatest music? Is it anchored by the philosophy, “if I sweat it’s a good workout?” Just because you sweat and the instructor played music that got you hyped, doesn’t necessarily mean you had a safe and effective workout.
Concern #5: There is liability if someone gets injured during a TCC. Personal trainers and oftentimes group fitness instructors are required to have liability insurance. On occasion, gyms cover their trainers and fitness instructors with an umbrella liability insurance plan. But what about the TCCs? Are the instructors insured? Do the owners of the facility provide liability insurance to all of their trainers and group fitness instructors? I hate to say it, but it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt in a TCC (if it hasn’t already happened). Proceed with caution and TCC instructors, PLEASE make sure you have liability insurance.
Before I close, I would like to commend all of the TCC instructors and cycling class participants for their commitment to incorporating exercise into their lives. However, please be safe as you proceed with future group fitness classes. Safety and good body mechanics are essential!
Indoor cycling resources:
Indoor Cycling Association
Spinning (articles and research)
Les Mills RPM
Note: This blog post reflects my thoughts and opinions and are not affiliated, endorsed, or supported by any professional fitness organization.
Another TCC example