Indoor cyclists routinely sweat a real river pedalling down an imaginary road, but SoulCycle classes add upper body work, and a touch of the spiritual, to their metaphorical journey.
"We do push-ups on the bike, crunches on the bike, work our obliques on the bike," said Julie Rice, who co-founded the multitasking method with Elizabeth Cutler in 2006.
"You're burning between 2100kJ and 2940kJ in 45 minutes," she said, "and we've added a toning component to the cardio by adding different types of exercises on the bike."
Rice said indoor cycling had not been updated since fitness expert Johnny G created his trademarked Spinning classes some 20 years ago.
"(SoulCycle) is an entirely different workout," she said from her New York office. "We had the idea that you can actually work your entire body on the bike."
Rice said all rides are carefully charted so with the first song you are warming up and there's a stretch and cool down at the end.
Through it all the rider, music in the ear and black-and-white photograph of a road at the back, is clipped into the bike and pedalling relentlessly, even while working the arms with one-pound weights or resistance bands hung from the ceiling.
The "Soul" side
On the "Soul" side, classes are candlelit and led by instructors Rice describes as "more motivational speaker than drill sergeant."
On the wall is painted the mantra "Change your body, take your journey, find your soul."
"Through exercise you can relieve stress, change your day," Rice said. "When people learn to enjoy their exercise, it becomes a practice."
Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, said just clipping riders in to their bikes greatly increases the lower body workout.
"Biomechanically, being hooked in you get much stronger and better leg activation," he said. "You can get more muscle force pulling the pedal up, as opposed to pushing the pedal down."
Weights on wheels
But he questions the idea of doing weights on stationary bicycles.
"Light weights for higher reps, I scratch my head about that. Light weight training is not strength training. It's aerobic training with weights. One-pound weights will not create an overload," he said.
McCall thinks SoulCycle's classes, only 45 minutes long, is the right duration for such a high-intensity activity.
"After 45 minutes you spend the energy stored in your body. You could start using muscle protein," he said, adding that longer sessions at that level should be supported by electrolytes in sports drink.
Because just riding a stationary bike can be boring, he applauds SoulCycle's high energy, motivational instructors, and the premium they place on customer service.
"It's a fun place, and they prepare people well. Indoor cycling gets redundant, so they're trying to mix it up," he said. "But sometimes when you try to be everything you dilute yourself."
For those hooked on SoulCycle's metaphorical journey, McCall urges caution. To engage in activity that highly intense for more than two or three times a week, he said, you risk overtraining, which can lead, paradoxically, to weight gain and sleeplessness.
"More is not necessarily better," McCall said. "If someone does SoulCycle two or three times a week and yoga two or three times a week, that, I think, is an excellent program." (Reuters Health/ April 2011)
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