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Spinning with an Upper Body Workout? Not a Great Idea

There’s a new exercise trend making its way across the country, and it’s not a good one. New classes merge indoor cycling with an upper-body workout for what the instructors claim is a “full-body workout,” but is it? These classes can certainly be fun and motivating. You pedal to the high-energy music as you lift light weights and do seated crunches and push-ups on the bike. Your heart rate rises, you work up a sweat, and you “feel the burn.” But are you really accomplishing what you want to?

The fact is that working your upper body while pedaling a stationary bicycle is counterproductive, and worse, it can be detrimental to your fitness goals. During this type of hybrid workout, participants perform high rep lifting with one-pound weights, do push-ups on the bike's handlebars, and do abdominal crunches and twists to work core muscles – all while pedaling. But a bicycle is no place for an upper-body workout.

For starters, many people think that these workouts burn more calories than spinning classes that don't include weights and core exercises – but others disagree. In fact, when you work out your upper body on the bike, your power output is reduced, meaning you are probably going to burn fewer calories overall. To create maximum pedaling power, you need to have a firm grip on the handles with both hands. Upper-body movements don't compensate for the power you lose when you let go of the handlebars.

As for the effects of the upper-body workout itself, the news isn’t much better. If you want to build muscle, you have to engage your larger, fast-twitch muscle fibers. The way to do this is by lifting heavy weights. If you find that you can lift a given weight more than 12 or so times, this means you’re using smaller, slow-twitch muscle fibers instead. This workout may be building endurance, but it’s not building muscle. The one-pound weights typically utilized in these workouts simply aren't substantial enough to have any significant muscle-building effect at all.

So what about the fact that after participants lift one-pound weights for several minutes, their arms grow tired? Isn't that proof that they are building muscle? Not necessarily. Your arms are going to get tired if you lift light weights long enough, but that doesn’t mean you’re building your muscles. And although people do report appearing leaner after participating in these spinning-plus-upper-body workouts for a certain amount of time, this is due to fat loss, not muscle strengthening. The classes do burn calories, and anything you do to burn extra calories (as long as you aren’t eating enough to replace them) is going to result in fat loss. But thinner does not necessarily equate with stronger.

However, none of this is the biggest problem with upper-body exercises while spinning. The main issue and the most concerning one is the safety issues associated with these classes. When you do other things on a bike besides hold onto the handlebars, such as "push-ups" and "crunches" with your shoes hooked into the pedals, you risk hurting your lower back. There are many opposing forces at work, placing undue strain on the lumbar disks.

Furthermore, all the shifting you do on the seat continuously changes the angle of your knee joint as you pedal. This can lead to overextensions, which can cause trauma to the knee – muscles, connective tissues, and ligaments. Basically, anything that hinders the mechanics of pedaling puts you at risk of injury.

So don’t fall for the illusion that you’re working harder just because you’re “feeling the burn” from all those reps with the lighter weights as you pedal. It has no proven benefit and may be harmful, so it just doesn’t make sense to do it.

Instead, opt for a traditional spinning class, which is as close as you can get to outdoor cycling without actually going outdoors. To get the most out of your spinning workout, remember to:
  • Ask your instructor if you have any questions about getting set up on your bike
  • Stop and readjust your seat or handlebars if you need to, rather, than pushing through your whole workout in an uncomfortable position
  • Keep your grip on the handles firm and stable but not so tight that your hands or wrists start hurting
  • Keep your feet parallel to the floor rather than allowing your toes to point downward
  • Focus on your workout by staying relaxed and breathing properly throughout
Spinning is a safe and fun workout for everyone – just save the upper-body movements for when you’re off the bike.

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