SoulCycle, a popular brand of fitness that uses indoor cycling bikes and Tony Robbins style cueing to motivate people in a dark lit environment, set to pop and hip hop beats with the clothing to match. Is it all it's cracked up to be? I recently experienced a SoulCycle class and I learned a valuable lesson as I reflected on my Uber ride home.
SoulCycle has grown in popularity over the past 10 years. Since their starting days, it has grown into a fitness phenomenon, however, this style of riding is riddled with controversy from the fitness professional community and exercise specialists, but that isn't stopping this brand from gaining attention worldwide for their 'dance style' movements on the bikes.
As a fitness professional and indoor cycling instructor for the past 18 years, I have heard all about SoulCycle. Sometimes I choose to stay neutral because there is enough people sharing their voice, but on a recent trip to Toronto I decided it was time to give it a go! Let's be honest, you can't knock it until you have tried it.
Over my long career I have seen the rise of Cross Fit, SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Zumba, and many more fitness brands. Some brands can weather the storm, and others fall hard and fast; leaving investors broke and wondering what went wrong. Fitness trends will come and go but sometimes trends come that are backed by a lot of money and they stick around (whether they are safe or not) because it is about money and nothing more (even if they claim to care about their community).
If you think about the fitness industry in the past 30 years, it has been particularly vulnerable to trends and the reason is as the population's waistlines grow, companies are seeing an opportunity to market on people's desperation to lose weight but the questions remains - is the brand about longevity of the client or money in their pocket. All businesses need to make a profit but at what cost?
Before I share my SoulCycle experience and how I walked away learning a valuable lesson, it is important that you know a little bit about me...
I began my group fitness teaching career in 1999 being certified through my governing association called the BCRPA (Canadian). In 2004 I began my career as an educator certifying fitness professionals in Indoor Cycling with my background in Kinesiology (Exercise Physiology) from the University of British Columbia. Since that time I have certified over 1000 fitness professionals to be excellent cycling coaches and lead their classes in a safe, effective, functionally correct and of course fun way. So needless to say, education is important to me and teaching by example is something I hold near and dear to my heart, however, I am always open to new experiences and do my best to go in with an open mind and get something from it.
My SoulCycle experience changed me and I will share why, but first, let's share my cycling workout at their facility.
On a recent trip to Toronto, from my hometown of Vancouver, I noticed the King location just opened, so I decided to attend a class. I was actually excited to try the class because I love new ideas and enjoy following successful brands plus I figured I would walk away with some new ideas.
My SoulCycle Experience...
Prior to arriving, I booked my session online with their easy to use app. The downfall, one class is $28.00 for 45 minutes of spinning, however, if their target market can afford that pricing then good on them because every brand has the right to target their own market.
When my Uber rolled up to the SoulCycle studio on King Street, I was pleasantly surprised by the layout and design of the brick and mortar studio. As I walked in the door, I was impressed by the beautiful space, the display bikes at the front entrance, and the branding throughout the studio (something I need to do more in my own facility). As I turned the corner to the reception, I was greeted with enthusiasm and incredible energy, and personally speaking, that energy is something more facilities and coaches need to bring to class.
The front desk girls were friendly, helped me sign the waiver, checked my clips, and showed me where to go. I walked down the hall and found a locker. Within a moment, a nice girl, who is a SoulCycle regular, noticed I was having trouble with my locker and took a moment to help me. She shared her enthusiasm for SoulCycle and we quickly sparked up a conversation. Now whether or not SoulCycle is for me, I still love it when someone finds their fitness groove and is excited to workout.
As I walked into the studio, the first thing I noticed was there were a lot of bikes in a very small space (how it got past fire regulations is beyond me). There were 50 bikes + the instructor's bike. Personally, I have always taught with my bikes in a circle, but again, that is a personal choice. In my opinion, I don't want to be looking at someone's butt the whole time I ride.
While people started getting onto their bikes, there were extra staff inside the studio setting up first time riders on the bike, which I thought was awesome until they pulled out the old outdated "use the length of your forearm to determine your saddle setback" method.
As an educator, I remind my students that the length of my forearm bones has nothing to do with the relation of the crank arm to the hips and knees. To properly measure saddle setback, you want your students on the bike pedalling normal for a few rotations and then stop your cranks parallel to the ground. Their foot should be in its natural riding position making sure the knee does not go too far forward or too far back.
Shortly into set up, the instructor walked into the room. My personal opinion about instructors is that their job is to inspire and motivate a group of people to feel safe and energized about the class. All I will say is I did not feel safe or inspired by the cues or coaching. I felt that his focus was completely on himself and with his prized students. I was hoping to walk away with motivational cues to bring back to my facility but all I kept hearing was, "come on, go harder." In my world, that is the worst kind of cueing and is not inspiring in the least. The word "come on" is a negative coaching cue and cueing needs to be positive to be effective.
From their ever inspiring marketing videos they make it appear like you will walk away transformed by their workout, sadly that was not my experience. And with that said, I have seen Tony Robbins live and they will never come close to motivating on that level.
Also, when I have new riders, I always go up to them personally, introduce myself and make sure they are set up on their bike. There was no introduction and zero eye contact made with myself or the two other new people next to me in the whole 60 minute experience. I noticed his attention was on himself and a few others who honestly seemed to be either actors in the facility or regulars. Something just seemed fishy about it but that's my personal opinion.
As the class started, I thought to myself, keep an open mind and at the least you will walk away with some coaching cues and new music ideas. When the doors shut, I felt like the chaos began.
Within a matter of minutes I realized that our warm up was standing for 13 minutes encouraging a fast cadence. Then came the push ups, dips, weights on the bike, and the dreaded tap backs. This chaos became my reality or should I say nightmare for 45 minutes.
At first, I tried to keep up, but within minutes my knees and hips said "Rachel, it ain't worth it", so for the remainder of the class, I increased my tension and tried to follow along as best as I could.
I found there was little focus tension guideline, it was all about 4 or 5 turns of the knob but you never really knew what the instructor meant by it. Were we light, moderate or heavy tension? I guess I will never know. Regardless of what bike you teach on, at the bare minimum give participants guidelines of tension and cadence, even if your terms are general from light, medium, or hard resistance.
About half way through the class, the doors opened up and a team of staff came dancing in like a rave club. Perhaps someone else would think this was awesome but for me it simply reinforced the circus act I was experiencing.
Throughout the class there were positions I could not bring myself to do which was the tap backs and goofy stuff on the bike with the upper body, so I faked it as best as I could. When it came time to end class, he continued to stretch people while clipped into the bike. Now, stretching on the bikes really bothered me because I could see people struggling to get their one leg up on the handlebars while one leg remained clipped in.
I also felt like this was a skinny sport facility. Anyone who had any size to them would of struggled to get near their bike. I am no size 6 so when I dropped my weight like Mark McGraw on the Wendy show demoing SoulCycle, I struggled to pick it up off the floor and felt like such an idiot. Had they had about 15 less bikes in their, the spacing would've been doable but it was a sardine experience.
As I walked away from the class I noticed my ears were ringing like I had been in a nightclub for hours. While I understand some people are sensitive to loud music, if you ask any of my members, they know I love my music fairly loud but there is a point where it just hurts.
When the doors opened up it was a sigh of relief that the experience was over. I walked away with my thoughts and ringing ears and needed silence to get through the next few hours as I reflected on what had transpired through the workout.
With all that said, opinions are formed based on beliefs and experiences and this workout and what I have said is simply my own personal opinion.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Now it would be easy to rant and express all my opinions but then I feel like it would be falling on deaf ears. What I will do is share ways to clean up this brand of cycling and to educate people thinking about indoor cycling before I share why I walked away a changed person.
1. Tap Backs - 2 counts up, 2 counts down. In SoulCycle, they tend to be at a high cadence. Suggestion: 4 counts up, 4 counts down at the bare minimum, with a heavier tension. Jumps can be safe when done in more than 4 counts with appropriate tension.
2. Push Ups or Dips on the Bike - Personally, I love push ups on the floor or on a bench but there is no need for them on a bike. First of all, people looked like fools trying to do that exercise at that speed and secondly, what purpose does it serve? If you want an upper body component, hop off the bikes, pull out a mat and do push ups.
3. Weights on the Bikes - Incorporating an "upper body" workout on the bike is still a sore spot for many certified instructors. Weights are excellent for building lean muscle but 1lb or 2lb dumbbells with repetitive motion simply serves no purpose. Not one person in the class (including the instructor) had good form and it was because the music was way too fast. Suggestion: Again, hop off the bike, grab heavier weights and incorporate weight lifting in a safe way.
4. Bike Set Up - The set up methods being used were simply outdated by a 2 decades. This is about education for the set up crew. Suggestion: Teach the staff what the maximum and minimum knee angle is while seated on the bike and where the saddle set back point needs to be based on knee positioning, not the length of the upper body bones or standing next to the bike with your hands on your hips. Riders need to be set up properly.
5. Stretching on the Bike - SoulCycle keeps the riders on the bike while stretching. This is simply dangerous for people who are not flexible. Suggestion: It is easy to hop off the bike and stretch, however, with a studio that full of bikes, it isn't easy to find a way to stretch off the bikes either so I can see the dilemma. Once again - money rules because more bikes = more profits.
6. Instructor Certifications - SoulCycle talks about training in New York for teaching that is 10 weeks long but I have failed to see any other fitness certifications that would make me think the instructor has any knowledge of exercise physiology, bike set up and safety, or training programs based on science. Now I would love to be proven wrong on this one, but it seems they hire actors, not certified indoor cycling or spinning coaches because if they were certified through any governing associate such as Keiser, Schwinn, or Spinning.com, there is no way they would be okay with this style of teaching.
1. The Facility - It was beautiful, well laid out, and easy to find my way around.
2. The Front Desk Team - They get a 10+ in my books for their incredible service and welcoming environment.
3. Branding - SoulCycle know what they are doing because the branding is represented throughout the facility and it well marketed (but they have the money too).
4. The App - Easy to use and user friendly.
5. The Bikes - Beautiful bikes that felt smooth to ride and well taken care of and clean. I feel they were new as the studio recently opened but nonetheless, they were easy to ride and I don't say that lightly because I am particular to riding my bikes.
6. The Atmosphere - I love a dark spin studio, it helps me get into my workout and SoulCycle knows how to create a cool atmosphere with good music but too many bikes in one room.
What Did I Learn from My SoulCycle Experience ?
I learned that I am one hell of an instructor because I pride myself on form, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. I had lost my confidence as an instructor for a period of time with all these styles of studios popping up and their instructors who put on more of a performance than actually coaching properly. But after attending one SoulCycle class, I knew in my heart to let go of any insecurity that I had because I realized my focus has always been caring about my members safety.
I don't teach to put on a theatrical "production" that can cost people their health and leave them with injuries for a quick buck. I teach because I love helping people discover a love for fitness and I want them to enjoy fitness long term which means keeping them safe in each class.
I also learned that it's okay to not stand behind these brands that have millions of dollars behind them because at the end of the day education and people like me will keep having a voice and those who are ready to listen will hear the message.
To all the instructors out there that feel defeated by these big brands and dance style workouts on the bike, keep doing what you are doing by following good form and coaching technique. It is people like you that the industry needs more of. It doesn't mean you can't pump up the music and choreograph your workouts because you absolutely can as long as safety, biomechanics and training systems are being taken into account in the planning of your classes.
A big thanks to Jennifer Sage from the Indoor Cycling Association for continually voicing concerns in regards to dangerous moves on the bikes. I messaged Jennifer as soon as I was finished the class and told her all about my experience. She has been standing strong on these kind of studios and I hope more people do the same. Keep it safe and fun is the message I hope you walk away with after reading this.
I live in a glass is half full world. I believe for the most part there is something positive in just about anything. SoulCycle taught me to have confidence in my own style of teaching.
While I tried to enjoy my experience at SoulCycle, I cannot get past the dangerous form. I will give them credit for getting people active and excited about fitness but you lose points in my books when your programs have more risk than benefits.
SoulCycle, you have the brand, you have the market, and I wanted to support you and encourage people to fall in love with a fun workout, but it's the form that will always get me. There is a better way to educate your team and sometimes doing what we have always done isn't the best answer anymore, especially when the voices of reason in the industry are urging you to clean form up. Even CrossFit heard the message and started hiring Exercise Physiologist to clean up the poor form that starts at coaching.
A brand this big will always have to work from the top down. There is a way to make SoulCycle awesome because they have the brand and the environment nailed down but the controversy will remain as long as the non-sense remains.
There are many amazing cycling studios in the world that may not have the brand power of SoulCycle but they are doing an incredible job at helping people love cycling while keeping them safe. My advice is shop around for cycling programs that are safe, fun, and have your long term health at heart.