When cyclist and personal trainer Johnny G opened the first Spinning studio in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1989, he had no idea his indoor cycling classes would capture a worldwide legion of fans, some of whom would even proclaim their devotion with a Spinning tattoo. "It's an unbelievable thing to see people with Spinning tattoos on their bodies," says the Spinning originator, who sports the crouched cyclist logo on his own ankle.
So, how can a class that utilizes a stationary bike (a contraption that often sees more use as a clothes hanger than as a piece of exercise equipment) be so popular? In some ways, Spinning's allure lies in its simplicity. Spinners actually use their imaginations, rather than virtual-reality goggles, to simulate a 45-minute bike ride. With music and the instructor's voice piped through their headphones, they traverse hills, mountains and potholes. The bikes are chain-driven to better simulate the feel of an actual road bike. A knob adjusts tension on the bike's 38-pound flywheel.
"People love the music and being able to close their eyes while they ride," says Johnny G. "To escape the world while you train and sweat is a wonderful thing. You can become internal and escape the harshness of always looking outward." Spinning philosophy does include a bit of a Zen spin. But that doesn't mean Spinners are a bunch of slow-pedaling bliss ninnies. During sprints, riders hammer away as if a pack of cranky Rottweilers were hot on their heels. And after a class has ended, pools of sweat can be found under almost every bike.
"The idea is to challenge yourself, not each other," says Debbie Miller,a Spinning instructor. "In a typical aerobics class, everyone is jumping and kicking, so there is more of a competitive aspect to keeping up with what everybody else is doing. In Spinning, we ask people to eliminate the competitive nature by keeping their eyes closed for most of the ride."
Enthusiast Jean Semenuk says, "Sometimes I'm not even going on the same ride as the instructor. You can choose the ocean, the mountains, whatever you want, and there's your picture. The music evokes certain images, and you're just riding on that beat or melody. You really hook into it."
Instructors choose their own tunes. World music and upbeat instrumentals are favorites. But during the course of a ride, you might hear anything from "River Dance" to "Low Rider." A good Spinning instructor will accommodate every rider's imagination and ability. Because of this, it's not uncommon to see a first-timer saddle up beside an experienced cyclist who is training for an endurance event.
"It takes about 15 minutes to teach a person everything they need to know about the bike and getting through the class," says Earl Williams. "You don't even have to know how to ride a bicycle." Men, in particular, seem to favor Spinning over other exercise classes. "It's not choreographed like aerobics, so men don't have to worry about looking funny or dancey," says Miller. Other enthusiasts note Spinning's efficiency. "It's very compact," says Rachel Posell, co-owner of Work it! in Woodley Park. "You can come in and be out within an hour and still feel like you got a great workout."
One indicator of Spinning's success is that other indoor-cycling programs have begun to appear. Aerobics authority Karen Voight and manufacturer Keiser have developed Power Pacing, which incorporates upper-body exercise into cycling. And Reebok introduced its own indoor-cycling program, Cycle Reebok. Cycle Reebok follows training formulas used by cyclists and track athletes, says Robert Sherman a developer of Cycle Reebok. "We've created a program that helps to counterbalance the stress of cycling, which can affect the knees and lower back," says. "Beginners can still enter the same program as elite athletes. But for people who want to be a little more competitive with themselves, we've also created an interval training program."
Spinning, Cycle Reebok and Power Pacing instructors must complete certification training. Of course, some people love to improvise. In the case of Spinning, a few radicals have been known to pedal backward and use handweights during sessions. The creator of Spinning warns people away from these types of classes. "The integrity of the program is lost when the instructor becomes too creative", says Johnny G. "It can also be dangerous. Everybody should be able to go through the workout and feel safe." Safe but sweaty. And if the first class leaves you riding an endorphin buzz, searching all over town for a tattoo artist who can draw the Spinning logo on your ankle, just remember not to do something that you'll regret in the morning.