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Contraindications Quandary

By Luciana Marcial-Vincion

I saw something quite strange the other day. Walking past the cardio deck at the gym, I noticed a gentleman running backwards on one of the treadmills. Curious, I watched a bit longer, waiting for the big “kabloomphbang” sound of his body hitting the floor that was surely, inevitably going to happen any second now. To my relief, the man turned around to face the correct direction. He slowed his pace and increased the grade of the treadmill to what seemed like the max incline. He then proceeded to lay his forearms on the console, gripping the edges with his fingers. With a syrupy, belabored pace much like a mountain climber in a blizzard traversing Mt. Everest, he trudged along with a painstakingly determined look in his eyes. This ascent up the mountain didn’t last long, thank God; however what followed was, in my mind, the crème de la crème of the whole spectacle: hanging on to each railing with his hands, he squatted low and proceeded to walk like a duck, with his upper body so frozen it appeared he’d entered into rigor mortis. He walked maybe 10 steps or so, then stood up, flung both of his legs over one railing, propped himself on his hands on the other railing to form an “L” shape with his body and started doing tricep dips. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. That was it for me…um, hello, gym staff? This man needs help!

It all sounds so crazy, doesn’t it? Can you believe it? Well, you shouldn’t, because I just made all that stuff up. Yup. Scared ya, huh? Or at least got your attention?

You probably felt some level of concern for this fictional man, and I’m thinking that the below might be some possible thoughts you had when you read my treadmill adventure story:

1) OMG that is so unsafe! He is going to kill himself.
2) Wow, what a great idea!
3) What’s that guy doing? Treadmills aren’t built for that!
4) Can I put this on YouTube?

I think most of us would agree on at least one item above, and that is that the treadmill was not built to accommodate those movements. Putting aside for a moment any debate about physiology or biomechanics and just simply looking at equipment and its purpose, the treadmill was built to accommodate walking and running. Period. So, if anything other than walking or running is done on this piece of equipment, it should raise an eyebrow.

Now, we can further the discussion into the realm of kinesiology to actually dissect why a movement is unsafe, inefficient, counterproductive, etc., but do we really have to? The answer is (insert deep sigh) yes. Fitness professionals often pride themselves on coming up with the latest, greatest, and newest anything. On rare occasions a new idea does actually translate into something fabulous that sticks and has both scientific merit and an off-the-charts fun factor. More often, though, these ideas are formed in the pursuit of entertainment or simply making something “harder” without the necessary biomechanics research, which ultimately means an added risk of injury to the participant.

The next step is to understand that indoor, stationary bikes were meant to be used as essentially a simulation of outdoor riding. When we factor in the obvious equipment differences like fixed gears, a non-moving frame, a weighted flywheel and different geometry, we are able to eliminate any potentially risky movements and thus ride the bike in the way it was meant to be ridden. So, if it doesn’t look like something you would do out on the road, you probably shouldn’t do it inside. Ride the bike like a bike. Simple.

The truth of the matter is that all kinds of contraindicated movements are executed on stationary, indoor bicycles everywhere. Yet, it seems that much of the industry and its consumers not only accept this but also proclaim its awesomeness. Hovers, isolations, squats, the “aerobar” position, pedaling backwards, figure 8’s, lifting weights while riding, push-ups, excessively fast or slow cadences, etc. are done worldwide in a variety of programs and nobody blinks an eye. Those who do cry out in opposition have had about as much impact on industry change as the citizens of Whoville; in fact, Horton was the only one who heard them. It can be somewhat maddening and definitely frustrating. Ultimately, however, Horton’s colleagues heard the message, too, so maybe there’s hope!

We should all have the same reaction to these things done on a bike as we did to the treadmill story—because the bike was not built for that—but this is not the case. There are things done on bikes that have become standards in your average indoor cycling class and in some cycling instructor certifications, but yet we call the treadmill guy crazy. What gives? I smell a double standard! I call this the “Contraindications Quandary!”

We can theorize the reasons why. Maybe it’s because the industry as a whole has no formal governing body implementing quality control or that the requirements to become a fitness professional aren’t rigorous enough. Maybe we can blame it on program directors that don’t institute proper hiring/audition or employee performance and evaluation protocols. Perhaps we can argue that the indoor cycling world is still fairly new, therefore there is not enough research to formally discredit these movements. Maybe it’s blind faith in the instructor, because surely if they are a fitness professional leading a class, they must know what they are talking about. What about the fact that we are a society of acute thinkers: if there is no immediate, acute negative response to a movement, then we accept it as ok. We do not think in terms of the long run, so we forge ahead, ignoring the chronic accumulation of distress that will only make itself know when we throw out our backs or blow an ACL. You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now. Cigarette anyone? 

No matter how much we try to explain why it’s happening, the bottom line is it is everywhere. So, what’s next? In Zen Buddhism it is said, “There is nothing to teach, nothing to explain that will add to your knowledge. Unless it grows out of yourself, no knowledge is really of value to you. A borrowed plumage never grows.” Therefore, I offer humbly to every indoor cycling instructor and enthusiast out there to institute into their lives a process called Independent Investigation of Truth.

As fitness professionals, it is our duty to ensure the safety of our customers. I think no one will debate this point. As a Spinning enthusiast, it is your duty to question your coach and find out the benefits behind each movement in class. In the Spinning program we have many resources available that educate us on what movements are contraindicated and why, but as the quote above implies, nothing I or anyone else says will have any impact unless the interest to fully investigate the truth first comes from you. It has to be that personal.

So, this is my challenge to every cycling instructor out there: fully investigate the whys behind everything you do in class. Do not take another instructor’s word for it; do not even accept blindly the information you receive in a certification. Always question, always research, always dig deeper. Ultimately, if you are thorough, you will find your answers. And the truth that you land on will be the truth by which you teach your classes. Independently investigate everything. Refer to the world of outdoor cycling and the resources available; heck, if you don’t own a bike yet, get one and try some of the stuff you’ve seen or done in an indoor class on your road bike and your answer will come very, very quickly. Study anatomy, physiology and biomechanics texts—yes this process requires work; but the hard work will pay off in the form of credibility and integrity. In an effort to be the best you can be in this role of service, consider this process obligatory.

The anchor of the Spinning program since its inception in the 1980’s has been its focus on safety. We educate instructors on biomechanics, physiology, class design and coaching skills all in the name of creating a safe, fun, and effective training system for consumers. If you are just starting the process of independent investigation, I encourage you to take a look at the resources at your fingertips in the Spinning program. Take the Contraindications workshop, download the Contraindications handout from the Spinning website and copy it for your members and read the numerous blogs and articles regarding safety and movements that have been published through the years in the Spinning newsletters. Everything you need to start your investigation is at your fingertips. But remember not to stop there. See what other programs say, read a sports kinesiology text, study the works of highly regarded cycling coaches. Embark on a comprehensive, independent investigation of truth.

The Spinner bike has a non-moving frame, a weighted flywheel and a fixed gear. The safety standards in the Spinning program are meant to specifically apply to the Spinner bike, but they most certainly are relevant to other indoor bikes with those same characteristics and components.

So in your independent investigation of truth, start first with the simplest question: What is this piece of equipment built to accommodate?

Would you attempt to stand on a plate-loaded barbell in the name of building balance? Would you hang from the top bar of the cable machine, pressing down on the lat pull down bar with your feet in the name of creating a new leg press exercise? Would you do tricep dips while propped up on treadmill railings? Hopefully not. And we would hopefully ride the stationary, indoor bike like a bike…because that's what it was built for.

Author: Luciana Marcial-Vincion

Luciana has a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology and has been a Spinning® Master Instructor since 2000. She has been involved in fitness education, programming and management for over 20 years, holding multiple certifications in group fitness, personal training, and exercise testing. She is a dancer, actress, and singer as well as a choreographer for everything from hip-hop to musical theatre. Luciana has also worked in the music industry in New York City for International Creative Management, Inc., one of the largest talent agencies in the world. She resides in Charleston, SC and is co-owner of Charleston RIDE™, an exclusive Spinning studio. In addition, she serves as the Team Manager for the global Spinning Master Instructor Team.

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