Spinning with a Vision: Using Imagery to Enhance Your Teaching Techniques

As Spinning® instructors, we see poor technique all too often. Since some participants start riding before class officially starts, we frequently see hunched shoulders, locked elbows and hips dipping from side to side.

It’s our job to teach fun, challenging and safe classes for all of our students. But how can we “over-ride” their bad habits and/or poor postural conditioning without becoming too technical and losing the momentum of the ride?

I rely on my strong background in Pilates to quickly prompt postural adjustments in students without having to go into long explanations. In Pilates, we use imagery to activate the proper muscle recruitment patterns in the most efficient way possible. It’s best to keep the imagery simple so that students can use them to achieve good posture throughout the day, not just during the hour they spend in class. The following image tools are highly effective when energy is ramped up and your instructions need to be concise.

Activating the Transverse Abdominis
One of the most important muscles to point out when teaching a Spinning class is the Transverse Abdominis. The TA is a wide band of the most internal abdominal muscles, which wrap all the way around the lower torso, acting as a corset to help stabilize the pelvis and the lower back. Consciously activating this muscle group is crucial for both beginner Spinning students and seasoned ones.

Note: it is imperative that your students understand the difference between tightening their abs and activating the Transverse Abdominis. Riding with tightened abs is not recommended because tight abs do not allow for full respiration. Usually, when students tighten their abdominals, you’ll see those abs plop out. But if the TA is the prime stabilizer, then the spine will be better supported and the ribs can properly expand east to west. Therefore, in addition to their posture, you must keep a close eye on your students’ breathing as well. Even if the TA is engaged, they should be breathing into the ribs and not the stomach. Try this cue for proper breathing:

  • “Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, expanding the ribs east to west, thinking of pressing the back of the ribs into the back wall.”

Use one or more of the following verbal cues to help your students understand what it means to engage their TA:

  • “Imagine your hips being a pail of water–filled to the top. Whenever you come out of the saddle, keep that pale full of water. No tipping side to side. Steady that pail.”
  • “Imagine you have a zipper running up to your navel. Zip it up, and keep it zipped for the whole class.”
  • “You are the heavyweight champion (or feather weight for the ladies). You are wearing your World Champion belt. Feel that belt wrapping all the way around your waist, supporting you in and out of the saddle.”
  • "Draw your navel away from your waistband."

As simple as those images may seem, they actually work instantaneously within the nervous system. Everyone has seen Rocky and that belt and everyone knows how to steady a bucket of water.

Shoulder Positioning
The importance of shoulder positioning during a ride also cannot be overstated. Try employing these cues for proper positioning:

  • “Slide those lazy shoulder blades all the way down to your back pockets. Tuck them in for the class.”
  • “Keep your arm pits heavy.” 

If you conjure an image like that during warm up, you will immediately create a visual and visceral anchor that you can refer to whenever you see people’s shoulders up by their ears.

  • “Put those shoulders back in your back pockets.”
  • “Keep your chest wide as if the hanger were still in your shirt." Remind students that it actually takes more energy to shrug and collapse the shoulders.

Invariably, you will see students releasing tension in their necks on the spot. 

Proper Posture
Using descriptive adjectives like “loose elbows,” “quiet hips,” and “proud chest” also create instant adjustments in people’s postures. For example, cueing “a big smile across your chest” will encourage students to open up the chest and help prevent their shoulders from coming forward.

When out of the saddle for a big climb, we tend to say “hover over the saddle.” But if you try saying “imagine you’re growing a tail” instead, you will see people readjusting their posture into a more lengthened spinal position. “Keep that champion belt on while you’re growing that tail” cues a stance that supports the lower back and stabilizes the pelvis. Make sure they keep the tension in the navel and not the lower back.

Pedal Stroke
You can address incorrect pedal stroke by using imagery with the following cues:

  • “Imagine that your knee caps have magnets on them, pulling them straight up to your shoulders.”

This will encourage riders to pay more attention to the upstroke, which is sometimes neglected.

  • “Imagine you have balloons in front of your toes at 3 o’clock and you pop one each time your toe comes around on the downstroke.”

This will help those students who tend to “stomp” straight down while pedaling achieve a proper, circular pedal stroke. You can even add rhythm cues like ”Pull! Pull! Pull!’ or “Pop! Pop! Pop!” to keep the pace and good form.

A Strong Finish
Ending class with a bang yields the Spinning high that keeps students coming back for more. Try the following phrases to help your students exceed their own expectations:

  • “Let yourself be surprised by your own power, stamina, and grace!”
  • “At the end of the day, you will not remember how fast you went but you will remember how much you gave, so don’t hold back. Allow yourself to go beyond your comfort zone!”

The variety of effective images is only limited by your imagination. Experiment with different ones and pay attention to the world around you to see what images might apply to your classes. Each group of riders will be different, and the more options you have, the better your students will ride. Keep an open, playful mind, and keep experimenting. Not only will you see your students gain strength and stamina, but you will also be more efficient and effective in your instructions, allowing you to have more energy and power as well.

Brigitta Dau is a PMA, Polestar, ACE and AFTA-certified fitness and Pilates trainer in addition to being a certified Spinning instructor. She has been teaching at various gyms in Los Angeles, including Sports Club LA and Trifit LA, for ten years.   

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