When it comes to coaching strength, your cuing matters.
I remember when I first got on a mtn bike after a very long break from riding (we're talking years), I was genuinely surprised and deeply disappointed that cycling was much harder than Spinning®. My disappointment was actually born of the realization that I had been cheating myself of truly gaining strength in my Spinning® classes and vowed that I would not let others miss out on the great opportunity to get strong...and I mean, really strong on a real bike...in my classes. I don't blame anyone else - and frankly as a glass-half-full kind of gal, I am grateful for having actually realized this because I knew, first hand, how participants were fooling themselves...believing that a cardio blow out was everything.
So I set out examining my coaching - my cueing - to see if I could really convey what it feels like to get strong, and to do so safely. I wanted to share one technique I use to help ensure that the participants are realizing their potential in class.
It starts in the head.
The Mind/Body concept is has been around for quite some time now, but to make sure that we're on the same page, when I use "mind-body connection" what I mean is that there is no "going through the motion." The body is responding exactly as the head instructs - the head is continuously scanning the body for clues....that there is a direct collision of intent and performance.
Starting in the head for building strength is key. I play music with no lyrics and no rhythm. A song like "Mojave" by AfroCelt Sound System is perfect for this. I invite the participants to stop pedaling at the very beginning of the class and survey to see where the energy (both individual and as a group) is. I speak about strength and the inherent discomfort that comes along with strength - the willingness to explore and even surrender to that discomfort for the sake of getting strong. Having some motivational quotes about strength on hand is great if you pepper them in with restraint.
Next - check in with the body.
Before any pedaling starts ask the participants to put their right hand on their left hand, palms together, and to press through the right hand, while holding the left hand still. Then put the left hand on top of the right hand and push the right hand up with resistance. As they then alternate between pushing down and pulling up they can then notice that different muscles are engaged in pushing vs. pulling. Cue them to notice that. "Do you feel this in the front - the pecs?" "Do you feel that in your shoulder blade?"
(Do note that you should just leave it at this - notice the difference in pushing and pulling, but don't correlate that arm to the leg since the elbow and knee flex in opposite direction - this will be confusing. The hamstrings and biceps act to bend their joint, where the quads and triceps act to straighten their joints - I know you know this, but your average participant might overthink this. Just leave it as feeling that there is a difference in push and pull.
Then move on to the legs.
Still, the class is not cycling. Invite your participants to turn up the resistance knob and to also (for our bikes) press directly down on the knob to engage the brake. The other hand is on the handlebars for stability. This locks in the pedals - cue that the feet should be one foot forward and the other one back - as opposed to high and low.
With brakes engaged, ask participants to press down through the pedal and to recognize which muscles activate. Release and do it again. Then switch to pulling up. Brakes still engaged, participant still seated and safely balanced with one hand on the handlebar and one hand on the brake/resistance knob, ask them to identify what engages when they lift the back foot up - pressure on the top of the foot from the shoe cage - or the shoe itself if clipped in.
Then ask them to press through the front foot and pull up through the back foot (still zero motion in the pedals) and to just notice what muscles turn on.
Minimal effort = minimal change.
With this new found non-exercising awareness of which muscles are activated prior to the actual start of the class, your participants will now be able to refer to the alternating muscular actions of pushing and pulling. This positions you to cue for pedaling with integrity.
Obviously you'll have cadence demands and heart rate parameters in mind, so you are not trying to shoot for MAXIMAL effort. But this level of awareness will help your clients really tune into their gear choice with strength building in mind.
Safety above all else.
The onus of safety ultimately rests on your participants, but as you are the one giving instructions, it is your duty to coach for safety. A rough "guestimate" of the 50-60 people I see each week, I would say that 20% take full advantage of the opportunity to authentically explore strength building in my Spinning® classes and the other 80% probably work...and work hard, but hold back. Here is something I say that speaks to all - the ones who should not work harder as well as the ones who could.
"As we approach this next 5 minute strength training segment of class, I just want to ask you why you would hold back from exploring your outer edges? If you can't think of any reason why you should not fully sink yourself into this very challenging section, where I expect you to be very uncomfortable, then I encourage you to dig deep and fully express your potential right here - right now. If you know of some reason why holding back is a smart choice for you today, then I honor your decision to keep yourself safe, knowing that there will be future opportunities..."
Paint the tapestry strong.
The tapestry is maybe a concept that came up with that is everything but the actual Spinning® class. The tapestry of a strength building class would include:
Built in down time - On a physiological micro scale - muscles contract and relax, the heart pumps by contracting and relaxing, the lungs inhale and exhale - so go the rhythms of movement - and on a macro scale, so too should your class design respirate. I often have increasing intensity for up to 15 or 20 minutes before hitting the hard work in a class. But remember - if it is intensity you seek from your participants, build in recess - even if it is not adequate for a full physiological reset, the mental break of concentrating, then re-engaging for another "set" will go a long way toward full participation for the length of the class.
The music sets the mood. I am from the Group Fitness arena where BPM is everything, but I understand that it is not necessary to keep cadence with the beat of the music if you can do it. But beyond bpm/rpm that music offers, mood is a key driver for many riders and instructors alike. The stuff of another blog entirely, suffice it to say, slower, less peppy, lower/deeper, darker, bass-driven, even lyricless music conveys the heaviness of strength work.
Visualization. Verbally pull your riders out onto the road - get them to get that front wheel on the ground by incorporating all of the senses to drive the work you're seeking. "Your tires are soft." "You've hit a stretch of gravel road or sand..." "The head wind is frustrating." "The sun is burrowing into your skin and you realize your water bottles are empty." "Your gear is set at such a level that you can no longer ride with your mouth closed..." While this might sound negative and uninspiring, if coached correctly it conveys the agony of intensity that is required for building strength.
Put it all together. When coaching for strength, recognizing that there is both inherent danger (cycling too fast with too high resistance) as well as potential for underestimation - coaching with precision will help your clients be both safe and compliant. Utilizing techniques such as this one that help clients narrow their focus on their performance through being fully and mindfully checked in with their body and gives them an excellent chance of truly building strength that can be carried over onto their two-wheeled bikes, outside the studio.