Huffing and puffing on a bicycle, inside a dark, windowless room — this did not sound like my idea of fun. Who would ever spend $30 to endure that torture?
Yet, many people do — so many that the number of spin studios in the Philadelphia area is too long to count, with brand-new locales like South Street's Revel Ride continuing to add to the options.
What is a spin class? It's a high-intensity cycling workout that takes place on a stationary bike and includes different body positions and resistance levels designed to mimic the outdoor activity.
So, what magic do these workout classes hold that have allowed them to garner such a cult-like following? After reading one too many multi-paragraph-long Facebook posts from friend-quaintences in their post-workout glee, curiosity got the best of me.
And so began my mission: Hit six area studios, and see which, if any, were worth the hype. More importantly, find out if any warranted the price, a factor that felt absolutely absurd as a bike-for-free-outside enthusiast.
The result? I went in as a spin class skeptic, and not more than a few sessions later, I drank the endorphin-releasing KoolAid and found myself a believer. Spin, I've declared, is both a killer and entertaining workout — but it takes the right studio to feel that way.
Your turn: The experiences described below should help you determine which spin spot might be best for you to embark on a test ride. As with yoga studios, each place offers something different, and only a few would leave me considering lightening the load of my wallet to keep coming back. (My favorite? Three cheers for Flywheel.)
Things to note: Some studios offer the first class for free. Don't forget water, and make sure the studio offers towels — if not and you don't BYOT, you're destined to hate the experience as few as 10 minutes deep.
Go if: Dance club environments don't scare you, and your workout could benefit from an extra boost of encouragement in a hyper-positive environment.
SoulCycle is not your straightforward spin class where the main variable factors are speed and resistance. Rather, the experience is more akin to a dance party mixed with an affirmational yoga session, a brief weight training arm workout, and a sweaty bike ride, all wrapped up into 45 minutes. You could compare it to a (very short) birthing experience, too, where all endured pain is forgotten after experiencing the high.
For some, this pain will begin upon first step into SoulCycle's bright yellow lobby: It's not uncommon to find giddy girls outfitted in sports bras and SoulCycle-branded leggings standing in a line that stretches almost out the door.
The enthusiasm level among the girls and tightly-tank-topped guys was 10 notches above my snoozy, post-work mood, and the decibel level of the lobby music was an uncomfortable 10 notches above that.
"We just got new high tech bikes, which is why, 'Bike is bae,'" said the receptionist, directing my attention to the right, where a huge display of gold-lettered balloons spelling out that statement took over the wall. It's hard not to smirk when someone delivers the word "bae" as casual as she, so as I hopped onto the lobby's fitting bike to assess my proper settings, my first smile of the day stretched across my face. It was one of many amusing moments to follow.
Fortunately, SoulCycle's spa-like environment makes it easy to stay at relaxed. Citrusy aromas fill the air from candles burning strong at the front desk, and free peach-ginger Honest Tea occasionally awaits in the changing room. Every staff member is helpful and cheery, creating an environment conducive for the beginner biker.
In the bike arena, however, the music ascends to a notch even louder than the lobby, which cleared up my confusion about the jar of earplugs at the front desk (stationed next to a display of hair ties, gum, and other complimentary trinkets).
"Do you like EDM music?" my instructor asked, as he assisted me in adjusting my bike.
While the answer to that question would typically be "no," the class opened my eyes to the fact that spin class might be the genre's perfect outlet. At the front, an instructor stations his/herself next to a laptop, resembling a DJ dropping beats at a small-scale concert. This particularly rings true when random strobe lights flash overhead throughout the class.
Pop music remixes and EDM tracks stream all class as you're instructed to match your cadence to the fast beats. If this sounds like a nightmare, trust me, I would've normally agreed. Yet, I've learned high-energy music makes the process of spinning super-duper fast feel slightly more effortless. Trudge your way through a slow indie tune, or worse, an overplayed radio hit that you hate, playing at a bpm much lower than your rpm, and spinning begins to feel like just another torturous cardio workout.
Music plays a huge role in SoulCycle, where choreographed dance moves are all part of the fun, giving a laughable meaning to the word "party" sported on the staff members' yellow fanny packs. Side-to-side shoulder grooving is often incorporated into the ride, as are other moves that left me feeling entirely uncoordinated.
"Am I the only one who can't keep my booty 'tapbacks' synced to the beats?" It's a question I'm still wondering, now three classes deep.
The instructors assure that the dance aspects of each class get easier with practice. After glancing at the clan of diehard Soul'sters around me on my second session, I'd like to think that is true.
Yet, just as insecurities about my coordination would creep in, an instructor would begin voicing yoga-like words of distraction.
"Feel yourself beginning to let go, and remember, it's all about giving it your best," said instructor Nick Turk during an evening class. "Relax into the universe around you."
While some instructors are zen, others resemble gospel preachers, with hands raised to the sky as they began shouting positive phrases like, "Ride your truth" or "Feel your power."
It can feel silly at times, but this, the overwhelming enthusiasm that initially felt claustrophobic managed to somehow suck me in. Would I kiss my my disposable income goodbye in favor of joining the SoulCycle cult? Likely not. Yet, it's hard to recount any other spin or even yoga class where I felt surrounded by as much positivity. Coupled with the natural high that comes from an intense cardio session, it's hard not to leave the place feeling happy.
Pro tip: Parts of SoulCycle feel silly, but that's what makes it entertaining — full of distractions that take away from the brutality of an intense workout. Also, hit the showers afterward and take advantage of the face wash.
Philadelphia: 113 S 16th St, Philadelphia, $30 per class, class pkgs available including a $60 3-class starter pkg., 215-398-7685, soul-cycle.com
Ardmore: 2 Coulter Ave, $30 per class, class pkgs available including a $60 3-class starter pkg., 484-434-2200, soul-cycle.com
Go if: You thrive on competition and want to make sure that your effort level matches what the instructor intends for you to put in.
Upon stepping into the Locust Street basement that the Center City Flywheel calls home, I whiffed a stench of smelly socks. Low expectations crept in as I scanned the pairs of shoes aside the front desk, stacked one on top of another like those at a bowling alley. It was quite the contrast to the candle-scented SoulCycle experience I encountered the night before.
The good news: The classes proved to be better than my first impression, and proved to be my favorite class because of several key characteristics.
First, there's power monitor attached to each bike. If you delight in numbers, this will bring your adrenaline level up a notch. The monitor displays four numbers: Torq (your resistance level on the bike), RPM (revolutions per minute), current power level (an indication of how much effort you're putting into the ride), and total power level (a number tabulated since the start of the class).
That latter number is where things get interesting. Put in more effort than anyone else in the class, and your total power level will bring your name to the top of the Flywheel "Torqboard," posted on two TV screens that hang at the front of the room like a high score video game display. It's the ultimate fueler of competition, enabling you to compare yourself to the other sweaty bodies around you.
Not into public displays of your fitness efforts? You can always opt out. With your name hidden from the board, you'll still be able to see how your stats stack up to those vying it out in public. Glance at the private number on your individual power monitor, and you'll know if you may need to pick it up a notch.
Never the kid who cried over losing Monopoly (my brother did enough of that for me), I didn't think the competition factor would have huge appeal. Yet, as I kept a steady position in the top five among women, I noticed how effective it was. There's no way I was going to let number five kick me out of my fourth position, and a strong urge seemingly out of nowhere brought on a desire to leave number three in the dust.
More than anything though, I felt in competition with myself. If I lost my pointless, but personally fulfilling ranking, it'd feel like a lazy-induced letdown.
The other pro to the Flywheel numbers game is that you're never guessing how much resistance you should put on the bike. Unlike most classes where teachers are prone to shouting out vague phrases like "turn back your resistance to a flat road," in Flywheel, the instructions are direct. "Pump up the Torq to 30, plus or minus two, and reach for an RPM of 110-120." As a newbie spinner, there are enough questions to struggle with. It's nice to have confirmation that you're putting in the correct effort, and those specific digits add one more kick in the butt to push a little further.
Like SoulCycle, Flywheel also throws into each class a bit of dance-like movements, although in much smaller doses, and each class devotes one song's worth of time for a brief arm workout near the end. By this time, likely you'll welcome the brief rest for your legs, rejuvenating you to power it out in the final stretch of the class.
Would I continue to return? It's likely you might catch me riding for first place.
Pro tip: Either schedule the class at a time where you can go home afterward to shower or ensure you have minutes to spare for post-sweat-sesh hang-time. The studio only has two showers.
Philadelphia: 1521 Locust St, $30 per class, first class is 50% off and class pkgs are available, 215-600-1281, flywheelsports.com
Bryn Mawr: 711 W West Lancaster Avenue #300, $30 per class, first class is 50% off and class pkgs are available, 610-572-7161, flywheelsports.com
Go if: You can push through slow-tempo songs by the likes of Mumford and Sons and don't want to become a part of the cult-like (but arguably more addictive) classes at other Center City studios.
Once — sometimes twice — a day, Kasey Stelweck takes a break from her work-from-home job to sweat it out at Body Cycle Studio.
"I had my birthday party here," says Stelweck, who's been spinning at the studio for just over a year. "It was a mix of friends and also the family I've met here at the studio."
Body Cycle let Stelweck, who was raising money for Adopt-A-Family, use the space for free. It's the kind of gesture you might come across at a smaller studio like Body Cycle, where a modest 36 bikes fill the space versus the 50-plus bikes that fill the larger studios within city limits.
Unfortunately, the intimate atmosphere didn't win me over, as I struggled not to stare at the clock on the front of my bike, counting the minutes till the end of class. (This was one of only two studios I tested out that had a clock within view.)
Body Cycle Studio resembles a gym class more than a night out at the (spin) club. The atmosphere is brighter, the music is softer, the instructors are less reverend-like, and the dance moves are kept to a minimum — all of which could be pros, but most felt like cons to me.
The comparably casual environment of Body Cycle starts immediately. Cycling shoes are not available to rent, so unless you possess your own compatible kicks, you'll use the toe cages found on each Keiser-branded bike. Hit the lunch-time class, and you may find yourself spinning in your sneakers with a crowd chatting their way through the warmup.
Massive skylights keep the room from becoming pitch black, certainly a benefit to natural light lovers and those who don't want to wake up in the dark during a Saturday morning class. Another potential merit: The music isn't as loud here, again reducing the dance-club-like environment. Yet, the sound quality isn't great, and helped make me realize the power of loud, mind-numbing music.
Songs during classes included Pink, Nickelback, and other no-thank-you throwbacks, as well as some current tracks from artists like One Direction and Beyonce. While I adore Queen B, even she didn't prove to be as motivating as the 150 beats-per-minute trance track from some unknown-to-me artist occupying most playlists in previously mentioned studios. Although, as Body Cycle fan Stelweck indicates, perhaps this is all a matter of personal preference.
The bikes at Body Cycle Studio also felt a more finicky. Rather than a wheel, a lever is used to adjust resistance. While fairly easy to maneuver up and down, the resistance felt highly contrasted from one level to the next. Level 11 could feel like your cruising downhill, while level 12 or 13 would instantly plant you on a medium hill.
Each bike at Body Cycle Studio has a monitor where you can view stats like your resistance level, RPM, and distance. While the stats aren't used to drum up competition like at Flywheel, they can help you track your personal progress. A mobile app synced to the studio's bikes enables you to view your numbers from class to class and calculate mileage accomplished over time.
Pro tip: Wear sneakers or bring your own cycling shoes. If you're in it for the long run, you could plan to buy a pair from the bike shop, Breakaway Bikes, conveniently located just beneath the studio.
1923 Chestnut St., 215-563-3663, $24 per class, class pkgs available including a $20 1 week unlimited deal for new riders, bodycyclestudio.com
Go if: You live in Collingswood, and you want to save some money.
You might wonder if you're in the right place as you first walk up to Upcycle. The entrance plants you in the center of a spacious and airy cafe, serving up items like green energy shakes and avocado toast. To the left of the smoothie bar lay the door to Upcycle, situated equidistant to the back room barre and yoga studio. It's the quintessential healthful suburban destination.
Upcycle proved to be the South Jersey equivalent to Body Cycle Studio, a more straightforward cycling experience filled with pop radio hits and a more casual vibe.
Thankfully, the class itself is $9 cheaper than a drop-in at Body Cycle, leaving you a few dollars to spare, even if you get suckered into parking in one of the metered spots out front.
During an Upcycle class, you'll be guided using the RPM number on your bike's monitor. The monitor also shows stats like calories burned, distance covered, and time, which you can choose to leave off the screen.
High intensity intervals that alternate between sprinting and hill climbing will carry you through the class, as will a playlist of old school radio hits from the likes of Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake. Again, this just didn't work for me.
The intimate space at Upcycle holds 20 bikes and a crowd typically skewing slightly older than the other gyms I visited. While the room is devoid of windows, the overhead lights are kept to a medium-low level, so again, gym class vibes are far more prominent than those of a dance party.
Outside of moving in and out of your saddle, body movements beyond straight-up cycling are kept to a minimum. This made me wonder why my first class devoted a full 10 minutes to stretching at the end. Are tricep stretches necessary in a class where no bike pushups are involved? Time is money in a spin class, and I want mine spent on the endorphin drug that comes from the cardio insanity.
That's not to say you won't work up a good sweat at Upcycle, and, of course, every teacher structures their classes differently and the studio offers class options that include cycle and barre, cycle and yoga, and cycle and strength. Choose one of those variations, and you'll spin for 30 minutes before transitioning into the latter component of the class.
Speaking of sweat, don't forget a towel — cheaper classes means less fancy, spa-like services, so towels are not part of the ticket price. Neither are shoes. Wear sneakers or bring your own SPD-compatible cycling shoes.
Pro tip: Don't forget a towel or you'll be left drowning in your own sweat. Towels are not available at the studio. Also, the first ride is free.
716 Haddon Ave, Collingswood, NJ, $15 per class, class pkgs are available and first class is free, 856-240-0746, upcyclenj.com
Go if: You like the SoulCycle danciness but also want a ride where you can track your numbers and be guided by your RPM.
Of all the spinning experiences I endured, CycleBar was the most challenging. There are three local locations of this suburban outpost: Exton, North Wales, Plymouth Meeting. If you find yourself at that latter locale, take a class with the manager Jamie, who is sure to give you a good butt-kicking.
CycleBar feels like a mix between SoulCycle and Flywheel, with lots of dancey elements, numbers-based instruction and a small competition element, too.
A bike monitor shows you your time, power, and distance. It also reflects your resistance level and RPM, both of which are used to guide the entire class.
Throughout sprinting up hills, of which we did a lot, you'll be guided into bike-pushups, elbow drops that work your core and triceps, and tapbacks that require you to shift your hips back while cycling out of your saddle. All of the moves are used regularly in SoulCycle, and occasionally in Flywheel. Yet, in CycleBar, you're practically dancing your way through the entire class.
The amount of choreography can vary per instructor, but the moves are a core part of the experience. Luckily, as spinning is a solo sport, you can opt out at any time and just stick to cycling.
The room is kept dark and the music is loud, with playlists that fall heavy with high tempo house music, but also the occasional pop artist, such as James Blunt or Pink. (Pink seemed a surprising favorite among the overall community of spin instructors.) Adding to the nightclub feel, the region's CycleBar rooms are huge, each of which hold between 45-50 bikes and floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
Given the size and location, fortunately the prime time classes don't tend to book up as quickly as they do at many Center City studios. Definitely a benefit for the non-committal type who doesn't want to have to schedule a workout more than a few hours in advance.
As you spin, you'll be primarily competing with yourself, although, twice per class, a performance board will flash stats and rankings of other riders in the room. Like Flywheel, you can opt out of being on the board. Although, if you choose to attend a "Performance" ride versus the "Classic," the boards will remain live for the duration of the class. CycleBar also offers a "Connect" class where no numbers are involved at all. Rather than using a bike monitor, riders are encouraged to follow the music and adjust speed and resistance accordingly.
A short, one-song arm workout is fit into each class, another parallel to Flywheel and SoulCycle. Other similarities include a heavy use of inspirational quotes to decorate the locker rooms, and the free fruit waiting for you as you finish. It's the little things that make a good spin class all the sweeter. Now only if they would add to the water cooler — offering both cold and room temp H2O — a sparkling option, too.
Pro tip: If you don't want to do every single dance move, no one will yell at you for skipping out to simply spin in your saddle. CycleBar does, however, recommend picking a bike in the back of the room if you plan to do your own thing. Also, the first ride is free.
Exton: 124 Woodcutter St, $24 per class, class pkgs available including a $79 5-class pack for new riders only, 484-879-4892 exton.cyclebar.com
North Wales: 1460 Bethlehem Pike, $24 per class, class pkgs available including a $79 5-class pack for new riders only, 215-853-6575, northwales.cyclebar.com
Plymouth Meeting: 500 W Germantown Pike Suite 1530, $24 per class, class pkgs available including a $79 5-class pack for new riders only, 484-222-3989, plymouthmeeting.cyclebar.com
Go if: You want a one-stop studio where one night you can dance your heart out in a spin class, while the next class you can pedal for first place in a serious race.
As the newest spin studio in the area, Revel Ride has the natural perk of offering the cleanest rental shoes in town. (Although, it's doubtful the sneakers will stay notably fresh for very long, so get to the Graduate Hospital locale soon.) The bikes are also brand-new and ride strikingly smoothly, while other small details, like the air plants hanging in the bathroom, add to the new-guy-in-town novelty.
Opened the second week in May, the studio markets itself as a mashup of many of the other studio styles. It offers three classes, one that might garner a SoulCycle-like crowd, one that might steal the competitive athletes of Flywheel, and one that falls somewhere in the middle.
The first is the "Revel in the Rhythm" class, which incorporates a fair amount of choreography into each ride and strives to get everyone moving in unison with each beat. The focus here is placed on moves like tap-backs and bike push-ups rather than stats and numbers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is "Revel in the Fight." Here, you're encouraged to compete with yourself and, if you choose, others in the room as you work your way through interval sprints and customized races led by the instructor, all centered around boosting your stats.
Finally, there is "Revel in the Ride," a hybrid between the first two options and most comparable to a SoulCycle class, with a few less dance moves and the addition of numbered stats that you can view but aren't used as your guide. You'll likely move through several tap-backs in this class, a one-song arm workout, and a few interval sprints, too.
The options are great for those enthusiasts who are ready to invest in a class package, but don't want to commit to a certain style. Maybe one night you feel like spin-dancing carefree, while the next night you feel like harnessing your inner athlete to kick some butt on the competition board.
A sliding scale can be found on Revel Ride's website for each instructor, showing where their personal teaching style falls between the three options.
Other unique details to the studio include the shifter bar on each bike that's placed beneath the resistance wheel. The bar immediately adds one-and-a-half turns worth of resistance with each small movement to the right. It enables instructors to quickly level up the intensity and allows you to easily scale back during rest periods.
The main downside to the studio is its smaller size, which at times can make it feel claustrophobic, or even as if there's a lack of oxygen to go around. Plus, it only holds 30 bikes, meaning those prime time evening slots fill up well in advance. Sign up time for the week opens at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Set a calendar reminder if you want to ensure you'll get a spot in the class of your choosing.
Pro tip: The barley- and hops-infused "beer" shampoo and conditioner in the two showers both lather quite nicely. Just be sure that after you wash up, you don't strut out from the shower area in your underwear unless you're comfortable changing in front of someone from the opposite sex. The locker room is gender neutral.