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SoulCycle, explained

A general view of atmosphere at the SoulCycle and Urban Remedy kick off summer event at SoulCycle Malibu on June 7, 2014, in Malibu, California.
A general view of atmosphere at the SoulCycle and Urban Remedy kick off summer event at SoulCycle Malibu on June 7, 2014, in Malibu, California.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

My name is Alex, and I'm addicted to SoulCycle. My last class was on Thursday morning, my next two will be back-to-back classes on Sunday morning.

I didn't used to be this way. In fact, I remember being completely befuddled two years ago at the sight of a group of people dressed like shiny ninjas — clad in black shirts and tanks tops adorned with bedazzled skulls and wheels — waiting to enter a SoulCycle studio at 7 am on West 19th Street in New York City.

The brand — which promises a full-body workout via "indoor cycling reinvented" — has been labeled a cult, an obsession, even therapy. The riders who participate are called warriors, rock stars, renegades, and legends. SoulCycle has been made fun of relentlessly. To many sane, logical people paying $30 ($34 if you live in New York City) for a class where you ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes is a sign of mental illness — or perhaps a signal that you may be susceptible to fanatical behavior. Surely, the only people paying that much to sweat and listen to music have to be people with addictive personalities.

But SoulCycle must be doing something right.

The company is filing an IPO, just as it's in the middle of a national expansion. And while many fitness studios and boutique gyms are forging deals with services like ClassPass (a sort of fitness class broker) to fill their empty slots, SoulCycle's classes are as popular as ever (there's now a promotion where first-time riders can get their first ride for $20). The company is also re-tooling (and hopefully improving) their famed bikes.

I don't have all the answers as to why some people are obsessed with SoulCycle. While there are some riders who will pay $54 for a tank top that says "front row" (an assertion of SoulCycle dominance), I'm not there yet. But perhaps I can shed some light on why the company is as successful as it is.

SoulCycle is one of the hardest workouts I've ever done, and that makes it incredibly gratifying

(Yue Wu/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

When people make fun of SoulCycle (I've made fun of it in the past), their derision is never about the actual workout. It's usually about what people wear to said workouts or the company's hippie-ish sayings. That might be because the workout is actually pretty taxing. The key to SoulCycle is that it isn't so difficult that it makes you feel like a failure five minutes in, but it's tough enough to leave you gasping for air.

At SoulCycle, you rent a pair of cycling shoes with clips on the balls of the feet, and then you enter a candlelit room and snap into a bike. The shoes reduce you to an inelegant waddle, but once you're strapped in, they make it nearly impossible to fall off and allow you to focus on getting your legs moving.

For the next 40 minutes or so, you perform various movements while pedaling against resistance. You turn a knob, and it becomes tougher to pedal. You're also in charge of how hard you're working.

The moves vary from crunches (while riding, you drop your elbows and support yourself through your abs) to tap-backs (you thrust your hips backward while riding out of the saddle), and many of them hit weird muscles you didn't know existed. You're also told to position yourself in a certain way (hips back, arms tucked close to your body, shoulders locked down, etc.) that ensures you're getting a good workout.

There are "hills" — intervals where you crank up the resistance and pedal against it — where it feels like you're moving your legs through thick mud. There are fast sprints that will make you gulp oxygen and feel like your lungs are leaking. There's even an arms section where you curl and press your biceps and triceps until they fail, all while pedaling. You never stop pedaling; if you stop pedaling, a cannon sounds and you're airlifted out of the arena. By the end of every class, I've left a small puddle of glistening sweat beneath my bike and my shirt is soaked through.

For some reason, I find all of this thrilling.

SoulCycle is exponentially more exciting than just using a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine, or attending any other fitness class I've been to. It leaves me sweatier and more accomplished than any cardio I would normally do on my own. And the combination of the darkened room (no one looking at me), thumping music (dancing is fun), and exhausting exercise makes me want to come back the next day and try harder.

"Maybe tomorrow I can put on more resistance," I've thought to myself. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done.

While it isn't the absolute toughest workout I've ever tried, SoulCycle has become my favorite.

The instructors are inspiring and won't make you feel bad about yourself

I will never allow someone to photograph me in a SoulCycle class. Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I will never allow someone to photograph me in a SoulCycle class. (Yue Wu/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

One of the worst fitness experiences I've ever had is taking a "free" training session from a personal instructor at my gym. He was texting and barely paying attention to my squats. I felt like I was eating up his time, and I was much more worried than he was about my form and whether I was correctly performing the exercises.

It was awkward, and one-on-one training is something I have never tried again.

SoulCycle's instructors go through a rigorous training program to avoid such unpleasant situations. It's a 10-week process during which they learn the company's credo of inspiration, how to choose music, and, most importantly, how to teach people in a way that's unique to the company.

"One thing I love about SoulCycle is that the instructors don't yell at you. I hate that feeling when you drag yourself to go work out, only to have an instructor tell you you're not trying hard enough," says Marisa Kabas, a freelance writer and a SoulCycle enthusiast. "At Soul they let you do your thing, which oddly makes me want to work harder."

Being treated like an actual human being isn't something you often find in the fitness world. That's why when you talk to SoulCycle devotees, they will usually tell you who their favorite instructor is; mine is Charlee in New York City.

She's a marvel on the bike. Charlee floats, making something as physically demanding as SoulCycle look effortlessly hip. Charlee also has a powerful, one-of-a-kind presence that demands your full attention. You can't rip your eyes away from her. Her classes are challenging, intense, and daring experiences.

What makes her such a great teacher is that she obviously loves her work. She's constantly pushing her riders to their limits and beyond, but also teaching them the proper form at the same time. She's also constantly looking to improve and become a better teacher — sometimes that's mixing up recovery periods, or implementing a new stretch, or experimenting with different changes of pace.

Charlee isn't the only great instructor at SoulCycle.

Karyn is fantastic too. I'm convinced she is part-lioness, part-machine, and has found a way to take human form. Her classes are dazzling adrenaline rushes — a mix of challenging choreography and breath-busting pushes — and she finds a way to get you to dig into your being and somehow find more.

Garrett in D.C. was the instructor I started with. He puts it on you to make sure you're challenging and being honest with yourself. In Garrett's classes, you're inflicting the pain and resistance on yourself, and you're pushing yourself to get stronger.

I've taken other instructors too. Parker (New York) has an ear for music. Todd (Los Angeles) is an ogre of a man who pumps everyone up with talk about Harleys. Josh (Los Angeles and Newport Beach) has one of the toughest, endurance-challenging classes I've taken. And Angela (Los Angeles) made me believe I could move mountains.

Each instructor brings something different to class. SoulCycle invests time and energy into making sure its instructors are on point, and instructors invest a lot of time into the training program. It likely won't be long before you find an instructor whom you mesh with — whether it's due to their teaching style, the way they push their students, their inspirational attitude, or their feelings on Rihanna's music.

SoulCycle is competitive and just the right amount of cutthroat

(Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

(Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

What makes SoulCycle work is the collective competition that naturally occurs. Everyone in that candlelit room has paid at least $30 for a workout. No one is looking to take it easy. This attitude helps every single person in the room, because everyone arrives ready to work hard.

A hierarchy exists at SoulCycle that's not unlike that of a high school cafeteria. And while that notion might make some folks wary, it's not as Mean Girls as it sounds. Though all participants reserve a bike (signups open every Monday at noon) and choose where they sit, the rows tend to sort themselves. The newbies are usually in the back and off to the left and right. The overachievers tend to gravitate closer to the center and the front.

The front row of bikes, the subject of a New York Times trend story or two, is allegedly where the best riders sit. Other riders follow their lead to stay on the beat. And when their less-experienced cohorts start wheezing or looking bent and broken (some people even barf), the front-row riders are usually still at ease, as if they're daydreaming or receiving some kind of deep-tissue massage.

Yes, this setup can be intimidating, but it also can be inspiring, in the same way that The Hunger Games is inspiring. There's a strange spark that arises when you see other people coasting while you're struggling, and it pushes you to work harder.

Conversely, watching other people heave while you're coasting along is quite satisfying (in the same kind of Hunger Games way). When I see people breaking and gasping for air, in my head, all I hear them saying is: "You're tougher than me. You're stronger than me. You win. Keep going."

That's fun for me.

And while I'm fully aware that my bloodlust is slightly disturbing, it also keeps me going back for more.

The benefits are both physical and mental

This is Max Greenfield is teaching a class. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

This is Max Greenfield. He is teaching a class. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

I've been doing SoulCycle since October, shortly after the company opened its DC location. I usually go between three and five times per week, and in the past eight or so months I've dropped three inches off my waist and lost around 25 lbs.

2014 vs. 2015: 25 lbs. lost.  (A.Abad-Santos)

2014 vs. 2015: 25 lbs. lost. (A.Abad-Santos)

Anyone who tells you that vanity and the desire to look fit are not part of the reason they do SoulCycle is lying. And from a purely vain standpoint, I'm really happy with my results.

But I've also noticed other positive effects. My endurance has increased, my resting heart rate is down, I sleep better, and when I go to the "regular" gym, I'm stronger when it comes to exercises like squats and leg presses.

Plus it's a great stress reliever — just like lots of exercise — and a healthy way to give your mind a break. There's something therapeutic about working out in a dark room where no one can see your face, dropping your guard, and using that bike to get away from whatever has ruined your day. It's dopey. It's spiritual. But each class is 45 minutes where I don't look at my phone, I don't text, I don't worry about what's next on my to-do list.

Writing off SoulCycle as a cult is needlessly cynical

Why do some people call SoulCycle a cult? Here's the short answer:

Here are some mantras 4 u. (SoulCycle)

Yes, this graphic from SoulCycle includes the line "High on sweat and the hum of the wheel." I cannot imagine myself uttering that combination of words, in that order, to another human being unless I was trying to get a laugh.

There are also a lot of "we's" in the text, referring to SoulCycle's community of riders. Of course, lots of folks would bristle at thought of riding a bike in the dark alongside a bunch of sweaty strangers and calling it teamwork.

So it's not too difficult to understand why many folks have been quick to pan the entire SoulCycle enterprise. But I would be lying if I said I've never found meaning in some of those words.

I understand the eye-rolling that comes with the idea of instructors spouting inspirational quotes while your lungs are on fire, but in combination with the endorphins of the workout, those words and mantras can be more powerful than you expect.

And even though SoulCycle's atmosphere can be competitive, it also forges respect, friendships, and bonds. You start learning people's stories, why they're in there, what they're going home to, and what they do when they're not sweating their faces off. You learn about how some riders come to class because they want to lose weight and change their lives, or because it's the only time they have to themselves, or because they want to look good for a vacation they've saved up for.

Ultimately, there are myriad reasons why people do SoulCycle. But there's also one basic one: this class, this "cult," makes them feel great and beautiful. The shiny ninja sipping her green juice is an easy target for trend pieces — but what's the use in hating on someone because she's found something that makes her feel good about herself?

The class is actually really fun — and that's largely because of the music

(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

Some people smile at SoulCycle. (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

One element that separates SoulCycle from other "spin" classes is that you pedal to the beat of the music. At other places, like SoulCycle competitor Flywheel, there isn't as much of a relationship between the music and your actions. You're often just told to pedal fast or slow.

At SoulCycle, if everyone is doing it right, the class will look like a synchronized street gang from West Side Story, only sparklier; a sign on the studio wall even encourages riders to move out of the front row if they're going to have trouble staying in step with the music.

Sessions are divided into sprints, hills, jogs (a medium-paced interval), and "jumps" (where you hold yourself up out of the saddle for two, four, or even eight beats at a time) — intervals that require different paces, changing beats, and varying levels of effort (sprints require bursts of energy, whereas hills require more endurance). The music acts as a skeleton plan for riders, keeping them together.

That's why music is so integral to SoulCycle, and why instructors spend hours compiling the right mix. The songs tend to be trappy or EDM remixes of pop where the strong beat screams into your ear. This is perfect for me because I have the musical taste of a 15-year-old girl and my dancing ability hovers around "enthusiastic bar mitzvah."

"There's such a high standard of musicality in the instructors," Natalie Kottke, a longtime rider, told me. "But it's completely accommodating to the musically inept."

Music can also actually help riders get more out of a workout. Studies have found that listening to music while exercising enhances endurance and mood and distracts from pain. "When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it," Scientific American reported in 2013, revealing that one researcher compared music to a performance-enhancing drug.

The $30 price tag is steep, but it means I never miss a class

(Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

(Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Glamour)

SoulCycle is expensive. If you attend three to five classes per week, that's $90 to $150 — and $150 is comparable to the cost of a one-month membership to a "fancy" gym. You only have until 5 pm to cancel tomorrow's class. Once that deadline passes, you're charged whether you show up or not.

Make no mistake, SoulCycle's prices are steep. But I'd argue that spending $150 per week and regularly attending class is a better use of your money than spending $150 a month if you're terrible at getting yourself to the gym.

That $30 (more if you live in New York City) keeps me honest. When I was paying $110 per month for the gym, I didn't feel an overwhelming need to go. I could always skip one day, then two days, then maybe drag myself there some other time — there just wasn't a sense of urgency. Skipping SoulCycle really drives home the fact that you're wasting money. That isn't the best reason to attend, but it's pretty good motivation, especially on top of the workout you're getting.

SoulCycle meshes nicely with my type-A personality, but it's still welcoming to everyone

(Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

This is Kelly Ripa. She will probably kick your ass at SoulCycle. (John Lamparski/WireImage)

I grew up playing tennis, which can be one of the loneliest competitive sports. I think that's why I tend to glom on to the aggressive "front-row" nature of SoulCycle. I like it when classes feel like a contest or a challenge and remind me of being on the court.

For others, SoulCycle is more about having fun and dancing along to the music, or about taking time to reflect. Meanwhile, some people view it as a chance to hang out with their friends (I have dragged multiple Vox staffers to classes), or simply as a way to look better in a bathing suit. I'm sure there are folks who love being part of a club. And there are plenty of profound stories about riders who came to SoulCycle while they were fighting cancer or battling depression.

Not everyone at SoulCycle is addicted to the competition. But I think all of the regulars are addicted to something SoulCycle gives them.

SB Nation presents: Another workout that inspires fervent dedication- CrossFit

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