Riding with Resistance (and Ripples)

People exercising with aquatic bikes in spa centerAqua Cycling has been a go-to workout in Europe for several years, but it’s only recently made a splash in the States, where it’s also called Aqua Spinning. Who dreamed up the idea of putting a stationary bike in a pool?

Legend has it that in the 1990s, physical therapists in Italy submerged bikes to help patients recover from knee surgeries, says Chris Toudic, spokesperson for Aqua Wellness World, an aqua cycling studio and bike sales center in Westchester, NY. The smooth, low-impact pedaling and the extra resistance of the water made for a customizable workout that was extremely gentle on the joints. But, swap out the rehab routine and add high-energy music, a commanding instructor, and a more intense pace and underwater biking is also an extremely effective calorie-burner.

It’s all about the resistance: Aqua cycling classes are held on specially designed aqua bikes, sleek self-powered machines that are noticeably missing the front flywheel that’s a staple of indoor cycling. Some bikes adjust to offer a few levels of resistance while others have just one level. However, the bulk of this workout is controlled by you: the more force you use to push the pedals of the bike the more resistance the water presses back against your legs. Those ripples and splashes on the pool surface? They’re caused by the intense—if slow—pedaling that’s happening underwater.

As in on-land cycling classes, you can expect to ride seated, or “in the saddle” of the bike, and standing during an aqua cycling workout. Moving between positions and pedaling at different speeds and with different amounts of force ensures you get a good workout for your entire lower body—quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and even core—as well as an effective dose of cardiovascular training.

“During a workout your heart is stimulated, your legs are working while being massaged by the water, and your body temperature is kept low because of the temperature of the water,” says Toudic. “Plus, most exercisers feel no pain after a class because during a session the muscles are massaged by the movement of the water around and against the body.”

To work out, most exercisers wear swimsuits with shorts, which help prevent chafing against the saddle of the bike. Most studios rent plastic jelly-like shoes so don’t worry about damaging your own sneakers. Classes last approximately 45 minutes including a warm-up and cool-down. Pool temps are kept low enough to keep cyclists from overheating.

Classes are currently offered through Aqua Wellness World in Connecticut and in New York (aquawellnessworld.com); Aqua Studio also has a NYC location (aquastudiony.com). The Evalyn Sadlier Jones Bra YMCA in Sarasota, Florida also offers classes (thesarasotay.org). If you are traveling across the pond, In London, visit Aqua Allure (aquallure.co.uk). In Paris, take a class at La Maison Popincourt (lamaisonpopincourt.com).

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