Fad Fitness: Flywheel vs. SoulCycle

Week 6: Taking a spin with Flywheel's main competition

Time for a bit of comparison shopping.

Having spent the last five-and-a-half weeks ramping up my torq, hitting new targets, and utterly failing to master the weights, I was forced by circumstance to change my indoor cycling routine.

This holiday I’m visiting Los Angeles, a city soon to be, but not yet, touched by Flywheel’s growing reach. It's opening two locations here soon, one in partnership with a yoga gym.

SoulCycle, on the other hand, is already well established in L.A., with locations in Brentwood, where I rode, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. My interest in the SoulCycle/Flywheel rivalry was piqued by the chilly reaction I got when mentioning one to the other’s spokesperson. Why the hard feelings, I thought? (You can read more about their entwined histories in this New York Times story).

There are a few superficial differences in the presentation not entirely owing to the difference in location. For one, Flywheel’s vaguely cultish branding feels downright subtle compared to SoulCycle’s immersive, new-New Age shtick.

Neon lights in the lobby instruct you to “take your journey, change your body, find your soul,” and the walls of the cycling studio itself flatter you with epithets of “rockstar,” “legend,” and the like. The class is candle-lit.

The instructors bring a more physical, dare-I-say, clownish exuberance to the theater of group training. My Christmas morning instructor, David, seemed to have a grin chiseled onto his face. He raced up and down the aisles, prodding and praising individual riders, raising his arms like a preacher at a camp meeting, exploding with staccato bursts of overhead air-spanking like a cheerleader or boy-band choreographer. Upon reaching the climax of one long crescendo, he moaned and shook.

For what it’s worth, people seemed to respond to it.

Unlike Flywheel, the emphasis at SoulCycle is on conforming to the pack rather than breaking away from it. No meters or scoreboards here; only encouragement to stick to the beat—mostly hip hop and electronica, by the way—and to contribute to, and feed off of, the group vibe. “Look around you, find the rhythm of the room,” is a typical bit of motivation I heard.

Although the handlebars have a similar three-tiered structure to Flywheel’s, they are much lower, such that my default position was nearly horizontal, as if I were racing. This, I quickly figured out, is because most of the workout either involves rising out of the saddle or doing rapid pushup and core exercises.

Some of these require intimidating levels of balance and technique. I was in constant fear of losing my balance while alternating between triceps and biceps, and smacking my face into the handlebars.

I knew it would take several classes before getting used to the techniques, and, honestly, felt a little rudderless without my trusty power score to measure progress. But this is also part of SoulCycle’s appeal. My wife, who accompanied me on my two Soul rides, found the less competitive vibe and the focus on conditioning to be more up her alley than Flywheel’s streamlined burn.

Note the difference:

“I don’t care how you look when you leave here,” shouted David, near the end of our ride, “I just care how you feel.”

Compare that to Steven, my Flywheel instructor, some weeks back: “Look around you and find the body you want. When you see it, tell yourself, ‘I want that,’ and go for it!”

I guess you could say it’s inspiration versus aspiration, but, fundamentally, they’re both the same activity: riding a stationary bike to music.


About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit, Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.