SoulCycle just rolled out its latest class, SoulActivate, officially marking the cycling studio’s leap into the world of heart-rate-based training. The hallmark of this kind of training is intervals, which get your heart beating at 80 to 90 percent of its maximum rate, causing the physiological response known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption—a.k.a. the afterburn effect, in which metabolism jumps for up to 24 to 48 hours afterward. Translation? You burn more calories than normal after your workout, like when you’re sitting on the Metro or napping.
As a longtime runner, I’ve always loved interval training because it kills the boredom of running on a treadmill almost as much as watching Vanderpump Rules does. Almost. So when I heard about SoulActivate, I was pretty curious to see just how different it would be from the original, 45-minute SoulCycle class, which I don’t exactly find as boring as running on a treadmill thanks to thumping music and buoyant instructors who magically levitate out of their saddles while doing one-armed push-ups on the handlebars. That is some entertaining stuff right there.
But would SoulActivate also have joyous whooping? Would the room still be lit by candles? Afterward, would the locker area feel like the ladies room at 1 AM on a night out, but with everyone being all nice from the high off a tidal wave of endorphins, not cocktails, and with more Birkenstocks?
Well, sort of. I visited both versions of the class in the West End with the same instructor, Natalia Millan Cheney, for a fair comparison. (When she was pregnant, she taught SoulCycle classes twice a day, six days, a week, so yeah.) “After a while of doing the same exercise, you go through adaptation syndrome,” she explains, meaning your body just doesn’t change as much from doing the same class over and over, which can happen when you get addicted to SoulCycle. The company spent months working with Janet Fitzgerald, a SoulCycle senior master instructor, and Marvin Foster Jr., a master instructor, both in New York, and a team of athletic engineers to create SoulActivate. So far, it’s been rolled out in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and DC.
Here’s how it went.
1. SoulActivate is longer.
Know that you’ll be in the saddle for 60 minutes, not 45. This is crucial not only from a time-management perspective, but also an endurance one. Cheney recommends doing SoulCycle at least ten times before trying SoulActivate.
Update! There will be 45-minute SoulActivate classes, too!
2. The weights are heavier.
As you walk into the class, an employee will ask if you want five, eight, or ten pound weights, which you’ll grab one of and put on the tiny rack beneath your seat where the standard light ones usually sit (you know, those dainty two and three pound dumbbells that crush your biceps during the weight portion of every standard class thanks to lots and lots of reps). I thought I was playing it safe with eight pounds, and was told by the employee that I’d be matching it up with a three pound weight.
3. Leave your ego in the locker.
This is no time to show off. Those eight pound weights? Sure, a little light for me on a regular day at the gym. What they don’t tell you is that, once you’ve done the normal SoulCycle cycling stuff like warm up and tap back and double-tap and do push-ups on your handlebars, you’re then going to take an eight pound dumbbell, add an innocent three pound dumbbell to it, clutch them both in the palm of one hand, and do bicep curls and overhead presses until Cheney tells you to stop, all while teetering on the seat before your arm starts to shudder so badly that you have to discreetly tuck the three pound dumbbell under your seat, for the first time really appreciating how dark it is in the studio. (Yes, the candles are lit.)
4. Then come the intervals.
At this point—and I have no sense of how far into the class this was because time isn’t real at SoulCycle—we began the heart-rate, interval portion of things, the part that makes it more of a “peaks and balances” workout, according to Cheney. She explained that we’d be doing 20 seconds out of the saddle, as hard and fast as possible, with 60 seconds of rest in between, repeated six times. This sounded on par with what I’ve done on the treadmill many times with sprinting while watching Bravo. Easy peasy.
5. You’ll be duped.
Then, thighs scorching, we were told we’d be doing intervals again, seven times, with ten seconds of rest in between instead of a full minute.
And so marks the first time I ceased to hear music or anything but the blood pumping in my ears during a workout.
6. Things got quieter.
Perhaps we all lost our hearing, but there was a lot less cheering in SoulActivate than in a regular class. Cheney called us out for this, which resulted in some sheepish whooping.
7. Then, it was over.
Sweat beads of pain laced with tranquility rolled down my face and flew off my elbows. I think I cried a little.
But I’ll be back.