Do Recumbent Bikes Provide an Effective Workout?

Man on stationary bicycle

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Are you tired of searching for the most effective cardio equipment? With so many options to choose from (treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, and stationary bikes) it can be tough to decide how to get started. Each piece of equipment offers something a little different. Depending on your personal preferences and willingness to challenge yourself, any of these machines can offer tremendous benefits.

Some people enjoy doing cardio workouts while in a standing position. Others prefer the extra support of sitting down. Recumbent bikes remain a popular choice for seated workouts, due to their comfortable seat and back support.

The effectiveness of any aerobic activity relies on how hard you work during the training session. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), recumbent bikes provide a safe and effective workout that offers both low and high impact options.

What Is a Recumbent Bike?

Many feel that recumbent bikes are more comfortable than other equipment because of their reclined position. You get full back support while sitting back on a larger seat. The bike lets you relax the muscles in your upper body and focus on your lower body and cardiovascular system.

If you're a first-time rider or new to cardio in general, recumbent bikes are a great way to get started. For more experienced exercisers, varying your pedaling speed, upping the resistance or cycling backwards can make a recumbent bike more challenging.

The reclined position on a recumbent bike offers riders the ability to read or watch television while exercising, which can encourage you to stay on the bike for longer without getting bored (one of the challenges with stationary cardio equipment). It's important to exercise for enough time in order to get the full benefits. However, don't let these distractions diminish the intensity of your workout.

Recumbent vs. Upright

Stationary bikes come in an upright (traditional) position or recumbent (laid back) position. Both types of bikes put less impact on your joints than most other cardio equipment, like treadmills. Whether you choose an upright or a recumbent bike depends on your comfort level. Here are a few differences to consider.

Recumbent Bikes

  • Reclined body position

  • Pedals positioned in front of the body

  • Larger seat

  • Full back support

  • Comfortable sitting position

  • Reduced upper body tension and muscle fatigue

  • Focused lower body and cardiovascular exercise

  • Low and high impact cardio options

Traditional Upright

  • Upright body position like a traditional bike you ride outdoors

  • Pedals positioned under the body

  • Smaller seat

  • Limited upper body support

  • Upright seated position may cause upper body fatigue/tension

  • More consistent workout similar to outdoor riding

  • Whole body and cardiovascular exercise

  • Low and high impact cardio options

Workout Effectiveness

Recumbent bikes may seem like easy cardio, but looks can be deceiving. According to the following small research studies, recumbent bikes can provide a serious workout.

A small study indicated that healthy older women improved their muscle strength, power, and functional abilities after using the bike for eight weeks. High and low impact programs were shown to improve strength and power in a way similar to resistance training.

Other research compared the energy use and muscular output of upright versus recumbent bikes. Participants included 10 non-cyclist males. No differences were identified in muscle workload regardless of whether the participants were riding on an upright or recumbent bike. However, pedaling a recumbent bike produced greater activity in two of the four muscles being studied (the semitendinosus and tibialis anterior).

The recumbent bike appears to provide a workout that is just as effective as the traditional upright. Alternating the use of a recumbent and upright bike during rehabilitation and exercise programs can offer a range of fitness benefits.

Recumbent Riding Benefits

The recumbent bike is a useful piece of stationary equipment to improve cardiovascular fitness, promote muscular strength, and restore your range of motion.

Benefits associated with riding a recumbent bike include:

  • Full back support during a low or high impact workout
  • Less stress on joints
  • Reclined body position is easier on the low back (lumbar spine) and great for individuals with low back injuries
  • Larger seat is comfortable and reduces post-workout “saddle soreness” typical of smaller bike seats
  • Varying levels of resistance and speed allow for a custom workout
  • Incline settings simulate riding up and down hills
  • Provides an excellent indoor workout without concern of inclement weather
  • A safe and effective way to exercise or rehab after an injury

Working Various Muscle Groups

Recumbent bikes strengthen your heart and lower body muscles. Pedaling fast gets your heart pumping while ramping up the resistance makes your leg muscles burn.

A slow and controlled push with progressive resistance promotes leg strength and endurance. Alternating between high and low speeds at timed intervals increases blood flow to working muscles, providing intense cardio exercise.

Even though recumbent bikes are marketed as aerobic equipment, several muscle groups are being used during a workout:

  • Heart: Consistent aerobic exercise strengthens your heart, improves lung capacity, decreases resting heart rate, and reduces high blood pressure over time. It also can be a great way to relieve stress and boost your mood.
  • Rectus femoris: One of the quadriceps muscles, this is the only muscle responsible for flexing the hip. It also extends and raises the knee and flexes your thigh.
  • Vastus medialis: This is a quadriceps muscle located in the front of your thigh. It helps stabilize your patella (kneecap) and extends the leg at the knee.
  • Vastus lateralis: Located on the side of your upper thigh, this muscle extends the lower leg and helps you stand up straight from a squatting position.
  • Semitendinosus: This hamstring muscle is located at the back of your thigh. It helps flex the knee and extend the hip.
  • Tibialis anterior: This muscle runs along the front of your shin and helps flex your foot toward your shin (a motion called dorsiflexion).
  • Medial gastrocnemius: This is one of the calf muscles that helps plantarflex the foot (as when standing on your tiptoes). It also flexes the leg at the knee joint.
  • Biceps femoris: This two-part muscle is located at the back of your thigh as part of your hamstrings. It is a complex muscle that performs knee flexion, hip extension, and internal and external rotation.  
  • Gluteus maximus: The largest muscle in the buttocks, the gluteus maximus is said to be one of the strongest muscles in the body. It allows for movement of the hip and thigh.

A Word From Verywell

Recumbent bikes offer extra support for an effective cardiovascular and lower body resistance workout and provide a safe and versatile way to challenge individuals at every fitness level. Because recumbent bikes help alleviate back discomfort, they also bring the benefits of exercise to a wider audience.

Regardless of which cardio equipment you use, your workout is only as effective as the effort you're willing to put into the session. Bring your best to every workout to maximize the physical, mental, and emotional rewards of physical activity.

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