Get the Most Out of a Stationary Bicycle Exercise

Man on a spin bike

Gary Burchel / Getty Images

Stationary biking has been an exercise staple for decades—and for good reason. Bicycle exercise offers one of the best ways to get exercise indoors, providing a low-impact, high-intensity cardiovascular workout while building both strength and endurance. Here's what to know to get the most out of your ride.

Types of Stationary Bikes

There are several different types of stationary bikes, including:

  • Traditional upright commercial bikes: Upright bikes have a higher-set upright handlebar and a wider padded seat. Because of their more vertical frame, you will remain seated while cycling on this bike. These upright bikes typically feature an LCD display and a magnetic resistance system.
  • Spin bikes: Spin bikes have a lower-set handlebars, which means you'll be leaning forward more — and occasionally standing into third position — while on the bike. The spin bike operates using a flywheel and friction resistance, which adjusts to higher or lower difficulty.
  • Street bikes attached to an apparatus that keeps the back wheel locked for indoor use: If you have a street bike, you can use a trainer or a roller bike stand, which will keep your front wheel steady while elevating the back wheel, allowing you to use your outdoor bike as a stationary bike.
  • Recumbent bikes: Recumbent bikes, meanwhile, allow for the rider to sit in a reclined position. The seat is positioned lower than an upright bike and has a wider cushion for a more comfortable ride.

How to Set up Your Bike

Your riding position can determine not only your pedaling efficiency but also your comfort. Most stationary bikes allow for adjustments in handlebar and saddle height, and some allow you to move the seat forward or backward or change the seat's angle.

Setting up your bike in the correct and proper position is not only important to ensure comfort, but it helps avoid injury and ensures a safe workout.

The more specific you make these adjustments, the more comfortable you will be, so it’s wise to spend the time getting just the right set-up for you.

Adjusting the Saddle Angle

Your bike seat angle should be level to support your full body weight and allow you to move around on the seat when necessary. Too much upward tilt can result in pressure points. Too much downward tilt can make you slide forward while riding and put extra pressure on your arms, hands, and knees, which can lead to injury.

Adjusting the Seat Height

To adjust the seat height so it's right for you, wear your biking shoes and place the balls of your feet on the pedals. When your front leg is fully extended, there should be a slight bend in your knees—about 5 to 10 degrees.

You should be able to pedal comfortably without pointing your toes to reach full extension. If your hips rock side-to-side, the seat is too high.

The same positioning guidelines are used for the recumbent bicycle.

Adjusting the Seat Fore/Aft Position

You can also adjust the seat forward and backward (the fore/aft position). With your feet on the pedals, your forward knee (more specifically the patellar tendon) should be directly over the pedal axle.

Adjusting the Handlebars

If the handlebars are too high, too low, too close, or too far away, you may have neck, shoulder, back, and hand pain. A proper reach allows you to comfortably use all the positions on the handlebars and to comfortably bend your elbows while riding. A general rule of thumb is that the handlebars should obscure the front wheel axle; however, this is not a hard and fast rule.

Raising the handlebars higher reduces neck and lower back stress.

There are other, more advanced adjustments you can make, such as changing the handlebar width or height.

Adjusting the Pedal Clips or Straps

Most stationary bikes have straps that hold your feet in place on the pedals. Spin bikes have clip-in pedals that allow cyclists to use their cycling shoes and cleats to "clip" right in the pedals for a secure fit.

Having your feet strapped into the pedals allows you to push down and pull up on the pedals in a circular motion which creates a smooth and efficient pedal stroke. There should be a little space between the top of the strap and your shoe.

Adjusting the Resistance

Once you're set-up, you can manually control your workout intensity, resistance, and speed, or you can try one of several programs that some bikes offer. Adding resistance simulates hills and inclines, and engages your hamstrings and glutes more than riding with light resistance. Pedal with very little ankle movement, and remember to both push and pull up on the pedals for a better ride.

Correct Posture for Your Stationary Bike Workout

To get the best workout on your stationary bike — and to avoid injury — it's important to follow proper form. Follow these steps to help you get the most out of your workout when using a bike.

  • Place your butt on the widest part of the saddle: Sitting in the saddle, slightly hinge forward at the hips while engaging your abdominal muscles as you reach for the handlebars. Your knees should be in line with your hips and your feet.
  • Align your upper body properly: Keep your spine straight (no slumping), and keep your shoulders down and neutral. With a slight bend in your elbows, reach toward the handlebars.
  • Keep your weight on the pedals: Stabilize your weight in your hips so that your knees stay over the center of the pedals. Don't lean on the handlebars while riding; off-loading your weight this way cheats you of some of the benefits you’d get from maintaining an upright posture and it places excessive stress on the wrists and forearms.
  • Keep your feet flat: Do not point your toes down as your pedal. Instead, press through each pedal stroke with a flat foot, driving from the ball of your foot, to reduce pressure on your knees and strain on your quads. Similarly, pull up from your knees and toes on the upstroke.
  • Hold your head up: If you let your head flop or fall forward as you ride, you’ll set yourself up for neck strain—and partially impair the flow of blood and oxygen to your head, which can cause lightheadedness or dizziness. Keep your head aligned with your neck and spine.

Benefits of Working Out on a Stationary Bike

There are many benefits to adding a stationary bike to your home gym and incorporating it into your workout routine. Some reasons working out on a stationary bike can be a beneficial exercise include:

  • Increases cardio exercise: Cardio exercises (or aerobic exercises) are exercises which raise your heart rate. The American Heart Association recommends adults do at least 150 minutes (or 2.5 hours) of exercise per week. Incorporating a stationary bike ride into your weekly routine can be a great way to meet that goal.
  • Aids with weight loss: Previous studies examined the effects of an indoor cycling protocol (or routine), and found that a regular cycling program helps in decreasing body weight and burning body fat, even without any additional dietary changes.
  • Helps with knee injuries: If you're recovering from a previous knee strain or injury, the stationary bike can be a helpful rehabilitation tool. Because the bike deploys stress between the quadricep muscles, calves, core, glutes, and the knees, it allows for more even distribution to other parts of the lower body. To ensure your knee stays injury-free, be fitted for the proper seat height.
  • Is a good low-impact workout: Avoid additional stress on the joints by trying a cycling workout. Biking and indoor cycling are low-impact exercises and are therefore beneficial for recovery training days, or if you're healing from an injury.
  • Helps to build muscle: A indoor cycling workout will engage your full body and multiple muscle groups. Expect your core, glutes, quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, and even your upper body to feel the effects. A consistent indoor cycling routine can help strengthen these muscles over time.
  • Is safer than road cycling: Avoid the roadway, cars, pedestrians, or other cyclists when you're on an indoor stationary bike. You can also steer clear from any roadway dangers such as potholes or rough roads.
  • Usable regardless of the weather: Whether you're encountering chilling winter temperatures or the summer heat, you can avoid all weather inconsistencies with an indoor cycling workout. By taking your workout indoors, you're able to avoid any temperature troubles, rain, snow, or even wind.

Preventing Injuries

There are certain things to keep in mind when planning your exercise session to avoid injury, have fun, and get the best workout you can. Also remember to always follow correct positioning, go at your own pace, and take breaks when needed. Here are the most common body parts that can be strained by biking, and what you can do to avoid injuring them:

Knees

Common causes of knee pain include:

  • A seat that is too high, which can result in pain in the back of the knee
  • A seat that is too low or too far forward, which may cause pain in the front of the knee.
  • Improper foot position on the pedal (or improper cleat alignment), which can cause pain on the inside or outside of your knees
  • Using too high a gear. Try to use a gear that allows you to pedal quickly, from 70 to 100 strokes per minute.

Individual anatomy may also result in knee pain. Cyclists with slight differences in leg length may have knee pain because the seat height is only adjusted for one side. Shoe inserts or orthotics can help correct this problem.

Neck

Neck pain is another common cycling complaint and is usually the result of riding a bike that is too long or having handlebars that are too low. Tight hamstring and hip flexor muscles can also cause neck pain by forcing your spine to round or arch, and your neck to hyperextend.

Feet

Foot pain or numbness is often the result of wearing soft-soled shoes. Special shoes designed for cycling have stiff soles that distribute pressure evenly over the pedal. This also helps you pedal more efficiently. Foot pain can also be caused by using too high a gear, which results in more pressure where the foot meets the pedal.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the Correct Positioning of a Stationary Bike?

The correct positioning of a stationary bike will depend on the type of indoor bike you're riding. Always follow the bike manufacturer's instruction on proper bike setup.

When it comes to posture, you want to make sure you're locking into and sitting on your bike properly. Once you clip in and sit on the saddle, hinge your hips forward, engage your core, and keep your back straight. Allow for a slight bend in your elbows while holding the handlebars. Keep your feet level and push down and pull up as you're cycling.

How High Should the Handlebars Be on My Stationary Bike? 

Position your handlebars at a height that feels comfortable to you and allows you to cycle without straining, overreaching, or placing too much weight on your wrists. You'll know you've found the perfect handlebar height when you're able to ride with a slight bend in your elbows and with no discomfort in your lower back.

Can You Lose Belly Fat by Working Out on a Stationary Bike?

A stationary bike can be a beneficial exercise for losing fat and burning calories. An earlier study examined the effects of a 12-week indoor cycling protocol on the body composition of 14 women and found that at the completion of 36 cycling sessions, the subjects had a 5% decrease in fat mass. Adding in intervals, speed training, and tabata-style workouts into a cycling session can further help in calorie burn per session.

Is Working Out on a Stationary Bike a Good Exercise? 

Working out on a stationary bike can be a good form of exercise with many health benefits. It increases your cardio exercise, helps burn fat, and builds muscle. Because it is a low-impact workout, it is also beneficial for injury recovery and rehabilitation.

How Much Time Is Enough to Work Out on a Stationary Bike? 

According to the American Heart Association, adults should perform 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week. To meet that recommended target, a five-day, 30-minute-per-day cycling workout will help you achieve that 150 weekly goal. However, if you are just beginning your indoor cycling journey, it's important to start slow and work your way up to a higher intensity and longer rides. Always make sure you are following proper form and resting or taking breaks when necessary to avoid overexertion.

How Can You Improve Your Spin Technique? 

The best way to improve your spin technique is by improving your form. Start by sitting properly in the saddle, hinging at your hips and reaching for the handlebars. Keeping your spine straight and your shoulders down, begin to pedal by keeping your feet level as you push down and pull up. Make sure you're holding your head up and not slumping. These steps will all help you improve your performance on the bike.

A Word From Verywell

It's a good idea to warm up before beginning your bike workout. A proper warm-up can increase blood flow to the muscles, which results in decreased muscle stiffness, less risk of injury, and improved performance. Additional benefits of warming up include physiological and psychological preparation for exercise.

Understanding how to design a safe and effective cycling workout is important whether you are going to exercise on your own or join an exercise class. Components such as frequency, intensity, and length of an exercise session will set the foundation for your training. You might want to consider meeting with a trainer, who can design a personal exercise program just for you.

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Article Sources
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