Get the Most Out of a Stationary Bike Workout

Man on a spin bike

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Stationary biking has been an exercise staple for decades—and for good reason. Stationary biking 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
  • Spin bikes
  • Street bikes attached to an apparatus that keeps the back wheel locked for indoor use
  • Recumbent bikes

How to Set up Your Bike for a Great Workout

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. 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.

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. 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.

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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