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Please Explain All the Different Types of Exercise Bikes to Me

By my count, there are at least 500, and I have no idea which one I should pedal upon

Back when I worked at Bally Total Fitness, our cardio training area was absolutely teeming with exercise bikes of all varieties. Quite frankly, it was a little confusing for me to distinguish one from another as far as their unique benefits were concerned, so I threw my arms up in the air, and stalked off to either the treadmill or the elliptical. That’s how simplistically my brain functioned at the time; I could easily distinguish between the different categories of equipment, but I had difficulty differentiating between varieties within each equipment class.

Now that I’m far more knowledgeable about broad concepts like fitness, force, muscle size, gravity and weight bearing, identifying the strengths, weaknesses and overall effectiveness levels of the different types of fitness bikes is substantially easier for me. So if I’m ever motivated to cue up Slaying the Badger on the ESPN+ app and pretend I’m conquering the Tour de France, I know exactly which bike to use to give my workout some semblance of realism.

Wait just a second: What are the different types of bikes I’m likely to encounter in the gym?

If there’s a bike that I’d refer to as standard, it’s the upright bike. If you take a seat on this thing and expect it to have a similar feel to the mainstream bike you pedal off to work upon because you’re trying to help the environment and cut down on your gas bill, you can forget it. The handles on these things are elevated, the seat is lowered relative to where they’d be on a functioning outdoor bike and the horizontal distance between the seat and the handles is also reduced relative to an outdoor model’s spacing. 

The design of the upright bike appears to have been based on the assumption that riders would never desire to elevate themselves out of the seat if it wasn’t required, nor would they ever intend to replicate the positioning required to ride an outdoor bike. After all, you may have to ride slightly hunched over if you actually want to go somewhere, but why would you endure that suboptimal back positioning during an hour-long fat-burning session if you didn’t have to? (More on that below.)

The relaxed body position that recumbent bikes place you in is fundamentally the same as the position you’d assume if you were riding in a paddleboat. It also provides additional comfort in comparison to the upright bike through the back support it offers. If this bike were replicated in a real environment — and there have been some relatively recent designs that have done precisely this — you’d be able to see its real-world shortcomings. Since the bulk of the propulsive force is applied at a forward angle, the process is counterintuitive, as the pressing motion that spurs the bike onward is applied in direct opposition to the desired direction of travel. Consider how odd it would be for a plane to move in the same direction as its exhaust. Obviously, there are different mechanics at work, but it’s one of those things that the mind tends to notice subconsciously. 

The two versions of dual-action bikes I became used to seeing included the air bike with the built-in fan that’s propelled by a set of handles, and also the dual-motion recumbent bikes, which provide riders with a small, rotating handle that enables them to occupy the arms with the spinning of the top handle while they perform the standard, simultaneous act of spinning the bottom pedals with their feet.

Finally, we get to the studio bike. This is the bike that you’re most likely to encounter if you opt to take a spin class, and it’s also the bike variety that most closely resembles and replicates the look, feel and physics of an everyday bicycle. The seat is elevated, and the rider is coaxed to lean forward to grasp the handles. To top it off, this is the bike that makes it most easy to elevate yourself completely off the seat, which is something that would be essential during most climbs up hills in outdoor environs.

Wow. That’s a lot of bikes. Which one is the best?

“Best” is a difficult concept to apply universally, because different people want different things out of their bikes. However, I’m going to make a few presumptions before I provide you with a recommendation. First, I’m going to presume that your goal is optimal calorie burn, which is connected with either weight loss or weight maintenance. Second, I’m also going to assume that you wouldn’t mind maximizing the practical use of your muscles during your use of the bike. Third, I’m going to presuppose that you don’t have any physical limitations that would otherwise prevent you from sitting upright. Lastly, I’m going to trust that you can be counted among the majority of people who don’t necessarily have four hours every day to devote to biking, and that you need to squeeze your training into increments ranging from 15 minutes to one hour.

I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

If that’s the case, then the studio bike is your undisputed winner, and not just because I’m a sucker for functional movement patterns. 

The ability to lift yourself off the seat enables you to expend more energy and apply more muscle activity to the movement. That increased muscle exertion equates to more calories burned on a per minute basis. Moreover, there’s nothing about the arrangement of the studio bike that invites you to relax, whereas all of the other indoor bike approximations encourage you to take it easy. There’s a reason why spin classes are built around the most taxing and adaptable of all of the indoor bike variations

The one word of caution I’d offer is that the forward tilt associated with a spin-class-style studio bike has been known to cause lower back pain, so it’s wise to limit the amount of time you assume the position. After all, riding a spin bike is intended to leave you feeling like a world-class cyclist in the most secure environment possible. So if every spin-bike workout leaves you feeling like you just endured a world-class bike crash, it might be best to rethink your bike-selection strategy.