A stationary exercise bike is one of the best ways to get fit at home. In this article, we'll take you through everything you need to know to buy a great bike whatever your budget.
If you've ever used a poor-quality exercise bike before, you'll know it's not a pleasant experience. Cheap bikes often come with uncomfortable seats, a squeaky flywheel or just don't provide enough resistance. By following the tips in this guide, you'll know how to choose a good exercise bike from the hundreds on the market.
Why Buy an Exercise Bike?
Before we get to the guide , what makes an exercise bike such a popular option? The main reason is stationary bikes provide a cardio workout that produces results regardless of your current fitness. They are also relatively compact, especially in comparison to treadmills or cross trainers, and don't make as much noise.
Exercise bikes are also great for people with injuries - as long as they are used correctly. Biking is a low impact activity, so there's less potential for damage to the knees, hips and ankles. For this reason, indoor cycling is a great way to maintain cardio fitness when recovering from injuries.
Types of Exercise Bike
Exercise bikes come in several forms. The right type depends on your fitness goals, budget and the body position you prefer. The three most common types are:
- Indoor cycling
At their core, each performs the same function - but the feel and difficulty of the workout varies greatly.
Note: You can also buy pedal exercisers. These are great for circulation and burning a few extra calories, but don't have the stability or resistance for an intense workout.
Upright Exercise Bikes
Upright exercise bikes are by far the most common and popular type. Like a regular outdoor bike, the rider is seated in an upright and raised position. The body is usually tilted slightly forward, although the handlebars are higher than an indoor cycling bike (see below). This makes an upright more comfortable as the body isn't hunched. Most uprights also have a larger seat than a spin bike.
One of the big differences between an upright and indoor cycle is how the flywheel functions. On an upright, you can stop pedalling without your feet needing to move with the flywheel. This is more comfortable for many people, but it can sometimes feel like the flywheel is "ahead" of the pedalling when you're really going for it.
Most uprights also come with on-board computers. The features of these computers vary, often depending on the price of the bike, but can be used to control workout length, resistance and pre-set workout, while also viewing heart rate, cadence and calories.
Who should buy an upright bike? If you want a medium-intensity workout with reasonable comfort, then an upright can be a great choice. They aren't able to provide the same level of vigorous exercise as an indoor cycling (or spinning bike), but you can still use them for moderate intensity workouts.
- Upright bikes are better when training for outdoor riding than recumbent, as the body position is the same (or similar).
- They are usually more comfortable than an indoor training bike.
- They are great for beginners, yet also allow for a vigorous workout.
- Uprights aren't as good for serious athletic training - especially if you want to mimic the body position of a road bike.
- They can create a hunched posture which isn't good for back pain.
Recumbent Exercise Bikes
Recumbent exercise bikes have a completely different body position to the other two options. Instead of a standard seat, these bikes have a larger seat with a backrest. The pedals are in front of the rider, so the body position appears more relaxed.
The average spin-class enthusiast might look down on recumbent bikes - and it's true they aren't for everyone - but they have some advantages.The biggest is that recumbent exercise bikes reduce stress on the lower back, so they are great for people with back pain. As the legs are isolated from the core in the reclined position, recumbents can often build greater leg strength than an upright too.
Many people also find recumbent bikes more comfortable than an upright. There's something more enjoyable about working out in a reclined position, so if you struggle with motivation they could be a great choice. You can also buy folding recumbent bikes (Pro Fitness is an example of a company that makes one), but these are generally only suitable for very light workouts.
Who should buy a recumbent bike? Recumbent exercise bikes are great if you have lower back or upper body pain. They are also effective at building leg strength. If you like the idea of sitting back in a more comfortable chair, a recumbent can make it easier to get motivated to work out too.
- Recumbent bikes isolate the muscles of the legs, so they can build extra leg strength.
- The upper body is in a relaxed position which reduces strain on the lower back.
- They are usually the most comfortable type of exercise bike.
- Recumbents don't work the core like an upright or indoor cycling bike.
- They aren't as suitable for vigorous workouts as the other types.
Indoor Cycling Bikes
Indoor cycling bikes, also known as training cycles or spin bikes, are the type found in local spinning sessions. They often have an open flywheel that's weighted on its perimeter. This provides a more realistic feeling of momentum that isn't found on a traditional upright.
Another difference is that the indoor cycles have a lower handlebar. This forces the upper body int a lower position, such as you would see on an outdoor racing bike. A lower position is great for a more vigorous workout, but it can also put extra strain on the lower back - especially if you're not used to this position. Indoor cycles also tend to have dual-sided pedals, which allow riders to fix their feet to the bike to generate additional power.
The perimeter-weighted flywheel and body position of an indoor cycling bike provides a very different feel to an upright exercise bike. As the flywheel is directly attached to the pedals, they will continue spinning when you stop pushing. If you've never used a spin bike before, you might want to try one in a gym before you buy one to see if you like it.
Who should buy an indoor cycling bike? If you want an exercise bike to do most vigorous training, an indoor cycle is probably your best bet. They are also commonly used for training by athletes and cycling enthusiasts.
- Indoor cycling bikes are great for athletic training.
- The body position mimics riding an outdoor bike, so you train the same muscles.
- They are generally the best option for vigorous cardiovascular training.
- If you're not used to riding a road bike, indoor cycles can feel less comfortable.
- Spin bikes tend to be completely mechanical, so they don't come with advanced features found on uprights or recumbents.
Basic Terminology You Need to Know
- Resistance. The resistance of an exercise bike is usually provided by either magnets or friction. Magnetic bikes are less common, and change resistance by varying the distance between the magnet and wheel. Friction resistance bikes are the cheapest option, and can be adjusted using a mechanical knob.
- Flywheel. A flywheel is designed to make riding an indoor bike feel more like a "real" bike. A flywheel is a large wheel, usually found at the front of the bike. Basic exercise bikes have an enclosed flywheel, while spinning bikes usually have a perimeter-weighted wheel.
- Console. The console is the on-board computer of an exercise bike. It can be used to control various settings while displaying important statistics about your workout.
What is Your Budget for an Exercise Bike?
The price of an exercise bike varies greatly. For this reason, it's important to know your budget before you start looking.
Entry-level indoor cycles often cost between £150-£500, while the priciest bikes can range up to £900. If you're looking for a commercial-level spin bike, expect to pay between £700-£900.
Recumbent and upright exercise bikes have similar price ranges. The cheapest models worth considering start at around £150-£200, although you'll probably need to pay £400 for a decent quality bike. There are brands that offer bikes in the £200-£300 range that provide a solid workout though (such as Roger Black). Of course, there are premium commercial exercise bikes available for much more than this. Some of the most expensive can cost thousands of pounds and include a number of advanced features.
You don't always need to buy a new bike though. There are often refurbished models available for considerably less than brand-new, so you can buy a higher quality bike for less. Be careful if you go this route though - it's important to know what the bike was originally used for and how it's been refurbished. Ideally, all the components should be removed, checked and replaced if damaged.
Now you know your budget and the type of bike you want to buy, you're already half-way there. The next stage is to look for a bike that closely matches your requirements. Here are the most important things to look for.
- Flywheel weight. The weight of the flywheel determines how smooth the bike feels to ride. Lighter wheels are easier to get going, but are more likely to be bumpy. A wheel weighing 6-8kg is great for beginners - but lighter than this and the bike is likely to feel bumpy. For more advanced training 9-15kg is a good place to start, while experienced riders may want a heavier wheel.
- Type of resistance. We've mentioned resistance earlier, but it's one of the most important decisions when choosing a bike. Magnetic resistance bikes allow for dynamic pre-set programs, as the resistance can be adjusted by the on-board computer. Bikes with frictional resistance often need to be adjusted manually.
- Maximum weight. Cheap exercise bikes may only support riders with a weight of 80-100kg, while more expensive models often have a higher maximum weight.
- Adjustable handlebars and seat. Exercise bikes are great for low-impact workouts, but they can still cause repetitive strain on your joints if used incorrectly. Ideally, you should be able to adjust the height of the handlebars and seat to match your body height. On a side note, make sure you won't hit your knees on the handlebars if you're tall.
- On-board computer. Some bikes have advanced computers with pre-set programmes, a variety of statistics and a clear display. Others are much more basic - although this isn't always a bad thing.
- Other features. There are a range of extra features available for exercise bikes. These include bottle holders, heart-rate monitors, book rests and many more. Decide which are essential to you and which would just be a bonus.
- Warranty. As with any expensive item, it's important to look for products with a warranty of at least two years.
This article covers the most important considerations when choosing an exercise bike. We recommended starting by deciding on a budget and type of bike, before moving onto specific models that match your requirements.
The good news is that there really is an exercise bike out there for everyone. Whether you're a beginner or athlete, have a tight budget or want a premium model, there are some excellent bikes available.
If you have any questions about choosing an exercise bike, please use the comments form below. We'll be happy to help!