Cycling is a super effective cardio workout: It gets your heart rate up quickly during sprints and gives your legs and glutes an intense burn when you go heavy on resistance.
And most classes have awesome instructors with upbeat playlists keep you energized and motivated. Meaning you'll be more likely to stick with your workouts. Plus, cycling may also help improve blood pressure and heart health, as well as aid in weight loss and weight management, per an August 2019 study in the journal Medicina (Kaunas).
However, you might be unknowingly making your cycling workout less effective. Luckily, most of these common mistakes are pretty easy to correct, as long as you pay attention to your ride and focus on creating better habits. Here are a couple of mistakes to watch out for, as well as what to do instead.
1. Gripping the Handlebars Too Tightly
Holding onto the handlebars for dear life "puts unnecessary tension in your forearms, neck, shoulders and upper traps, which can lead to both discomfort during and after your ride, along with injury if prolonged," says Erin Schirack, cycling instructor and co-owner of CHI-SOCIETY.
Your hands should be gently placed on the sides of the handlebars with your thumbs up so you have a more natural arm position. This offers support for the upper body and encourages you to open up your chest and better engage the lats and upper-body muscles.
If you're seated, lift your shoulders to your ears, then roll them back down. Relax your arms, shoulders and grip. You may also want to check your seat's forward/backward positioning.
"If you're out of the saddle, slide your hips back over the seat and engage the core," says Kelly Amshoff, a cycling and fitness instructor with CHI-SOCIETY.
2. Not Having the Right Amount of Resistance
When it comes to resistance, you want to find a sweet spot where it's challenging but not impossible.
"Too little resistance does not offer enough support and can lead to injury," Schirack says. This might occur during a recovery or sprint, but you should always feel the road beneath you.
On the flip side, too much resistance can impact your upper-body form when in the saddle, as you may start to lift your shoulders up to your ears, which can lead to tension in your neck and traps, as you grip tightly onto the handle bars.
You might feel the urge to drive your hips forward and sway heavily when on an indoor bike, Schirack says. You're then using too much body weight when pushing against the resistance, which can lead to pain and injury in your knees and back.
Plus, "fighting a lot of resistance during a long period of time can lead to a very quick burnout of energy, not leaving much in the tank for you to complete the rest of your ride and to shorten your endurance," Schirack says.
You want the right amount of resistance at the right time to maximize your ride and your results. That means listening to your instructor's guidance to determine which way to turn to the knob. "And listen to your body! If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it," Schirack says.
"If you find that you are bouncing in the seat or even the tiniest bit out of control, save your knees and add some [resistance]," Amshoff says. And here's a good rule of thumb from Amshoff: Keep your RPM between 55 and 110 or 115.
3. Not Engaging Your Hamstrings
There should be an equal push and pull on the pedals. If there isn't, you need to adjust. "A lot of people focus so much on the push down that they forget the importance of the pull up," Schirack says.
Pulling is not only important for strengthening your hamstrings but your core and supporting muscles, which include the quads, glutes, shins and calves. "This motion utilizes some of the smaller muscles in your hamstrings and calves which in turn allows for more power from your pedal stroke from a more uniform motion," Schirack says.
Focusing on just push down can also lead to excess mobility in the pelvis and lower back, which can lead to injury, Schirack says. By pulling and pushing, the hamstrings and glutes work together for a more powerful ride.
Work on pulling up. "We want to encourage full pedal strokes with focus on all directions, so you get the maximum benefit and a safe ride," Schirack says.
Here's a visual. "Think that you are scraping bubble gum off your shoe when bringing your foot back up through the rotation," Amshoff says.
4. Not Setting Up Your Bike Properly
If your bike height and handlebar setup is incorrect, it's not just uncomfortable, it puts you at risk for all kinds of injuries. "Sore knees, tight neck, pain in the lower back, shoulder discomfort: the list goes on," Schirack says.
Arrive early to class, or if you're taking a class on your own time at home, make sure your bike is ready to go before beginning your workout.
"Take the time, ask for help, but make sure you are riding at the best set up for your body, so you get the most comfortable and beneficial ride possible," Schirack says.
When adjusting seat height, stand next to your bike and lift your inside knee up to hip height. Then match your bike seat to the crease in your thigh.
"A lot of people feel this is too heigh, but there should only be a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of your stroke or you will keep continuous stress and tension on the knee joint," Amshoff says.
As for the handlebars, you can go by comfort. "If you are an outdoor cyclist, you tend to position the handlebars low, and if you are pregnant or in rehab, I would lift the bars higher than normal," Amshoff says. Also position your seat a forearm's distance away from your handlebars to keep your posture upright.
5. Leaning Too Far Forward or Back
If you're leaning forward on the bike, you're hurting your upper body. "You've positioned yourself to be putting more weight on the handlebars than the seat," Schirack says.
Leaning too far back creates the same issue, only now you're pulling your shoulders out of alignment. And either way, you decrease the activation of your ab muscles, so you won't be able to work your core as effectively.
Keep yourself centered over the bike as you ride. "This helps maintain equal weight in your center body (core), so you can maintain stability and work equally throughout," Schirack says.
You should always be able to look down and see your feet. And your arms should be long and extended when out of the saddle.
6. Rocking Side-to-Side
A side-to-side "bounce" out of the saddle is common, especially around 65 RPM. This isn't much so a problem with form or injury risk, but if you're too distracted in the "rocking" motion or dancing to the groove, you may not be focusing your attention on performing to the max.
"Maintain core engagement and make sure your instructor isn't dancing you out of those clips," Amshoff says. Keep your hips back and over the seat and always be in control of your position on the bike and movement along the ride.