Looking for an effective aerobic workout that's easier on the joints than running — and more comfortable than an upright bike? The recumbent bike, where you're sitting in a reclined position, might be for you, and has lots of benefits for fitness and health.
The recumbent bike is great for those looking to get an effective aerobic workout while limiting the strain placed on joints.
Cycling, in general, offers several advantages to health, according to Harvard Health Publishing:
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- Cycling provides an aerobic workout that is beneficial to your brain, heart and blood vessels.
- Cycling helps to build muscle by utilizing the muscles of your glutes, thighs, calves, hamstrings and hip flexors.
- Cycling helps to build bone due to the pull on the muscles, which in turn pulls on the bone, increasing bone density.
- Cycling helps you become more functional by improving balance and endurance.
Recumbent bikes allow riders to sit reclined as if in a lounge chair while pedaling with their feet forward. This position enables less forward lean and reduces pressure on the backside. This may help some individuals, such as those with balance challenges or who are in larger bodies, to feel more comfortable while cycling. Recumbent bikes can be used either stationary or outdoors.
Whether you're an older adult or simply looking to change up your cardio routine, recumbent bikes have many benefits.
8 Benefits of Recumbent Bikes
Johnson explains that low-impact cardio is a "great, low-risk way to improve health." Recumbent bikes are considered low-impact cardio because they do not require much force or impact to be enacted on the joints or body — it's a non-weight-bearing exercise, so your body doesn't take the force from gravity.
"Low-impact cardio such as recumbent bikes can help build cardiovascular health while keeping the risk for injury low," Johnson says. "Low-impact cardio is also good to mix into your training program to give your body a break from higher-impact exercises such as running."
2. Help Build Strength
Recumbent bikes elicit similar muscle activity in the trunk and hip muscles as compared to an upright bike, according to an April 2016 article published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
Using a recumbent bike has been shown to help improve muscle strength among those who have had a stroke. A small November 2015 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science concluded that regular use of a stationary bike helped to rebuild strength and balance in stroke survivors, with the stroke survivors improving their balance during walking after following a stationary cycling program.
A March 2015 scientific review in the Acta Physiologica Hungarica concluded that muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) was found in both young and older adults who used cycling as regular exercise, with the older adults benefiting most.
3. Good Cardio Workout
Even though recumbent bikes require sitting down, you still get cardio benefits from riding a recumbent bike, and you can adjust whether you want your workout to be low-intensity or high-intensity.
"A person in good health could do some form of cardio every day of the week if they wanted to, but I would break it up," Johnson says. "For example, two days a week might be a higher-intensity ride, two days might be a medium-intensity, and three days would be an easy spin."
Johnson explains that "most people don't need to perform cardio for more than half an hour to get health benefits." On higher-intensity day, he has his clients do interval-style workouts on the recumbent bike, which might look like:
- Warmup: 5 to 10 minutes of easy spinning
- 8 times through: A high-intensity sprint on the bike for 30 seconds followed by easy spin for two minutes.
- Cooldown: 5 to 10 minutes of easy spinning
4. Simple to Use
Recumbent bikes are simple to use and get started on.
"Recumbent bikes are a very easy machine for people to start using," Johnson says. "They do not require much knowledge: just hop on and pedal. Plus, most recumbent bikes have [simple] consoles where you control resistance and other factors, too."
Traditional upright spin bikes can have many features to adjust such as the handlebar height, seat height, seat fore and aft and more. On a recumbent bike, users usually only need to use one knob to move the seat fore and aft to their comfort.
Recumbent bikes also require less balance, removing one of the most intimidating aspects of a traditional upright bike: falling off, which can be painful or even injure the rider.
With a recumbent bike, you're fully seated with little risk of falling off. Many recumbent bikes even have hand grips next to the seat for added balance options.
5. Low Injury Risk
Recumbent bikes are also easy to get on — getting into one is like sliding into a chair. That combined with no real need for balance means they typically have a low risk of injury.
"For most people with preexisting joint issues, recumbent bikes are an easy way to get the body moving without the risk of injury or falling," Johnson says.
When the recumbent bike seat is adjusted properly, users should not experience pain or discomfort. Your leg position should have a slight bend in both your knees when seated, with your back resting against the seat and feet firmly on the pedals. In this position the quads, calves and hamstrings are poised to do most of the work while pedaling (as they should). The back, arm and neck are relaxed in this position as well.
Studies on recumbent cycling are limited, but one small clinical trial published in Biomedical Sciences Instrumentation in 2004 showed that people who rode a recumbent bike placed less strain on their ACL, a crucial ligament that connects the femur to the tibia, than upright cycling.
Avoid having a deep bend in your knees or fully straightened legs; either of these can lead to pain or injury. One often-cited June 2011 review from Sports Medicine found that knee pain is present in half of cyclists and may be due to seat height — be sure to take time to adjust your recumbent bike correctly!
6. Easy on the Upper Body
Due to the sitting nature of recumbent bikes, you don't have to use your arms, core, back or neck to stabilize your body on the bike.
A recumbent bike is a great way to exercise with back support. For those who may be recovering from an upper body injury or who have chronic pain in their back or neck, a recumbent bike will be a welcome change from an upright bike, and you will still get a cardio workout.
7. Good for People with Larger Bodies
Recumbent bikes can be a great workout option for people with larger bodies. Upright spin bikes require a person to be seated on a relatively tiny bike seat for usually 30 minutes or more at a time. If you are someone with a larger body, this can become painful for the sit bones, the low back and the glute muscles.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends bicycling, particularly recumbent cycling, as an excellent option for those who have obesity or overweight. With recumbent bikes, your body is reclined and the seat is wider, which may be more comfortable.
On a recumbent bike, people in larger bodies are able to do a solid cardio workout without straining their bodies unnecessarily. Regardless of the size of your body, you should ensure that the recumbent bike is fitted to your proportions properly to avoid injury or pain.
Make sure to always check the maximum weight that any piece of equipment can support to be confident that it is safe. Many recumbent bikes have a weight limit of about 300 pounds, although some may reach into the 400-plus pounds range.
8. Good for Active Recovery
Due to its low-impact nature, a benefit of a recumbent bike is that it can be used for active recovery from higher-impact exercise.
Active recovery is where you move your body to help recover from a tough workout instead of engaging in total rest. For example, a runner may want to substitute a recumbent bike session a couple times a week instead of more runs to help reduce the load on their joints while still helping blood flow to their muscles.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, you want your active recovery sessions to be low-intensity and keep your heart rate at 30 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. A recumbent bike is an ideal option for this.
Recumbent Bikes vs. Upright Bikes
As mentioned, recumbent bikes aren't complicated to set up. The user generally only needs to adjust their recumbent bike seat using a single knob under the seat. An upright bike, however, requires the user to change many different settings on the bike in order for it to fit their anatomy: Handlebar height, handlebar fore and aft, seat post, and seat fore and aft all have to be adjusted.
Getting seated on a recumbent bike is also easier than with an upright bike, which requires better mobility and balance.
Upper Body Engagement
Recumbent bikes do not require use of the upper body in order to get in a workout, thanks to their sitting nature. You may opt to hold onto the arm/hand rests on the sides of the seat, but it is not required to stay balanced.
An upright bike requires holding the handlebars in order to stay balanced and get maximum torque from your legs.
"A recumbent bike is easier to balance on, so there is little stress on the back, core or arms," Johnson says. "An upright bike requires more balance and some core and back muscle recruitment to stay upright."
Although recumbent and upright bikes work similar muscles, the two have slight differences in the specific muscles the body recruits to power each bike.
A recumbent bike user primarily uses the quads, hamstrings and calves to produce a pedal stroke, which is a forward and slightly downward motion on a recumbent bike. The glute muscles may be used, too, but some users may find it difficult to engage the glute muscles because they are sitting on them.
An upright bike user should also use their quads, hamstrings and calves to produce a downward pedal stroke. Thanks to the nearly straight-down pedal stroke and the upright position of the user's body, it's likely an upright bike user will recruit more of their glutes and core with each pedal stroke.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Top 5 Benefits of Cycling"
- University of Florida: "Types of Bicycles"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Staying Active at Any Size"
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: "Comparison of Trunk and Lower Extremity Muscle Activity Among Four Stationary Equipment Devices: Upright Bike, Recumbent Bike, Treadmill, and Elliptigo"
- Transport Reviews: "Cycling as a Part of Daily Life: A Review of Health Perspectives"
- ARORA Life Time
- Lance Johnson
- Effects of stationary cycling exercise on the balance and gait abilities of chronic stroke patients
- Cycle training induces muscle hypertrophy and strength gain: strategies and mechanisms
- An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis