Exercise Bike Buying Guide
Exercise bikes aren’t old school anymore. The immense popularity of spinning classes has not only convinced many to buy their own spin bike to use at home, but given new life to the time-tested classic upright exercise bike and sparked new interest in recumbent bikes as well – creating increased demand for exercise bikes buying guides like this one.
Many of the benefits of exercising on stationary bikes are well-known. Bike riding provides a terrific low-impact cardio workout boosting cardiovascular health. It also helps users extend their range of motion and muscular flexibility which can lessen back pain, and has even been shown to lessen anxiety, stress and depression while often easing chronic pain, due to the release of endorphins.
But using an exercise bike is also a familiar way to exercise. Almost all of us grew up riding bicycles, and it can be comforting and comfortable to climb back on a bike – even if it looks a lot different than the old Schwinn – and start pedaling away. It may be a bit more fun to participate in a group spinning class, but you can replicate much of the experience at home while enjoying a flashback to your past and the newfangled add-ons common to most of today’s exercise bikes.
We’ll be taking a comprehensive look at the facts and features you need to know before buying a bike for your home gym (or basement), but any exercise bikes buying guide has to start by differentiating between the three types of bikes: upright, recumbent and spin. So – that’s where we’ll start.
Types of Exercise Bikes
You’ll get a great aerobic boost from regularly using any type of exercise bike. The other benefits of your stationary bike, though, will depend on the model you select. Here a look at each, and what you need to know about them.
Upright Exercise Bikes
If you’re old enough, you may have used one of these early in the 20th century; in fact, they’ve been around in various forms since Francis Lowndes invented the “gymnasticon” in 1796 as a way to “exercising the joints.” More recently, uprights experienced a surge in popularity in the mid-1900s and were a staple in most gyms and many homes for a number of decades, until they were overshadowed by spin bikes in the 1990s and 2000s. They still provide a good workout, but many riders prefer a spinner because you can’t stand on the pedals (as you would when climbing a hill or racing) on an upright. On the other hand, an upright bike is more suited to casual exercisers or those who want to just pedal as they read or watch TV from their padded seat.
Most of these upright exercise bikes operate by using electromagnets and a flywheel to create the resistance that the user pedals against. Less-expensive models sometimes use regular magnets, and older ones may rely on outdated air resistance created by fans. Whether the handlebars are in a “standard bicycle” position or tilted more like those of a racing bike, they will normally be joined with a console where you can see all important readouts, set and follow programs, and control the bike’s functions. You won’t get a full-body workout with an upright exercise bike, but you can enjoy an aerobic session in relative comfort.
Sometimes simply called “indoor bikes,” the spin bikes so common in studios and gyms today forced their way into the forefront of the exercise bike world more than 20 years ago, when Rolling Stone called spinning the “hot exercise” of 1993. A decade later, spin bikes for home use came onto the market and quickly became popular among those who had used or seen them while working out at their gym. Spinning is low-impact but high-intensity, and most closely resembles the “real” activity of riding a racing bike, from its physical benefits, to the feelings of euphoria caused by the endorphins released during strenuous exercise.
The mechanism of a spin bike may look similar to that of an upright, but the two actually work very differently to create resistance. In most cases, a spin bike’s flywheel isn’t regulated by electromagnets, but by a transmission driven by the pedals and actual brakes, much like the way a bicycle is powered. You don’t change gears as you would on a bicycle, but you turn a knob to adjust the resistance in much the same way. The handlebars are placed as they would be on a racing bike, and you ride the spin bike as you would the racing bicycle, leaning forward and often standing on the pedals. These machines are perfect for regular cyclists, of course, and give the rider an outstanding aerobic workout. But they have the added advantages of working the quads, hams, glutes and calves to build muscle strength and endurance while improving stability and bone density in the ankles, knees and hips. They’re also one of the best calorie-burning machines you can find. Spin bikes aren’t meant for a casual user; they’re for those who want a strenuous, effective workout.
Recumbent exercise bikes are the strange looking ones, on which the rider lies back and cycles from a reclining position. But recumbent bikes, like upright bikes, have a surprising history. They were born as racing bicycles in the early 20th century, and actually were used to set a number of world speed records before they were banned from racing in the 1930s. They were forgotten for decades, until tinkerers and racers rediscovered them in the 1970s. Meanwhile, stationary recumbent bikes were being developed to take advantage of the ergonomic advantages of reclining while pedaling; the rider’s weight is evenly distributed and supported, so stress on the lower back and joints is greatly reduced. Recumbents were first used for patients in rehab or with back trouble, and gradually became more popular.
Several different methods are used to create resistance for recumbent bikes: magnetic or electromagnetic control of the flywheel, direct-drive of the flywheel with a fabric or felt belt, or fans to create wind resistance (not commonly seen these days). Recumbent exercise bikes are great choices for those doing rehab or people with back, hip, neurological or other physical issues, but the medical benefits aren’t all that argue in favor of these bikes. They provide an aerobic workout much like upright bikes while working the glutes and building strength in the legs. And they are, by far, the most comfortable exercise bike to ride.
Choosing an Exercise Bike
The previous section of this exercise bikes buying guide should have given you an idea whether you would be happiest with an upright, recumbent or spin bike. There are other factors to consider, though, before clicking the “buy now” button or running out to your local sporting goods store. Here are the most important.
If you don’t have a lot of space for an exercise machine, you’re in luck. Most bikes don’t require as much room as larger machines like treadmills, ellipticals or rowing machines; recumbent bikes are the only ones which have a somewhat-large footprint (although many also have wheels so they can be moved out of the way if desired). Be sure to figure out where the bike will be going and how much room you’ll need, and don’t forget to leave extra space for mounting, dismounting, and moving your arms and legs outside the footprint of the bike. Then check the specs of the bikes you’re considering to be sure they’ll fit easily.
Exercise bikes come in an enormous range of prices, and unlike some types of fitness equipment you can often find well-built bikes in the vicinity of $300-500. They won’t come with the same level of bells and whistles and may not be as durable, but if your budget is limited you won’t be out of luck. You’ll also find that spinners are often less expensive than uprights or recumbent because they don’t have computerized consoles. The more you want in your bike, of course, the more you should expect to pay; the best exercise bikes can cost $1500-2000. In any event, it’s always best to have a target price range in mind before you start.
If you’re shopping at a store, you should test drive the bikes for comfort, one of the most important aspects of any exercise bike. The seat should be sturdy and large enough to accommodate you (and any other riders in the household) and padded enough to fit your needs. The bike’s height, handlebars and pedal straps should be adjustable, the pedals should work smoothly, and it shouldn’t be too noisy (electromagnetic bikes will be the quietest). If you’re buying online and can’t try out the bikes in person, check all of the specs to be sure that the key components are all adjustable, and carefully read reviews and feedback from verified buyers.
Resistance levels are another key consideration. The more selectable levels you have to choose from, the more you can vary your workouts – for example, lower levels for cardio and higher ones for strength training – and challenge yourself as you progress. This is also important so you can warm up and cool down by gradually increasing or lowering the resistance level.
Upright and recumbent bikes will usually have electronic control consoles (more about these shortly), and most consoles will allow you to run a number of pre-set workout programs. You may be happy to pedal happily along without them, but the added challenge of biking hills or doing intervals will help you build cardio endurance and leg strength – and the more preset programs you have, the more variety there will be in your workouts. Being able to build your own programs is a nice touch offered by some models.
Finally, give some consideration to the durability of the bikes you’re considering. Don’t expect a $400 exercise bike to last forever or be built from the finest materials, but they should feel sturdy (if you have the opportunity to inspect them in person) and should be covered by a strong warranty. Manufacturers of high-quality bikes will cover the frame for ten years or life, and parts and labor for three years or more. If you’re in the discount aisle, beware of units with limited warranties for periods like 90 days; that’s barely enough time to get comfortable with the machine.
Exercise Bike Features
The higher you go in price, the more “extra features” you’ll find available for exercise bikes. Small items like water bottle holders, magazine racks and personal fans (to keep you cool while working out) are common even on starter bikes, but you’ll find add-ons like iPod speakers and WiFi connectivity (so you can import programs from apps or download details of your workout) available on more expensive machines. However, the two most important features to consider are the console and a heart monitor.
We’ve already discussed the fact that you won’t find consoles on spin bikes, and that most upright and recumbent bikes come with them already included – but not all consoles are created equal. You should look for ones which are easy to read and will display (at the very least) elapsed time, speed, distance and calories burned, as well as details on the program or course you may be following. A back-lit display is helpful if you’ll be biking at night or in low light.
Unless you’re purchasing a budget model, your bike will probably have the ability to support a heart rate monitor. They are often built into the handlebars with the digital readout showing on the console, but WiFi monitors which can strap to your chest will be more accurate and more useful even if you have to pay a bit extra for them. Some upper-level bikes will have built-in programs which change your workout depending on your heart rate.
Finally, if you’re wondering just “how much extra” can be built into an exercise bike, we present the Peloton carbon-steel upright bike with rare-earth magnetic resistance, which comes complete with a 21-inch LCD HD screen, full Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity and a 1.3 megapixel camera. This baby lets you can take live video classes, engage in live video chat with your classmates and post video of your workout directly to Facebook as soon as you’re finished. All that for only $2000 – plus a monthly subscription fee of $39, of course.
Chances are that you’ll be looking for a model that’s a bit less pricey. With the information in this exercise bikes buying guide, you should have all you need to get started. Feel free to check out our Review of the The 5 Best Exercise and Spin Bikes.