Training on an exercise bike is one the most popular ways to work out either at home or in the gym. It’s a simple exercise to understand, and most people have been riding a bike since they were a child. However not everyone knows how to get the most from training this way. This guide will explain the different types of exercise bike and what they are designed for. Then cover a number of different types of workout for goals from weight loss to building cardiovascular fitness, and from increasing leg power to growing muscle endurance. We will finish of with some advice on the practical benefits of exercise bikes and common mistakes to avoid. Hopefully by the end you will have all the info you need to maximise the time you spend on an exercise bike.
What style of exercise bike should I use?
Before going into the detail on different workouts it’s worth explaining that there are three major types of exercise bike. Each one more suitable for certain types of workout:
Because you are positioned in a more upright position these are suitable for longer workouts at a lower intensity. The seats are well padded to provide comfort and there is usually a holder for your water bottle and iPod/phone.
These are designed to be especially kind on the joints. Your weight is all taken by your backside as you sit back from the pedals. This places less strain on the hips, knees and ankles. These are especially useful for people with injuries, elderly people or those carrying more weight.
Spinning® or indoor studio bike
These are designed to closely resemble road bikes. You are positioned to lean forward more, enabling greater speed and power. The saddle is less padded and the machine is more stripped back than an upright bike. These are perfect for cycle studio classes and workouts, you will see a group of these with people working out together with an instructor.
If you plan to do lots of interval training this bike id great for calorie burning and endurance burning work.
Workouts for weight loss – high intensity interval training
Training regularly on an exercise bike is a very popular way to lose weight by burning body fat as fuel.
Burning more calories than you consume is one way to get your body into the fat burning zone. Exercising regularly and eating a sensible diet will create this calorie deficit. However not all exercises were created equal, there are ways to train to maximise calorie burning. Identifying these types of workout will help you hit those weight loss goals quicker.
To get the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to calorie burning, high intensity interval training is the answer. This type of workout combines short periods of very high intensity with short recovery periods, repeated over and over throughout the workout. This burns a higher number of calories per minute than other forms of bike ride. But due to the intensity of training this way, these workouts can not be carried out for long periods of time. Plus they should not be carried out every day. An added bonus is this type of exercise continues to burn calories for hours after training has finished. This is a result of the EPOC effect (exercise post oxygen consumption), where the body has to work to replace oxygen stores burned during exertion.
The routine below is a classic form of high intensity interval training. The sprint will get your heart beat up high and make you breath heavily. The short rest period gives your muscles time to recover from the exertion of sprinting, but keeps heart rate and breathing elevated. It will not take longer to complete but by the end you will know you’ve had a tough workout. Carry this out 3 times a week with a day at least in between workouts to really boost your calorie and fat burning.
Workouts for weight loss – low intensity steady state cardio
Almost the opposite of HIIT, low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio is another great – but different – way to burn calories and fat. This type of workout is carried out at slower pace, but lasts much longer as it is less intense. Burning calories at a slower rate, over a longer time period, results in more calories burned overall. An additional benefit is that this type of low intensity workout can be carried out more frequently. Therefore more calories are burned over the long run.
Taking a look at the table below you will see that more vigorous cycling burns more calories. At a pace of 16-19 mph 50% more calories are burned than at a slower pace of 12-13.9 mph. However cycling at the slower pace for 60 minutes burns 33% more calories than 30 minutes vigorous cycling.
Calories burned cycling for 30 minutes
|130 lbs||155 lbs||180 lbs||205 lbs|
|Cycling, <10mph, leisure bicycling||118||141||164||186|
|Cycling, >20mph, racing||472||563||654||745
|Cycling, 10-11.9mph, light||177||211||245||279|
|Cycling, 12-13.9mph, moderate||236||282||327||373|
|Cycling, 14-15.9mph, vigorous||295||352||409||466|
|Cycling, 16-19mph, very fast, racing||354||422||491||559|
To carry out a low intensity steady state workout you simply have to cycle an exercise bike at a steady moderate pace for an extended period. Be sure that you are going at a pace that you can maintain without heart rate raising to your upper range, and breathing does not become laboured. An hour is a good starting point, as you get fitter you will be able to cycle for longer at an increased pace. As the pace and distance increases so will calories burned.
High intensity intervals vs low intensity steady state
So what is the best approach? The best way to burn calories on an exercise bike is to combine both interval training and longer steady paced training. As you need at least a day to recover between interval training sessions this is the perfect opportunity to carry out a longer, slower paced session. In fact steady pace training between days of HIIT aids recovery by increasing blood flow to the muscles and giving them a stretch.
Workouts for cardiovascular fitness
Cardiovascular fitness in terms of ability of the heart and lungs to supply muscles with oxygen as fuel during exercise. Training in the right way will improve the strength and efficiency of the heart, lungs and chest muscles.
When training this way it is important to make sure your heart and lungs work hard. This makes them adapt over time in anticipation of having to work that hard again. The same way that muscles adapt when you lift weights. Interval training is the best way to train for improving cardiovascular fitness. Pushing yourself hard, raising heart rate and getting out of breath, then resting and doing it again, several times, keeps heart rate and breathing raised for longer. This makes the heart and lungs adapt quicker and to a higher capacity.
The heart adapts, pumping more blood with one beat, supplying more oxygen rich blood to the muscles. Chest muscles and lungs grow, you are able to take deeper breaths, with a greater lung capacity. More air in your lungs with one inhalation means more oxygen, plus the lungs also become more efficient at diffusing oxygen into the blood.
As more oxygen is supplied as fuel to your muscles as you exercise, cardiovascular fitness and endurance increase. Your resting heart rate will drop, as your heart pumps more blood with one beat. Meaning it does not need to beat as often.
The workout below is based on the principles of Tabata training which has been shown to rapidly increase cardiovascular capacity over a short amount of time. This form of training was developed in 1996 by a Japanese professor named Izumi Tabata. Professor Tabata used these training methods on the Japanese Olympic speed skating team. Studies were conducted on cyclists performing Tabatas. The results showed that a four-minute workout (excluded warm up and cool down) was more effective at increasing cardiovascular fitness than an hour of moderate cycling.
The key is to go flat out, as fast as you can, for the 20 second sprints. You will feel your heart rate increase rapidly and your breathing will become deep and fast. It is due to this intensity that the heart and lungs adapt quickly.
Workouts for muscle strength and endurance
Training on an exercise bike will develop strength in your leg muscles, developing size and muscle tone. To get the best strength workout the resistance has to be turned up high. This makes the muscles work harder to push the pedals, stimulating muscle growth. You will not be able to train at high resistance for long periods, but the intensity means a lot of calories are burned.
Exercise bikes can also be used to increase muscle strength endurance. This is the ability of muscles to continue to provide contractile force under stress. It translates to the muscles ability to be able to perform for longer when you exercise. This can be an advantage if you are training for a long bike ride but also transfers for other sports or activities. Interval training also works well for this. Although the intervals are at a slightly lower intensity and for a little longer than training for fat burning or cardiovascular fitness. Typically 60 second bursts at the top speed you can maintain for that length of time. This pace will be slightly lower than 30 second sprints, and the routine would go on for longer.
The workout below challenges the muscles to work hard by setting the resistance at high during the faster interval. Pace during the fast period should be the maximum speed you can maintain for 60 seconds. Do not go faster for the first 30 seconds and drop off for the second 30 seconds. This defeats the purpose, as you are trying to achieve even force production over the time period. The longer rest periods than other interval training are designed to prevent heart rate and breathing getting too high. The aim is for the muscles to work anaerobically i.e. without the use of oxygen. The longer they are able to do so, the greater your muscle endurance becomes.
Workouts for increasing power
Power is a function of strength and speed. The ability to apply maximum force as quickly as possible. Technique is also important to generate power, and poor cycling action will hold you back when training on an exercise bike. Building power in your legs will benefit any recreational cycling that you do. It will also translate to other sports and activities, allowing you to generate greater bursts of power from your lower body.
The workout below is perfect for increasing your power. The focus is on cycling as fast as possible for 30 seconds. Then giving enough time to recover so that you can push yourself to 100% again. The length of the rest period is key, this is what allows you push yourself to your limits. If it is not enough time to recover then extend it. We are not training endurance, so let your breathing rate drop before sprinting again. Put the resistance as high as possible. The higher resistance requires greater strength. Combined with the speed, this requires maximum power.
Workouts for heart health
There is a consensus amongst many health and fitness professionals that exercise that just slightly raises heart rate, carried out 5 times a week for 30 minutes, is enough to dramatically improve heart health. A gentle 30 minute cycle on an exercise bike, at the gym, or even in the comfort of your own home, is great for this.
These regular 30 minute work outs will decrease risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce blood cholesterol and minimise your chances of diabetes or a stroke. Not a lot to ask for!
Practical benefits of exercise bike workouts
There are practical benefits to working out on an exercise bike that go along side the health and fitness ones. A few are covered below:
Practical benefits vs road bike
It is possible to train all year round indoors, so those cold, dark, wet, windy days wont put you off. There will be more chance of you stay motivated and stick to your exercise plan.
An exercise bike is also a good way to stave off boredom, it is easy to listen to music, read or even watch the TV.
For many people, such as those with young children, it’s not always convenient to leave the house. Training on a bike downstairs while the kids are in bed a great solution.
Practical benefits vs other fitness equipment
Bikes take up much less space than other fitness equipment such as treadmills, rowing machines or cross trainers. If you are reading this because you are thinking about purchasing an exercise bike for the home then space is an important factor to consider.
In my opinion bikes are actually the best of all of the exercise machines mentioned above for both weight loss and working out the lower body. They are easier to interval train on, as changing speed is very easy. They minimise impact whereas a treadmill causes a lot of impact issues. Plus all the force is provided by the legs, whereas cross trainers and rowing machines engage the arms as well.
Training at home vs the gym
Training on a bike at home rather than the gym has its advantages. The biggest one is time, you cut out travel time, time in the changing room and the showers, plus any time waiting if the equipment is all occupied.
This time saving can also help motivation, it’s harder to use lack of time as an excuse. Plus seeing the bike everyday will encourage (or shame you into) using it more frequently. And the more frequent the training the better the results.
Mistakes to avoid with exercise bike workouts
If you’ve decided you are going to start to work out on an exercise bike then bear the following in mind to get the most from your workouts:
Water is important for keeping you cool through perspiration. Not being fully hydrated can cause you to overheat, which is bad for the heart and will cut your workout short.
Water also supports the chemical reactions in the muscles that produce energy. Lack of water results in cramping and fatigue setting in early.
Warm up and cool down
Exercising without warming up increases risk of injuries such as muscle pulls and strains. A warm up also lubricates your joints, so not warming up can also lead to joint issues and pain.
It’s also important to cool down after exercise. It is healthier to bring your heart rate down to normal gradually after exercise rather than suddenly. As muscles are warm after exercise it is the perfect time to stretch. Stretching speeds recovery and improves flexibility.
Adjust the bike to fit
Always adjust the saddle height to fit the length of your legs. Your legs should be slightly bent when you reach the lowest point position with the pedals. This enables you to generate the optimum amount of power, making the movement efficient.
Feet should be placed so that the ball of the foot is placed over the pedal rather than your heel. This enables your ankle to flex correctly, providing both comfort and power.
If you can adjust the seat forwards/backwards then position it so that your knee is over the pedal at the lowest point of motion.
Where it is possible to adjust the handlebars you should choose a position that makes you most comfortable. If you are going to train at a steady pace for an extended time it may be most comfortable in a more upright position. Should you be planning to train for a shorter time, focusing on sprints, leaning forward often helps.
Wear lose comfortable clothes when you work out on an exercise bike. This helps you keep cool and allows your limbs full mobility to move freely.
Having a towel to hand is helpful, especially if your workout is an intense one. Keeping the sweat off your face and out of your eyes makes you feel more comfortable.
Although training on a bike is not particularly hard on your feet your should still wear comfortable training shoes.
Make a workout plan
Drawing up an exercise plan helps keep you motivated to continue training. It’s easier to track progress if you have a plan to measure it against. Being able to see progress is a great way to make you train harder and more often.
Don’t give up
The biggest mistake people make when they train is not continuing to exercise for long enough. It’s important not to give up if you do not see significant improvements quickly. Nothing worth working for comes without effort. Weight loss, endurance and cardiovascular fitness come over time, not overnight. Expect a number of small steps over time, remember small steps ad up when you keep going.
Wrapping up thoughts on exercise bike workouts
An exercise bike is a great piece of equipment for a variety of workouts. It will help you build muscle endurance, cardiovascular capacity, leg power and burn tons of calories. Be sure to maximise the benefits of training on a bike by selecting the right form of workout for your goals.
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