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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
July 06, 2023
You're ready to get in shape and lose weight. You have a diet to follow and are ready to start exercising. In fact, you've even determined which workout split you're going to follow, in addition to picking a stationary bike as your best cardio option.
But, there's one big decision left. Now you have to decide what type of bike you want to use. Do you opt for an upright bike or sit back on a recumbent bike?
As these two bikes tend to be geared toward different people based on their specific needs and goals, it begs the question: Which bike is best for you?
In this article, we'll review each of these bikes and what they offer. By the end, you'll know which to choose in the upright vs recumbent bike debate.
Table of Contents:
Recumbent bicycles started as road bikes featuring a seat with a backrest and pedals in front of the rider. For road cycling, recumbent bikes often come with three or four wheels, which increases the ability to balance astronomically. As such, the rider can sit back and relax while pedaling comfortably.
Over time, these bikes transitioned into stationary pieces of cardio equipment that adopt the same basic premise. Stationary recumbent bikes have you sit in a padded seat with a backrest in the same manner as a chair.
Your legs stretch out in front of you, pedaling the "front wheel," which operates as an adjustable flywheel to increase or decrease the resistance. It's a great low impact workout ideal for most fitness levels.
An upright stationary bike is what we generally think of today when we talk about cycling or spin classes.
With a stationary upright bike, the rider only sits on a set pad that's usually less than half the size of their hips. There is no backrest or other parts of the seat, so the person must sit upright and straddle a seat pad with their legs hanging straight down.
Below each foot are pedals that rotate either a flywheel or a chain attached to gears. When you pedal, you will simultaneously pull up with one foot while pressing down with the other. Doing so creates the cyclical motion of a revolution, activating all of your lower body muscles.
The handlebars on an upright bike vary from straight to multi-grip bars. Some even feature forearm rests to allow you to bend over and relax. This arm support brings the upper body and the core into your workout, as you'll need to support your body weight to avoid falling over.
What muscles does a stationary bike work? Both bikes use a similar pedaling motion and will use the same muscle groups, including:
However, due to differences in hip flexion and angle of resistance, some muscles are activated to a greater extent than others.
For example, a study in 2014 compared muscle groups used in recumbent and upright bikes¹. They found that recumbent bikes trained the semitendinosus (hamstring) and tibialis anterior (shin muscle) more than the upright bike.
On the other hand, the upright bike hits the rectus femoris (part of the quadriceps group) harder. Another study from 2016 also found that the calf muscle was used more in the upright bike than in the recumbent bike².
As you can see, both the angle at which you pedal and your body position will alter your biomechanics and muscles used.
As you must support your torso on an upright bike, your abdominal and arm muscles come into play to keep you from falling over.
Both the recumbent and upright bikes have features that make them more or less suitable for given scenarios. Let's take a closer look at each and the benefits of stationary bikes.
Recumbent bikes are far more comfortable than upright bikes. Instead of a narrow seat used by uprights, they have a full, wide seat with a backrest. These seats are usually made from a stretched fabric, making cycling very comfy.
As you sit down, your hands can do what they want. Perhaps you'd like to read a book or maybe even get some work done. Obviously, you won't be cycling too intensely if you choose to do either, but it may be perfect for some people.
Another great benefit that recumbent bikes offer is balance. Using recumbent bikes is like sitting down on a chair or even a sofa. They are incredibly balanced and safe to use. As such, they're the perfect choice for elderly patients or others who may have a balance issue.
If you think a recumbent bike is right for you, check out our article: 11 Best Recumbent Bikes For Home Gyms, which features the best recumbent options for home gym use.
Upright bikes feel and ride more like traditional bikes, which means you'll get a much more functional form of training.
In addition, this type of setup allows for a much more intense workout. You can pedal naturally, pushing and pulling with significantly more intensity. With more intensity comes more calories and better physiological adaptations.
As you must sit upright in a riding position with a bike seat that provides no back support, it's up to your core muscles to support your torso. Even with your arms as support, your core muscles will engage. All that to say, you get a decent core workout as you ride.
While you usually sit down on an upright bike, you can also stand up, making for an extra intense workout, especially the quadriceps. Since you can change positions, workouts can have more variety and intensity patterns for a highly effective cycling session.
Generally speaking, recumbent bikes will be easier to use, especially for a longer duration, since you can comfortably sit down with full support.
Further, even though they are stationary bikes, the recumbent bike still requires less skill to balance. There is just about 0 chance of falling off a recumbent bike.
Finally, since you won't need to support your torso, you can relax and only concentrate on pedaling. In fact, recumbent bikes are so safe and easy to use that it makes them the ideal cardio option for older adults.
We've even compiled a list of 7 Best Recumbent Bikes For Seniors!
While both machines have the ability to burn calories, it's generally easier to do on an upright bike. Not only do you use more muscle groups, but cycling on an upright bicycle tends to be easier for pedaling with intensity.
At the same time, many people find cycling on a recumbent bicycle easier and more comfortable. With these two benefits, you can probably cycle longer, resulting in more calories burned.
If calorie burn is your primary goal, rowers are another worthy piece of gym equipment for you to check out. See how it compares to the bike in our article: Rowing Machine vs Stationary Bike: Which Should You Pick?
Even though biking is considered a low-impact cardio workout, it can still exacerbate knee issues. This problem is made worse with incorrect seat position.
Regarding the upright bike vs. recumbent bike debate, the recumbent bike is the better choice for those with bum knees. In fact, we have personally experienced this ourselves. After a knee injury, stick to using a recumbent bike for a couple of weeks, as it's more comfortable to do with a restricted range of motion.
Recumbent bikes are beneficial for several groups of people.
Elderly populations or those with any sort of balance issue benefit from the ease of balance. Plus, anyone recovering from an injury or with chronic medical conditions such as epilepsy should stick to a recumbent bike.
But don't mistake the recumbent bike's ease of use for simply being easy! These 5 Best Recumbent Bike Workouts will ensure you still get a great sweat session in.
The upright exercise bike can better increase your cardiovascular fitness, improve anaerobic endurance, and strengthen lower body muscles.
Therefore, choose it if you're looking for a more intense workout. People with an adequate fitness level and athleticism can benefit from a stationary bike's workout intensity, endurance training, and leg strengthening.
So you're building a home gym and looking for an indoor cycling bike, but you're not sure if you should buy a recumbent bike or an upright bike.
Since you're building a gym, we will assume that you are physically fit and athletic. As such, we recommend getting an upright bike since it allows you to go harder, including HIIT workouts.
While you can do this with recumbent bikes, it's significantly more difficult. However, if you're elderly or need extra assistance, these might be best for you. While the exercise may not be as intense, you can still work hard enough to burn calories.
Regarding price, you can generally find either bike across a range of $200-$3,000+. That said, most people can get a great bike for less than $1000.
For a recumbent bike, I'm a huge fan of the Comfort R Bike. It's a mid-level recumbent bike yet is built to fit the needs of anybody.
If you're looking for an upright bike, the best choice is the LifeSpan C5i Upright Bike, which is a combination of performance, durability, and comfort that won't break the bank.
Let's answer some of your more frequently asked questions about recumbent and upright bicycles.
No! Both the stationary and "real" bikes have unique aspects about them that make them better suited for different scenarios.
It most certainly can be! This all depends on how much effort you put into it.
If appropriately used, upright bikes are known for providing a better cardio workout. However, you can get a great cardio workout on a recumbent exercise bike with the correct intensity.
The one with the biggest line! Seriously though, it's impossible to answer this as every gym has a different selection.
The right stationary bike for you is highly personal and can depend on numerous factors. Be sure to spend time researching what you need.
Now that you better understand these two bikes, you should be able to make an informed decision. That said, unless you're elderly or have a balance issue, upright exercise bikes will be your best bet, assuming you want to train.
Now, if you just want a piece of cardio equipment to get on and use as you read or do some work, recumbent exercise bikes are likely your best option. In addition, those with lower body injuries may find recumbent bikes are the better option.
But it's important to note that both will help immensely with weight loss while improving your health and fitness levels.
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September 23, 2023
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