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Recumbent Versus Upright Bike: What You Should Know

If you are about to embark on a cycling journey, you might find yourself asking which type of bike you should be using. Are you better off using a standard upright bike like what you used to use as a kid for all those years or are you better off using a recumbent bike, which has you in a totally different position with the legs extended in front of the body?

Each bike has it’s pro’s and con’s so really, you are best off using whichever bike you feel will benefit you the most. This said, you also want to take into account the fact that overusing any piece of exercise equipment is never a good idea as it can lead to burnout and staleness, so in that case, sometimes it’s best to use them both and receive the best of both worlds.

But to help you decide which bike you favor more, let’s look at those pro’s and con’s of each.

The Upright Bike

Pro: Transferability

When it comes to the upright bike, perhaps one of the biggest benefits is transferability. If you have ever ridden a bike before, you will find that this bike pretty much feels the same as all the others. It’s what you are used to so you can easily move to it and get started.

While this isn’t to say that the recumbent bike isn’t easy, it’s just a slightly different position you’re in so that can take some getting used to. For most people, they adapt relatively quickly.

But, if you are someone who wants to alternate say between outdoors bikes and the gym bike and want to ensure that your performance and progress carries over, then the upright bike is the clear choice. You will not see a direct carry over of physical fitness benefits if you switch between the two.

Pro: Quad Development

When it comes to the muscles that you are working on the upright bike, this will primarily be a quad dominant exercise. While the hamstrings will come into play on the second half of the movement pattern to control the heel back up to the top position, by and large, momentum is doing the work here as there is no resistance in place.

Therefore, the greatest amount of stress and focus is placed on the quad muscles instead. If you are someone who hopes to improve your overall quad muscle strength, this can serve as an excellent benefit. It’ll also help increase muscle definition and if you are following a fat loss diet at the time, may help this muscle become more pronounced. On the flip side, if you are eating in a calorie surplus, you may actually help to build this muscle up as you will be working against that high resistance (or can be, if you so choose).

Pro: Core Strength

Another pro of the upright bike is that it will definitely help out with your core strength more than the recumbent bike. Sitting upright like this your core will have to contract more to keep you in that upright position, so both your abs as well as your lower back muscles will be called into play to a greater extent.

This said, if you are heavily leaning over on the handlebars, this may be negated a bit as then you aren’t supporting much weight any further, but you’ll even still be getting more stress and tension on these muscles compared to if you were sitting against a back pad.

Pro: Ability To Stand Up

Another unique feature of the upright bike that the recumbent bike cannot say is that you can stand up and pedal as desired. This is often done during spinning classes, which is a cardio type of fitness class that specializes in upright biking.

Standing up and pedaling will transfer the stress of the exercise more to the glutes and hamstrings, while still making the quads burn as you feel it.

Furthermore, it’s a great way to really get your heart rate up higher and torch some serious calories in the process.

Con: Knee Pain

One thing that you do need to be careful about with upright biking is that it can land you in knee pain more easily than if you were using the recumbent bike. This is because again, more stress is placed directly on the quads and if the knee is not tracking properly over the toes with each pedal you take, you will be moving into an unnatural position that can cause grinding to occur over time.

Cyclists are at a higher risk for knee pain than some other athletes and this is the reason why. With the recumbent bike, you don’t get this quite as much as the force of exertion is more balanced through the leg, as we’ll talk about in a second.

If you are someone who has been affected by knee injuries in the past or you’re currently coming off one, this could be reason to consider pausing on your upright biking workout sessions.

Con: Butt Pain

Finally, we come to the last con, one that you may have joked about from time to time but it is a very real and serious concern: butt pain. I’m not talking about sore glutes because they are working so hard but a sore butt from the pressure of sitting on that seat for so long.

If you do enough upright biking, you will likely experience this at some point or another. It will typically hurt right at your tailbone and may make you hesitant to go on and do any other cycling sessions.

The good news is that the more you cycle, the more resistant you tend to get to this (your butt ‘toughens up’ so to speak), so as you become more advanced, it’ll take more and more cycling to bring on the pain.

And, if it’s still really bothering you, you might look into getting some bike seat cushions to use instead. Most people won’t have to resort to this extreme, but it is there if needed.

Recumbent Bike

So now let’s talk about the recumbent bike. What benefits and drawbacks does it have? While many of the pros and cons are exactly opposite of what was discussed above, let’s clear up a few things.

Even Muscle Distribution

One nice thing about the recumbent bike is that it tends to call for a more even muscle force pattern distribution than the upright bike does. With the recumbent bike, you’ll press through the foot pedals using both the hamstring as well as the quads, even calling the glutes into play to a slight degree.

The glutes are virtually sleeping in the upright bike (unless you stand up), so if your goal is to build your booty, the upright bike is not going to help much. The recumbent bike will help you along better.

Less Risk Of Injury

Secondly, on the recumbent bike, you generally have a lower overall risk of injury. You’re less likely to suffer from knee pain since you’re pressing through the foot pedals with all muscles and therefore less stress on just a certain set of tendons and ligaments, you’re less likely to suffer from low back pain since you aren’t hunched over the bike at all, and you’re less likely to suffer from a sore but because the stress of your weight will be spread out over a larger surface area.

So if injury concern is a major thing for you, this could lead you to choose the recumbent bike more often.

Total Calorie Burn

Finally, let’s talk calorie burn since that’s one thing almost everyone wants to know about: which bike is going to help you burn the most calories?

The answer to this is that it simply depends on which bike you feel most comfortable using and can work at a higher intensity level. Both bikes will burn about the same amount of calories (assuming you remain in a seated position), so choose whichever one you feel most comfortable in if calorie burning is your mission.

This said, that doesn’t mean you should always do that one. The bike you feel least comfortable on is probably the one that is a weaker movement pattern for you so if progress and well-balanced fitness is key, you’ll likely want to do that bike more often.

So keep these points in mind. Both bikes are a great way to get in shape and improve your fitness level so there’s no real right or wrong here. Just whichever bike you feel will be best suited to you and your workout sessions.

Ideally, as mentioned earlier, you will cross train, going between the bikes over time so that you can reap all the benefits cycling has to offer. This is also a great way to mix things up and ensure that you don’t suffer from workout boredom.

Photo credit: konggraphic/Shutterstock; Jaaak/Shutterstock; ninikas/Shutterstock