Upright vs. Recumbent Bicycles - Which is Better?
Exercise professionals in both camps have continued supporting the benefits of upright and recumbent bikes. Does one have benefits over the other?
The debate between upright and recumbent bikes has been going on for years. Exercise professionals in both camps have continued to support the benefits of one over the other. But the truth is that they both offer a great workout -- the right choice is going to depend on your personal goals and your current level of fitness.
My experience has been predominantly on upright bikes because they're more familiar. From all the gyms I've ever visited (and in most home gym set-ups that I've seen), the upright bicycle is almost always the bike of choice. But is there a good reason for this?
I thought I'd have a look at what the research has to say before making a final verdict and test them out for myself to see which is a better fit for most people.
Please keep in mind that most of this article is geared toward home gym equipment -- however, the same holds for outside road bikes.
What's the Difference?
Let's start by looking at these two different types of stationary bikes:
A recumbent exercise bike allows you to work out in a seated position and looks somewhat similar to recumbent trikes that you may have seen on the road. The seat is larger and has a backrest so you can sit comfortably while working your legs and getting your heart rate up.
This position means that your back is not strained at all, and your hands are completely free, so it's possible to read a book or even send emails on your phone while you exercise. The seated position also allows you to stay closer to the floor, which means that the bike has a lower center of gravity and comes in handy for those who have problems with their balance.
A recumbent bike will generally engage fewer muscles and will, therefore, burn fewer calories compared to using an upright bike, and it can be harder to get a good cardio workout. But, there are other benefits, with one study finding that novice cyclists activated their hamstrings better on a recumbent bike compared to an upright bike.
With a recumbent bike, you get a workout where the pedals are positioned in front of the body. Your body is in a reclined position, and you can enjoy a bigger seat and full back support for a more comfortable sitting position.
You'll also benefit from reduced upper body tension and muscle fatigue and the ability to choose from a range of low and high-impact cardio options.
Upright bikes are definitely the more popular of the two options, and this comes down to a few reasons, including the price and the amount of space that they take up.
Upright bikes are usually a lot more affordable (although if you have a look at our exercise bike buying guide, you'll see a few reasonably priced recumbent bikes) -- they also take up a lot less room.
The issue of space comes up a lot as both commercial and home gym set-ups have to consider how to optimize the available floor space. For home gyms, in particular, there are many upright bike options that can be moved easily, and some even fold up for easy storage.
With an upright bike, the pedals are positioned under the body. You will also have a smaller, less comfortable seat and limited upper body support, which can lead to fatigue and tension.
There are both low and high-impact cardio options, and you can benefit from whole-body cardiovascular exercise (compared to a recumbent which is more focused on lower body muscles). With an upright bike, your abdominals are engaged to keep you upright, and your arms are also engaged, so your biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles are getting a workout.
Which Offers a Better Workout?
There's no disputing that upright bikes offer a more versatile, flexible workout. You don't have to remain seated, and it can mimic a road bike, which is ideal for road cyclists who want to supplement their training on an indoor bike. You can stand up and pedal for a more intensive workout, thereby mimicking the training you would do for hills.
The other thing that upright bikes have in common with road bikes is that if you're sitting on an upright bike for an extended period of time, they quickly become uncomfortable. So, for longer, less intensive rides, the recumbent gets my vote. And this also holds true if you have back issues or pain that can quickly become exacerbated with time in the saddle.
Upright bikes can also feel a bit unstable when you're really pushing yourself, but if you've bought a good-quality upright bike, this isn't a significant factor to take into consideration. If you're out on the road, a mountain bike will genuinely test your muscle strength and balance.
This brings me to the option of a recumbent bike. When I was doing my own tests on different bikes to compare their effectiveness, the one thing that really stood out for me was the comfort that a recumbent bike offers. It's definitely something that I factor into my own workouts. I like to be comfortable, and the seat of a recumbent bike is infinitely more enjoyable to sit in for any length of time.
I liked the support that you get from the seat's backrest, which means that, even after sitting for an hour, you won't feel any strain in your back. I'm also a sucker for distractions when I work out, and a recumbent bike makes it much easier to watch TV, read a book, or even scroll through Facebook.
But the question remains, which is a better workout?
People are quick to jump on the bandwagon and say that upright bikes are a better workout, but this depends on how you use the bike.
If you're a fan of longer workouts, a recumbent is going to keep you comfortable and allow you to extend your workouts, and you'll burn more calories.
If you're looking for a more effective, intensive cardio workout, an upright bike is going to be the best choice to get the heart pumping.
Should You Buy a Recumbent or an Upright Bike?
At the end of the day, a bike is just a tool. It doesn't matter whether it's an upright bike or a recumbent bike, how advanced it is, or how many settings and features it has. You're still the one who has to put in the effort.
For most people like me, who want to get the most significant benefits in the shortest amount of time (both in terms of calorie burn and cardio), an upright bike is going to be the better choice. If you're an avid road cyclist, an upright bike is going to complement your fitness training as well as support your ability to spend a longer time in the saddle. And, if you're short on space at home or on a tight budget and have no history of back issues, an upright bike is going to be the right option for you. Also, if you plan on attending (and crushing) a spin class anytime soon, go for the upright.
For those who prioritize comfort or have been limited in the workouts you can do because of a back injury or back pain, a recumbent bike is an excellent alternative to an upright bike. They're the best option for seniors and those with cardiovascular impairments because they put less stress on the cardiovascular system. Suppose you have problems with your balance because it's easier to get into the saddle and you're closer to the ground. And, far from being ineffective, stationary bikes outperform treadmills for seniors.
Recumbent bikes are also an option that I recommend to those that are new to cardio exercise and first-time riders. There may be an additional cost factor, but if an upright bike isn't a good option for you, a recumbent bike is still going to deliver a tremendous calorie-burning workout, and it's going to be a lot cheaper and more convenient than a gym membership in the long run.
I'm going to stick with an upright bike for now based on the fact that I don't have any back pain, and I have a longer-term goal of entering a road bike race in a year or two.
But really, both upright bikes and recumbent bikes offer a great workout, and the best choice is going to depend on your individual needs and preferences. Because recumbent bikes have back support, they may be a better fit for seniors or those with chronic back pain or back injuries. They also feel more stable because they have a lower center of gravity. And, although they may not offer as intensive a cardio workout, they are more comfortable to use, so you might be able to exercise for longer and continue burning calories for an extended period (this appeals to me!)
Upright bikes are a better fit for those looking for a more flexible, intensive solution, especially if you want to incorporate HIIT into your workouts. You can sit and pedal, or stand and pedal and so work different muscles and get a more varied workout. They are also generally more affordable, and if space is at a premium in your home gym set-up, then an upright bike is going to be the right choice.
In most cases, the winner is an upright bike.
Tony Lee, MS, RD
Tony Lee, RD, MS, is a highly qualified and accomplished Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from Arizona State University. Tony brings over two decades of experience in dietetics, specializing in sports nutrition. Interests include studying all aspects of wellness, fitness, genetics, and peak health performance.