Here’s everything you need to know before buying an exercise bike

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Maybe you’re missing your stadium cycling classes but aren’t sure when you’ll feel comfortable getting back into a crowded studio. Or you love your regular bike so much, you want a way to pedal indoors when the weather turns icy. Or you just want a new way to get your blood pumping. No matter your motivations, investing in a stationary exercise bike is an excellent way to get fit at home.

Of course, there are a lot of bikes to choose from, from interactive Pelotons and NordicTracks to no-frills gym staples like Schwinns and Sunnys to stands into which you affix your road bike, so you can pedal away without leaving home. “No matter where you are in your fitness level, an indoor cycling bike is a great investment,” says John Thornhill, a cycling instructor with Aaptiv and Cyc Fitness. “It’s a great ride, it’s great for anybody who’s looking for a lower impact but higher intensity cardio workout.”

Don’t know your upright from your recumbent? Not quite sure what “connected” means when it comes to a piece of cardio equipment? You’re in the right place. Here’s how to buy an exercise bike that works for you, your fitness needs, and your budget.

The basics of buying an exercise bike

There are five different ways to bring biking into your home: spin-style indoor cycles, upright bikes, recumbent bikes, dual-action (or “air”) bikes, and bike trainers, which allow you to use your outdoor bike inside. But before getting into the types, you need to understand the basics of indoor cycling features. Namely:

Flywheel: A big weighted disc, usually between 30 and 50 pounds, at the front of the bike where a typical front wheel would go, which is connected to the pedals by a chain or belt. This helps create a feeling of momentum and provide a fluid, smooth feel as you pedal. Not all bikes have these, though—some use magnetic or fan-based resistance instead.

Saddle: The place where you sit as you ride your bike. These usually vary between “performance” saddles, which are long, narrow, and have minimal padding, and “plush” saddles, which are wider and have more padding.

Pedals: Where you place your feet, and what you move to get your workout. Some pedals may be bare, while others may have a loop or cage to keep your feet in place. On some bikes, the pedals will have a clip-in mechanism, which requires special cycling shoes to ride.

Resistance: Resistance is the feeling of tension that occurs when you pedal on the bike. This may be controlled with a knob or a console with buttons. Bikes have three different kinds of resistance mechanisms, which usually correspond with its price.

  • Lower-end bikes may use a system strap-based resistance in which a strap is attached to the flywheel, which causes more resistance as it’s tightened. “It’s not as durable as other mechanical resistances,” says Thornhill, but it can provide a cost-efficient way to start cycling if you aren’t sure you want to invest too much money in it.
  • The next level up is mechanical or friction resistance. With this type, wool or rubber pads are placed on top of or on either side of the flywheel. As you twist the tension knob, the pads clamp down on the flywheel, which increases the resistance. This creates excellent resistance, but it also causes some degradation of the pads over time. They can also be noisy.
  • Most higher-end bikes use electromagnetic resistance. With this type, two magnets are placed close to—but not on—the flywheel. If you increase the tension knob, the magnets move closer together and increase the electrical current between them, using the flywheel as a conductor. This is what creates the bike’s resistance. This is the “upper tier” of resistances, according to Thornhill. “This gives you a smoother ride, [and] there’s much less need for maintenance.”

Display: A screen on the bike that shows things that may include your pedaling speed, workout time, estimated calorie burn, and heart rate. Some displays are analog and show just the basics, and some are hi-def digital touchscreens that include much more information. And some bikes lack any display at all (like the ones you might ride in some spin studios).

“Connected” fitness programming: Connected bikes vary between models. But in general, getting a connected bike means it has WiFi, a screen that streams live or prerecorded classes, and keeps track of the data from your workouts. These models are usually pricier than their non-connected counterparts and may require a monthly subscription fee to access the workout videos.

Related content feature How to design the best home gym for you feature This spin bike is cheaper than the Peloton—but is it as good?

How much do exercise bikes cost?

As with most bigger purchases, it’s good to have a general idea of how much cash you’re willing to plunk down for your bike—and what you’re going to get with that cost. Stationary bikes have a wide range of prices, from the popular Sunny Fitness bike (about $350 on Amazon) to the synonymous-with-luxury Peloton bike ($2,495 for the new Bike+ model).

A nearly two-thousand-dollar price difference may seem suspicious, but with stationary bikes, cheap(er) doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Usually, it just means you’re getting a more basic piece of equipment. “The weight of the [higher-end] bike is going to be heavier, so it will be a more solid foundation to ride on,” says Thornhill. “You’ll also have more options with how to set up your bike. With a higher-end [bike], you should have the ability to move the handlebars fore and aft and up and down, and the ability to move the seat fore and aft and up and down.” Of course, don’t assume that a high price tag means your bike has every feature you want—Peloton’s handlebars, for example, only move up and down on both of its models, not fore and aft.

Another thing that can impact the price of the bike is the kind of resistance it uses. Strap and friction-based resistances may make the bike less expensive, and bikes that use magnetic resistance will probably be more expensive. Most pricier bikes will also be “connected,” with a built-in tablet and WiFi capabilities that allow you to stream classes. A less expensive bike could have a similar frame and build quality, but without the tablet and smart features.

Also, if you’re buying a more expensive bike, you may not have to pay the full price up front. High-end brands such as Peloton, NordicTrack, and Bowflex offer financing plans with no interest if you complete the payments within the required time frame (usually between 12 to 39 months). Some companies, such as Echelon, build interest charges into the payments, making your total cost higher than if you paid up front (though not necessarily higher than if you bought a bike from another brand with a no-interest plan). Some people like payment plans for exercise equipment because it feels more like paying for a membership akin to a gym, and (of course) it’s not a huge chunk out of your bank account all at once. On the other hand, using a financing plan means adding an extra monthly payment to your budget for the next one to three or more years, and knowing you’ll owe more if you can’t make payments on time. Figure out which option works better for you and your budget—if you’re interested in a financing plan, look carefully at the fine print so you know exactly what you’re in for.

Consider the warranties

An expensive bike should have a good warranty, or a written guarantee from the manufacturer to the consumer that they will repair or replace an item if it breaks down within a certain timeframe. But what makes a warranty good? Like treadmills, bike warranties are usually divided by frame, parts, electronics, and labor. The warranty on the frame should be the longest—some brands, including Diamondback and Sole, offer lifetime warranties on the frame for some models; the cheaper Sunny bike offers a 3-year frame warranty—and the warranty on the parts, electronics, and labor should be between 1 and 5 years.

Each model and brand differs slightly, so before you buy a bike, take a look at the warranty to see what exactly it covers and for how long. You may also want to see if the brand offers an extended protection program, in which you pay an extra fee to get complimentary repairs and replacements once the allotted time for the warranty has passed.

Decide if you want connected features

Part of a bike’s cost comes from whether it’s connected or not. These smart bikes, which include Peloton, NordicTrack, Echelon, and Bowflex, may cost more upfront and often require a monthly subscription payment to access the guided classes. Some smart bikes include a year-or-so long subscription to its workout program as part of its initial cost. Connected bikes can give you a little bit more motivation, mainly because they help you see your progress over time.

“I think someone who’s looking to start their experience off, you can totally go without a screen,” says Thornhill. “If you are a visual learner and you have the ability to buy an expensive bike, then sure, that’s a great option for you if you want that visual aid as well. It’s up to you and your budget—either way, you can get a great workout in.”

Some people “hack” a non-smart bike by outfitting it with a tablet and holder and subscribing to an app that provides indoor cycling classes such as Peloton, Aaptiv, iFit, or Zwift. This isn’t quite the same as using a fully connected bike, as it likely won’t track your metrics and speed and rank you against others on the leaderboard if you’re using an app that allows you to take classes with other people, but it’s still a way to take classes on your bike without spending as much money as you would on a fully connected bike.

If you don’t want to spend a ton, and know you can settle in with some headphones and get pedaling (or hack into a Peloton class by using the app), a non-connected bike should work for you. If you know you need extra motivation, a connected electric bike could be the right call.

Focus on how the bike can be adjusted for fit

Stationary bikes are also not one-size-fits all. As such, the one you buy needs to have adjustable features. Ideally, you should be able to move the seat and handlebars up, down, fore, and aft to reach an accurate fit.

The exact positioning of the bike depends on the type you get and the exact instructions that go along with it. But in general, upright and indoor cycling bikes should be set so that, when you sit on it, your spine is straight, your knee is slightly bent when you extend your feet, and your forearms are at a 90-degree angle when holding the handlebars. Usually, you can achieve this by setting the saddle at your standing hip height and the handlebars about the length of your elbow to your fist in distance from your body. For a recumbent bike, adjust your seat so there is a slight bend in the knee when you extend your leg.

When you’re buying a bike, you may also want to consider its height and weight limit. This also differs between brands, but most bikes are designed for people between 4′ 11” to 6′ 5”, with a weight limit somewhere between 250 to 350 pounds.

Should you get clip-in pedals?

If you’re already spending a chunk of change on an exercise bike, you may not want to drop more money than you absolutely have to. But there’s one accessory worth your consideration, especially if you’re going for a spin-style indoor cycling bike: cycling shoes. This specialized footwear contains a cleat that clips into the pedal. Depending on the bike you choose, the pedals may already be compatible with both SPD or LOOK Delta cleats—the most common types—but they could also require another kind of shoe or you may need to swap out the pedals (at an additional cost).

Thornhill is a huge fan of making this upgrade: “Once you take off the shoe cage and clip in, you’ll never go back,” he says. “You’re connected more to the bike, to the rhythm, you feel more stable, and you’re able to spice up the ride with choreography. It’s not totally necessary, but for me it’s fun, and hey, you’re dancing on a bike. It just opens up your world to an elevated cycling experience.”

Option 1: A spin bike for a competitive workout at home

If you’re looking for a way to mimic your indoor cycling classes, a spin bike is the way to go—most of the “it” bikes people are buying now for their home gyms, such as Peloton and its competitors like Echelon and Myx, are classified as indoor cycling bikes. These bikes are styled after road bikes, with a slim seat, pedals positioned right below the feet, and a more leaned forward body position, with handlebars that allow you to place your hands in multiple positions. An indoor cycling bike will have a flywheel, or a big weighted disc, usually between 30 and 50 pounds, at the front of the bike where a typical front wheel would go, which is connected to the pedals by a chain or belt. This helps create a feeling of momentum and provide a fluid, smooth feel as you pedal.

Indoor cycles usually have a single knob at the front of the bike that you twist to add or reduce resistance on the flywheel (using strap, mechanical, or magnetic mechanisms), making the pedaling easier or harder. The pedals themselves are reinforced around the foot area in some way, whether it’s a strap that covers the front half of the foot or a clip-in pedal that requires cycling shoes. This makes it possible to go harder, because you can power the flywheel on both the down strokes and upstrokes. It also allows you to rise up and down off your seat as you add on resistance to make it feel like you’re going up and down hills.

“A standard indoor cycling bike is a great option for anyone looking to ride in or out of the saddle and maybe add some fun choreography, similar to what you would feel in a studio-style class,” says Thornhill.

You can buy a decent basic spin-type bike for as little as $345 for the popular Sunny Health model. “Connected” models, which include a screen that broadcasts classes to work out with, range from about $1,000 to over $2,000, including the Peloton and Echelon.

Option 2: Upright bikes for a comfier ride

Upright bikes are similar to indoor cycling bikes in that they don’t look that different from regular bikes. But unlike indoor cycling bikes, they have a more heavily padded, often wider seat and generally do not have reinforced pedals, apart from maybe a rubber strap that goes overtop the foot—such as these popular Schwinn and Nautilus upright bikes, which have a single loop to slide your foot under. This means that, while it’s possible to stand up and down as you pedal, it’s not comfortable (not to mention, it could be easier for your foot to slip or you to fall). Upright bikes also have a console, usually between the handlebars, that allows you to control the resistance by pushing buttons, rather than twisting a knob, so it feels more like controlling a treadmill.

Because upright bike workouts don’t utilize as many (if any) up-and-down movements as indoor cycling bikes, they are considered lower impact.

“Both the recumbent bike and upright bike are better for people who would prefer to stay in the saddle,” says Thornhill. “You’ll often see people in those bikes reading something, they’re getting a low impact, low cardio option.”

Option 3: Recumbent bikes to lean back as you pedal

Recumbent bikes look much less like something you’d see on the road, fashioned with a full seat that supports the back and handlebars on the side of the seat and up by the console. For example, the bikes in Schwinn’s popular recumbent series all have a wide, contoured seat that provides coverage for the lower and middle back. The pedals are also placed farther in front of the body, which allows the rider to lean at a slight recline while pedaling. Recumbent bikes put less pressure on the joints than upright and spin bikes, especially in the lower back and wrist/forearm area, but also engage fewer muscles in the body because the seated position disengages many of the core muscles.

Thornhill says recumbent bikes can be a good option for someone who wants a low-impact, low-cardio ride, especially if you have low-back pain.

Option 4: Dual action bikes for a full body workout

Dual action bikes, sometimes called air bikes, look like upright stationary models, except for their handlebars, which are wider and move alternately forward and back in rhythm with the pedals. This allows the rider to pump the arms while pedaling, which provides some upper-body training in addition to cardio and lower-body work. Usually, these bikes use fan wheels, which blow air back on the rider while creating resistance—the harder you push, the more challenging it is. The Assault Airbike (from the brand that also makes super-intense manual treadmills) is a good example of this style. Schwinn also makes a similar-looking model.

If you use one, you’ll be thankful for the gusts of air—these bikes are tough to get and keep moving, and may tire you out quicker than any other kind of bike. Because of this, they’re ideal for HIIT and Tabata workouts and are popular in CrossFit, but perhaps are not as suitable for longer studio-style rides.

“Dual action bikes are great if you’re looking to burn calories and use the maximum amount of effort in a minimum amount of time,” says Thornhill. “They’re not really standard cycling bikes, they’re more geared towards athleticism. A good workout on this bike would be 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, going eight rounds. They’re intense but they have their purpose and it works for many people.”

Option 5: Bike trainers to use with your road bicycle

If you have a regular two-wheel bicycle, you can buy what’s called a “trainer” to convert it to a stationary bike. You can get a wheel-on friction-based trainer, which clamps down on the back wheel and presses a roller on the wheel. This creates magnetic resistance—in which a flywheel-like mechanism creates friction on the wheel, like this well-reviewed Alpcour magnetic resistance trainer—or fluid resistance, which also has a flywheel, but contains some fluid in the inner chamber to create friction. Alpcour also makes a well-reviewed fluid trainer. Magnetic trainers create more friction and are often noisier and fluid trainers tend to be more expensive. You can also get a direct-drive trainer, for which you remove the rear wheel entirely and replace it with a resistance unit. This one from this one from Wahoo Fitness connects to devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets to control the resistance and supports up to three different Bluetooth connections.

Trainers can put wear and tear on the bike, particularly with ones that clamp onto the back wheel, and require a little more maneuvering than a stationary bike you set up once and leave in the corner of your basement. They also won’t save you as much money as you may think—a high-end trainer could cost more than $1,000. Still, it’s space-friendly, and a good way to get use out of your bike during blustery winter months (particularly if you plan to ride the same bike in races or triathlons when the warmer seasons come).

If you’re partial to your outdoor rides, a trainer will help you maintain the feel of your hobby more than a stationary bike. “It’s definitely different from an indoor cycle ride,” says Thornhill. “The resistance is heavier, you’re pedaling slower, you’re not doing the choreography so much, it’s more like simulating an outdoor ride.”

Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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