Stationary exercise bikes are now a recognisable face amidst any home or professional gym set-up. They provide a tried-and-tested method of boosting fitness and burning calories without you having to brave the elements outdoors.
But if you’re considering investing in one yourself, should you go for a recumbent or upright bike?
As a general guide, upright exercise bikes are going to give you more range when it comes to intensity of workout, as well as the number of muscle groups you can engage. However, recumbent bikes can be an attractive option for those experiencing mobility issues or injuries that require rehabilitation and support.
Recumbent bikes may be less common than their upright counterparts, but they are becoming increasingly popular with those looking for a stable, low-impact workout that reduces the amount of weight-bearing on the lower limbs.
If you’re looking for a good cardio workout that’s comparatively easy on the joints, an exercise bike could well be the first piece of kit you consider.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at two versions of this classic machine in order to unpack whether a recumbent or upright exercise bike is going to be better suited for you.
What’s The Difference Between Upright and Recumbent Exercise Bikes?
Let’s start with the basics – as you might expect, the main difference between a recumbent and upright exercise bike is that recumbent bikes have the user seated and supported by a back rest.
The user will often be able to lean back in a reclined position, unlike on an upright model, where the user is required to hold their upper body erect using the back muscles and core.
Upright exercise bikes essentially mimic the position and range of motion of a normal bike, except they remain stationary.
Here is my personal favourite upright bike that I recommend to all my clients:
Schwinn Fitness 130 Upright Bike
- With enhanced Bluetooth connectivity, users can set, track and monitor progress with popular app-based tracking tools
- Discover 40plus global routes that auto-adjust in real time to your speed with Explore the World videos (Explore the World subscription required)
- Discover 1000plus structured workouts and 80plus virtual routes by connecting with the Zwift app (Zwift subscription required)
Last update on 2022-09-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Though their seats may be larger and slightly more comfortable than those of an actual road bike, they’re still likely to be narrower and less comfortable over long periods than the wider seat and back support of a recumbent exercise bike.
Upright exercise bikes often give you the ability to stand up during your workout. We’ll be talking a bit more about what this means for your muscles shortly.
Upright bikes also come with handlebars, as you would find on a road bike, which you can hold onto for balance or to generate more power in your legs.
Recumbent bikes may come with arm rests or handles, but you can also operate them more comfortably hands-free, given their reclined position.
Here is my personal favourite recumbent bike that I recommend to all my clients:
Schwinn Fitness 270 Recumbent Bike
- With enhanced Bluetooth connectivity, users can set, track and monitor progress with popular app-based tracking tools.
- Explore the world and discover 50plus global routes that auto-adjust in real time to your speed
- Fully-loaded console with DualTrack blue backlit LCD screens offers 29 workout programs and visibility to workout metrics, even when the media tray is in use
Last update on 2022-09-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Does a Recumbent Bike Burn More Calories Than An Upright Bike?
The main factors determining which of these machines is going to burn more calories for you are the intensity, duration and frequency of your workouts.
Both upright and recumbent bikes are designed to provide aerobic exercise that can help elevate the heart-rate, work the muscles, and burn calories when used correctly.
As a general rule, however, a recumbent bike is likely to burn slightly less calories given the same level of perceived exertion than an upright bike.
Rough estimates suggest that an hour of moderate intensity exercise on a recumbent bike can burn between 400 and 450 calories. An hour of moderate intensity exercise on an upright bike may burn 450+ calories an hour.
The difference here is likely due to the fact that, on an upright bike, the upper body has to work harder in order to balance and steady itself. On a recumbent bike, the upper body is frequently supported by a backrest and made more stable by a lack of verticality.
The extra strain placed on the muscles of the upper body during an upright bike session can equate to a higher number of calories used.
However, it is worth noting that the difference in calories burned by each machine based on these estimates is sometimes overstated. A 50 calorie difference in any given hour of working out is not necessarily going to be as important as your willingness to use the machine repeatedly.
Many users may discover that, although the upright bike may have a greater calorie burning potential when measured minute-by-minute, the additional comfort and accessibility of a recumbent bike means they return to use it more frequently.
Over time, this is going to result in a far greater calorie burn, as reliable workouts over weeks and months will always trump occasional workouts in an inconsistent routine.
Recumbent Bike vs Upright Bike For Weight Loss
Similarly, whether a recumbent or upright bike is going to prove better for your weight loss goals is likely to depend on which you are going to use more regularly, rather than any intrinsic feature of the machine.
Nevertheless, some people have suggested that upright exercise bikes can allow you to vary the intensity of your workouts more easily than the recumbent bike.
There does appear to be some truth in this, with upright bikes allowing you to generate more power from a vertical position and therefore shift intensity more swiftly and smoothly than you might be able to from a reclined position. The ability to stand up on an upright bike and utilise the handlebars can also aid with this.
This, in turn, can make upright bikes better suited to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), in which you alternate between periods of maximum exertion and brief periods of comparative rest.
Not only does this style of workout really help your aerobic fitness, it can also boost your resting metabolism in the hours following your session.
If you are able to maintain a workout routine that incorporates HIIT on a regular basis, this can be an effective tool to help you on your weight loss journey. In this sense, upright exercise bikes may appear as a better weight-loss tool simply through their versatility and range of intensity.
It should be noted, however, that HIIT is characterised by sudden shifts of exertion, not the exercise machine being used. Indeed, HIIT can be performed during any form of exercise that allows you to vary your exertion levels suddenly.
It is still possible to perform versions of HIIT using a recumbent exercise bike, simply by pushing your level of exertion to the higher range before dropping it down again.
You may find it more difficult to execute sudden shifts in power from the reclined position, but it is certainly not impossible, and may feel more comfortable for some users.
Therefore, the original point of accessibility remains a crucial one. If you find that the recumbent exercise bike is a more comfortable machine for you – whether this be due to mobility issues, back injuries, chronic pain, or general fitness – then it is more likely to assist you with weight loss over time.
An upright bike that causes you discomfort every time you pedal is less likely to encourage you to workout regularly. Regardless of its weight-loss potential, you have to use it to get these benefits!
Recumbent Bike vs Upright Bike for Glutes
Both types of exercise bike will work a range of lower leg muscles, including the hamstrings, calves, quads, and glutes. However, by standing up on an upright bike, you have the capacity to target the glute muscles more intensely.
It should also be noted that there are other muscle groups engaged more fully by the upright bike than recumbent models. The abdominal muscles are more likely to be engaged on an upright bike, merely through the effort of having to keep the upper body erect and stable.
The recumbent bike can be an attractive option for users experiencing back pain or for those who find that the strain of remaining vertical on an upright bike is too much for their lower spine.
However, this also means that the recumbent bike allows the back and core muscles to relax more fully. This may not be desirable if you are looking to keep as many muscles engaged as possible during your workout.
Recumbent Bike vs Upright Bike for Knees
Whether or not a recumbent or upright bike is going to be best for your knees will likely depend on the specific nature of any knee injury or pain you are experiencing.
However, as a general guide, some users report that the comparatively controlled and stable range of motion provided by the recumbent bike is preferable to that of upright models.
Upright bikes also tend to require more active balancing on the part of the user than their recumbent counterparts. This can, in turn, prove more unsettling for knee joints, as well as meaning that some of the users’ attention is diverted to remaining stable.
Some recumbent bikes may allow for a greater adjustable range than upright bikes, although this will also depend on the specific model.
An adjustable range, usually revolving around the positioning of the seat, can give the user more control over the amount of flexion required in the knee joint. This control over how significantly your knee flexes whilst pedalling can be good for those looking to use an exercise bike as a rehabilitative tool.
Remember, any workout used as part of a rehabilitative programme should be done under the guidance of a trained physician. If you are suffering from any form of injury or unexplained pain, ensure that you are seeking medical advice prior to taking up an unfamiliar form of exercise.
Other factors to consider when buying an upright or recumbent bike
Historically, upright exercise bikes have enjoyed a greater range of manufacturers than the less commonly produced recumbent models. This has meant that those looking to purchase an exercise bike on a budget might have traditionally found more for their money in the upright bike market.
In recent years, this gap has become less pronounced, with more and more budget-friendly recumbent bikes appearing as options on the market. It may still be the case, however, that you may be able to get a marginally better quality build of upright bike for the same amount of money spent on a recumbent model.
Something that hasn’t really changed over time is the space taken up by each type of exercise bike. Upright bikes still have a smaller physical footprint than their recumbent counterparts. By the very nature of their design, recumbent bikes tend to take up more room and are less likely to fold away.
An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!