Lately, it seems like everyone and their mother is buying a stationary bike of their own to use at home. Coronavirus-related gym shutdowns have likely played a role in that, but it also helps that tons of fitness brands have developed their own stationary bikes in the last few years. The options go way beyond the old-school machine collecting dust in your parents’ basement; now, bikes don’t just come with handles and pedals, but with video screens and wireless connections to your activity tracker.
One thing has remained the same, though, despite all the techy upgrades: Comfort is the most important thing to consider. “Make sure you’re comfortable on the bike because you may be on it for long periods of time,” says Dan Giordano, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., CMO of Bespoke Treatments. Actually hopping on the bike and adjusting it until it feels right is the best way to know, but if you’re buying online, Giordano suggests reading the product details and watching whatever videos are available.
Reading product reviews can also help, says personal trainer Ava Fagin, C.S.C.S. And if you can’t find the info you need, call the retailer and ask as many questions as possible. A stationary bike is a pretty significant investment (and a heavy item to have to ship back). You want to make sure you really enjoy using the one you buy.
Before you do any online shopping, first think about how you plan to use the bike, says Amina Daniels, trainer and founder and CEO of Live Cycle Delight, an inclusive fitness studio offering indoor cycling, yoga, TRX, mat Pilates, barre, and virtual classes. Some things to ask yourself: How often do you plan to ride it? Do you want the bike to come with a subscription to stream classes, or do you plan to stream classes on various platforms? Do you want a bike that mimics your outdoor bike? “Once you decide what your needs are, you will be better equipped to shop online,” Daniels says.
When comparing stationary bikes, our experts suggest checking for a handful of specific features to make sure that the bike will be comfortable and help you meet your exercise goals. For SELF’s product reviews, where we rigorously test and evaluate all kinds of wellness products to help you decide what’s worth buying, we wanted to know exactly what those criteria were. We spoke with Giordano, Fagin, and Daniels to find out what the experts suggest. Based on their input, here’s what we pay attention to when testing stationary bikes for reviews.
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Stationary Bike Evaluation and Testing Criteria
As we mentioned, comfort is key when looking for a stationary bike, and a lot of whether a bike works for you may boil down to the seat, which needs to feel comfortable when you sit on it. “Too hard a seat will cause pain in the tailbone and sometimes numbness in the legs and toes if it’s not comfortable for you to sit on,” says Fagin. It’s hard to tell from words like gel, foam, and ergonomic what the seat will actually feel like on your tush, so ask for more details before you order. If it ends up not being as comfortable as you’d hoped, that’s not a deal breaker—you can buy a seat cushion or even padded cycling shorts to ride comfortably, says Daniels. You should also be able to swap out the seat for a completely different one that you like better.
Adjustable Seat and Handlebars
A good stationary bike should have a seat that adjusts both vertically (up and down) and horizontally (forward and backward). Make sure the seat adjusts in such a way that you can get into proper positioning on the bike, says Giordano. (Here’s a guide to help you figure out what your best positioning looks like.)
In addition, handlebars should be adjustable both up and down and forward and backward, says Giordano. That way, you have room to play around and make sure you can get in the right position. The more settings available, the more personalized and specific the adjustments can get.
The best handlebar shape depends on how you plan to use the bike—will you mostly be taking group fitness classes with an upper-body portion, or using the bike as an indoor alternative to your road bike? “If you want a bike for more aerobic dance moves and weights, you want a sturdy handlebar with a weight rack feature,” Daniel says. “If you’re accustomed to a road bike, you may want a stationary bike with drop-down handlebars.”
Being able to adjust resistance is hugely important for making a workout harder or easier, and for following along in a group fitness class. A digital resistance control can provide a better experience than a knob that you turn, Giordano says. “Computer-controlled magnetic resistance on a flywheel is great for a more realistic ride, and you won’t have to reach down to turn a knob in order to create more resistance.”
It’s important to make sure a stationary bike is stable, says Daniels. You definitely don’t want a bike that shifts back and forth as you ride—for safety reasons, comfort reasons, and even noise reasons. “Watch videos of people riding to check if the bike looks sturdy and it doesn’t sway,” Giordano suggests. When you pedal (both sitting and standing out of the saddle) the bike shouldn’t move. It should stay firmly planted on the floor. “If it doesn’t look stable or like it can support your weight, then it may lack durability,” Daniels adds. She suggests checking the weight of the bike: The heavier it is, the higher the chance it’s going to be sturdy and stable.
Ease of Use
For stationary bikes that have built-in video screens to stream classes, Fagin suggests looking for something that’s touchscreen and has a simple user interface. If it’s not easy to understand how to choose a class, change the settings, and so on, it can end up making your workout more stressful instead of optimizing it. “A larger screen does help you feel like you’re actually in the studio,” Fagin adds. “The bikes I’ve used that have a large screen barely make you feel like you’re in your own home! It’s also fun to try out the scenery rides with a big screen.” A mount for a phone or tablet is useful in place of a built-in video screen. Both built-ins and mounts should be positioned above the handlebars, preferably adjustable in order to be at a comfortable eye level, Giordano says.
In addition to the above criteria, experts suggest you look for additional features if those fit your goals, such as:
Ability to Attach a Heart Rate Monitor and Headphones
Connectivity is obviously not essential to a good workout, but it may be on your features wish list. If you’re a person who likes to track your stats, you might want a bike that is able to sync with your fitness tracker or heart rate monitor, says Fagin. Bluetooth capability to attach headphones is also a convenient feature on any bike that has a built-in video screen, especially if you’re taking a class with roommates around.
If the bike has an attached video screen, it should also display your stats there. If it doesn’t, look for a small digital tracker that shows your speed, RPM, distance, and watts (or power). While you may not need this, a lot of people want to track their stats. You may also find it helpful during a class, if the instructor uses cues based on reaching a certain RPM or wattage.
“Don’t forget a place for your water,” Daniels says. Especially if you plan to ride often and for longer periods of time, you may want a bike that has two water bottle holders, she adds.
How SELF Tests Stationary Bikes for Review
We test each stationary bike over several weeks, making sure to perform workouts that require adjustments to resistance.