Not all exercise bikes are equal in their resistance systems, and the difference between them can affect your workout.
Four different exercise bike resistance types dictate your riding experience and your comfort level.
Each has its pros and cons, along with additional considerations.
Exercise Bike Resistance Types
Exercise bikes offer a variety of features and accommodations depending on your needs.
Between the frame, seat, onboard technological components, and folding or non-folding capabilities, there’s a lot to learn when shopping for an exercise bike.
The ability to adjust your bike’s resistance to customize the intensity of your workout lies in its resistance system. There are four main types of exercise bike resistance:
Why Exercise Bikes Need Resistance
Like the way that standard bicycle functions, exercise bikes use pedaling and a bike-shaped frame to mimic the experience of pedaling outdoors. Rather than wheels, exercise bikes utilize flywheels to accommodate pedaling.
Consider riding across a flat service, such as a city street. A cruiser bike or another type of bicycle with limited gears would result in a smooth and easy pedaling experience. But for most people who exercise using stationary bikes, that isn’t much of a challenge.
That’s why exercise bikes utilize different means of resistance.
Without resistance, riding your exercise bike would feel like cruising a city street with little effort. This is not the aerobic effect that people are looking for when they purchase a stationary bike.
What’s a Flywheel?
The “wheel” at the front of an exercise bike is the flywheel. It allows the rider to pedal. Without a flywheel, your pedals would spin in the breeze.
But not all flywheels are the same.
The flywheel spins and helps you build momentum, but the weight of the flywheel dictates how much momentum builds up.
The function of the flywheel is to imitate the feel of cycling outdoors, particularly the feeling of pedaling uphill. This way, you can bring the outdoor biking experience indoors.
Flywheels range in weight from around 30 pounds to 50 pounds depending on the manufacturer’s specifications. Heavier flywheels usually mean higher costs for your exercise bike, as well as less maneuverability. This is an important consideration if you plan to stow your bike or move it around often.
What Bike Is Best For You?
The most important item to consider is your level of fitness.
For someone who is just starting out with exercise biking or aerobic fitness in general, a bike with limited capabilities is ideal. For advanced athletes, a bike with additional options and customization potential helps to tailor the experience to the rider.
Also, think about your physical condition and whether you have any medical needs that limit your ability to ride a stationary bike. People with joint conditions or pain, for example, may prefer cycles that offer low levels of resistance.
Riders who intend to rebuild strength as part of rehabilitation at home will want to adjust the resistance as they progress through treatment. This might mean a low resistance level to start, but which bike works best for you will depend on not only your current fitness level but your long-term goals as well.
Finally, if you are not mechanically inclined, you would do well to avoid bikes that involve complicated setup processes or routine maintenance that requires tools. These types of bikes will only cause frustration later when they are due for technological updates or fluid replacement.
For conventional bicycles, brakes offer to slow and stopping capabilities.
Many exercise bikes utilize this same technology to add or remove resistance during your ride. Bicycle braking systems apply friction to your wheels. In a conventional bike, this slows or stops your ride.
In exercise bikes, controlled braking makes it easier or more difficult to pedal. This translates into either a challenging or leisurely ride, depending on your preferences. However, even within the brake-based system category, there is an assortment of braking systems available.
Some brake-based systems include:
Brake-based systems are a low-cost way of adding resistance to an exercise bike. However, due to the nature of the friction between the braking system and the flywheel, you can expect to deal with equipment malfunctions or repair needs.
Still, these bikes typically cost less than bikes with more advanced capabilities and materials, and the feel of riding one of these bikes is similar to that of a conventional bicycle.
Direct-contact resistance, also friction resistance, uses friction along the flywheel to adjust the intensity of your ride. Manual gears or buttons on the dashboard allow you to adjust the resistance.
This method of resistance also uses braking pads along with the flywheel.
Direct contact covers most braking systems but doesn’t specify the exact braking setup that these bikes use.
Direct-contact resistance bikes offer effective resistance cycling at a reasonable price point compared to machines with newer technology. This means a lower cost up-front, but potential costs later for repairs and routine maintenance.
The power of magnets adds elemental control to your exercise biking experience. These exercise bikes utilize electronic components (like an onboard computer) to adjust resistance based on pre-set programs in the bike.
Magnets, in combination with a flywheel, resist your bike’s turning mechanism. Adjusting the resistance settings on the bike results in a change in the level of electric current passing through the magnets. This means either a stronger or weaker magnetic force depending on the setting.
These systems employ current technology that surpasses the rugged braking systems of past generations. In that way, magnetic resistance is an advanced technique that eliminates the need for friction-based resistance. There is no “drag” with magnetic resistance the way that there is with direct contact systems.
Magnetic resistance exercise bikes can cost more than other types of bikes. This is because the quality and longevity of the materials are higher. Friction resistance bikes require routine maintenance and even replacement of parts at regular intervals.
Magnetic resistance bikes often avoid complicated repairs, but this equates to a higher investment up-front. However, without serious maintenance costs, later on, your purchase might wind up as a one-time investment.
Fan-based resistance bikes use air to manage the resistance in your bike’s flywheel.
The faster you ride, the more resistance you encounter. This is because your movement makes the fan’s air blade travel faster, against the pressure you’re applying to the pedals from the opposite direction.
Because this type of bike uses an actual fan, this means a built-in cooling feature that is a welcome relief to riders during extreme workouts.
However, this also means more noise than other types of exercise bikes, although the sound is a mild “white noise” rather than a grating noise.
Because the resistance of a fan-based stationary bike depends on your pedaling intensity, your ability to adjust the resistance is limited to pedaling speed. This means there are no pre-programmed workouts to choose from, nor any fine-tuning ability to control your ride.
For people new to stationary cycling, these bikes are a good introductory exploration into resistance cycling. However, for people who are familiar with customizing their workouts and want more ways to challenge themselves, another exercise bike resistance type might serve their needs better.
Still, fan-based bikes are an affordable choice for many beginning cyclists, and their lack of complex parts makes their mechanical offerings straightforward.
While it may still prove difficult to decide on which of these exercise bike resistance types are best for your fitness needs, this overview suggests that inexperienced athletes may favor simple machines over those with extra bells and whistles.
While testing out different types of exercise bikes is ideal, that’s not always possible when shopping online. Hopefully, this guide will give a helpful perspective on the ups and downs of all exercise bike resistance types.