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The Best Exercise Bike, A low-impact, heart-pumping ride — no racing silks required, Review.com, December 20, 2017
How We Found the Best Exercise Bike
Exercise bikes come in many styles — upright, recumbent, hybrid — but spin bikes offer the most fitness benefits. They encourage the best alignment and weight distribution, are highly adjustable for a biomechanic fit, and encourage the kind of intense aerobic/anaerobic workout that fitness experts endorse. In short: They work your body in the right way.
“Spin bikes are your best option. Each bike style has its pluses and minuses, but a spin bike offers a heavy flywheel and a consistent feel with even resistance. And the adjustability is great.”
We compiled a list of 43 spin bikes from Bladez, Diamondback, Keiser, Nautilus, NordicTrack, Peloton, Proform, Schwinn, Spinning, and Sunny — leading spin bike manufacturers, frequently found in health clubs and spin classrooms.
To find which bikes were built best, we looked for four essential features.
- Adjustability. Ergonomic positioning means your body is properly aligned, distributing weight load and working muscles symmetrically. Dr. Owens puts it as his top priority: “You need total adjustability.” That means both the seat and handlebars have to be able to move to help riders achieve proper form: ideally both up and down and fore and aft.
- A weighted flywheel, instead of an ECB (electric or eddy current braking) system. A quality aerobic/anaerobic workout is spinning’s claim to fame. When your effort affects the intensity of the resistance, you are working both harder and smarter than you would be on a machine with mechanically controlled resistance: A weighted flywheel becomes harder to turn the more energetically you pedal, and those user-controlled bursts of power are what make spinning good for you. In contrast, ECB systemes rely on the pull of magnets to create intensity and thereby reduce muscle demand.
- Minimum 30-pound flywheel. A heavy flywheel reduces the turbulence of pedaling and ensure your workouts continue to challenge you as your fitness level improves. Top of the line spin bikes have flywheels weighing between 40 and 50 pounds, while cheaper bikes taper off before they hit 20. A 30 pound flywheel is a good benchmark.
- Minimum one-year warranty. Durable and reliable exercise equipment comes with a warranty: the company stands behind its manufacturing. Spin bike warranties typically aren’t long (typically less than three years), but customer reviews informed us that the machines tend to exhibit any existing flaws within the first year. We wanted protection against the most typical first-year concerns: faulty drive systems (the chain or belt that rotates the flywheel), malfunctioning displays, and ripped upholstery.
Combing for these essential features narrowed the field from 43 models to seven. Our standard for a one-year warranty took out a whole slew of Sunny spin bikes, from the very cheap to the expensive (those are sold under the brand name ASUNA), as well as a lone NordicTrack. The remaining bikes all aced the adjustability mark (at least on paper) and most passed our mandate that they rely on a weighted flywheel for resistance, rather than an ECB system — the exception being a few NordicTrack models and all of Keiser’s lineup.
The 30 pound flywheel stipulation took a larger toll. Most spin bikes with flywheels at or under 20 pounds are relying on an ECB system, even if the manufacturer doesn’t specify it. A good indicator: reporting “effective flywheel weight” as opposed to pure flywheel weight. We ended up cutting all bikes with flywheel weights labeled as “effective,” even if their effective weight was near 30 pounds. Their actual weight was unavailable, even after directly calling the manufacturer company. A heavy, user-powered flywheel is a non-negotiable for great indoor cycles, and this is where we lost the big name Peloton brand, a spendy Proform, and three mid-priced Spinning models.
We brought in the seven that made it through our gauntlet to test drive for ride feel, adjustability, and overall usability.
- Spinning Spinner Edge
- Spinning Spinner Sprint
- Bladez Fusion
- Bladez Echelon
- Schwinn IC2
- Diamondback 510Ic
- Diamondback 910Ic
We wanted a smooth ride and sensitive resistance.
We only brought in spin bikes boasting impressively heavy flywheels — the top arbiter of ride feel — so we were surprised in the different ride experiences, which ranged from gravelly to gliding. The best spun in silence, not jostling even as we amped up intensity, riding out of the saddle: the two Bladez bikes (the Echelon and the Fusion) and the two Diamondbacks (the 501Ic and the 901Ic).
Between the Bladez, the Fusion fell behind for its slightly grinding, jostling wheel, a sensation that vibrated up our legs like we were going over train tracks. The feel of pedaling on the Echelon, by comparison, was consistent and flawless. At most, it emits a barely noticeable hum. One tester, casting around for an adjective for the excellent ride, came up with “buttery” in reference to the even, dense resistance she encountered. And while both Diamondbacks aced ride feel, we preferred the 501Ic. The 901Ic rated a hair better than its lower-level counterpart, but not enough to warrant 200 bucks.
To toggle resistance, the Bladez bikes have you twist a knob; both Diamondbacks leverage digital consoles. We ended up liking the console approach more than we thought we would. It’s slightly finicky, insofar as you have to select “Manual” and arrow up one level at a time, but once you get the hang of it, it’s no more time-consuming than reaching down and twisting a resistance knob. And, compared to knob controls, the leveling is much more precise.
Our three Schwinn and Spinning bikes lost us with rickety, noisy flywheels and resistance knobs that needed way too many rotations before we felt any effect. They scored lowest overall for ride experience. The one thing all three have in common: chain drives. Indoor cycles employ either a metal link chain or a rubber belt to connect the movement of the pedals to the rotation of the flywheel, and while there are lots of competing opinions about which is more durable, our unanimous opinion is that a belt drive makes for the steadiest ride. It ended up being the lone mechanical difference between our buttery Echelon ride and the less-pleasant Fusion.
And a bike adjustable enough for anyone to sit at a 45-degree angle.
While the pitched-forward posture and hard saddle of a spin bike may not seem particularly ergonomic, those factors are actually preferable to sitting upright atop a squishy seat. Sitting erect while biking dumps weight into the lumbar region while engaging the hip flexors, and that can quickly lead to back complaints.
“It’s better exercise, and better for you biomechanically, to exercise at an angle than upright.”
On a spin bike, the 45-degree tilt of the trunk evenly distributes weight between the rear and hands, also allowing you to work your glutes and hamstrings. According to Dr. Owens, “It’s better exercise, and better for you biomechanically, to exercise at an angle than upright.” (And thanks to that unforgiving seat, you won’t be tempted to cheat by sitting up straight.)
Our top picks needed to be adjustable enough to put any sized body in the ideal 45-degree angle. While most users won’t need extremely low and high settings, everyone will need to make small tweaks, likely at all four possible points of adjustment. We wanted bikes that allow adjustment up and down, as well as fore and aft, on both the seat and handlebars.
Unfortunately, no bike makes this effortless. Each was plagued with sticky threads, hard-to-grasp knobs, and finicky pins. We gave our highest scores to the bikes that hit our adjustment criteria — then gave preference to those that tried our patience the least.
The Bladez Echelon, the Schwinn IC2, and the Diamondback 901Ic came out on top here. Their adjustment mechanisms were the quickest and least painful, and their handlebars don’t come flying off after one overzealous jerk.
Our favorite displays let us track our stats without hassle or guesswork.
The simple display of a spin bike might be a surprise after the flashy consoles of other gym equipment like treadmills, but reducing features might improve your exercise. “Bells and whistles can detract from your workout,” Dr. Owens asserts. “You’re not engaging.” Rather than zoning out to to the news, he recommends keeping an eye on your stats.
Stats that reflect your effort level, such as RPM (wheel rotations per minute) and watts(rotations plus force), are vital for getting a good spin workout. And they’re all but mandatory if you’re going to follow any virtual training session — all the instructions are based on your intensity level.
We were surprised that neither Spinning bike we tested (made by the manufacturer that gave the indoor cycle its household name) came with a display. Relying on the resistance knob for intensity is fine — that was the setup on most of the bikes we tested. But not being able to see how hard or how long you were working was a big blow to our ride experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Diamondback 901Ic, which crushed so many of our other tests, came with a decked-out display that refused to work. It scrolled wildly between options without allowing us to change or select a resistance level. (Basic troubleshooting couldn’t fix the problem — good thing Diamondback’s warranty covers electronic components.) While the malfunction inhibited our testing, our preference for its little-brother model, the 501Ic boiled down to value: The ride feel and programming (when functional) are close to identical, and that undermines the 901’s $200 up-charge.
Our testing pulled two different spin bikes into the lead. One satisfied all our basic needs in a design that kept us comfortable and engaged. The other upped the ante with complete metrics that helped keep our motivation and performance high.
Our Picks for the Best Exercise Bikes
Best Basic Exercise Bike
The Bladez Echelon scored highest overall in our tests, beating out spin bikes that cost nearly three times as much. Despite its relatively small price tag (you can find it for about $400 on Amazon), the ride quality — fluidly rotating pedals and whisper-quiet function — reveals its solid construction. No matter how high or low you set the intensity, every push encounters smooth and substantial resistance that doesn’t weigh down your effort, but adds to it. The flywheel churns with a barely noticeable hum and, when you push down on the brake, it comes to a swift stop. We got off after our first ride and had to double-check the price — we’d found an unexpected diamond.
The Echelon’s adjustability allows pretty much anyone to achieve a 45-degree body angle. It puts more priority on horizontal distance than vertical distance. Its handlebar and seat don’t ratchet up and down as much as some (the Schwinn IC2 and Spinner Edge are winners here), but they do slide toward and away from each other by the largest margin – you can set that distance anywhere from 18 to 24 inches (not that anyone realistically has a 24-inch torso). This is an important adjustment people need for perfect posture: you need to tailor where your hips are in relation to your knees and match the torso length to your own, not just set the seat the right distance from the pedals.
When it comes to leg extension, though, it’s plenty versatile, with a seat-to-pedal range of 28.4 to 36 inches. (The right distance for you is slightly less than your inseam.) With the Echelon’s intelligent range of measurements, all our testers were able to sit well forward, hands resting on the slightly downward-sloped handles. Another plus: greased-up components and labeled levers make the task of adjusting in all four places a lot easier.
We jumped on for our first ride anticipating that the tiny, coaster-sized display would leave us wanting more, but it was actually refreshing to be given something so simple and easy to control. It tracks the basics (time speed, distance, and RPMs, though sadly, not watts) and allows you to toggle through them, let them cycle, or focus on just the one you care about. The Schwinn’s display is similar, but the only option is continuous cycle — a little frustrating if you want to focus in on time or speed, for example.
The Echelon’s slim frame, with an arcing compass rose design on the flywheel, echoes the bike’s dynamic motion and points to its portability. While its flywheel weighs in at 40 pounds (the heavy end of our contenders), its total weight is lighter than most — 88 pounds versus 100. Tilting it up on its front wheels for transport is a breeze. Others, notably the super-heavy Diamondbacks, were difficult to keep up on their wheels and clumsy to maneuver in any direction. Like them, the Echelon’s frame is made of resilient steel, but components like the pedals are made of lightweight aluminum, which eases the total load. It can still handle riders up to 275 pounds.
If we could amend one thing about the Bladez Echelon, it would be calibrating the sensitivity of the resistance knob. We appreciated not having to turn it much in order to make significant changes, but sometimes it felt too easy to overshoot in either direction. Still, it was a time-saver over both the detailed console of the Diamondback and the slow-to-respond knob of the Schwinn.
If you’re looking for detailed feedback on your workout in addition to an exceptionally smooth ride, the Diamondback 501Ic delivers. It’s a luxury model at a mid-range price — at $800, it’s $200 cheaper than top-tier bikes we liked less — and fitness programming of its caliber is rare amongst spin bikes, typically known for their minimalist approach.
On all the rest, displays are barely more than stopwatches. About the size of a credit card machine, the display on the Diamondback 501Ic is dense with information and options, providing access to fitness programs (all tried-and-true standards like interval training and hill climb), resistance levels, calories, heart rate (your palms rest on the reader pads), and, finally, watts. The stat we think should be a standard for spin bikes finally showed up here — and only here.
Informative feedback like heart rate and watts gives more of the directed workout that you might be used to from the commercial-quality, high-tech equipment at your gym. And because spinning is intended to be a concentrated, high-intensity workout, we appreciated that the Diamondback’s display gave us options without giving us distractions. It’s straightforward enough that you can make changes without losing your rhythm.
Another point of commonality the 501Ic has with commercial cycles: it’s hefty. Though the flywheel weighs less than the Echelon’s (32 pounds versus 40), its heavy-duty body is a challenge to tip up and wheel around. At 104 pounds, it weighs less than the 901Ic (135) and the Spinning bikes (121), but a good 20 pounds more than the Echelon. We appreciated the extra solidity while cycling, however. It generates a wonderfully heavy and consistent tension that one tester described as “cycling underwater.” And all that intensity is tempered by easy-to-propel pedals that encourage a springy forward motion.
The gliding sensation continues for as long as you remain seated. We found that standing to pedal awakens creaks in the frame and a little extra noise from the wheel. But during seated riding, the 501Ic was even quieter than the Echelon. On that machine, we could hear the soft sweep of the wool pad braking the wheel, but on the 501Ic, even high speeds and high resistance sounded like nothing more than gentle wind.
When it comes to rider compatibility, this Diamondback has both pros and cons. It’s larger and stronger than the Echelon, accommodating 300 pounds to the Echelon’s 275, and has a seat-to-pedal range that’s slightly wider: 28.5-37.5 inches versus 28.5-36. But we dinged the 501Ic for not having fore and aft adjustability on the handlebars, or the distance between the seat and handlebars. There is technically an option to change the handlebar positioning so long as you’re willing to haul out a toolbox, but most people will rely just on sliding the seat forward and back. This shrinks the 501Ic’s torso range to between 15 and 19 inches: the smallest range of all seven bikes we tested. If you have a particularly long torso, you might be too penned in to achieve perfect form.
Get Your Perfect Fit
Put yourself in the best possible position to get a symmetrical, injury-free workout by ensuring that:
- While pedaling, your knees should maintain a 30 degree bend at full extension
- When your pedals are parallel with the floor, your front knee should be directly above the ball of your foot
- Handlebars should be no more than two to four inches higher than the front of the saddle
- Your weight rests on your sit bones
- Your trunk is strong and straight, leaning forward at a 45 degree angle
Did You Know?
Low, high, low, sprint! The explosive effort of a spin workout is great for fitness.
Trainer Drew Logan, author of the nutrition self-help book 25 Days, ranks user-powered machines above motorized options, no matter the category. From rowing machines to spin bikes, they “absolutely give a more intense workout and a more accurate indicator of conditioning.” That’s because spinning, while “low impact, is also aerobic plus anaerobic. You have to flex muscle.” And that boosts your metabolism. Most cardio stops burning calories as soon as you stop moving: “When I’m done with cardio, cardio’s done with me,” Logan quipped. But thanks to the muscle activation of spinning, your system will be accelerated for a full day after your workout.
The intensity of spinning is not for everyone.
Logan noted that spinning, like rowing, running, or swimming, accurately reflects your fitness level. It’s also a great way to increase it. Approximately 25 percent of a spin session is spent at or above the Ventilatory Threshold (when you’re breathing faster than you can take in oxygen), which is where athletes need to frequently train. You’re over the threshold when you can’t speak in full sentences. But if you’re older or not in great shape, working out at VT could be hazardous.
And it’s not just the extreme risks, like overexerting your heart, that you need to be aware of. The constant forward motion demanded by a spin bike’s fixed-gear pedals can cause the foot to jerk forward if you’re not consciously pedaling. And that could spell serious trouble for your IT band. “If you’ve never done cycling before, a spin bike may not be a good place to start,” Logan summarized. If that sounds like you, stay tuned for our review of recumbent stationary bikes, coming in January 2018.
You can take a virtual spinning class.
Devotees of SoulCycle (or its offshoot, Flywheel) catch a high off the in-class cycling experience, but there’s a slew of online classes that can bring a little team spirit home. Join instructor-led cycling sessions via Peloton, Studio Sweat, or CycleCast. Or turn your workout into a gaming session with the immersive experience of Zwift.