The Best Recumbent Bikes
The best recumbent bike provides invigorating, low-impact exercise whether your goal is rehabilitation, training, or general fitness. We tapped the knowledge pool of a physical therapist and a fitness trainer and put in ride time on the six most promising models. Our two top picks offer intense workouts in comfortable designs.
The 2 Best Recumbent Bikes
The Best Recumbent Bikes: Summed Up
Smooth ride at high intensity
Console set high
Rough transition from high to low intensity
Why we chose it
the NordicTrack VR25 will appeal especially to taller users, or users who prefer to be farther back from the console. It boasts a well-crafted, comfortable seat with good lumbar support, and keeps both water bottle holder and heart sensors handy, flanking the seat. The seat adjusts with no problem, and that plus the general spaciousness of the bike make it easy to get on and off—which may be of particular interest to those with mobility issues. Even the pedals are built for comfort: They’re ergonomic and extra wide, with adjustable straps. To put it simply, this is a bike that is designed to keep you comfortable while you’re working off calories.
The fully-loaded, intuitive console, with optional iFit fitness technology, helped us have a more satisfying and informed workout. You have to buy a monthly subscription to unlock iFit’s full potential — scenic videos, trainer-guided workouts, and so forth — but even without the subscription, the clarity and sophistication of its touchscreens and basic programming is stellar. Even on basic screens (i.e., when we weren’t virtually cycling Hawaiian highways), we enjoyed the glossy layout, which organizes all available info legibly and gives clear indicators of where you can customize (changing measurements for distance, for example, with a quick swipe). We admired the wide range of metrics, as well as how intuitive they were to access.
The NordicTrack offers reliably smooth, mellow resistance, except when we switched from high to low intensity. In general, though, the exceptional ride feel benefited from a molded, flexible plastic seat back that moves with you, keeping your back cradled as your body naturally twists side to side.
Smooth ride at high intensity
Another factor that made the NordicTrack unique: The smooth ride feel. The silken ride quality is especially notable at high resistance levels and enabled us to push through tough climbs without losing cadence or motivation. Even the lowest numbers are on par with the mid-range intensity we experienced on other bikes. Surprisingly, this doesn’t result in unusable highs. The elastic, forward-springing motion of the pedals kept our movements natural even as we were muscling against the top setting.
Points to consider
Console set high
Our one major gripe: The console is up high, and there’s no way to adjust it. Result: The otherwise flawless touchscreen is a little hard to see and use—unless you’re taller than six feet, in which case this “con” might be a “pro” for you.
We’re mostly comfortable with the finicky nature of touchscreens (you have to tap at the right angle to get a response) but the extreme perch of the NordicTrack’s screen made using it challenging. Challenging enough to take the NordicTrack out of the running entirely? Not at all. But it did have us scouring the manual and manufacturer website for a nonexistent solution. Taller users won’t have any issues, but the farther you are beneath six feet, the more problems you’ll have.
Rough transition from high to low density
While the consistent resistance quality is luxurious, the bike’s not totally silent. There’s a grumble that provides a detailed mental picture of the flywheel spinning away inside the cover. And it can’t maintain its placid ride quality at lower resistance levels. When reducing the intensity or slowing to a stop, you hear and feel a clattering as the flywheel loses momentum.
Solid controls and programming
Easy to move
Uneven peddling at high intensity
Why we chose it
Controls and programming
Nautilus’ controls and programming options are presented in a bold, brightly colored arrangement that’s immediately easy to use — scroll through workouts with arrow buttons or select from numbered resistance levels. No guessing required. And you won’t be constrained when it comes to choice — pick from 29 workout programs, just a handful fewer than the NordicTrack. And just because it doesn’t come equipped with technology doesn’t mean that you can’t bring your own to the table. Media plug-ins and Bluetooth connectivity allow you to blast your own music through the speakers and upload workout stats to your phone. We also appreciated the convenient, seat-side water bottle holder and heart rate sensors.
Easy to move
While we found that a low overall weight correlated with a poorer ride feel, there’s a flipside. The Nautilus R616 is super easy to move. Weighing in at 92 pounds, the Nautilus is more than 50 pounds lighter than the NordicTrack VR25. A lightweight body plus convenient handles make the Nautilus a great option if you’re looking to wheel your recumbent bike out of sight when you’re done working out.
The Nautilus comes with an impressive warranty — a full five years for parts, plus two for labor. That means you won’t have to tinker with any fixes for a good long while. We value manufacturer assurance that equipment will remain functional, so with longevity in mind, we pegged the Nautilus R616 as the best budget bike.
Points to consider
If you’re spending less on your recumbent bike, you’ll have to make some sacrifices. We found the biggest difference came in adjustability — cheaper models were harder to adjust than their more expensive counterparts. But between our most affordable bikes, the Nautilus was easiest to adjust and was guilty of only a little harmless rocking while adjustments were made.
Uneven peddling at high intensity
The Nautilus R616 can reach satisfyingly intense levels, but you start to lose the sensation of cycling in the process. At top levels, we felt like we were climbing stairs. And staying seated while climbing stairs is just as tricky as you’d imagine: We kept slipping down into a slouch as we tried to punch one foot forward at a time.
No matter the resistance level, cheaper bikes tend to ease up the intensity at the crest of each rotation, resulting in uneven, staccato-like pedaling. We have a theory why: While the Nautilus boasts an exceptionally heavy flywheel (30 pounds) it’s a light machine overall, which reveals that other components may not be of equal quality. Heavier bikes, regardless of flywheel weight, do a better job at maintaining constant resistance around the axis and kept us squarely in our seats.
How We Chose the Best Recumbent Bikes
Recumbent bikes offer excellent, low-impact exercise that’s well-suited for anyone who’s just embarking on a workout regimen, dealing with lower-back issues, or starting on the long road to injury recovery. They take the load off your back and joints, with a full bucket seat and forward-positioned pedals.
Physical therapist Mitch Owens of Union Physical Therapy underlined comfort and convenience as two of recumbent bikes’ best features: “You get upper back support from the chair and they’re easy to get on and off of. Both are great for mobility issues.” Physical trainer Drew Logan echoed this sentiment, noting that “Recumbent is good for low back or load-bearing issues. Other [upright] styles may make injuries express themselves, but on a recumbent, [your] feet are in front of you.” This allows you to pedal without putting pressure on knees.
More detailed consoles
Recumbents also tend to have more detailed consoles than other exercise bikes. A recumbent bike may not give you the toughest cycling workout, but its superior comfort and rich programming could prove more motivating for users who prefer more direction. In the interest of keeping us engaged and motivated, we looked for bikes offering a wealth of programming and a wide range of intensities — at least 20 preloaded workouts and 15 levels of resistance.
One of the biggest indicators of a console’s value: how it depicts heart rate. The NordicTrack provides a numerical heart rate reading that pops up in a small window when you ask for it and then disappears. The Nautilus utilizes a large, always-present bar chart that indicates your heart rate zone (Warm-up, Fat Burn, Aerobic, Anaerobic) based on percentage of max heart rate, no exact number at all.
Recumbent bikes create resistance with electromagnets shifting toward and away from a metal flywheel. Pedaling against too little resistance can be jerky, analogous to pedaling your bike while coasting downhill. Heavier flywheels improve ride feel by absorbing energy output. State-of-the-art recumbents have flywheels weighing in at around 30 pounds, while poorly rated models hover in the low teens. To ensure smooth, even pedaling, we required the flywheel to weigh at least 20 pounds.
Durable and low maintenance
Exercise equipment needs a lot of intricate parts to create ergonomic motion. These components are easy to overtax with intense use, and the fix typically isn’t straightforward. As a guarantee against the headache of flawed machinery, we wanted to see a substantial parts warranty. Recumbent bike warranties are longer than that of other styles (as many as five years, while stationary bikes typically cap off at three), so we drew a line at two years, minimum.
How to Find the Right Recumbent Bikes for You
Consider your height
More so than with a treadmill or elliptical, your height is a factor with recumbent bikes. The length of your legs is important, of course, but upper body height also plays into it, since some bikes, like the NordicTrack VR25, feature consoles that don’t adjust. Notice where the heart rate sensor and water bottle holder are placed, too. You’ll want something you can easily reach without breaking stride.
Check for fit
The ideal recumbent bike has a comfortable, supportive seat and back, with curves that cradle your posture but don’t confine your movement. The seat needs some traction — a textured surface to guard against sliding around while pedaling. It also allows for easy adjustments, sliding to the perfect length without coaxing. You shouldn’t have to work up a sweat before you work up a sweat.
Test the console
In addition to exceptional comfort, recumbents also tend to have more detailed consoles than other exercise bikes. Look at your bike’s fitness programs and health metrics, and count how many times you have to press a button in order to level up or change programs. Easy-to-read screens that keep it simple should score high.
Recumbent Bikes FAQ
How do I adjust the seat correctly?
A 2013 study on maximizing comfort in recumbent cycling found that women 5’1” to 5’4” preferred the seat a little less than 25 inches to the crankshaft center (middle of flywheel) and a little more than 18 inches from the ground. From these findings, they proposed two equations to find anyone’s perfect seat.
357.729 + 0.687 (body height in cm) = Distance from seat center to crankshaft center in mm
153.018 + 3.065 (body height in cm) = Distance from seat center to ground in mm
We plugged our measurements into the formula and calibrated the seats accordingly, leading to a little scientific discovery of our own. The closer you get to six feet, the equation drastically underestimates leg length.The best way to find your perfect position: Adjust the seat a little at a time till you hit your sweet spot, where your knees maintain a 10-15 degree bend when fully extended.
What’s all this fuss about iFit?
Created by ICON Fitness, the company that manufacturers both NordicTrack and ProForm bikes, iFit is state-of-the-art technology that kicks your workout up several levels. The company boasts that it offers 12,000 on-demand streaming workout options, in-depth stat tracking, and a pipeline to Google Maps — so you can plant your workout anywhere in the world. Select your own personal coach from their professional lineup, and you’re on your way.
Are recumbent bikes better than upright?
Sometimes. “Recumbent” suggests that you’re lying down while riding one, but that’s not quite true. You do, however, recline back further than you would on a stationary bike, and thus the seat can be wider — avoiding the “wedgie” problem of an upright bike that requires a narrow seat to avoid chafing on the inside of your thighs. On a recumbent, your lower back is relaxed and supported, you aren’t leaning on your hands, and your feet and the pedals are in front of you. Recumbent bikes place less stress on the joints and are sometimes recommended for those just starting a fitness program, older adults, and those in rehabilitation.
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