Is Indoor Cycling as Effective as an Actual Bike Ride?

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cycling

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

With the popularity of indoor cycling, you may be wondering if stationary cycling can really rival a good old-fashioned outdoor bike ride. While even the best simulated outdoor environments can’t beat getting outside in the fresh air, the convenience of indoor cycling is a definite plus. For one, indoor cycling is not dependent on whether and you can binge-watch your favorite shows or blast music while working up a sweat. But is it really as effective of a workout as an outdoor bike ride? 

To find out, we tapped Sandra Gail Frayna, sports physical therapist at Hudson-Premier PT.

Meet the Expert

Indoor Cycling

Indoor cycling has gained in popularity, both in the home and as group classes. Group cycling is one of the most popular activities in fitness centers. If you attend an indoor cycling class, you can benefit from the individual instruction and social interaction of the group. Some people find sweating it up around other people to be extra motivating.

Benefits of Indoor Cycling

“Indoor bikes are obviously made differently from bikes used on the road or mountains. Typical indoor bikes are made with a “flywheel," which is why the bike resists when you pedal,” says Frayna. The American Council On Exercise (ACE) conducted a study and found that a typical cycling class keeps exercisers at around 75 to 95 percent of their maximum heart rate. Here are some additional benefits of indoor cycling:

  • Can be done rain or shine
  • Easy to control resistance
  • Improves endurance and strength
  • Benefits cardiovascular health
  • Helps with weight maintenance or weight loss
  • Builds balance and reduces the risk of falls
  • Increases core strength and stability
  • Encourages better posture

Muscles Targeted During Indoor Cycling

“Since indoor biking uses the flywheel, it works your hamstrings out harder because you are slowing the pedals as they go around,” says Frayna. You’ll likely feel your quads and calves as well as you push against the resistance of the flywheel. Notably, as a beginner, your core will fire up as you maintain balance and generate power through your hips and legs. If you stand up on your bike, you’ll engage your glutes. You can also pedal backward to improve your cycling performance and better work your quadriceps.

It is wise to cross-train with other types of activity, especially full-body strength training.

Outdoor Cycling

Outdoor cycling is a fantastic choice whether you are a pro, training for a race, or love getting on your bike for a leisurely weekend ride. Outdoor bikes are easy to pick up and go and are typically more affordable than indoor bikes. Using your bike for errands and trips is a convenient way to add more activity to your busy day.

Benefits of Outdoor Cycling

Outdoor cycling can provide all of the same benefits as indoor cycling, with some unique bonuses:

  • Improves cognition and psychological function
  • Adds variety to your workouts with fresh scenery
  • Environmentally friendly mode of transportation
  • Can easily be worked into your daily routine, running errands, etc.
  • Provides fresh air and sunshine
  • Getting outdoors makes exercise feel more enjoyable

Muscles Targeted During Outdoor Cycling

Outdoor cycling adds extra challenges, depending on your environment. Factors like road, mountain, and wind resistance require heavy use of your hip flexors and quadriceps. “When biking outdoors, you can target more muscle areas along with the above like the glutes, shins, and calves if you are not just cruising and actually working out the muscles to burn significant calories,” says Frayna.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cycling

Both indoor and outdoor cycling are great options for getting in a good workout. “Unless you are a professional outdoor cycler, I do think it is more efficient to see results with indoor cycling,” explains Frayna. 

While you can get just as much of a workout on an outdoor bike, some obstacles might make indoor cycling more effective. “The common person can struggle with consistently peddling, navigating, and balancing an outdoor bike, and that will take away from going hardcore and burning the same amount of calories you’d easily burn in a convenient class or on a Peloton at home. If you are a professional biker and can sustain a long and grueling workout, you will burn more calories sticking to the outdoors,” adds Frayna.

The Takeaway

There’s no reason why you can’t get the best of both worlds. In fact, indoor cycling can boost your outdoor cycling performance, and outdoor cycling can add variety and new scenery to your workout. Using your bike to run errands or get some weekend activity in the sunshine can boost your mood and make exercise feel like less of a chore. If you really want to get your heart rate up and focus on intensity, an indoor cycling workout might be best, especially if the social aspect of group classes helps you perform your best.

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