Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Indoor cycling is so much fun and is such great exercise, but you have to get the bike properly set up otherwise you
will be uncomfortable and SORE! Proper bike set up encompasses 3 things: the seat height, the handle bar height and the distance between seat and handle bars.
If you are at the gym and see somebody else around your height get off a stationary bike, you might well think you can jump on and it will be already properly adjusted. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Somebody may be the same height & build but having different proportions in the legs, torso, and upper body means the bike needs to adjusted differently. The seat height is important because you want to make sure that your leg is able to extend all the way down to the pedal. A quick and easy way to start figuring out the correct seat height is to stand next to the bike and set the seat just below your hip bones. Usually the bike has a knob that you turn and pull out, then adjust the seat up or down. When you get it set right below your hip bone, make sure to tighten again.
Then hop on the bike and see what it looks like when you pedal. At the very bottom of the pedal stroke, you want the bottom of your foot parallel to the ground while having a slight bend in your knee. A little bend in the knee reduces the stress on the joint as compared to having the leg fully extended with the knee locked out. But be wary of setting the seat too low as well, which will cause the knees to go in or out as you pedal, which also is not good on the knees. As you are fitting the bike, make sure you are wearing the footwear you would normally wear in class. Believe it or not, the thickness of the sole could have an impact.
While we are talking about footwear, I want to mention cycle shoes which could be a good investment if you find yourself cycling frequently. Cycle shoes are non-pliable meaning they won’t bend - they have a solid bottom surface that clips into the pedals. This is advantageous because you’re able to push evenly through your foot and get a stronger pedal stroke. Not only can you push down but you can also pull up thereby getting more power along the way. There are two clip systems – Look Delta and SPD, so before you buy you need to understand what type of pedals are on the bike you will use. Some gyms are outfitting their bikes with Triple Link pedals, which can be used with Look Delta and SPD cycle shoes as well as street shoes (hence triple in the name). Many users find Look Delta easier to clip in and clip out, but SPD is a tighter connection.
The handle bar height is the second major factor in bike fit. You always want the handlebars to be at least equal to or higher than the seat. Beyond that it doesn’t make too much of a difference. Some riders like them high so they don’t have to lean as far forward. You’ll see some numbers on the side of the handlebars - note that usually they will indicate the highest level. Of course it’s not safe to go beyond that level.
Fore and Aft
Two other adjustments on a bike are called “fore” and “aft”. This refers to how much forward and back the handlebars are relative to the front wheel fork and similarly the seat position relative to the seat post. So in other words the distance between the handle bars and the seat. A good rule of thumb is that it really depends on the length of your torso. I recommend starting at usually the zero position on the handlebars meaning the handlebars are pulled all the way back (towards the seat). Then try sitting on the seat. If you have to reach for the handlebars and your shoulders come up that means you’re a little too far, so bring the seat closer to the handle bars. However, when you pedal you do not want your knees to come close to hitting the handlebars. If your knees are close to the handlebars when pedaling that is an indication to move the handlebars forward (away from the seat). If you know you have a shorter torso bring both seat and handlebars a little bit closer together. Taller folks typically have longer torsos and will want to move the seat and handlebars farther apart.
In my classes you will hear me call out various hand positions, usually “2” or “3”. There are actually three common hand positions that we typically use in Fitscope classes. “1st” position is in the center of the handlebars with your hands together. “2nd” position is out on the side of the handlebars in the bottom corners. Those are the two that are typically used when you are seated or “in the saddle.” I prefer 2nd position when in the saddle just because you can breathe a little deeper through your lungs – so you can inhale and there’s no restrictions from your arms pulling your shoulders inward as occurs in 1st position.
When you’re out of the saddle, there are a couple of options as well. “3rd” position is outside but at the top of the handlebars. In 3rd position you are only very lightly touching the handle bars with your fingers. You are not leaning on the handlebars for support. You send your hips back and low and are holding your balance through your hips, not leaning on the handlebars. A common mistake that I see is people leaning forward and putting a lot of weight in their upper body and therefore end up leaning on the handlebars and not getting much power. If you put all your weight in your hips and glutes, light grip at 3rd, you will be able to handle a lot more resistance and build a lot more strength.
There is a 4th position, but it is used far less frequently. On some bikes there is a round bar at the top center of the handlebars, so directly opposite position 1. I don’t typically use it in my classes and it’s not a common thing to have on bikes these days.
I hope this was helpful and please check out my classes on the Fitscope app.
If you have any comments or questions, let me know on Instagram. I can be reached @davidpfit