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Everything you need to know about starting an at-home cycling routine

Investing in a spin bike? Consider this your instruction manual.
Low section of woman on exercise bike at home
Knowing how to set the saddle and handle bar height will ensure a comfortable and effective ride.SimonSkafar / Getty Images

Indoor cycling bikes have risen in popularity during the pandemic — and for good reason. They are an excellent way to reap the benefits of cardio exercise in the comfort of your own home. But if you’re new to spinning, you’re probably wondering where to start.

Between adjusting the bike to fit your body to learning the different positions and metrics, starting an at-home cycling routine can be overwhelming. So to give you a jump start, here’s everything you need to know about setting up your bike, getting the most out of your rides, tracking your progress and more.

Adjusting the bike to fit your body

Spinning on a bike that isn’t set appropriately to your height and comfort level isn’t just downright awkward; it’s also inefficient.

Every spin bike has its own unique design, but each one has a saddle and handlebars, which you can usually adjust with a knob, bringing it up or down, to the appropriate height.

“The most common mistakes that I see include saddles that are too low and handlebars that are too high,” said Matt Wilpers, a Peloton Bike instructor. If your saddle or handlebars are too high or too low, it can cause discomfort and prevent you from engaging the right muscles to get an effective workout.

So how do you ensure you’re adjusting your bike correctly?

How to set the proper saddle height for you

There's no one bike adjustment that will work for everyone, said Wilpers. With that said, there are some general guidelines on how to set up your bike so you’re riding comfortably. Here are a few different methods you can use to get your saddle at the right height:

  • The “heel to pedal” method. “Place your heel, versus your toes or midfoot, on the pedal while sitting in the saddle. Then, pedal one foot to the six o’clock position whereby that leg should be straight and the heel is still touching the pedal. If not, adjust the saddle height accordingly,” Wilpers said.
  • Check your knee angle. Another method that Wilpers suggestsed is looking at the knee bend at the bottom of the pedal stroke. “135 to 145 degrees in knee bend is a good average range to consider for a rider. Where they land in that range is often dictated by their comfort and ability to control force throughout the pedal stroke,” he said.
  • Use your hip bone. According to Peloton, you can also set your saddle height to be aligned with your hip bone when standing next to your bike.

When it comes to the saddle depth, which is the distance between the saddle and handlebars, it’s best to set it where your knee is positioned over the pedal spindle, aka the part of the pedal that connects to your bike, Wilpers said.

How to set handlebar height

Unlike saddle height, the height of your handlebars is largely driven by your own comfort level, Wilpers said.

“If higher feels better at first, go with it. For most riders, a back angle of 40 to 60 degrees gets them in a position that adequately balances comfort versus performance. For more competitive riders, you start to see lower angles, like 40 or less. This allows them to better leverage their glutes as well as stay more aerodynamic,” he said.

Before you hop onto your bike, make sure to tighten all the knobs securely so your seat doesn’t move during your ride.

Get to know the 3 different bike positions

If you’ve ever taken a group spin class, you know that there are three bike positions you will alternate between.

In the first position, you’re sitting in the saddle. This is where you set the pace of your ride and should generally feel comfortable. If you need to recover from a climb or sprint, first position is where you want to be.

“You should be able to find a slight bend in your elbows. If your elbows are locked out or you feel like you are reaching, you may want to move your handlebars a bit closer to you,” said Victoria Brown, a SoulCycle instructor on Equinox+.

When you’re pedaling in the saddle, you want your sitz bones on the widest part of the saddle with a slight forward rotation in the pelvis, Wilpers said, to engage your glutes. You also want to sit tall and avoid hunching your back forward — keep your shoulders back and down and stay light on the handlebars.

“To help with back positioning, think about your belly button being drawn toward the resistance knob on the bike,” he said.

When you’re in the second position, you’re usually doing a light jog on the bike. Your center of gravity should be over the pedals with your butt hovering a few inches above the front of the saddle.

As you pedal, you don’t want to be standing straight up or have your torso leaning too far forward. Think: Open chest and shoulders back and down. This is where your core comes in, too. By bracing your core as you ride, you’re helping your body stabilize.

“Your core plays a big part in your ride, and people tend to forget that their core doesn’t just consist of your abdominal wall,” Brown explained. “Your core consists of 35 different muscle groups that connect your pelvis to your spine and hip area. Engaging all of your core prevents you from injury and allows you to find strength to connect to the rhythm.”

When you’re riding out of the saddle and going on an uphill climb, you’re in the third position. The third position is also where you can build power in your ride, and coming up from the saddle allows you to enlist your glutes.

“You want to feel your muscles in your arms, as well as your lats, engaging as you ride,” she added. You shouldn’t put all of your weight into your arms as you ride or use them to hold you up, but these muscles help you maintain proper posture on the bike.

As with second position, you also want to keep your center of gravity over the pedals and your butt hovering a few inches above the front of the saddle, Wilpers said.

Although you’re enlisting the same muscles — your quads, glutes, and hamstrings — no matter what position you’re in, Wilpers said you can shift which muscles are dominant by changing your hip position forward or back.

“When riding out of the saddle, you’re able to leverage your body weight more and use your arms to drive the pedals harder. That’s why it’s harder to sustain and the reason riders spend limited time out of the saddle. They only come up when they need a lot of power quickly,” Wilpers explained.

Using resistance and cadence

Besides changing positions, the two big adjustments you will make are to your resistance and cadence (the speed you pedal). You want to make sure you’re always riding with some resistance, even when you’re just comfortably pedaling on a flat road.

​​”When thinking about resistance in different scenarios, just think back to when you were a kid and first learned how to ride a bicycle! We all learned when we were 7 years old what it feels like to try and ride a bicycle uphill versus downhill — it's actually no different on an at-home bike,” Brown said.

On most spin bikes, you can add resistance by turning the center knob on your bike clockwise and to remove resistance, turn it counter clockwise. Some bikes also allow you to add resistance through the center console with the plus and minus buttons.

“A flat road should definitely feel like you have something on the wheel but not enough to overly fatigue you at a cadence (rotations per minute) between 80 to 100. Generally, we cue flat road resistance to be between 20 and 35,” Wilpers said.

But if you’re sprinting, you want to aim for a higher cadence between 80 and 100 and a resistance between 40 and 50, Wilpers said. On an incline, the cadence is typically lower at 60 to 80 and the resistance higher between 40 and 50. Keep in mind that everyone feels intensity differently, so use your own judgment if you feel like you need to scale back or level up.

“Uphill, you should have enough resistance added to your wheel to really feel the push and the pull of your pedal stroke going around. In regards to a quicker pace, I always compare how the weight of the wheel should feel as quite similar to our best relationships in life — you feel supported, yet have the ability to move freely,” Brown said.

Measuring your progress

Each bike uses different metrics, so make sure to pay attention to the type of feedback your spin bike provides so you can track your progress. Most at-home spin bikes will provide time, distance, speed, heart rate and calories burned.

The most important thing you can do as a cycling newbie is to ride as often as possible and stay consistent with a routine, Wilpers said.

“I believe the hardest part of any workout is showing up. If you can carve time out of your day for you, clip into your bike, and move your body, you should feel proud of yourself,” Brown said. “The numbers are there if you want to track your progress in terms of distance and time, but I am a big believer that you should never base your self-worth on a number. Clip in with a goal in mind to get a little bit stronger mentally and/or physically each time — and count that as a win!”

But if you want to keep some specific metrics in mind to track your progress, there are certain things you can look at. For instance, if you’re using a Peloton bike, Wilpers recommended looking at total output and average output for your rides. Your output is how much work and power you put into your ride, and this number increases as you add cadence and resistance.

“You can also hop into Power Zone Training, where you periodically perform a benchmark test called the FTP (functional threshold power) test to see where your fitness is at and monitor changes. This test relies on changes in average output over the course of 20 minutes,” Wilpers said.

Adjust your routine every 4-6 weeks

After following a cycling routine for a month or so, you might start feeling like it’s time for a new challenge. You can make your rides more challenging by changing the frequency, duration or intensity.

“Adjusting one of these training variables every four to six weeks is not a bad idea. Keep your long-term goal in mind to ensure that your adjustments are conducive to helping you achieve your goals,” Wilper said. “At the end of the day, everyone must balance their training routine with the demands of daily life. The goal is to find a balance that works best for you while ensuring that you will achieve your goals.”

Diversify your workout routine

To balance your workouts on the bike, make sure to do some strength training, yoga, stretching and other cardio exercises. Some at-home bikes, like SoulCycle and Peloton, offer subscription-based workout apps that feature a variety of workouts you can do on your own. CardioCast is another app that also offers spinning, elliptical and walking workouts.

“Let’s say you finish a 30-minute class and are feeling super hyped up, strong and inspired to keep going. You could add on a 10-minute arm series on the Equinox+ app to keep the strength party going,” Brown said.

Peloton also offers yoga, strength training, stretching, bootcamp and outdoor running, among other workouts on its app.

Mixing up your routine with other classes will help promote recovery and build strength that will improve your cycling performance.