Why Lifting Weights On a Bike Is a Waste of Time

Gym-goers do funny things sometimes. Curling in the squat rack, practicing their selfie pose instead of actually working out, or squatting on a BOSU with a loaded barbell to better train ‘the core’.

But if I had to make a list of the top most annoying things people do in the gym, I’d sum it up with this:

1. Texting in the middle of a workout or group fitness class. Seriously, you can’t put your phone away for one hour? Is someone dying? No? PUT IT AWAY!

2. Squatting the kettlebell in slow motion instead of hinging in the kettlebell swing. Who keeps passing this terrible information along anyway?!

2. ‘Toning’ the upper body by lifting 3lbs dumbbells while also moving on a piece of cardio equipment. Because this burns more fat or something.

The first one is really just a nuisance, and the kettlebell swing is an easy fix with proper cuing and instruction. But what really gets me riled up is this notion that combining lifting with cardio (on a machine) simultaneously is somehow better at improving your body or performance then just lifting on its own. The worst part is that there are popular studios and professional trainers/instructors preaching this garbage to well intentioned, paying customers.

In indoor cycling studios in particular, this trend is growing at a rate that makes me want to smash my head on a wall. Not only do these studios spread the message that lifting and spinning at the same time are good or even safe for you, they also send the [subliminal] message that building strength can be done with 3-5lbs dumbbells. Women in particular have had this message beat into them since puberty, and as a result, the majority of females (not all of them!) believe that lifting heavy weights will make them big and bulky despite all the research that demonstrates otherwise.

Recently, a female student suggested that I incorporate more upper body exercises in my spinning class to help build strength. After digging a little deeper, I learned that she had tried lifting on her own (with light dumbbells) and had attended cycling studios that incorporated overhead pressing, push-ups, triceps extensions and more while pedaling on the bike. 

Sigh.

I know she’s not the only one duped into thinking this is somehow a better way to achieve results. These specialized studios charge hundreds of dollars per month in membership fees with promises of a “total body workout” and “toning for the arms and legs!” And people gobble it up just like they do every time Kim Kardashian appears naked in a magazine. People, she made a sex tape. There’s nothing new to see anymore!!

 

 

Anyway, it’s highly unlikely I’ll add lifting to any of my cycling classes. Not only is it unsafe, but it simply contradicts the laws of physics and biomechanics. It’s also a complete waste of time. Here’s why. 

To get stronger, you lift heavier. Period.

A knowledgeable trainer knows that improvements in strength require heavy lifting within a certain rep scheme (we won’t get into the weeds about reps in this post). A novice lifter will work primarily on grooving fundamental movement patterns, like the hinge, pull, and press, and do so with bodyweight initially depending on their fitness level. This is where you lay the foundation for heavier lifting and more complicated exercises. Second, a good strength training program starts on the – GASP! – ground. No wobbly surfaces, acrobats, or balancing on one foot while patting your head with one hand and curling with the other. Both feet on the ground because that’s where we live. Planet Earth.

Finally, there’s the issue with gravity. The body needs to work against an opposing force to keep the muscles under adequate tension. It’s why doing a standing push-up on a wall feels like nothing but a horizontal push-up on the ground makes some people dry heave with exhaustion. Doing pushups on a Spin bike is ineffective for this reason. Not only are you in a disadvantageous position (sitting up and hunched over a handlebar), but there’s not enough of an opposing force to create tension. Ultimately, participants end up practicing elbow flexion for 100 reps with zero upper body benefits and become more prone to injury instead. A solid push-up on the ground incorporates the core, chest, delts, back and arms. You can’t get that doing push-ups on a bike!

Power and efficiency

The other reason why lifting weights while cycling is the dumbest thing ever ineffective is due to its negative affect on power output and pedal stroke efficiency.

Anyone who has ridden a bike outside understands how different it is from a stationary bike. Lifting weights on a road bike will probably get you killed in traffic, but on a stationary bike, where traffic, terrain and weather conditions are nonexistent, we somehow think that lifting weights will make us better. That’s just silly, faulty logic.

The laws of anatomy, physics and biomechanics are kind of like death and taxes. It’s a sure thing no matter what. It won’t change just because we moved from an outdoor bike to an indoor one.

Let’s look at power output. In layman terms, power output is a measurement of how much work you’re producing on the bike. Or as the International Cycling Association puts it:

“Power is a product of the force (gear/resistance) and how fast you turn the pedals (cadence). You need both to produce power. Power is a good thing, and translates to both performance and fitness. All things being equal, the higher your average power (relative to you and your abilities), the more fit you are and the faster you will go (on a bike outside).”

 

Now take your pedal stroke into consideration. An ideal pedal stroke moves like the hands on a clock. The hamstrings, quads, and glutes are more active on the down stroke (12 to 6 o’clock). Interestingly, the upstroke, or 6 to 12 o’clock position, sees the least muscle activation outside of the calves. When cycling, you should aim to produce the most efficient pedal stroke by training the muscles to produce power on the down stroke. This is the same whether you’re cycling indoors or outside.

Pedaling efficiently from an optimal position is one way to improve power output. However, when you throw lifting weights into the mix, you take yourself out of the most optimal position to produce power and inevitably slow down because you’re too busy pumping out 80 bicep curls to Skirllex. Less power equals less caloric output, and that defeats the entire purpose of the workout.

“But Trish, I really feel the burn when I lift on a bike! My heart rate monitor shows I burn twice as many calories and my HR turns up each time!”

Oh really? Well watching Magic Mike also elevates my heart rate but that doesn’t mean I’m building any muscle or getting any cardiorespiratory benefit. It just means Channing Tatum is incredibly hot and I challenge you to find one straight woman (or gay man) whose heart rate doesn’t spike when she watches him dance to Ginuwine’s “Pony” (which, I hear will also appear in Magic Mike 2! Sign. Me. Up.)

 

Hot male strippers aside, your heart rate monitor alone is not a clear measurement of how hard you’re working or how much power you produce in a Spin class. The conditions in a cycling studio – too hot, too cold, too crowded – can all factor into how your body responses during the workout, including your heart rate.

Here’s the deal.

If you want to improve upper body strength, you’ll achieve the best results by doing it off the bike and away from the cycling studio. Grab something heavy and train on the ground. When you’re ready to hit the Spin room, then focus on cycling. If you’re messing around with resistance bands, weights and acrobatics on the bike then your performance/fitness results will plummet. Don’t fall for the BS and the gimmicks just because it’s cool. Magic Mike, however, is cool though. I can support that. Cue the music!

Have something to add or share? Comment below or head on over to Twitter or Facebook for a lively discussion on lifting, cardio or Magic Mike.

Comments 5

  1. Pingback: 6 Tips to Crush Your First Pull-up (Part 1) - Love Life Fit

  2. hahahahahahahaha lifting weights on a bicycle is FAR more superior than other types of working out. You’re just doing it wrong!!! Well idn’t that cute….. BUT IT’S WROOOOONNNNNNNG!!!! Try it like this, and let me know once you get up to the 30’s from the 5’s doing this… it took me 4 years…. Good luck. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgGg7pUWVdA

    1. Post
      Author

      Clearly you have a solid base of muscle and fitness which makes lifting 30s possible when you’re on your bike. But you’re missing the point of this article, or maybe you didn’t read it past the headline. This isn’t a matter of opinion or how heavy you can and should lift, it’s a matter of cycling biomechanics and what’s the most effective (key word is ‘effective’) way to build power output, pedal stroke efficiency and strength (off the bike). If you’re loving what you’re doing, stick with it. But don’t slam into my comments screaming I’m wrong until you can back it up with science and not just a youtube video.

    2. I agree. It’s a great way to build endurance and strength this person obviously cannot understand the power of good form and balance It’s not a easy task cycling and dumbell exercises but it’s a great way to keep tone stay in shape and be in n out of gym in 45 min without doing a million exercises you do not need

      1. Post
        Author

        Haha yes exactly. Sometimes people forget that just because it’s “hard” to do or seems “cool” doesn’t mean that you’re actually being efficient or getting the most out of it.

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