Is Cycling Good Exercise or Injury Waiting to Happen

For those who are not aware, many in-home stationary cycles now come with an attached screen that allows for a digital group class experience provided by personal trainers.


Is Cycling Good Exercise or Injury Waiting to Happen
by Michael Dugan
Jan. 24, 2022

Cycling for exercise has been around for apparently hundreds of years. The first renditions of the stationary exercise bike date back to the end of the eighteenth century. Both stationary and non-stationary biking are prominent forms of exercise that have been used for quite some time.


With the recent explosion of digitally-interactive in-home cycling however, stationary cycling is now trending. For those who are not aware, many in-home stationary cycles now come with an attached screen that allows for a digital group class experience provided by personal trainers.

This new iteration of cycling is leading many people to consider if cycling is a form of exercise they should partake in.

This article will discuss the perceived benefits and potential damages of stationary cycling and ultimately call the reader to make an assessment on whether or not exercising in this manner has an overall benefit on the body or not.

 

Why are People Attracted to Modern Iterations of Cycling?

When a consumer makes the decision to engage in some form of exercise, naturally they will be drawn towards the options that have the most accessibility and require the least technical understanding to perform. This seems to draw consumers towards exercises that are intuitive and repetitive such as walking, running, and the various exercise machines available at public gyms.

Additionally, consumers tend to be drawn towards a fitness practice that feels the best for their body. It is estimated that roughly 20% of adults in the United States experience chronic pain (1). Research done in the European Union found similar results estimating that 27% of the European population experienced chronic pain on a regular basis (2).

Considering this, it makes sense that people would naturally gravitate towards lower-impact options like stationary bikes, ellipticals, and stair masters. (While cycling may be lower impact, we will discuss in a moment why this doesn’t necessarily mean it is beneficial)

Other factors to consider that may draw people towards stationary cycling include:

Convenience: A stationary cycle can be placed in a small amount of space in the home. Eliminating the need to travel somewhere for exercise.

Simplicity: Cycling is extremely intuitive and simple to perform.

Social Engagement: Cycling can be done with a group of friends, often accompanied by stimulating music, and a charismatic instructor who keeps your mind off “the struggle” of exercise. Some digitally enhanced bikes even offer the ability to compete with friends through the use of a digital leaderboard.

Naturally, this technology has become a very attractive option for exercise. While the factors mentioned above are certainly desirable, let’s discuss the potential downsides.

 

Is Cycling a Good Form of Exercise?

Before considering if a particular form of exercise is beneficial, we must first ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish with our bodies and why.

When attempting to build fitness, people oftentimes consider a list of attributes including cardio, strength, and mobility that each require separate attention in order to be effective.

This can lead consumers to partake in a wide variety of fitness practices all for different outcomes. For example, someone may partake in yoga to build mobility while using a stationary cycle to build cardio. Similarly, another consumer may find themselves using a combination of mobilization techniques along with their weight lifting practice to avoid becoming restricted in their movement.

This type of thinking can be disastrous and often lead people to consider the positive outcomes of a fitness practice without considering negative outcomes. For example, many people simply see cycling as a way to build cardiovascular fitness without questioning whether or not it improves their overall functionality as a human.

While cycling may temporarily improve the ability of the cardiovascular system, this may come at the expense of your overall capabilities as a human. So what should be considered if we want to enhance our overall capabilities? How would someone go about building all aspects of human function instead of trading one for the others?

What Makes Training Beneficial?

At Functional Patterns, we aim to get at the root of what makes a human function optimally. Standing, walking, running, and throwing on 2 feet are fundamental movements that make us human. When you understand this framework and apply it to your fitness practice, you should achieve strength, mobility, and efficiency in movement all at once.

In the article “What is Functional Training?” we discuss what truly beneficial exercise looks like and how adapting your body to our human blueprint is the best training you can do. 

 

 To briefly summarize:

 

  • Different organisms have primary movement patterns. Kangaroos hop on two legs, dogs run on four legs, fish swim using lateral undulations, and humans run on two feet.

 

  • If you force an organism to stray from its primary movement patterns, you see a decline in health and function.

 

  • In order to enhance an organism through exercise, you should optimize the organisms primary movement patterns

 

  • An optimal training program for humans would prioritize the functions of standing, walking, running, and throwing


As you consider the above points, let’s evaluate cycling and its role in an optimal exercise regimen.

 

Is Cycling Good Exercise?

When analyzing cycling through the lens of overall function, a number of concerns arise.

From a biomechanics standpoint, cycling happens exclusively in hip flexion. Now before explaining why this is not good, consider this. People adapt to their daily activities. An idea referred to as the S.A.I.D. (standard adaptation to imposed demands) principle.

This principle states that the body will adapt to the demands placed upon it. The most easily observable example of this would be the desk posture that can sometimes become prominent in someone who has spent a significant amount of time at a desk.

Other examples of this would include:

  • A golfer who develops an asymmetrical ribcage due to repetitive swinging of a club in the same direction
  • A dentist who develops a kyphosis and ulnar nerve issues after years of being hunched over patients using cleaning tools
  • An avid yogi who develops instability in the joints due to years of hyper-mobilizing muscular tissue
  • An Olympic sprinter who develops large glute muscles and defined obliques as a result of well-sequenced running mechanics

These are just a few examples of this phenomenon. In reality, everyone is slowly adapting to the demands they put on their body. Sometimes these adaptations contribute to our health and sometimes these adaptations are detrimental.

Now when we consider that cycling occurs only in hip flexion, we can predict how the body will begin to associate itself with this position over time.

Exercising in a hip flexion position will orient the hip flexors into a shortened position and inhibit the glute muscles from performing hip extension. When the glutes do not perform hip extension, the body will often develop a pattern of hyperextending or arching the lower back to compensate.

As the glutes begin to atrophy, the orientation towards hip flexion will become more prominent.

This opens the doors to a number of issues including IT band pain, knee pain, hip pain, lower back pain, instability in the hips, and an overall poor posture.

This is exactly what we see anecdotally. Some of the most reported complaints from cyclists include patellar tendinitis, piriformis syndrome or sciatica, and muscle spasms in the lower back.

 

What Are You Training Your Body For?

Now this article isn’t out to say that cycling will definitely cause you pain. Many people cycle strenuously for years without having catastrophic injuries or pain.

The danger in cycling lies in the adaptation to it. As you continue to engrain the movement patterns of cycling in your body, you will slowly become impaired in your ability to move in other ways. This is where the real risk of injury lies.

As discussed above, the adaptations made to cycling may lead to things like knee pain, hip instability, and back pain. If someone who has these adaptations then tries to go out for a run or lift a heavy object from the ground, they are predisposed to hurting themselves.

Essentially, cycling has trained your body to perform in a very limited range of functionality. When you then try to perform a function outside of that range, you will be less equipped to handle it on a mechanical level. This then predisposes you to hurting yourself as a result.

At the end of the day, it is a game of probabilities. At Functional Patterns, our goal is to stack the odds in your favor by preparing your body to handle all of the primary functions that keep your body from breaking down.

Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Should truly beneficial exercise lead to pain or correct it?
  2. Should exercise contribute to poor posture or enhance it?
  3. Should you have to trade your overall health for a temporary isolated fitness gain?


Are you tracking the right measurements to know whether or not you are becoming a more functional human?

At Functional Patterns we aim to enhance humans in all the ways that matter. Because we focus on the primary movements we adapted to over millions of years and document the progress, we consistently display results that no one else in the fitness industry can.

Rather than contributing to pain and injuries, we improve and eliminate them for good. This is the fundamental difference between an exercise like cycling and a sustainable solution to fitness such as Functional Patterns.

While cycling will build cardiovascular fitness, it will set the body up for a number of issues later down the line and ultimately a shorter span of time in your life that you get to enjoy being an active human.

Properly performed exercises derived from our primary movement patterns can be utilized to build cardiovascular fitness, strength, mobility, and a visually pleasing physique. We want to see everyone achieve their life and longevity goals.

 

-Functional Patterns: 'We Take the Guesswork Out Of Taking Care of Your Body'™