Stationary Bike vs Elliptical: Which Is Best For You?

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When it comes to indoor cardio workouts, the stationary exercise bike and elliptical machine are both popular options – both at home and at the gym. Both provide a low impact workout and are easy on the joints, making them suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.

But which fitness machine is the best option for you? Here we compare the bike vs elliptical so you can find which of these cardio machines is best for your personal fitness goals.

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bike vs elliptical

Types of Exercise Bikes

There are a few different types of exercise bikes, with each type having a slightly different purpose:

  • upright bike
  • recumbent bike
  • spin bike
  • dual action bike
  • portable exercise pedal bike

Upright Bikes

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Upright bikes are bikes that keep your body in a more upright position while you ride. They typically have a strap to secure your shoe to the pedal, and are a basic option when it comes to cardio exercise machines.

Recumbent Bikes

Recumbent bicycles are designed for you to ride in a more reclined position, with your feet slightly below or almost in line with your hips. This piece of equipment is a better option for older people who may have poor circulation, since it will help keep blood from pooling in the feet.

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A recumbent exercise bike is also a good option for anyone with lower back pain, balance problems, or those with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome like me.

Related: The Best Recumbent Bikes for Home Exercise

Spin Bikes

Spin bikes are similar to upright bikes, but are designed to mimic riding a road bike in the real world. These are often used in spin classes in the gym, and can provide a much more challenging workout session due to the resistance level of the flywheel.

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The positioning on these bikes places the body somewhat forward over the handlebars, and also allows you to ride in a standing position as you would on a road bike.

Dual Action Bikes

Dual action bikes are a combination of a stationary bike and an elliptical machine. You could think of this workout machine as an elliptical bike. These pieces of equipment are sometimes designed in a more upright position, or you may see them in a recumbent position.

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Both the pedals and the handlebars move, providing a full-body workout to work both upper body muscles and leg muscles at the same time.

Portable Exercise Pedal Bike

Finally we have the portable exercise pedal bike. This little machine is just the pedals attached to a base, allowing you to get a stationary bike workout anywhere at all.

Desk Cycle home gym and fitness equipment

A compact bike like this can be used as an under desk bicycle, or you can get a little cardio workout while sitting on your couch or at your kitchen table. Many physical therapists also use these as an arm bike on a table top for upper body warmups before therapy exercises.

This compact machine may not be a “real” exercise bike, but it’s still an effective way to get your heart rate up and work your lower body muscles without taking up a lot of space.

Advantages of Stationary Exercise Bikes

There are many advantages of using an exercise bike, whether you are at home or at the gym. Here are a few benefits:

  1. Convenience and ease of use: Stationary exercise bikes are easy to use and require minimal setup. They can be used in the comfort of your own home, and you can use them at any time that is convenient for you. Many people choose to multitask while biking and ride while they read a book, catch up on their favorite TV shows, make phone calls, or listen to podcasts and audiobooks.
  2. Adjustability of resistance: Most stationary exercise bikes come with a variety of resistance levels, allowing you to adjust the intensity of your workout to suit your fitness level and goals. This means you can progress and increase the difficulty of your workout as you get stronger.
  3. Variety of workout options: Some stationary exercise bikes come with different workout programs that are designed to target specific areas of the body or to improve cardiovascular fitness. This means you can mix up your routine and keep things interesting.
  4. Cost-effective: Stationary exercise bikes are a cost-effective option for those looking to improve their cardiovascular fitness. They are typically less expensive than other types of cardio equipment, such as treadmills, and require minimal maintenance. My portable DeskCycle was under $250, while one of my stationary bikes was under $300.
  5. Target specific muscle groups: Stationary exercise bikes are a great workout of the lower part of the body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The pedaling motion and resistance can help tone and strengthen these muscle groups.
  6. Low impact workout: Stationary exercise bikes are a low-impact workout option, making them suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels, including those recovering from injuries or with joint issues. This means that you can get a cardio workout without putting stress on your joints and worsening joint pain. (One important thing – you must make sure your bike is properly aligned to your height and leg length. If your pedals are too close or too far away from your seat, you can develop knee pain or ankle pain due to improper form.)
  7. Monitor Progress: Many stationary exercise bikes come with built-in computer monitors that track your progress and give you feedback on your workout. This information can be very useful for monitoring your progress, counting the number of calories burned, amount of time exercising, setting goals, and motivating you to continue working out.

What is an Elliptical Machine?

An elliptical machine (or elliptical trainer) is a type of exercise equipment that simulates walking, running, or stair climbing. It typically has two footpads that move in an elliptical or circular motion, and handlebars that the user can hold onto for stability.

Elliptical machines are often used for cardio workouts for whole body low-impact exercises that are easy on the joints. Most elliptical machines also offer the ability to change resistance levels and incline settings to make the workout more challenging.

Most, but not all, elliptical trainers have handlebars that move in sync with the foot pedals. This provides a full body workout, as it incorporates movement from the entire body for an intense workout.

Types of Elliptical Machines

Just like the different types of bikes, there are a few variations of ellipticals. Ellipticals are typically classified as rear drive, front drive, or center drive. While the location of the motor is important, we are going to focus on the function and style of the machine as it relates to your elliptical workout. The most common types of ellipticals are:

  • Standard elliptical machine
  • Elliptical cross-trainer
  • Elliptical glider
  • Recumbent elliptical
  • Compact elliptical

Standard Elliptical Machine

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The standard elliptical machines have stationary handlebars to hold, and pedals that move in that circular or elliptical motion.

Elliptical Cross-Trainer

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Elliptical cross-trainers have both the movable pedals and handles to give a full body workout. The cross trainer feels somewhat like cross-country skiing, as you are moving your upper and lower body together throughout the workout.

Elliptical Glider

An elliptical glider is the most basic of the elliptical machines, and is a good choice for someone without a lot of space or budget. It is more lightweight as it does not have a flywheel or motor.

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If you’re familiar with the Tony Little Gazelle Glider of the late 1990s, the elliptical glider is similar to that.

Recumbent Elliptical

A recumbent elliptical is basically the same as a dual-action bike mentioned above. The only real difference is the pedaling motion may be more of an elliptical path versus the truly circular motion of a bicycle pedal.

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The seated positioning makes this a better choice for senior citizens who may have trouble with balance or who may not be able to support all of their body weight for a long period of time.

Compact Elliptical

cubii jr seated compact elliptical

Compact ellipticals are great for home use when you don’t have space for a large piece of equipment. The Cubii Jr. is the compact elliptical that I own, and is great for getting that calorie burn while you work.

Related: The 5 Best Compact Ellipticals for Home Use

Advantages of Elliptical Machines

  1. Low impact workout: The elliptical offers a low-impact workout that is easy on the joints. This makes them suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels, including those recovering from injuries or with joint issues. The elliptical motion allows for strength training and aerobic exercises without putting too much stress on the joints, allowing for a comfortable workout experience.
  2. Can work multiple muscle groups: Most elliptical machines are designed to provide a full-body workout. The pedaling motion works the legs, while the handles work the upper body, which helps to tone and strengthen multiple muscle groups. This makes it a great option for those looking to work on their overall fitness.
  3. Adjustable resistance: Many elliptical machines come with adjustable incline and resistance settings, which can increase the intensity of your workout. This means you can target specific muscle groups and challenge yourself as you improve your fitness level.
  4. Can be used for weight loss and muscle toning: Elliptical machines provide an effective cardio workout that can help burn calories, improve cardiovascular fitness, and aid in weight loss. The resistance and incline settings also help improve muscle tone and muscle strength.
  5. Variety of workout options: Many elliptical machines come with different workout programs that are designed to target specific areas of the body or to improve cardiovascular fitness. This means you can mix up your routine and keep things interesting.
  6. Monitor Progress: Many elliptical machines come with built-in computer monitors that track your progress and give you feedback on your workout. This information can be very useful for setting goals for your individual needs, and motivating you to continue working out and get better results.
  7. Compact and space-saving: Many elliptical machines are a compact and space-saving option for those looking to add cardio equipment to their home gym.

Exercise Bike vs Elliptical: Which Muscles are Worked?

On your typical spin bike or upright bike, you are mostly working your lower body – that includes your front thigh muscles (quads), back of thighs (hamstring muscles), your calf muscles, and your glutes may be worked a little. Your core and upper body also must be engaged a bit to keep you balanced on the bike.

If you are on a recumbent bike, the reclined position reduces the amount of core muscles that must be engaged to keep you upright. You are still working your lower body, but the recumbent bike does not engage the upper body.

compact elliptical

With an elliptical workout, especially with an elliptical cross trainer, the entire body is engaged in movement. The lower body is fully engaged and working, as well as the core, arms, chest, and back muscles.

In a direct comparison between the two, generally the elliptical works more muscles than a stationary bike.

Exercise Bike vs Elliptical: Which Burns More Calories?

This is a hard question because calorie burn really takes in many variables. Your body weight, how long you exercise, and how intense of a workout session all come into play when determining the calorie burn of a workout. However, there is a study from Harvard Health that can help to understand the difference between these two machines.

A person weighing 155 pounds burned 252 calories in 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a stationary bike, versus burning 324 calories in 30 minutes of exercise on an elliptical trainer at a general intensity. If we assume the amount of effort was similar with each form of exercise, we can determine that the elliptical was more effective at burning calories. Given that the elliptical does incorporate the whole body versus just the lower body, that does make sense.

It’s important to add that a vigorous stationary bike workout for 30 minutes also burned 378 calories, which is higher than the elliptical workout. This just further proves that the machine is not the most important factor when it comes to calorie burn; rather, the effort and intensity is a bigger variable.

Elliptical vs Bike: Which is Better for Toning Legs?

In this comparison, the bike is better for toning legs than the elliptical.

When using a stationary bike, you are able to adjust the resistance to provide the perfect amount that will work your lower body muscles throughout the workout. While biking will not add muscle mass, it will strengthen and tone your legs all over.

Amanda Seghetti on stationary bike exercise

Because the elliptical machine has the body in a standing position with both arms and legs moving simultaneously, there isn’t a focus on just one part of the body. While you are moving, your body is expending a lot of energy and focus throughout the whole body. This results in a great calorie burn, but doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of focus on the legs.

What is Better For Knees: Exercise Bike or Elliptical?

Both of these low-impact exercise machines are great choices for those with knee problems. As a person with Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, I prefer both the bike and the elliptical for my cardio workouts. They put much less stress on my joints than running on a treadmill or running outdoors.

However, both machines do have considerations to keep in mind if you are prone to knee pain or if you are recovering from injury. The elliptical is a weight-bearing exercise, which means your body weight is putting pressure on your joints as they move. While this is typically a good thing for healthy individuals, it may be something you want to avoid if it causes discomfort.

An indoor cycle bike does remove some of your body weight when you’re sitting in the saddle, but you do need to ensure proper positioning before riding. Ideally, your knee should be just slightly bent when the pedal is pressed at its furthest point. Your leg should never fully lock out and should also not be very bent when in the extended position. Finding the proper position and using good form can help to prevent further injury and pain.

While both of these machines are a great way to get low- to no-impact exercise, a stationary bike may be the best option just because it allows the user to sit and be supported throughout the workout.

recumbent bike

Bike vs Elliptical: The Bottom Line

When it comes to cost and the amount of space each machine takes up, there’s really not much difference between the two. There are super low-tech and budget friendly options for both. They both have compact options as well as top-of-the-line professional models.

When it comes to incorporating more muscle groups and providing the biggest calorie burn, the elliptical wins. But if you’re looking specifically for toned legs, the bike wins.

Both of these machines are good for your heart and lungs, and they can help you burn calories and lose weight. They are also safe to use, and you don’t have to worry about getting hurt.

The real differences are whether you prefer to get your workout done in an upright position or when seated. And really… which piece of exercise equipment do you ENJOY using more? Because we all know if you hate the workout, you’ll never want to do it!

In conclusion, both exercise bikes and elliptical machines are great options for exercise, but they work on different parts of your body and have different benefits. You can choose the one that you like the most and that fits your goals better!

Which do you prefer? Tell me in a comment below!

Get more home workouts and fitness tips here!

Amanda Seghetti profile

Amanda is a mom of 4 living a mostly crunchy lifestyle outside of Atlanta, GA with her husband, 2 dogs, and a cat. As a former special education teacher who also has her personal training certification — Amanda really enjoys teaching others how to do things!

When she’s not working, Amanda enjoys DIY projects, exercising, photography, hiking, and long walks through Target.

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