The Pros and Cons of Pedaling in Reverse

What you need to know now about the latest research . . .

You may have seen the recent headlines about the physiological benefits of pedaling backward in indoor cycling—and thought, “Gee, that sounds like something fun and different!” Before you get too excited about going in reverse, here’s what you need to know about the study that engendered the media attention: It was done with one particular bike model—the Cascade CMXRT recumbent exercise bike—which offers resistance when the pedals are turned in both directions, forward and backward.

Most stationary bicycles don’t do that.

The Research 411

In a pair of studies, researchers at the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse had 16 healthy participants pedal forward for 15 minutes then backward for 15 minutes—or vice versa—at various levels of perceived exertion (between 11 and 15 on a 20-point scale) on the Cascade CMXRT recumbent exercise bike. The researchers monitored the cyclists’ physiological responses including their heart rate, oxygen consumption (VO2), calorie expenditure, and muscle usage. Overall, the participants’ heart rates were 8 beats per minute higher while cycling backward than forward, and their oxygen consumption and calorie expenditure were 8 percent higher while riding in reverse at every workload intensity, as well. There was also greater activation of three quadriceps muscles during the backward pedaling.

The researchers point out that pedaling backward offers a way to freshen up a workout and change the way the muscles are used.

The idea is that just as weight-lifters sometimes change their grip from wide to narrow to target muscles differently, cyclists can challenge their muscles in new ways by pedaling in a different direction. The benefit of this, according to the researchers, is that by pedaling backward cyclists can improve their quadriceps strength for regular cycling.

Why Pedaling Backward Is Risky Business

But here’s the hitch—and it’s a big one: Most stationary bicycles—including the ones people ride in indoor cycling classes—are not designed to be pedaled in both directions. Which means it’s a risky practice for you and the bike. For one thing, pedaling backward on “a fixed gear bike can be tough on the knees,” notes Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. And you want to take extra steps to protect your knees with indoor cycling.

Plus, if “riders try to stop the flywheel while pedaling backward, the compressive forces on the knee joint can be sufficient enough to tear cartilage or the meniscus,” according to Spinning® experts. Add to these risks the possibility that pedaling in reverse can damage many stationary bicycles and possibly even unscrew the pedals from the crank arm, and it’s just not worth taking a chance.

The Bottom Line

Unless you have the opportunity to ride the Cascade CMXRT recumbent exercise bike, stick with pedaling in the forward direction.

On most bikes, pedaling backward is considered a taboo move for the reasons previously stated. If an instructor tells you to do it in a cycling class, tune him or her out because now you know better; this is one instance when you shouldn’t heed an instructor’s cues. The best and safest way to continue making forward progress with indoor cycling is to pedal exclusively in the forward direction.    

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