As a certified Spinning® indoor cycling instructor, I’ve recently noticed a trend in seeing some of my class participants integrating backwards pedaling into their workout. Not per my advice, of course. Outside of telling them the bikes are not made for backwards pedaling and the unnecessary stress they may be placing on their knee joints, I felt compelled to conduct a review of the literature on this topic and follow up with my class participants next week.
Spinning®, one of the premier international indoor cycling certifications, does not recommend pedaling backwards. Here’s why.
Pedaling backward is risky on a fixed gear bike. If riders try to quickly stop the flywheel while pedaling backward, the compressive forces on the knee joint can be sufficient enough to tear cartilage or the meniscus. Also, pedaling backward may hyperextend the legs, which could damage the ACL or other soft tissue of the knee joints. Aside from being risky, a further reason not to do it is that there is no physiological advantage to it. A study in the Strength and Conditioning Journal showed that muscle contribution and metabolic cost were the same for pedaling forward and backward. Lastly, this movement puts the bike at risk as well. Pedaling backward may eventually unscrew the pedals from the crank arm.
Source: (Spinning®, 2015, Retrieved from http://www.spinning.com/en/spinning_program_faq)
Of course, I probed a little deeper and looked for the study referenced above in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. I could not find it. After asking around a few professional networks, it is believed the SCJ article was in reference to the ACE study I discuss below.
In May 2015, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted an independent study to determine if and how pedaling backwards increases sports performance. Important note, the research was conducted on Cascade recumbent bikes (and not a Spinning® or standard upright indoor cycling bike) that have bi-directional resistance throughout the entire 360 degree motion of the pedals.
The study revealed that pedaling backward on the Cascade cycle elicited higher heart-rate and energy-cost values than when pedaling at identical workloads in the forward direction.
“Pedaling backward…has been observed to reduce pressure on the tibiofemoral joint which may offer value in the rehabilitation of meniscal problems or tibiofemoral osteoarthritis.” ~ACE Chief Science Officer Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D
Dr. Porcari and his research team recommend treating backward pedaling on a Cascade recumbent bike as a change of pace and a form of cross training to better target the quadriceps. The improved quadriceps strength resulting from pedaling backward may eventually produce an enhanced cycling experience by making pedaling forward mentally and physically easier.
Read about the full ACE study here.
Check out what John Macgowan, a 20 year veteran indoor cycling instructor, had to say about the ACE study. He concluded:
There doesn’t appear to be enough positive benefits, in contrast with the possible injury. Not to mention pedaling backwards just looks wrong/goofy, So I can’t see including it in my class.
Me too, Mr. Macgowan, me too.
So let’s wrap this up!
Should we or should we NOT pedal backwards on our indoor cycling bikes?
Nope. Thou shall not pedal backwards on your indoor cycling bike.
The reality is that you still may consider doing it anyways. (Aren’t you adventurous?!?!) So, here’s a short list of what I believe we should all do if and when we consider pedaling backwards in our indoor cycling class or on our personal indoor cycling bike. WAIT! Before you read this list, remember that I believe, “Thou shall not pedal backwards on your indoor cycling bike.” Okay, please continue reading.
- Check with the manufacturer of your bike and find out if pedaling backwards is safe for the bike. More than likely, it is not and will result in unnecessary wear and tear and decreased safety on the bike.
- A good rule of thumb is to NOT do anything you would NOT do on a REAL BIKE on a REAL OUTDOOR ROAD. Marinate on that for a minute. (How would you climb an outdoor hill while pedaling backwards? How far would you get sprinting pedaling backwards on a flat road?)
- Advice participants with prior lower body injuries or ailments to consult their physician PRIOR TO insisting that they integrate backwards pedaling into their cycling workout.