Spinning Is Supposed to Be Easy on the Joints—so Why Does It Make My Knees Hurt?

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I have a complicated relationship with spinning. I love working out in a space that's dark and loud so no one can see the faces I'm making or hear my screams. The energy levels are always through the roof, and if there's a good playlist, I can totally zone out and leave it all on the bike. But whenever I go, especially if it's been a while, I get cycling knee pain. About halfway through my knee starts doing this creaky thing that freaks me out. Isn't the point of spinning that it's supposed to be easier on your joints than other forms of cardio like running?

"Running, by design, repeatedly introduces stress through your feet up into your knee joints with every stride, [while] riding a stationary bike neutralizes much of that trauma and focuses on muscular activity," says NYC-based trainer and former Flywheel instructor Bobby McMullen. However, "low-impact indoor cycling doesn’t mean no impact."

Why you might experience cycling knee pain during spin

From your body's natural imbalances to your bike set-up to what you're actually doing on the bike, there are a number of factors that could be contributing to cycling knee pain. If you are feeling this discomfort, it's a sign to investigate.

Experts In This Article
  • Bobby McMullen, New York City-based certified trainer and former Flywheel and Barry’s instructor
  • Garner Pilat, group fitness instructor and personal trainer based in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Mitch Torres, PT, a physical therapist and lead editor for Knee Force
  • Samantha Pell, a certified Pilates instructor

"Pain is a frustrating indication that something probably isn’t right," McMullen says. Here's what could be causing cycling knee pain.

1. Incorrect seat adjustment

"Seat height and seat distance are the main perpetrators of knee pain," McMullen says. If you're cycling in a studio, consider getting the instructor to come make sure you're not up too high, too low, too far forward, or too far back before class starts.

"If your bike is set up too low, your knees are taking on additional strain by failing to properly extend and overusing your quads and hip flexors," McMullen says. "Conversely, if you’re too high, you’re likely hyperextending your knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke."

Garner Pilat, a Future Fitness performance coach and former cycling instructor at SWERVE, says where you feel the pain can also tell you about your seat adjustment.

"If your bike seat is too high, causing you to reach at the bottom of each pedal stroke, this can cause pain in the back of your knee along with straining your hamstrings." she says. "If your bike seat is too low it causes strain on the front of your knee and overuse of your quads and hip flexors."

McMullen says another big no-no is moving the seat too far back. "When you adjust your seat all the way back it creates this awkward angle with the pedal that requires your knee additional strain to push both forward and down instead of just straight down," he says.

2. Moving too much in the saddle with low resistance

Classes like SoulCycle might be all about getting out of that saddle and doing choreography on the bike while your impossibly fast leg whirling keeps on going, but McMullen says any time you start bouncing a lot, or have your resistance so low that you don't have control, you're introducing more impact.

"Hard impact at the bottom of the pedal stroke because of inadequate resistance is going to be hard on your knees," McMullen says. "Going a hundred miles an hour while standing is going to be really hard on your knee stabilization. Moving to every corner of the bike while your feet are clipped in to one place on the bike is going to go straight through your knees as well."

3. Having your resistance too high

Even though your instructors may want you to really push yourself during a climb, there's such a thing as too much resistance, Garner explains.

"Of course we want to gear up and get stronger, but you want to make sure your speed is never lower than 60 rpms (revolutions per minute)," she says. "If you’re not able to hold 60 rpms with any given gear, you are putting too much load on your joints, specifically your knee, which will lead to injury."

4. Exacerbating natural imbalances

If any of the form, speed, and resistance issues above are less than optimal, they can add pressure to the ways your body might already be stressing out your knees. For example, tight hamstrings, weak quads, and shortened hip flexors can cause knee pain all on their own.

"A lot of knee injuries, or even chronic knee pain, can be avoided if you figure out where your imbalances are," Samantha Pell, founder of Samantha Pell Pilates, previously told Well+Good about knee pain.

How to prevent cycling knee pain

Now that you know the causes, here's how to keep cycling knee pain at bay.

1. Ensure you have the right bike seat positioning

For a proper fit on the bike, Garner says your saddle should be at about hip height. McMullen says you want your seat high enough that your legs can comfortably extend, but not so high that you lock your knees. You can measure seat distance by checking that your knee is right above the middle of your foot, so you have a 90-degree bend at your ankle. He adds to always ask your instructor to check if you’re unsure.

2. Keep your resistance in check

Even if the instructor is telling you to crank the resistance up or down, if at any point you feel out of control or over-challenged, listen to your body and back off.

3. Practice proper cycling form

To take some pressure off the knee, Garner says she likes to remind riders that they shouldn’t only be pushing down on the pedals.

"At the bottom of each pedal stroke, they want to make sure they are sweeping their foot back and up—this will allow the hamstrings and glutes to work, along with their quads and hip flexors."

If the choreography is causing pain, remember that no amount of being in sync with other riders is worth risking an injury.

4. Strength train

The best prevention for knee pain comes before you get into the studio. You want to strengthen the muscles around the knee joint so it has the proper support and blood flow that it needs to stay lubricated.

"A weak muscle pumps less blood in and out of the joint, meaning the knee won't have enough nutrients, and over time they won't be able to work properly," Mitch Torres, PT, physical therapist and lead editor for Knee Force, previously told Well+Good about knee strengthening exercises. "Strong muscles also act as shock absorbers. They protect the knee joint by absorbing the impact coming from the floor. Weak muscles won't be able to do this, so the whole impact will be received by the joint tissues. Over time, this makes them prone to injury as well."

Torres suggests doing wall sits, lunges, dead lifts, side lying hip abduction, and lateral step downs to specifically combat knee pain. You can also try walking backwards for knee pain. And if you are doing any of these moves, make sure you have the right shoes for knee pain to get your cardio or strength training on.

Looking for some other ways to get stronger without straining your knees? Try these joint-friendly Pilates exercises: 

5. Stretch

The compliment to strength training in knee pain prevention is stretching. Pell loves using a foam roller to make sure the muscles and tendons around the knee are ready to give the joint the support it needs.

"When you roll slowly and correctly, it can really break up any of those knots and lactic acid buildup in your muscles," says Pell. "And it helps relieve any of that pressure that may be pulling up on that tendon that runs over your kneecap."

When to see a physiotherapist or doctor for cycling knee pain

If you have made all the adjustments and are still experiencing knee pain from cycling classes, you might want to consult a physiotherapist or doctor. If pain worsens or something noticeably changes, that's also a sign to get help.

"If you have pain that immediately starts with or without a pop, and you notice swelling shortly afterward, you very likely sustained an injury that should be looked at by a medical doctor or a physical therapist," says Torres. "The more intense your symptoms are, the more likely you should go see a medical doctor. If you have pain that gradually sneaks up on you without a very obvious, abrupt incident you may or may not have an injury. In this case, seeing a physical therapist would likely save you time and money to resolve the issue."

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