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

Photo: Getty Images/ vitapix
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 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?

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

Experts In This Article
  • Bobby McMullen, New York City-based certified trainer
  • Garner Pilat, group fitness instructor and personal trainer based in Atlanta, Georgia

"Any time a client says they’re experiencing pain I make sure they understand that their body is smarter than me," McMullen says. "Pain is a frustrating indication that something probably isn’t right."

Reasons why you might experience knee pain during indoor cycling

Incorrect seat adjustment

"Seat height and seat distance are the main perpetrators of knee pain. 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 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," McMullen explains.

For a proper fit, Garner says your saddle should be at about hip heightMcMullen 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.

Being a bit too loosey goosey in the saddle

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."

Having your resistance too high

Even though your instructors 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."

And 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."

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