Talk about opening “Pandora's Box” – this is bound to get a few conversations going…
Cameron Chinatti from Stages Indoor Cycling alerted me to this. ACE (American Council on Exercise) published a scientific study that looked at the effectiveness of pedaling backwards. Please download the PDF and read it in it's entirety, so you have a complete understanding of the purpose and results of the study.
That ACE chose to study this at all is very interesting (and a bit confusing) to me. We've all been taught that we should always pedal forward and never backwards. So what's the point looking into this activity? The intro talks about the potential cross-training effects. Oh, and there's a quick bit about how variety can help prevent boredom…
Discussing this topic, I felt I needed to break it down to these three questions:
- Is backwards pedaling beneficial?
- Is backwards pedaling safe?
- Should you consider adding backwards pedaling to your classes?
#1 Is pedaling backwards beneficial?
In the conclusion of the study, ACE says:
The Bottom Line
This study showed that pedaling backward on the Cascade cycle elicited higher heart-rate and energycost values than pedaling at identical workloads in the forward direction. The increase in physiological response was reflected by higher muscle activation of the quadriceps muscles (vastus medialis, vastus lateralis and rectus femoris), which is consistent with the subjects’ descriptions of feeling like they had to “pull” the pedals when cycling backward. “The concept of specificity tells us that pedaling forward should still make up the vast majority of a cyclist’s training,” explains Dr. Porcari, “but the subtle differences in muscle activation seen when pedaling backward can be very beneficial.” Dr. Porcari recommends treating backward pedaling as a change of pace and a form of cross-training that better targets the quads. Maria Cress, a member of the research team for this study, points out that by improving quadriceps strength by pedaling in the backward direction, cyclists will experience improved strength for regular cycling. “They will be able to work at a higher workload at a lower RPE and heart rate,” says Cress, “which means that incorporating backward pedaling into your routine will eventually make pedaling forward mentally and physically easier.”
So the researchers are saying backwards pedaling is beneficial. These folks from UWL are exercise scientists after all and include Dr. Carl Foster. Dr. Foster's research has validated most of the zone based heart rate training you've learned – regardless of the source.
#2 Is backwards pedaling safe?
Let's start with this. All of the Indoor Cycling certifications recommend against pedaling backwards. But here's where my confusion comes in… why would ACE even consider studying and publishing this? They have to know that there will be many Instructors who will read this and think; “ACE isn't concerned about pedaling backwards, so I don't need to be either!”
I can already see the responses on Facebook; “ACE doesn't know what they're talking about… they don't understand cycling like Spinning®/Schwinn/Keiser/Stages/etc..
So why wasn't ACE concerned?
ACE quotes the manufacturer of this recumbent:
The Cascade CMXRT recumbent exercise bike is designed to mimic the real road feel of cycling outdoors. Its website says that the bike offers “quiet bi-directional resistance [that] lets you pedal forward and backward throughout the whole 360-degree pedal stroke for a more effective workout.”
I'm guessing that ACE saw this and thought; “you can pedal their bike both directions. Let's use it to see if backwards pedaling is beneficial.” Except…
ACE is mistaken about this part.
In the sidebar included in the study, ACE makes this comment:
Of course, bike safety is another issue entirely. Before telling participants in a group exercise class or a personal-training client to start pedaling backward, be sure that the bike you are using is designed to do so. It is important to note that this research was not conducted on a fixed-gear cycle, but rather on a specifically designed recumbent bike that provides resistance in both directions.
As you can see in the above screenshot from Cascade's website that their recumbent does have a fixed gear drive system, just like every other Indoor Cycle – the one exception being CycleOps which uses a freewheel.
What ACE should have highlighted is this recumbent uses magnetic resistance, combined with an aluminum flywheel. The eddy currents that create the magnetic resistance don't care which direction the flywheel spins = that's where the provides resistance in both directions comes from. The aluminum flywheel is light enough that it doesn't create the huge rotational momentum (and resulting “run-away flywheel” effect) experienced with a friction resistance system that uses a heavily weighted flywheel.
There isn't anything special/unique in use here. All of the Indoor Cycling brands (FreeMotion/ICG/Keiser/Schwinn/Stages offer a similar magnetic resistance. So it's my view that this experiment could have been conducted on any ICs with magnetic resistance and ACE would have seen similar results.
Quick side note: I jumped on my personal indoor cycle that has magnetic resistance and a Stages Power Meter, to try backwards pedaling. Believe it or not, I'd never, ever tried this before. The Stages Power Meter did display cadence, but the watts stayed at zero. So no backwards pedaling, power training for me 🙁
What struck me was how I felt everything flipped; where I could add the most force was lifting my lead foot, as it came forward and up. Pushing down seemed very awkward and I didn't feel I could apply much pressure.
#4 Should you consider adding backwards pedaling to your classes?
I wouldn't. 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.
If you are thinking; “My class is super experienced and we'd like to try this”. I'd love to know your experiences.
One more note: I briefly rode this recumbent cycle when I was at IHRSA. The manufacturer, Cascade Health and Fitness, and ICI/PRO are currently conducting a small study of our own. We have two clubs who are using recumbents, along with conventional indoor cycles, to see if they can be successfully integrated together in a group class. Our objective is to see if adding a few recumbents can make classes more accessible, to people who have physical limitations that prevent them from riding a stationary bike.
John is a member on the AFS (Association of Fitness Studios) Advisory Council.
Holding certifications from; Schwinn, Heart Zones, Team ICG and Life Time Fitness, John's held regularly scheduled cycling classes between 1998 and 2015 when he moved to Florida.
When the weather permits, you'll find him riding and leading outdoor groups by himself or with his Tandem partner (wife) Amy.