Indoor trainer vs. stationary bike: Which should you buy?

Both offer a way to take your cycling inside, but the right one for you depends on your fitness goals.

Lindsay Boyers CNET Contributor
Lindsay Boyers is a certified nutritionist and published book author who writes articles and product reviews for CNET's health and wellness section. Her work also appears on mindbodygreen, Healthline, Verywell Health and The Spruce. When she's not actively searching for the best products at the best prices, she's most likely creating new recipes, reading in her hammock or trying to force her cats to love her.
Lindsay Boyers
6 min read
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If you're looking to take your bike ride inside, you basically have two options -- an indoor bike trainer or a stationary bike. One isn't necessarily better than the other, it just comes down to what kind of workout you want and what you want to get out of your training. 

Rather than trying to sway you in one direction over another, I broke down the different types of bike trainers, the pros and cons of each and the things you should factor in, like cost, ease of use, space requirements and noise level, to make the best decision for you.

What's an indoor bike trainer?

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Before jumping into a discussion on indoor bike trainers, let me lead with this: There are three kinds of indoor bike trainers -- direct-drive, flywheel and roller trainers -- and they all do different things. If you decide you want to purchase an indoor bike trainer, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the different types before you do. But for this comparison, I'll lay out the general concepts and pros and cons of an indoor bike training setup versus a stationary bike.

On a basic level, indoor bike trainers allow you to ride your actual bicycle indoors. They have a motor and either attach to your bike's rear tire or, in the case of direct-drive trainers, completely take its place. Indoor bike trainers provide resistance either through a flywheel mechanism or through the bike's cassette, like when you're riding outside. 

Indoor bike trainers don't usually have their own digital console, but there are smart options that allow you to connect to your TV or a tablet and third-party software that takes you through preprogrammed workouts or realistic terrains. They're often used by outdoor cyclists or competitive cyclists who are looking for a way to take their ride inside, since they attach to your current bicycle and allow for some similarities in training.

Pros of an indoor bike trainer

  • Has realistic road feel and can mimic outdoor terrain through third-party software
  • Mimics actual bike riding posture
  • Allows you to use your own bike
  • Takes up less space
  • Lightweight and portable, so you can store it when not in use if you don't have a dedicated workout space

Cons of an indoor bike trainer

  • You have to set it up each time you want to use it
  • Requires a separate bicycle to use it
  • Each user needs their own bike, unless they're the same size and fit on the same bike
  • The bike and trainer combo can be more costly than a stationary bike, especially if you have to purchase a new bike
  • Some can get noisy

How much does an indoor bike trainer cost?

When it comes to indoor bike trainers, there are two costs to consider: the cost of the trainer itself and the cost of the bicycle you need to ride it. Basic trainers cost around $200, while a top-of-the-line direct-drive smart trainer can go up to $1,400. While you don't need a fancy bicycle to pair with it, you do need to make sure your bike is compatible. If the one you have isn't, you'll need to shell out another $350 to $1,000, on average, for the bicycle.

What's a stationary bike?

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A stationary bike resembles a bicycle without any road-ready tires. A saddle, pedals and handlebars are attached to a solid, stationary base that keeps the bike in place while you pedal. In most cases, the seat is adjustable and moves up and down to allow riders of different sizes to find a comfortable position. Depending on the bike, you can ride in an upright position or a recumbent, or reclining, position. They create resistance through air, straps, mechanical resistance or friction (direct contact).

Many stationary bikes also have digital consoles that have preprogrammed workouts and/or computerized programs that you can use to help you meet your goals. These digital consoles also monitor speed, exercise duration, heart rate and calories burned.

Stationary bikes are typically used in general health and fitness programs and tend to be good for anyone who is hoping to simply improve their cardiovascular fitness level, build muscle strength and see better results from their weight loss efforts.

Pros of a stationary bike

  • After the initial setup, there's no additional setup required, so you can just get on and ride
  • Easy to use
  • Preprogrammed workouts
  • Adjustable for riders of different sizes
  • Doesn't require you to own an actual bicycle
  • Quieter than some indoor bike trainers

Cons of a stationary bike

  • Feels less realistic than indoor bike trainers
  • Depending on the type of bike, posture may be different than traditional bike riding
  • Needs a dedicated space, since you don't disassemble them after use
  • Can be cumbersome, heavy and difficult to move

The cost of a stationary bike

Depending on which type of stationary bike you choose, costs can range from around $200 for a basic model to upwards of $2,000 for the more advanced commercial models you find in gyms.

What about spin bikes?

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Spin bikes, like the cult-favorite Peloton, fall under the category of stationary bikes, although there are some differences that set them apart. The biggest difference is the weight of the flywheel and how it operates. Spin bikes typically have a heavier flywheel than regular stationary bikes and it's connected directly to the pedals with a chain, similar to how a regular bicycle is designed. This creates inertia to keep the pedals moving, even when you stop pedaling, also creating variable resistance that's more similar to an outdoor ride that you'd get with other types of stationary bikes.

Because the flywheel is heavier and takes more effort to spin, it also tends to burn slightly more calories. And if you stand on the bike -- a pedaling position that's common in spin workouts -- you'll engage more muscles than staying seated and this will increase calorie burn too.

Another notable difference is that many standard spin bikes don't have a console. This means you won't have the option to program your workouts or follow preprogrammed routines. You also lose the ability to track your stats -- like calorie burn and heart rate -- directly on the machine. However, if you opt for a Peloton or one of its less costly alternatives, this goes out the window since they do come with a console.

Spin bikes also have a lower handlebar position than regular stationary bikes, so when you're on them, your body position more closely resembles what it's like to ride an actual bicycle. Because of this, they're generally more suited than regular stationary bikes for cyclists looking to train indoors. However, spin bikes and spin classes are widely popular for getting in a really good cardio workout too, so anyone can benefit from owning one.

Aside from these differences, the pros and cons of a spin bike are pretty similar to any of the other stationary bikes on the market.


High-end spin bikes, like the Peloton, have screens so you can stream workout classes.


Which bike provides the best workout?

When it comes to the actual workout, you really can't go wrong with either. Both indoor bike trainers and stationary bikes can provide high-quality aerobic exercise, as long as you're willing to put in the work. If your main goal is to improve your cardiovascular health and/or burn calories, the choice is yours. 

However, if you're more interested in improving bike balance and posture, boosting your cycling stamina and working on your technique and pedal stroke, an indoor bike trainer is probably the way to go.

The bottom line

When it comes down to it, both an indoor bike trainer and a stationary exercise bike will give you a great workout and help you improve your fitness level. Ultimately, the best choice for you depends on what you're hoping to get out of your workout.

If you're looking for an easy way to get in a cardio workout and burn some calories and you have the space to dedicate to a fairly large piece of exercise equipment, a stationary bike can provide all of that and more. 

If you're a cyclist who wants to take your training inside when the weather gets bad, or you're limited on space, an indoor bike trainer may be a better option for you. If you're not really sure what you want, spin bikes offer a way to combine the best of both worlds.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.