Cadence or Resistance: Which Is More Important?
A leading exercise physiologist weighs in and offers a definitive answer—once and for all.
Words By Aimee Layton, PhD
I’m asked this question all the time, especially as a bike racer, an exercise physiologist and Peloton Member. I always give my patients a short and a long answer.
In a nutshell, when seated in the saddle, I think most people should aim to hit the cadence recommendation first, then build to reach the suggested resistance at that cadence. The reason is simple: Cadence will give you more of a cardiovascular benefit, whereas resistance will build strength. And while it’s important to work on building both cardio and strength, conditioning your cardiovascular system first is key to building stamina and staying injury-free.
How Prioritizing Cadence Helps Your Heart
If you’re new to indoor cycling—or you’re getting back on the Peloton Bike after a break—you want to build your fitness first, then power. And hitting the suggested cadence your Peloton instructors recommend will help you do just that.
Think of cadence as speed: The higher the cadence, the faster your legs have to turn to move the pedals. As you pick up your speed, the left ventricle of your heart fills with blood. This process stretches that ventricle, which increases its capacity for more blood. That’s a great thing because the more blood your heart can hold, the more it’ll be able to pump to your leg muscles.
As your leg muscles get more blood supply, they start building mitochondria—the part of the cell that creates energy, ultimately helping your muscles burn more fat and carbohydrate for energy. The more mitochondria you have, the longer and harder you can exercise before you get tired. If you want to last that full 45 to 60 minutes and burn lots of calories by holding a high power output for longer, you need to build the mitochondria first. Holding the cadence will improve cardiovascular fitness, which means increasing the blood delivered to your muscles and ultimately stimulating mitochondrial growth.
Now, this is a very simple explanation of the complex physiology happening when you’re on the Bike looking at those numbers on your screen. However, it helps to put into perspective why focusing on cadence should be your priority. It is your base for training. Giving your cardiovascular system a boost in essence primes your muscles to be ready for the build, which is when you can start to match your effort with resistance.
Conversely, if you were to put resistance first, you will get stronger, but you may struggle to sustain that high-power output throughout the workout. As a result, you may have a hard time increasing your stamina. If you are working out in part for weight management, being able to do the longer workouts at higher average watts is key.
Focusing on Cadence Can Also Prevent Injury
As anyone who’s ever cranked up the resistance on the Peloton Bike knows all too well that it can feel a little like a leg press. Honestly, high resistance is a lot like weight training. If you haven’t built the muscle strength to support your joints as you push that kind of resistance, you run the risk of injury. This is especially true when sitting in the saddle.
If you’re standing while pedaling at high resistance, you want to make sure you have the balance and muscle strength to support you as you ride; don’t just crank up the resistance to help you stand. I highly recommend that when you’re out of the saddle, you follow the instructor’s cadence suggestion first, then meet the resistance if you can. This approach may take time as you will need to gain the balance required to stay at the instructor’s cadence. It is easier to pedal at a high resistance and low cadence out of the saddle because it simply takes less balance.
As an avid cyclist, I avoid heavy resistance—especially if I’m seated in the saddle—because it can put a lot of pressure on my hips and knees and increase my risk of injury. That’s not to say I never try to hit both the recommended resistance and cadence. Intervals are a great chance to do that. Maybe in the first interval, you’re able to hit both cadence and resistance, and in the second interval you hold the resistance, but your cadence is fading. That’s fine! If you’re really struggling, you probably overshot what your body is ready for, so trust it. To get stronger, lower your resistance until you can hold the suggested cadence and then raise the resistance incrementally as you can.
Is it Ever OK To Prioritize Resistance?
Different goals call for different training decisions. If your objective is body-sculpting and building muscle, applying a higher resistance and lower cadence will promote muscle breakdown and growth. In fact, holding a high resistance on the Peloton Bike will be a lot like lifting weights in that it will result in more tearing of the muscle fibers in your legs, which leads to strength gains when those tears rebuild.
If you find yourself pushing both the resistance and cadence to higher levels, this is a sprint, which shouldn’t be something you can sustain for more than 20 to 30 seconds max. Also, keep in mind that this kind of all-out effort isn’t something you want to do early in your workout because you’ll use up all of your energy stores and won’t have time to replenish them before you need them again. The consequence: You’ll start to drag and hit the dreaded “wall.” So, if you’re going to ramp up both your resistance and cadence, save it for the end of your workout when it’s OK to drain your muscles of all their energy.
That said, don’t try to do this if you’re new to Peloton. Whenever you increase the resistance and cadence, you’re putting out a ton of power (read: your output shoots up), which means you’re putting a lot of stress on your muscles and joints. If you’re not strong enough to sustain this or if your form or balance isn’t great, it’s more likely you’ll move in a funny way and the added force will increase your odds of injury.
The Bottom Line: Follow Your Instructor’s Lead and Listen to Your Body
In my experience, you’ll get the best and safest workout if you follow cues from your body and your instructors, all of whom know how to strike a balance between cadence and resistance and offer ranges of each that are doable. This is something you’ll hear Peloton instructors saying often as well. Take their cues as a suggestion, then choose the cadence and resistance that feels right for you that day. If hitting the recommended cadence and resistance doesn’t feel doable, focus on hitting the cadence first, then resistance. (And if you’re out of the saddle, this is even more important.)
Also, keep in mind that if you’re finding it difficult to complete an indoor cycling session, there’s a good chance you’re pushing yourself too hard. It’s OK if this happens! Just take it as a sign that you probably weren’t in that sweet spot, with the right cadence and resistance to give you the biggest cardiovascular gains. Next time, try taking your resistance down a bit and hitting the recommended cadence. This is a tried-and-true way to build your cardiovascular health so that slowly but surely, you’ll be able to raise the resistance and hold both for longer periods. That said, if you’re still having trouble finishing a workout, talk to your doctor to rule out any health concerns.
Aimee Layton, PhD is a Peloton Member and paid consultant member of the Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council. Dr. Layton is an assistant professor of Applied Physiology in Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and the Director of the Pediatric Cardiopulmonary Exercise Laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center / New York Presbyterian Hospital, where she plays an important role as one of the lead exercise physiologists in testing, exercise counseling and research.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
Aimee Layton, PhD