3 Types of Athletes
I’m writing this breakdown with three types of athletes in mind, each whom have a unique reason for spending training time on the BikeErg…
The CrossFit Athlete’s goal is to maximize their ability to get through more work (distance or calories) in less time. That is how this athlete is tested.
Next, we have the functional athlete / fitness enthusiast who wants to develop overall fitness using the BikeErg as a tool. They might want to develop cardiac output, muscular endurance in their legs, or cyclical power.
Last is the cyclist. The only reason they care about performance on the BikeErg is if it carries over to better performance or enjoyment on an actual mountain, road or Cyclocross bike.
To be clear, you might “check off” more than one of these categories.
For example, a CrossFit Athlete might find herself in all three categories. She competes in a sport that might test her on the BikeErg, but she could also be testing on a real bicycle on various types of terrain as well.
Plus, she needs to develop general fitness qualities to perform well on the multitude of potential test workouts.
My goal with this section has not been to narrow your view of what you’re using the BikeErg for, but begin to get you to expand your mind to see how a person on a different part of that continuum will attack factors like bike setup, damper setting and creating training programs differently without being “wrong.”
This guide on the BikeErg is written to an athlete who wants to maximize all parts of the spectrum: BikeErg performance, general fitness qualities and bicycling carryover.
Also, I’ll be basing this breakdown on the assumption that you are using the Concept 2 BikeErg.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for BikeErg you must master the movement’s specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
The BikeErg has minimal mobility requirements, which is one of the wonderful aspects of the machine.
Because no joint is taken to an end range, there is no real movement prep that needs to take place before jumping on the erg.
This makes the BikeErg ideal for easy cyclical warm-ups, even for athletes who regularly experience joint irritation.
Plus, there’s no eccentric (loading + lengthening) contractions, which contribute to muscle damage.
This means you can execute grueling workouts without leaving your legs super sore or joints feeling beat up.
And as an aside, the combination of an effective dose of fitness with minimal damage, inflammation and pain can allow for athletes to increase their training volume without negatively impacting their mobility, positions and movement freedom.
There is no strength requirement for the BikeErg. That’s another great aspect of this tool. If you can climb onto the staddle, you can get an effective workout.
However, if you’re a competitive athlete (or competitive with yourself in your own training process), you need to have a certain kind of strength to be successful: power. Being powerful is about generating high levels of force quickly, and doing it for the duration of the given task at hand. Whether for 500m or 50km, the athlete who puts the most power into the machine during the course of the event wins.
The latter portion of this guide will take on how to maximize your performance (and power) on the erg.
There are several key skill-related components of the BikeErg. You might call this the technique.
We will cover (1) correct bike setup, (2) finding the right drag factor and corresponding damper setting, and how these interact with (3) the ideal RPMs to spin at while on the bike.
Then we’ll cover (4) maximizing the pedal stroke, (5) getting up to speed, (6) breathing during biking, and finally maximizing your ability to (7) BikeErg in MetCons.
(1) Correct Bike Setup
The easiest thing you can do to maximize your power output and movement economy on the BikeErg is get your setup right.
When I bought my first road bike back in high school, I remember spending about $200 to get my bike fitted correctly. There are endless adjustments that can be made from basics like seat height, slide and angle to different types of clips, shoes and inserts. It’s an art and a science, which my cyclist and triathlete readers know.
Luckily, the BikeErg doesn’t have that many adjustment options. It has the seat height, handle height and handle slide. With a tool, the seat slide (forward & back) can also be adjusted, although this isn’t practical for gym-goers who don’t own the machine they plan to ride.
The ideal seat height has some universal guidelines that can be applied pretty blindly across the board for the three types of athletes I outlined in the intro.
For my bicycling enthusiasts, you probably all have your own way of finding your ideal seat height, so just go with that. As a cross measure, you’re knee angle should be somewhere around 145-150 degrees
For those of you with less experience on bikes, I’ve found that usually people err on the side of too low. If you find your quads “blowing up” at moderate intensities, this is likely a culprit. My recommendation would be to continue to increase the height of your seat until you feel yourself begin to be forced to shift your hips or point your toes. Lower the seat a notch or two and that should be about right.
You should be able to place your heel squarely on the pedal at the bottom of the stroke and be able to reach it with a straight knee, but without having to move or shift your hips on the saddle. This way when the mid/forefoot is placed on the pedal (correct placement) you can maintain a slight bend in the knee when at the bottom of the stroke.
Handle Height & Slide
For bicyclists who care most about performance on their favorite style of bike (e.g. road, time trial, etc.), it’s pretty simple: take measurements from your bike and match them as closely as you are able to on the BikeErg.
Again, the goal is performance, power and speed of your real bike, not the BikeErg. So it’s fine if you compromise a bit of power or comfort on the erg in training, if you can make up for it by holding a more aerodynamic position. After all…
For my readers who care more about power and comfort on the BikeErg itself, then transferability matters much less.
For example, if I’m hitting the BikeErg as an element of a MetCon, I take a more upright, comfortable position that allows me to have a bit more “breathing room.”
Therefore, for CrossFit Athletes and those who care less about bicycling performance, opt for the handlebars being closer and higher. And it’s really up to you how much time you spend on the hoods, tops and drops.
Personally, I usually find myself on the tops a lot when doing relaxed warm-ups and flushes, where wattage is low and I’m not in a performance mindset.
However, when I care about power output and performance, I’m either on the hoods or drops.
Most athletes keep the handles close to the same height as their seat, and spend most of their working time on the hoods.
Personally, I like bringing the handles 2-3 inches higher and sliding them all the way to the end of the rail, getting them as close as possible to my body, and then supporting myself on straight arms on the drops. This is something I saw Rich Froning doing in a workout, and since then have adopted. This allows for a comfortable amount of torso lean, without too much compression / hip flexion, and for the arms to be almost completely relaxed.
While a vertical arm position isn’t aerodynamic and you would never do this on a road bike, I’ve found it to be my preferred position on the BikeErg.
(2) Finding the Right Damper Setting
Damper setting is the BikeErg equivalent of gears. A higher damper means more resistance, but has a higher potential for power development.
Sure, if you’re the World’s Strongest Man and doing a BikeErg sprint, crank it up to 10.
However, most athletes in most scenarios should be nowhere near the top of that range.
I would say 90% of athletes in 90% of scenarios should use a damper setting of 2.5-6.0.
Using this as your starting range and pick a place on that continuum based on the duration and intensity of your effort. For example, if you’re doing a 90-minute ride you will probably choose the low end (2.5) and if you’re doing a 5k Time Trial (which will be about 10% of that time), opt for a 5-6.
(3) The Ideal RPMs (Revolutions per Minute)
Unlike a fixed gear machine (like the Assault Bike), the BikeErg’s RPMs aren’t tied with wattage.
So it’s completely possible to see two guys next to each other with one guy spinning at 95 RPMs and a 2:05/1000m pace and another at 83 RPMs and at a 1:52/500m pace. It comes down to their damper settings.
Now, I don’t advocate you try to recreate the above scenario. In general, the faster your pace the higher you want your RPMs.
In other words, leave your damper setting fairly consistent across different types of workouts and simply allow your RPMs to climb to improve your pace.
I recommend holding 85-95 RPMs in most workout settings, with flushes being slightly lower (75-85) and sprint work being slightly higher (100-120+).
For some perspective here’s what three typical scenarios look like…
2:10/1000m Pace | 84 RPMs | Damper Setting 3.0
1:50/1000m Pace | 90 RPMs | Damper Setting 4.0
1:30/1000m Pace | 100 RPMs | Damper Setting 5.0
(4) Maximizing the Pedal Stroke
While information like bike setup and damper setting are super important and can lead to a better performance, they aren’t something technical to be dwelling on mid-workout.
You want your focus to be on your technique of how you are powering the machine.
Your upper body should be relaxed and still, which maximizes power transfer through your legs to the pedals.
Besides a still upper body, focus on how you’re pedaling the Erg: the pedal stroke.
While this video isn’t on the Bike Erg, the exact concept still applies…
(5) Getting Up to Speed
Whether in a Time Trial or a MetCon with other movements, it’s super important to get your avg. pace at (or ideally slightly below) your target pace.
The faster you get up to speed *without wasting necessary energy* the better.
Getting the BikeErg up to speed from a dead stop sort of feels like …a slingshot.
Initially you can feel some give in the belt, unlike putting power into a real bike, which is stiff and highly responsive. While this belt driven system provides a smooth, consistent ride once at speed, the acceleration feels a bit odd the first few times you get on the machine.
My point is, you are better off taking advantage of this slingshot effect and using the momentum it builds than trying to gingerly get up to speed.
The way I’ve found this to be most successful is standing up during the first 3-5 pedal strokes while you are putting in high power but are at low RPMs.
Once you hear the flywheel spinning at speed, you can feel the pedal stroke smooth out, and you can see on the display that you’re a few seconds below the avg. pace you plan to hold…then sit down and settle into your pace.
(6) Breathing During BikeErg
Like all patterns, breathing should be synced up with the movement to allow for optimal expression of fitness. BikeErg is no different.
There are several different breath ratios that will work, depending on output, RPMs and fatigue.
Regardless of what frequency feels natural in a given moment to breath on the Erg, focus on always initiating an exhale through the power phase of the stroke: 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock.
This allows for lots of breath ratio options while preserving effectiveness.
Breathing on the BikeErg isn’t complicated since the movement is such a low complexity, but this means all athletes can go up against their ceiling of capacity, which will challenge their breathing.
Ironically, since breathing on the BikeErg is easy, you can make it challenging.
(7) BikeErg in MetCons
For athletes who compete in the Sport of Fitness, it will be rare to see BikeErg in a single modality, time trial format.
It’s much more likely to be tested in a workout that includes other movements or modalities.
And as you know, everything gets more complicated in a mixed modality environment: your pacing strategy, managing transitions, monitoring output and determining your personal limitations.
In MetCons that involve a significant strength component or gymnastics density, the BikeErg portion will likely become an active recovery piece, or at least getting wattage at a level where it’s not contributing significantly to fatigue.
Here’s a sample workout where you would take this approach…
4 Rounds for Time
-5 Squat Cleans @70%
If you attack the bike, your transition time and rest time between squat clean reps will balloon in the later rounds. Therefore, you’ll be best served by holding a smooth, sustainable pace on the bike, and attacking the barbell each round.
However, there are certain MetCon scenarios where you’ll be forced into attacking the Bike portion. This includes workouts that involve simpler, lower power output movements (and/or) workouts where the cycle speed can’t be sped up, making the Bike portion the separator.
Here are two sample workouts…
-20/15 Calorie BikeErg
-20 Alternating Dumbbell Snatch 50/35lbs
-20 Box Jumps 24/20”
3 Rounds for Time
-25 Wall Ball 20/14lbs | 10/9ft
-25/20 Calorie BikeErg
Regardless if the MetCon at hand necessitates the BikeErg component to be a recovery or attack element, the athletes proficiency on the Erg will determine their success.
Obviously, an athlete who is great on the machine will be able to perform better when the bike portion is the most important element, but even when the bike is a recovery piece a higher sustainable threshold means the athlete can attack the other pieces with more reserves left “in the tank.”
Either way, the recipe for success involves knowing when to push the pace and when to cruise, but also having the capacity to get the job done on 3…2…1…Go!
TLDR | Here’s the Summary
Strength & Mobility Requirements
-No minimums for safe, effective movement.
(1) Bike Setup – seat as high as possible without the hips shifting, handlebars as close as possible
(2) Damper Setting – 2.5-6.0 is best for 90% of people in 90% of workout scenarios
(3) Optimizing RPMs – varies based on pace, damper and duration. Spend most of your time around 85-95 RPMs for moderate intensity, moderate duration efforts.
(4) The Pedal Stroke – Put the majority of power in between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the stroke
(5) Getting Up to Speed – Standing while accelerating quickly, then sit down and settle into your pace
(6) Breathing During Biking – Sync the breath with the pedal stroke, initiating an exhale during the power application phase
(7) BikeErg in MetCons – Experience is the best teacher in learning complementary & interfering movements.
If you want to reach your potential in the Sport of Fitness, you must have elite fitness. In other words… conditioning.
That’s why this program focuses on the “3 Kings” of Cyclical Movement: Rowing, AirBike & Running.
Cyclical Supremacy is all about building your engine so you can express higher levels of performance in all types of workouts.
Are you ready to build a massive engine and reign as Cyclical Supremacy?