The resistance mechanism of an exercise bike is essential in producing the aerobic effect of your cycling workouts. It helps boost your heart rate, burn calories, and strengthen your muscles. However, not all resistance systems are the same.

Some models use friction to control the flywheel and make pedalling difficult. Others utilise electromagnetic power for a smoother and quieter resistance generation. While some bikes give you freehand resistance selection through air power and pedalling intensity.

Understanding the features of each type of exercise bike resistance can help you decide which one suits your needs and goals best.

What are the Different Types of Exercise Bike Resistance Mechanisms?

Ramping up the intensity of your indoor cycling exercise is one way to make the most of your workout. The harder you pedal, the more calories you burn.

Thanks to the adjustable resistance of your bike, it should be easy to perform challenging workouts that suit your fitness level.

There are four resistance systems for exercise bikes: brake, direct contact, magnetic, and fan. Here’s a table summarising their essential features.

Resistance sourceFriction padsFriction bandsMagnetic forceAir
Resistance accuracyLowLowHighLow
Resistance rangeHighHighLimitedHigh
Quick resistance changeNoYesYesModerate
Noise levelModerateHighVery lowLow

Let’s describe each to understand why you should consider one resistance mechanism from the other.

1. Brake-Based Resistance

Exercise bikes generate resistance through their flywheel. This part is the one that rotates as you step on the pedals.

The flywheel weight plus the resistance mechanism of your bike work together to produce cycling tension.

In a brake-based exercise bike, the fabric or brake pads positioned next to the flywheel create this tension in the form of friction.

When the brake pads rub against the flywheel, a drag effect happens, which makes peddling more difficult. Most friction-resistance bikes are manual or non-electric.

And to produce more tension, you need to manually turn the resistance knob, moving the brake pads closer to the flywheel.

Why Consider Brake-Based Resistance?

Indoor exercise bikes with a brake-based resistance mechanism are the first models available. That means they lack the technology and modern features that modern bike models have.

This also means that they are the most affordable. So, if you prefer budget-friendly options, consider getting a brake-based model.

This type also suits you if you want a lot of control over your cycling workout and prefer the feel of riding an outdoor bicycle.

Nevertheless, brake-based bikes can be a bit noisy due to friction. Manually adjusting the resistance may be less convenient and consistent, too. Repairs and replacement may also be more frequent as friction increases wear and tear.

Friction-Based Bike Resistance

2. Direct-Contact Resistance

Exercise bikes with a direct-contact resistance mechanism also use friction to produce tension, like brake-based units. However, there are slight differences.

Instead of brake pads, for example, direct-contact bikes usually have friction bands made of felt fitted around the flywheel edge.

Also, rather than a resistance knob, most models under this category have a dashboard for tension adjustment.

Why Consider Direct-Contact Resistance?

Like brake-based bikes, direct-contact ones are not technologically advanced. So, the upfront cost is not that high. This type is also worth considering if you prefer a non-electric exercise bike that’s easier to control.

Direct-contact exercise bikes produce better and higher resistance than brake-based models, making them ideal for seasoned riders.

This also means a direct-contact bike is noisier. As it works mechanically, wear and tear due to friction and maintenance needs are also high.

3. Magnetic Resistance

Indoor exercise bikes with a magnetic resistance mechanism combine the power of magnetic force and electric current to produce tension.

With this type, riders use the bike console or onboard computer to adjust the resistance level.

Choosing a higher resistance setting moves the magnets close to the flywheel, making pedalling extra hard.

These magnets never come in contact with the flywheel. And without friction, the riding experience is smooth and quiet.

Why Consider Magnetic Resistance?

Magnetic exercise bikes have the highest upfront cost compared with other resistance mechanism types. However, it is also the quietest and most precise machine.

This type has pre-set resistance levels that riders can quickly select using the bike console. Also, there is no mechanical wear and tear involved.

That means maintenance needs are lower and less frequent. However, note that tech repairs are likely should its electric components fail.

You can read more about the benefits of magnetic resistance bikes here.

Fan-Based Bike Resistance

4. Fan-Based Resistance

Among other indoor exercise bike types, the one with a fan-based resistance mechanism is the most unique.

That’s because instead of a flywheel, this type has a distinctly large fan connected to the pedals through a belt-and-pulley system.

Fan-based indoor bikes such as air bikes also use air power to produce resistance. Its operation is straightforward, too.

You step on the pedals to make the fan turn. And to adjust the resistance level, all you have to do is to churn more air by pedalling faster.

Why Consider Fan-Based Resistance?

Fan bikes are non-electric. So, you can use it anytime without fussing over complex resistance settings.

Also, without any pre-set resistance levels, there’s no limit to your cycling progress since it’s all based on your pedalling intensity.

The rotating fan helps you stay cool during workouts, too. Another thing I like about this type is its moveable handlebars.

This unique feature allows you to work out your arms as you pedal, making it ideal for those who prefer tough, full-body workouts.

Compared with other bike types, air-resistance bikes have minimal moving parts, too. That means maintenance needs are low.

Due to their quality and specialised construction, upfront costs for air bikes are high. Also, as it generates air, fan-based bikes can be noisy.

What is the Best Exercise Bike Resistance Mechanism?

The best exercise bike resistance for you largely depends on several individual factors.

For instance, getting a brake-based or direct-contact bike is the most practical for those with a limited budget. If budget is not an issue and you prefer quiet and customisable bike rides, magnetic bikes are for you.

On the other hand, fan-based bikes are best if you are an experienced rider who wants total-body and intense workouts.

Our comparison also shows that each type has varying maintenance requirements. So, make sure to consider that as well when weighing your options.

Reading top exercise bike reviews and buying guides can help you choose the ideal machine.

Best Exercise Bike Resistance

1. What is the best stationary bike resistance level?

Exercise bike resistance levels can be low, medium, or high. And the ideal level depends on your fitness capacity. It also depends on what kind of exercise you want to do. For example, simulating flat-road cycling indoors requires a different resistance level than pedalling uphill.

2. Are exercise bikes with manual resistance adjustment better than electronic ones?

Both resistance types are excellent in generating the aerobic effect of indoor cycling. However, if you prefer low-maintenance and noiseless machines, go for an electronic exercise bike. On the other hand, if you want to simulate the outdoor cycling experience indoors, you’ll be happy with a more affordable manual model. Ideally, give your top exercise bike picks a test drive. Evaluate each based on ease of use, feel, workout variety, and budget before buying.