I've started riding to get fit and lose weight. As part of that, I set little challenges for myself, eg: "I'm going to ride these next two blocks as quickly as possible in the highest gear". I'd be pedaling slowly and strenuously but moving quickly. As I got more fit I would spend by far the greater part of my 20klm daily ride in the highest gear.

However, someone at the bike shop where I get repairs mentioned I was doing it wrong - that I should be aiming for higher cadence and only use the top gears when going down hill.

What's better solely for losing weight?


4 Answers 4


All things being equal, aerobic exercise is probably best for losing weight (after all, the only way to lose weight is to breathe CO2 out your nose). If you use too high a gear, you might be less aerobic and more resistance training, which builds muscle mass.

Either way, at this point, it sounds like getting yourself moving in whatever way you like will be most effective.

  • Is that right: “the only way to lose weight is to exhale CO₂”? I always supposed metabolising fat probably produced waste products which you could later excrete (in other normal ways). Or am I missing something else?
    – PJTraill
    Nov 21, 2017 at 14:07
  • It all comes down to ATP production in a score of different ways. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adenosine_triphosphate
    – gschenk
    Nov 21, 2017 at 17:45
  • @PJTraill: Think of CO₂ as the "exhaust" produced by metabolising fat :) Nov 21, 2017 at 18:04
  • @gschenk: I looked at Wikipedia and could not readily see whether burning fat can only work by exhaling CO₂. Since swimming seems to make me pee I suspected that was a result of breaking down fat; is the point that however you do it, one result is always some CO₂, which you inevitably exhale? Aha, another comment seems to confirm that!
    – PJTraill
    Nov 21, 2017 at 18:05
  • Re: aerobic exercise is probably best for losing weight. Not necessarily. A combination of cardio and strength-training is understood to be the better approach to reducing fat weight while increasing lean mass.
    – NVZ
    Nov 29, 2017 at 8:24

In terms of losing weight immediately, the obvious answer is to use whatever gear combo allows you to produce the greatest energy output. For most people this will likely be a hair lower than the "preferred" range of about 70-90 RPM -- maybe 50-60, and pedaling as hard as you can.

However, if you want to KEEP losing weight by getting on the bike again tomorrow (or even just later this afternoon) then you should avoid muscle and joint injury by running at a higher RPM (70-90) and not being quite so extreme in terms of putting out effort.

And one should consider doing "intervals" of alternating high effort and low effort (eg, 5 minutes high, 10 lower), as studies have shown that this produces both better weight loss and better muscle building.

  • 1
    Intervals are a good idea. Maybe I'll start 'sprinting' parts of my trip.
    – MeltingDog
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:19
  • @MeltingDog This is good advice. Personally I use strava and have identified a dozen segments that I wish to get better times. I know exactly where they start and end, and when the grade might pitch up. So I'm steadily progressing up the leaderboard. Consider using Strava as a motivator tool for those higher intensity intervals.
    – Criggie
    Nov 20, 2017 at 23:47

Your cadence is not important for fitnes. Your distance is.


In terms of fitness losing/gaining weight is all about your energy balance. You have calories you gain during the day minus calories you lose on different occasions(mostly physical exercising and walking, but variants are possible here). That's what you get a day. You also have some certain level of calories(call it X), you need just to keep on. Changes in your weight depends on your consume rate relatively to X and on your lifestyle(your habits may affect your X, because of that some diets are more effective than others). Move your body a certain distance by means of bicycle takes relatively same amount of energy with high and low gears(you may do physical counting to compare the difference, but you may also find more effective ways of spending your free time). Your speed is important thou, cuz you put more energy into working against the wind that you don't feel, when your speed is slooow. there was a plot of work against wind during bicycling, i'd be glad if somebody post link in comments. Your cadence affects does affect different stuff like consuming air efficiently or developing and strengthening your muscles as well as damaging your knees at too high effort for your level of bicycling. But i assume, the main parameter you may need, if you prior target if fitness, is your ability to work regularly and get tired as less as possible, so a good advice is to use both low-cadence and high-cadence riding to decrease the exhaustion caused to a certain parts of your body and divide it to as many parts as possible. If you feel it's hard for you to ride with high cadence - ride with low cadence. If it's hard for you to ride with low cadence - you've got me. You target is kilometers, not the exhaustion. You have to work hard to improve yourself, there are no easy ways, but you probably don't have to suffer.

  • Fair points, but sometimes you need to push yourself to find where those limits are. Often the limits are not as close as they used to be when you started riding. Suffering and type2 fun are the things you look back on to enjoy, so not enjoying them at the time is the nature of exercise.
    – Criggie
    Nov 20, 2017 at 23:49
  • 2
    @Criggie I'm the kind of person that enjoys more with increasing efforts, so you can usually see me smiling riding at my top speed for quiet a long time(for example 40km/h for 2 km) and i do enjoy the pain during the exercise and the tremble after. Does lack of suffer mean worse quality of exercising? No way. So i'd like to point out that learning to enjoy pushing is one of the best exercises
    – fixerlt
    Nov 21, 2017 at 7:36
  • @fixerlt enjoying the pain is a good point =)
    – k102
    Nov 21, 2017 at 12:41

Losing weight is a consequence of maintaining a net negative energy balance, i.e. metabolising more calories than you consume. It's no more or less than this physiological fundamental. The gear you use on your bike is of little to no relevance.

The total energy you metabolise each day is a combination of your basal daily metabolic output plus whatever extra calories you metabolise through exercising and other activities. If cycling then that's simply a function of the average power through the cranks (watts) multiplied by the duration you rode for (seconds) divided by an efficiency factor (approximately 0.21, since humans are not 100% efficient at converting fuel substrates into mechanical energy).

In order to metabolise more than you currently do, the trick is to ride harder for longer. However our ability to ride hard comes with some limitations on our ability to sustain the effort level for very long or to consistently repeat such effort, and so to increase the calories metabolised most people simply ride for longer durations.

As for calorie intake, that's all about what and how much you eat and drink. It's way easier to consume calories than it is to metabolise them, so keep that in mind when considering where the priority lies with weight management.

As a rule of thumb, think about training being mostly about improving your fitness (power output) while you eat in a manner to get lean.

With respect to what your bike shop said, there's not a lot of context to go on but my view is if you are cycling, enjoying it and not harming yourself or anyone else, then who cares what gear you choose to ride? Just have fun.

  • 6
    It's important to note that muscles consume a substantial number of calories even when you're resting, so it's useful to add muscle if you want to lose weight. It's not just about burning calories while you exercise -- it's also about burning them while you're sleeping, sitting at your keyboard, even eating. Nov 20, 2017 at 3:59
  • 4
    Good answer except for this: 'The gear you use on your bike is of little to no relevance'. It is relevant because pedaling at a very low cadence in a too-high gear limits the power the leg muscles can produce and hence limits the calories burned. Not to mention the risk of injury. Nov 20, 2017 at 14:06
  • Thanks. As for the comment on power - outside of ridiculously low or high gears for the conditions, there really isn't a lot of evidence to suggest that sustainable power production is limited to any significant extent across quite a wide range of gears or cadence. In particular sustainable power at lower cadences is generally not impacted all that much. Keep in mind the energy we metabolise is also a function of efficiency as well as power output so riding at a lower power but with less efficiency can end up with the same amount of energy metabolised. Nov 21, 2017 at 19:18
  • As to injuries, it's unlikely gear choice /cadence per se will cause non-crash injuries - which have more to do with poor bike fit and inappropriate training, i.e. attempting to do too much, too hard, too quickly. That said it is reasonable to make sure you don't feel any pain or discomfort if choosing to ride hard in a bigger gear than you might normally choose as it could indeed be a sign of bike fit problem. Nov 21, 2017 at 19:23

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