The Comparison of Maximal Oxygen Consumption Between Seated and Standing Leg Cycle Ergometry: A Practical Analysis

Abstract:

Because previous studies have been equivocal, the current study compared VO2max between seated and standing cycle ergometry protocols in male (n=14) and female (n=22) volunteers of average cardiovascular fitness. All subjects completed maximal exertion seated (SIT) and standing (STD) cycle ergometry GXT protocols at 60 rev/min (rpm), with resistance increased by 30 Watts/min. SIT required individuals to remain seated for the duration of the test until achieving volitional exhaustion. For STD, subjects performed seated cycling until they felt it was necessary to stand to continue the GXT. Subjects were then required to stand and perform “standing cycling” (resistance increased 30 Watts/min) to volitional exhaustion. VO2max (ml/kg/min), peak HR (b/min), peak RER, and peak VE (L/min) were compared between SIT and STD using MANOVA. Results were considered significant at p ≤ 0.05. VO2maxSTD (37.9 ± 8.0) was significantly greater than VO2maxSIT (36.8 ± 6.6), while HRSTD (190 ± 9.5) was significantly greater than HRSIT (187 ± 9.6). VO2maxSTD was, on average 2.0% greater than VO2maxSIT, with a range of -16.9 to +17.4%, while HRSTD was, on average 1.2% greater than HRSIT, with values ranging from -5.6 to +7.4%. VESTD (86.0 ± 31.6) was not significantly different than VESIT (82.6 ± 26.8), while RERSTD (1.21 ± 0.096) was significantly lower than RERSIT (1.23 ± 0.065). Results suggest that the utilization of a standing protocol should be considered when cycle ergometry is the selected testing mode. Future research should seek to determine the characteristics of subjects who do/do not benefit from a standing cycle ergometry protocol.

Introduction:

Maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max) represents the highest rate at which oxygen can be consumed and utilized to produce energy sustaining aerobic activity. VO2max is regarded as the gold standard for assessing aerobic fitness. It is acknowledged as a substantial backbone for prescribing appropriate exercise and training intensities. Therefore, accurate determination of VO2max is vital.

Throughout history, VO2max has been assessed during numerous exercise modes such as treadmill, rowing, and cycle ergometry. Different modes and protocols have been compared to determine which protocol and/or mode permits the highest VO2max (Beasley, Fernhall, and Plowman, 1989; Coast, Cox, and Welch, 1986; Faria, Dix, and Frazer, 1978; Lavoie, Mahoney, and Marmelic, 1978; McArdle, Katch, and Katch, 2006; Mckay and Banister, 1976; Moffat and Sparling, 1985; Pivarnik, Mountain, Graves, and Pollock, 1988; Ricci and Leger, 1983; and Welbergen and Clijsen, 1990). Compared to seated cycle ergometry, treadmill exercise usually permits a higher VO2max due to the activation of more muscle mass and less pronounced leg fatigue. One of the more common VO2max tests implemented in exercise physiology labs is the Bruce treadmill protocol (Beasley et al., 1989; Fernhall and Kohrt, 1990; Kelly et al., 1980; Lavoie et al., 1978; Marsh and Martin, 1993; Moffat and Sparling, 1985; Ryschon and Stray-Gunderson, 1991; Verstappen, Huppertz, and Snoeckx, 1982; and Welbergen and Clijsen, 1990). Despite greater VO2max values obtained during treadmill exercise, cycle ergometry has many advantages, including preference of subjects to use the cycle ergometer during a VO2max test, adaptability, safety, ease of calibration, and subjects’ tolerance of non-weight-bearing exercise (Mckay and Banister, 1976; Pivarnik et al., 1988). Therefore, exercise scientists have continued to explore ways to manipulate cycle ergometry protocols to allow subjects to attain the highest possible “cycling” VO2max values (Faria et al., 1978; Heil, Derrick, and Whittlesey, 1997; Kelly et al., 1980; Lavoie et al., 1978; McKay and Banister, 1976; Moffat and Sparling, 1985; Nakadomo et al., 1987; Tanaka and Maeda, 1984; and Tanaka, Nakadomo, and Moritani, 1987).

Montgomery et al. (1971) concluded, for five male subjects, that VO2max during standing cycle ergometry (57.35 ml/kg/min) was not significantly different than seated cycle ergometry (49.30 ml/kg/min). Tanaka et al. (1996) also found no significant differences between seated (66.4 ± 1.6 ml/kg/min) and standing (66.4 ± 1.7 ml/kg/min) VO2max during level cycle ergometry for seven competitive male cyclists. Conversely, in a sub-study, Tanaka et al. (1996) found, for seven male subjects cycling at a 4% incline, a greater VO2max (2.82%) for standing (56.8 ± 0.9 ml/kg/min) vs. seated (55.2 ± 0.9 ml/kg/min) cycle ergometry. Also, Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen (1991) concluded, with 10 cyclists (eight males and two females), that standing submax VO2 values were 10.8% higher than seated values during 4% incline standing cycling. Kelly et al. (1980) determined, for 12 male university students, that standing (57.91 ± 5.74 ml/kg/min) during a cycle ergometry VO2max test produced a significantly greater (4.4%) VO2max compared to the seated position (55.12 ± 6.98 ml/kg/min). Also, Nakadomo et al. (1986) concluded that, in 22 male subjects, VO2max was 17% higher while standing as compared to the seated position. Support of level standing cycling ergometry eliciting higher VO2max values continued when Tanaka et al. (1987) showed that 14 well-trained runners, 8 rowers, and 6 males of average fit attained higher VO2max values when standing as compared to seated cycle ergometry.

Fitness level, as well as the type of athlete and gender, can affect VO2max values (Basset and Howely, 2000; and Foss and Keteyian, 1998). For example, trained cyclists achieve higher VO2max values during cycle ergometry compared to sedentary individuals and trained runners (Tanaka et al., 1996). This trained versus untrained comparison supports the notion that athletes who train in a certain mode of exercise can attain a higher VO2max in that specific mode (Fernhall and Kohrt, 1990; Ricci and Leger, 1983; Tanaka et al., 1996; and Verstappen et al., 1982). Also, males tend to have higher VO2max values than females due to greater lung capacity and greater amounts of hemoglobin (Foss and Keteyian, 1998). Subjects in previous studies varied in terms of fitness level and preferred mode of exercise, which may have influenced results.

Another important component of cycle ergometry protocols is the revolutions per minute (rpm). As noted earlier, leg fatigue, particularly in the upper thigh, may cause an individual to finish a cycling GXT prematurely (McKay and Banister, 1976). Lower rpm tend to increase leg fatigue (Beasley et al., 1989). Typically, for untrained individuals, 40-60 rpm provide the most economical cadences, yet 80-120 rpm yield the greatest VO2max and lowest perceived leg fatigue at similar workloads (Beasley et al., 1989; and Marsh and Martin, 1993). Cyclists prefer to cycle at 90 rpm (Marsh and Martin, 1993). However, disparity does exist between the optimal cadences for trained and untrained individuals. Beasley et al. (1989) and Pivarnik et al. (1988) showed there were no differences in VO2max and peak HR at 50 rpm and 90 rpm with trained male subjects, while Coast, Cox, and Welch (1986) showed the most economic range of rpm for this group was 60-80. Swain et al (1992) determined that VO2max and HR were actually lower at higher (84) rpm vs lower (41) rpm. Hagan, Weis, and Raven (1992) concluded that, at higher rpm, (90 rpm vs 60 rpm) HR, VE, and cardiac output will be greater, while cycling economy decreases. In contrast to the results of Hagan et al. (1992), Nickleberry and Berry (1996) determined that recreational cyclists were able to increase their time to exhaustion by 6 minutes, while competitive cyclists continued for 8 minutes longer at 80 versus 50 rpm.

In examining standing cycle ergometry, it may be prudent to recruit a more homogeneous group with respect to fitness and with representatives of both genders being tested. This process may improve validity in comparisons of standing and seated VO2max values, which can be applied to a larger population. Based on previous results, it is unclear whether standing VO2max values will be greater than seated VO2max values. In previous research, all standing cycling protocols varied in terms of when to stand during trials, duration of standing, protocol duration, cadence, fitness levels of subjects, and number of subjects. The differences among procedures and methodology may partially explain the contradictory results. Since equivocal results have occurred regarding standing cycle ergometry, the purpose of this study was to compare VO2max between standing and seated cycle ergometry protocols in female and male subjects.

Methodology:

Subjects included 14 males and 22 females. All were apparently-healthy volunteers from 18-28 years of age. Subjects were of average fitness abilities. All subjects were made aware of the risks and requirements of participating in the study and all signed a written informed consent prior to any testing. To ensure the safety of the subjects, individuals were required to complete a physical-activity readiness questionnaire (PAR-Q) and a health status questionnaire prior to data collection.

Subjects were tested on a model 824E Monark Cycle Ergometer. Each subject wore a Hans Rudolph facemask with expired gas being collected and VO2 being analyzed by a Sensormedics 2900 Metabolic Measurement System. Individuals also wore a Polar Heart Rate Monitor (Model Polar Beat HRM) to determine exercise heart rate. Body-fat percentage was determined using Lange skinfold calipers with a 3-site skinfold method. Weight and height were measured using a detecto balance type scale with an attached measuring rod.

Descriptive data was collected immediately prior to the initial VO2max test.
After subjects reported to the lab, an explanation of the study was provided and the initial screening procedures were administered. Instructions regarding the exercise trial were also provided to the subjects. Subjects were then assessed for height, body weight, and body-fat percentage using a 3-site skinfold technique (Pollock, Schmidt, and Jackson, 1980).

Subjects underwent two VO2max tests (SIT and STD) on a cycle ergometer. Because subjects were of average fitness, cadence was set at 60 rpm for the duration of the tests (Beasley et al., 1989; and Marsh and Martin, 1993). Initially, subjects warmed up at a resistance of 30 watts for four minutes at 60 rpm. Every minute thereafter, resistance was increased by 30 watts until the subjects reached volitional exhaustion. SIT required each individual to stay seated until the test was terminated (at volitional exhaustion), while STD required individuals to stand at the point at which they felt they could no longer continue in a seated position. They continued to perform “standing cycling” to volitional exhaustion. All tests were stopped when subjects reached volitional exhaustion or when testers felt it was not safe for the subjects to continue. At the completion of each VO2max test, subjects were monitored during a low intensity cool-down. SIT and STD lasted approximately 7 to 15 minutes and were completed in a counterbalanced order on two separate days with three to seven days between each session.

Expiratory gas was analyzed using a Sensormedics 2900 Metabolic cart, which was calibrated prior to each test using a three-liter syringe and gases of known concentration. The system provided updates of metabolic data (VO2, VOE, RER) every 20 seconds. Also, a Polar Heart Rate monitor was used to monitor heart rate response (HR) every 60 seconds. Heart rate, VO2max, RER, and VOE were compared between SIT and STD. The highest observed values for metabolic data were considered “max” values for each respective cycle ergometry trial. The criteria for achieving a “true” VO2max were a) failure of HR to increase with further increases in exercise intensity, b) RER exceeded +1.15, and c) a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) of more than 17 (Balady et al., 2000). In the present study, meeting two out of the three criteria satisfied the requirement for achieving a “true” VO2max. VO2max, HR, RER, and VOE were analyzed using a multivariate repeated measures analysis of variance (MANOVA). Mean time to exhaustion for STD and SIT were compared using a paired t-test. Results were considered significant at p ≤ 0.05.

Results:

Descriptive characteristics of all subjects are displayed in Table 1. Physiological responses to seated and standing cycle ergometry are presented in Table 2. Percent increases of standing cycle ergometry are found in Table 3. The results suggest that VO2maxSTD was significantly greater than VO2maxSIT with a mean difference of 1.1 ml/kg/min. Also, HRSTD was significantly greater than HRSIT with a mean difference of 2.4 b/min. For VOE, VESTD was not significantly different (p = 0.08) than VESIT. However, RERSIT was significantly greater than RERSTD.

Regarding mean time to exhaustion, subjects cycled 10:15 ± 2:21 minutes during SIT, with individuals cycling between 7-15 minutes. Although the difference only approached significance (p = 0.064), subjects were able to cycle on average 11 seconds longer (10:26 ± 2:06 minutes) during STD, with participants cycling between 7:20, and 15:20. When subjects were in the standing position, the mean duration of standing cycle ergometry time to volitional exhaustion was 50.42 ± 15.57 seconds.

Table 1: Descriptive Characteristics of Subjects (n=36)-Values are means and standard deviations.

Males (n=14) Females (n=22) All Subjects
Age (years) 23.07 ± 2.97 19.73 ± 1.20 21.03 ± 2.63
Height (inches) 70.93 ± 3.17 65.59 ± 2.11 67.67 ± 3.66
Weight (lbs) 190.14 ± 23.36 139.00 ± 15.79 158.89 ± 31.49
Body Fat (%) 10.90 ± 4.45 21.41 ± 4.20 17.33 ± 6.71

Table 2: Physiological Responses during SIT and STD-Values are means and standard deviations. * Significantly different (p ≤ 0.05) (STD versus SIT)

VO2max
(ml/kg/min)
HR
(b/min)
VOE
(L/min)
RER
SIT 36.82 ± 6.63 187.3 ± 9.6 82.64 ± 26.77 1.23 ± 0.065
STD 37.93 ± 8.01* 189.7 ± 9.5* 86.02 ± 31.64 1.21 ± 0.096*

Table 3: Percent Increases for Standing Cycle Ergometry

Mean Percent
Increase
Range of Percent
Increase
Standard
Deviation
VO2max 2.0% -16.9% to +13.7% + 6.6%
HR 1.2% -5.6% to +7.4% + 2.9%
VOE 0.8% -38.1% to +41.7% + 17.5%
RER -2.3% -16.4% to +13.6% + 6.6%

Discussion:

Finding ways to achieve the highest cycling VO2max has important implications in exercise prescription, fitness evaluation, and cycling performance and training. Therefore, the results of the current study examined whether standing cycling VO2max values are significantly greater than seated VO2max values, which might support the use of a standing cycle ergometer protocol for all cycle ergometry Graded Exercise Tests (GXT) in exercise science and sport-performance laboratories. The use of such a protocol may generate the highest cycle ergometry VO2max values. In terms of gender, prior research has tested only male subjects. Therefore, it was of practical importance to administer the standing and seated cycle ergometry protocol to female subjects in the current study.

Previous results regarding standing cycle ergometry have been equivocal. Kelly et al. (1980), Nakadomo et al. (1987), and Tanaka et al. (1987) showed significantly greater standing VO2max, while Montgomery et al. (1971), and Tanaka et al. (1996) showed no significant differences in seated and standing VO2max. Similar to the results of Kelly et al. (1980), Tanaka et al. (1987), and Nakadomo et al. (1987), as well as Tanaka et al. (1996), the current results suggest that VO2maxSTD and HRSTD are significantly greater than VO2maxSIT and HRSIT (Table 2).

The current study showed a significantly greater (2.0%) VO2max and a significantly greater (1.2%) HR during STD compared to SIT. The greater VO2max and HR during STD can be explained by a variety of reasons. Based on previous research, it is likely that with greater force production, a larger amount of muscle mass was involved during STD (McLester, Green, and Chouinard, 2004; Nordeen-Strider, 1977). Also, standing during STD may have activated more muscle mass, as the legs supported the individual’s body weight as opposed to being supported by the saddle during SIT (Nakadomo et al., 1987; Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen, 1991; and Tanaka et al., 1987). Also, as noted by Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen (1991), and Tanaka et al. (1987), during standing cycle ergometry, the upper body is involved to a greater degree in torso stabilization and purposeful side-side rocking, compared to seated cycling. Kelly et al. (1980) and Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen (1991) suggested the standing cycle ergometry protocol provides more extensive involvement of the arm and leg muscles, eliciting greater blood flow and higher work output and contributing to a higher peak HR and VO2max, which may have also contributed to the findings of the current study.

Tanaka et al. (1987) suggested that decreases in subject cycling economy and attenuated leg fatigue might also explain the greater VO2maxSTD and HRSTD. Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen (1991) note that greater cardiorespiratory and metabolic requirements of the standing position decreases the efficiency of the rider, yet provides an increase in the total work output. For leg fatigue, subjects in the current study often verbally reported feelings of intense local discomfort and fatigue in the region of the quadriceps muscle when in the seated position and near or at volitional exhaustion. This leg fatigue and discomfort, coupled with gradual increases in resistance, may have limited the ability of the subject to continue cycling in the seated position (Nakadomo et al., 1987; Tanaka and Maeda, 1984; and Tanaka et al., 1987). However, many subjects verbally reported that at the onset of standing cycling, leg fatigue and local discomfort was comparatively less than during seated cycling, which could have accounted for the extended time to fatigue during STD (Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen, 1991; and Tanaka et al., 1987). Variations in perceived feelings might have been due to the redistribution of the workload over a greater muscle mass and alterations in the muscle recruitment pattern (Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen, 1991).

Another factor that may have contributed to greater VO2max during STD is the increase in joint angles when the individual comes out of the saddle and performs standing cycling. When standing, the hip, knee, and ankle joint excursions increase, which provides a greater range of motion within the respective joints (Nordeen-Snyder, 1977). Although not measured in the current study, it is possible that increases in the hip, knee, and ankle joint angles allowed for a more advantageous muscular force production and subsequent extended time to fatigue (Heil, Derrick, and Whittlesey, 1997; Nordeen-Snyder, 1977; and Shennum and deVries, 1976).

Millet et al. (2002), Tanaka et al. (1996), and Ryschon and Stray-Gundersen (1991) showed greater standing cycle ergometry HR. Although those differences occurred during a 4% incline protocol, significantly greater HR (1.2%) occurred during the current study, which utilized a level protocol. The extended time to fatigue allowed by standing may have attributed to a higher HR because earlier termination of the test due to leg fatigue and discomfort may have interfered with attainment of a true max HR.

Although only approaching significance (p = 0.08), an 0.83% greater VOE occurred during STD compared to SIT. The increases in VOE can be attributed to some of the reasons that likely contributed to a greater VO2max during standing cycle ergometry. Generally when VOE increases, so too does VO2 (Foss and Keteyian, 1998).

As previously mentioned, when an individual leaves the seated cycle ergomerty position to stand, a greater involvement of upper and lower body muscle mass occurs. The activation of more muscle mass may allow for greater work output (Reiser, et al., 2002), which increases oxygen requirements of the muscles. In turn, ventilation increases. Cardiac output is also increased when participating in the standing position, which contributes to higher VO2max and VOE (Kelly et al., 1980). Also, because lower leg fatigue may be altered in the standing position, VOE increases, and subjects are able to extend time to exhaustion.

For RER, SIT showed a significantly greater (2.3%) RER as compared to STD. Although SIT produced significantly greater RER compared to STD, the difference was of little practical significance. All RER values in both STD and SIT surpassed the criteria indicative of a “true” VO2max (+1.15).

The current study showed that VO2maxSTD and HRSTD were significantly greater compared to SIT. However, despite the significant differences, it is important to note that discrepancies between the present study and previous studies (Montgomery et al., 1971 and Tanaka et al., 1996) could be a result of the protocol differences, variations in fitness levels, and low subject numbers. Many subjects benefited from the STD protocol as 20 of 36 (55.6%) individuals had greater VO2max (up to 13.6%) and 25 of 36 (69.4%) subjects had greater peak HR (up to 7.4%). While means were significantly different, it should be noted that inter-individual variability was high. Some subjects had a much lower VO2max during STD. Differentiating between those who respond positively and those who respond negatively to a standing protocol is difficult and was beyond the scope of the current study.

Conclusions:

The results of the current study support previous findings, showing a greater VO2max during standing versus seated cycle ergometry (Kelly et al., 1980; Nakadomo et al., 1987; and Tanaka et al., 1987). Results of the current study also show significantly greater HRSTD. The current results support the use of a test protocol that allows an individual to stand during a cycle ergometry GXT. Therefore, since a higher VO2max value was elicited using the standing protocol in the current study, a standing protocol should be considered for implementation when individuals are assessed for cardiorespiratory responses to maximal work using cycle ergometry. Future research should seek to determine characteristics of subjects who do/do not benefit from a standing versus seated protocol.

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