Can You Change Gears on a Bike Trainer? (Or Smart Trainer?)

When I purchased my first bike trainer, I had so many questions! I didn’t know how to set it up or what the different modes meant, and I was confused about what gearing I should use. Once I had my trainer set up correctly, then I really wondered, 

Can I change gears on a bike trainer? 

You can change gears on a bike trainer if you are riding a classic trainer or a smart trainer in resistance mode. You probably won’t change gears if you are riding a smart trainer in ERG mode, but there are occasions when you might need to switch to an easier or harder gear. Ideally, you ride your bike on your trainer just like you would if you were riding outside. 

In this article, we’ll talk about how to change gears on a bike trainer and if you should change gears when you are using a smart trainer, too. We’ll also talk about whether or not you should switch gears if you are riding on Zwift. But first, we will look at whether or not changing gears does anything on a bike trainer. 

Does Changing Gears Do Anything on a Bike Trainer?


Changing gears on a bike trainer works a lot like changing gears when riding your bike outside. You change gears to manage your cadence (how fast or hard you are pedaling) and your speed. However, it depends on what type of trainer you are using and what type of ride you are doing.

If you are riding a classic trainer (sometimes called a dumb trainer), you might need to adjust how hard the ride is manually. You will have some kind of a dial to increase or decrease the resistance of the trainer. In this case, you can shift the gears on your bike to make it harder or easier to ride, or you can adjust the trainer’s resistance. If your trainer does not have a resistance dial, you can make the ride harder or easier by changing gears. 

Since changing gears is important when riding on a bike trainer, how do you know which gear you should be using? 

Which Gear Should You Use on a Bike Trainer?

The gear you use on your bike trainer has to do with riding in a comfortable cadence and adjusting the difficulty of the trainer. 

Some experts say that the most efficient cadence for cycling is around 90 RPMs, give or take a few, depending on your body type and how you ride. Generally speaking, you should use whatever gear gives you that efficient cadence. You’ll likely use the big chainring in the front and a gear somewhere in the middle of the cassette in the back. 

However, you might want to practice a low cadence strength ride. Low cadence drills mean you’ll put the bike in a harder gear and ride for several minutes with a cadence of around 50 to 60 RPMs. On the other hand, you may want to practice high cadence drills, so you’ll put the bike into a very easy gear so you can spin around 110 to 120 RPMs. 

What about derailleurs on a bike?

If your trainer has a resistance setting, you can put it to the difficulty you want and then adjust your gears as needed. But how exactly do you go about changing your gears on a trainer? 

How to Change Gears on a Bike Trainer

Changing gears on a bike trainer works the same way as changing gears when you are riding outside. If it becomes too hard to pedal, shift to an easier gear. If it becomes too easy to pedal, then shift to a harder gear so that you maintain that efficient, 90 RPM cadence. 

Changing gears on your trainer works whether you are using a wheel-on trainer or a direct drive trainer. It also works whether you are on a classic trainer or a smart trainer. You can still change gears. 

Do You Shift Gears on a Smart Trainer?

You can shift gears on a smart trainer, depending on what mode you are riding in. Smart trainers often use two modes. The first mode is resistance mode. This mode will mimic riding outdoors if you are connected to a platform such as Zwift or RGT. The second mode is ERG mode, and it is used for workouts.

Online platforms can also measure your distance on a bike trainer. Check out this article to learn more.

Resistance Mode 

Resistance mode is the mode you use when you want to ride like you would outdoors. Your trainer will provide the resistance and is controlled by an APP or game. When the game puts you on a hilly climb, you can shift to an easy gear to spin your way up. When the game puts you on a fast descent, you can either coast on your way down or put your bike into a tough gear and pedal down the hill. 

Just like riding outside, you’ll want to keep that nice, easy cadence. So when the terrain becomes hard to pedal, you can shift to the little chainring in the front and a larger, easy cog in the back. On the other hand, when the terrain becomes so easy that you feel like you are spinning out, you can switch to the bigger chainring in the front and a smaller cog in the back, just as if you were riding outside. 

ERG Mode

On the other hand, many smart trainers have ERG mode or workout mode. When you are in ERG mode, you shouldn’t need to shift. Instead, put the trainer in the big cassette in the front and in the middle cog in the back. This way, the workout app, such as TrainerRoad or SufferFest, will provide the resistance, and you pedal according to what the app tells you to pedal. 

If you simply cannot keep up with the workout because it is too hard, you might need to shift down a few gears into an easier cog, but other than that, you won’t really be shifting when you are in ERG mode. 

For a great example of using your smart trainer, let’s look at changing gears on Zwift. 

Do You Change Gears on Zwift?

You can change gears on Zwift when you are free riding. The Zwift platform is a game that imitates outside riding, and it works best with a smart trainer. The game will give you hills to climb, descents to fly down, flats to speed across, and all kinds of interesting things to look at while you ride. As you ride uphill, the Zwift platform makes it harder to pedal. And as you ride downhill, the platform makes it easier to pedal. 

When it gets too difficult, you can use shift to an easier gear. When it gets too easy to pedal, you can shift to a harder gear. However, Zwift makes it a little bit more complicated with the Trainer Difficulty Slider. 

If you find that it is always too easy and you don’t have enough ‘hard’ gears, you can slide the Trainer Difficulty to the harder end to give you more of a workout. On the other hand, if you are always running out of easy gears, you can slide the Trainer Difficulty level to the easier end to make it a little bit easier to pedal. In many ways, this slider is like adding extra gears to your bike where you need them. 

None of these things will matter so much if you are using Zwift to do workouts. Built-in Zwift workouts use ERG mode to control the trainer. When you are in ERG mode, make sure you are in a middle to easy gear, such as the big ring in the front and a middle cog in the back. Then allow Zwift and the trainer to adjust the resistance needed for the workout you chose automatically.

Standing up can also help you put out a much higher power for sprinting or climbing. However, can you stand up on a bike trainer? Read that article to find out.


JJ here - I've spent a lot of time on a bike, including completing the 3,000+ mile Southern Tier Route (CA to FL). I started Cycling Beast to "demystify" cycling topics, and to help people overcome roadblocks and level-up their skills.

Recent Posts