Understanding the Muscles Worked by Cycling

person in black shorts and white socks riding blue and black road bike rapha

Cycling is not just a mode of transportation or a competitive sport; it’s also an effective full-body workout that engages multiple muscle groups. This article aims to demystify the anatomy of cycling, focusing on the specific muscles that are utilised while riding a bike. We’ll explore how different cycling styles and terrains can target various muscle groups, from the calves and quadriceps to the core and back muscles. Understanding the muscular dynamics of cycling can help enthusiasts optimise their workouts, improve riding techniques, and potentially reduce the risk of injury. Whether you’re a casual rider or a serious cyclist, gaining insight into the muscles worked by cycling is valuable for enhancing both fitness and performance.

1. What are the primary muscles used in cycling?

Cycling is a full-body workout that engages a variety of muscle groups. The primary muscles used in cycling are the quadriceps and hamstrings in the upper leg, and the gastrocnemius and soleus in the calf. These muscles work together to power the pedalling motion. The quadriceps are responsible for pushing the pedals down, while the hamstrings help to pull them back up. The calf muscles assist in this motion, especially during the upward phase.

The gluteal muscles in the buttocks also play a significant role in cycling, particularly during uphill riding or when sprinting. They work in conjunction with the quadriceps to provide powerful pedal strokes. The hip flexors are another important muscle group, as they help to lift the leg during the recovery phase of the pedal stroke.

Cycling also engages the muscles in the core, including the abs and back muscles. These muscles help to stabilise the body and maintain balance on the bike. The arm and shoulder muscles are used to grip the handlebars and support the upper body.

2. Does cycling build leg muscle?

Yes, cycling can help to build leg muscle. The repetitive pedalling motion works the leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Over time, this can lead to increased muscle mass and strength.

However, the extent to which cycling builds leg muscle can depend on several factors, including the intensity and duration of your rides, your diet, and your genetics. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) on the bike can be particularly effective for building muscle. This involves alternating between periods of high-intensity riding and periods of lower-intensity recovery.

It’s also important to note that while cycling can help to build leg muscle, it’s not the most effective exercise for this purpose. Weightlifting exercises, such as squats and lunges, are generally more effective for building leg muscle.

Muscles Used Whilst Cycling
Leg muscles used whilst cycling

3. How does cycling affect the muscles in the upper body?

While cycling is primarily a lower-body workout, it also engages the muscles in the upper body. The arm and shoulder muscles are used to grip the handlebars and support the upper body. The muscles in the back and core help to maintain balance and stability on the bike.

However, the extent to which cycling works the upper body can depend on the type of cycling you’re doing. Mountain biking, for example, can provide a more intense upper body workout than road cycling, due to the need to navigate uneven terrain and steer the bike.

If you’re looking to build upper body muscle, it’s a good idea to incorporate some strength training exercises into your fitness routine alongside cycling. This could include exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and weightlifting.

4. How does cycling affect the abdominal muscles?

Cycling can help to strengthen the abdominal muscles, as they play a key role in maintaining balance and stability on the bike. The abs help to stabilise the body during the pedalling motion, and they also work to keep the body upright and balanced, particularly when riding out of the saddle.

However, while cycling can help to strengthen the abs, it’s not the most effective exercise for this purpose. If you’re looking to specifically target the abs, it’s a good idea to incorporate some targeted ab exercises into your fitness routine, such as crunches, planks, and leg raises.

5. Does cycling work the gluteal muscles?

Yes, cycling can work the gluteal muscles. These muscles are engaged during the pedalling motion, particularly during the downward phase when the leg is extended. The glutes work in conjunction with the quadriceps to provide powerful pedal strokes.

The extent to which cycling works the glutes can depend on several factors, including your riding position and the type of cycling you’re doing. Riding out of the saddle, for example, can engage the glutes more than riding in the saddle. Similarly, uphill riding or sprinting can provide a more intense workout for the glutes.

Mathieu van der Poel

6. Does cycling work the back muscles?

Cycling can work the back muscles, particularly the lower back. These muscles are used to maintain balance and stability on the bike, and they also help to support the upper body.

However, it’s important to note that cycling can also put strain on the back, particularly if you have poor riding posture. It’s important to maintain a neutral spine position when riding, and to avoid hunching over the handlebars. Regularly stretching and strengthening the back muscles can also help to prevent back pain and injury.

7. Does cycling work the arm and shoulder muscles?

While cycling is primarily a lower-body workout, it does also engage the arm and shoulder muscles. These muscles are used to grip the handlebars and support the upper body. The arm and shoulder muscles also help to steer the bike and maintain balance, particularly when riding out of the saddle or navigating uneven terrain.

However, the extent to which cycling works the arm and shoulder muscles can depend on the type of cycling you’re doing. Mountain biking, for example, can provide a more intense workout for these muscles than road cycling.

8. How does cycling affect the hip flexors?

Cycling can work the hip flexors, as these muscles are used to lift the leg during the recovery phase of the pedal stroke. However, cycling can also lead to tightness in the hip flexors, particularly if you spend a lot of time riding in the saddle.

Tight hip flexors can lead to a range of issues, including lower back pain and hip pain. It’s therefore important to regularly stretch the hip flexors, particularly after long rides. Incorporating some hip flexor stretches into your post-ride cool down can help to maintain flexibility in these muscles and prevent tightness.