What Muscles Does Biking Work?
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Cycling is an amazing sport and, as a form of exercise, has many benefits. Not only is it low impact and burns a lot of calories, but it can take you out into nature exploring. One of the best things about cycling is the amount of muscles it utilizes while doing it.
We often get asked about the different muscles that you work during cycling. As a personal trainer who has specialized in cycling strength and conditioning for multiple years, I have a lot of knowledge when it comes to cycling muscles.
In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about the muscles you use while cycling, how to train them, and even speak about optimizing your pedal stroke. Here’s what we’re going to be running through:
- Why Is It Important To Understand Cycling Muscles?
- What Muscles Do You Use Cycling And How To Train Them?
- Understanding Muscle Timing And Activation
- How To Optimize Your Pedal Stroke
Why Is It Important To Understand Cycling Muscles?
Knowing the muscles you work when riding a bike comes with many benefits. Here’s why we recommend taking the time to learn them.
When you know the muscles that you’re using when cycling, it helps you when it comes to training them. Understanding what muscles are weaker and might need improvement and which don’t can go a long way to making you a much better cyclist. This is what we call fixing muscle imbalances.
Another great benefit to understanding the cycling muscles is that you can optimize the recovery to get you back on the bike as soon as possible. When you know the muscles that need help, you can focus on foam rolling them or stretching to loosen them off.
Nobody likes injuries, and they can negatively affect your training process. If you don’t take action on why you got them or focus on fixing them, you can expect a lot of time off the bike. Knowing the muscles means if you do issues in certain areas, you can do exercises to prevent it from happening in the future.
What Muscles Does Biking Work & How To Train Them?
When it comes to the cycling muscles, it’s important not to see them all as singular muscles but to group some together in muscle groups to understand their function better. Here’s what you need to know. We will start with the major muscle groups.
Also Read: What Is a Tabata Ride?
The Quadriceps muscles, also known as quads, is a group of muscles that sit at the front of the leg muscles and produce a huge amount of power when it comes to the pedal stroke. They are the largest group of muscles in the legs. The Quadriceps are a big driving force not only when you’re sitting down but also when on a standing climb.
They comprise the Vastus Medialis, Rectus Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis. They are prominently used at the start of the pedal stroke, pushing downwards. These muscles are very trainable, and if you are looking to become a more powerful cyclist and a fast sprinter, the quads are a good place to start.
How To Train The Quads
When it comes to training the quads, here are the exercises we recommend you do to get the best possible adaptations. Quad training typically involves a lot of pushing compared to pulling.
- Leg Extensions (Isolation)
- Squats (Compound)
Leg extensions are a way to purely to work the quads alone. Hence we call it an isolation exercise. Squats and lunges are considered more compound because although they heavily work the quads, they also work other parts of the legs, such as the glutes and hamstrings.
The hamstrings are the group of muscles that sit on the rear of the legs. The second largest group of muscles in the legs. These are very easy to neglect, and in my time training clients, this was one of the biggest weaknesses I saw cyclists had.
The hamstrings are made up of the Semimembranosus and the Biceps Femoris. These muscles are prominently used as the quadricep muscles disengage at the pedal stroke’s mid to lower part.
How To Train The Hamstrings
Training the hamstrings can be a lot of fun, and the exercises are completely different compared to the quads. You will generally do a pulling motion instead of a pushing motion when training the hamstring.
- Leg Curls (Isolation)
- Deadlifts (Compound)
- Glute Ham Raises (Compound)
Training the hamstring can be a little more difficult compared to the quads, and it’s important when first starting to be very cautious as this is a place where you can easily pull muscles and injure yourself.
Then we have the calves, also known as calf muscles. Which are often considered the smallest muscle group for the cycling legs. Although the calves help the power you push into the pedals, they are also greatly used in stabilization.
The Calves comprise Gastrocnemius Medialis, Gastrocnemius Lateralis, and the Soleus. They engage at a very similar time to the Hamstring muscles and help produce power in the lower part of the pedal stroke.
How To Train The Calves
When it comes to training the calves, you need to focus on pushing the front of the feet to the floor. This motion limits you to a few exercises, but the calves are heavily used in many compound exercises.
- Calf Raises (Isolation)
- Box Jumps (Compound)
- Farmers Walk (Compound)
When training calves, it’s important, like hamstrings, to go in easily and build strength. If you want to really challenge your calves and help improve them, you might consider skipping.
The quadriceps are often referred to as the largest muscles in the body, but this isn’t correct because they are a group. The largest muscle in the body is the Gluteus Maximus, often referred to as the glutes or your bum muscles. This is one of the primary muscles when it comes to cycling.
The glutes are a huge driving force when it comes to cycling and also works in conjunction with the back to help keep you upright and support you while you ride. Strong glutes are a great asset to a cyclist and well worth training.
How To Train The Glutes
- Glute Extensions (Isolation)
- Hip Thrusts (Compound)
- Split Squats (Compound)
Training the glutes is a lot of fun, and it’s surprising just how powerful these muscles are. Exercises such as hip thrusts and glute extensions are a fantastic way to grow strength and can be that extra push you need up the mountain.
Other Important Muscles
There are also a lot of other muscles that play a part in the pedal stroke here. Here are a few honorable mentions that are good to know.
This is the muscle in the shin area of the legs. It’s used to help stabilize the foot and is used to pull the front of the foot upward toward the center of the body. It’s not generally a muscle you will isolate to train, but it does get worked through many compound leg exercises.
The core plays a huge part in cycling and is needed to stabilize the body to not only keep you upright but to lean side to side in those standing climbs. Professional cyclists will do a lot of core work, and it essentially benefits the whole cycling movement.
Biceps And Triceps
Then we have the biceps and triceps on the upper body. These are the arm muscles. These are used to steer, but more importantly, they are vital for when it comes to being out of the saddle. In standing climbs, you heavily use your arms to stabilize yourself when leaning your weight on each pedal.
The hips play a very big part in the pedaling motion and are responsible for bringing those legs back up, ready to hit the next stroke downwards. It’s highly recommended as a cyclist that you keep the hips flexible by doing regular stretching.
When it comes to cycling, a huge amount of muscles are working, and to an extent, everything is engaging at some point, even the shoulders, chest, back and arm muscles. It’s not all about the lower body muscles. Cycling, although not considered a full-body workout, still does engage the majority of the muscle in the body at points, especially when in standing climbs.
Understanding Muscle Timing And Activation
When it comes to the pedal stroke, not only do we need the right muscles to be working, but we need them to work at the right time. The general cadence of a cyclist is around 80 revolutions per minute which is more than one full pedal stroke per second.
A common saying among cycle trainers is that it takes years to grow cycling legs. In my opinion, as a personal trainer to many cyclists, I can agree with this. Not because you need to grow leg strength the timing of muscle activation.
As you can see above, there’s much to say about muscle timing. It’s important to understand the quads at the front of the legs fire first, and then the glutes shortly engage after, and the hamstrings on the rear finish the pedal stroke.
Optimizing The Pedal Stroke
So now you know what muscles are used in cycling and the time that activates, how can we improve and optimize the pedal stroke further? Here are our top tips for optimizing pedal strokes both effective in outdoor cycling and indoor cycling.
Also Read: How To Develop Proper Cycling Form
If you are really looking to step up your cycling game, then a bike fit is a fantastic way to go. A bike fit is where a professional fitter will watch you ride a bike and adjust you to ride as efficiently as possible.
The fitter will consider many factors of your cycling, from your saddle height, reach, cleat position, and much more. Not only is this going to enhance your pedal stroke, but it’s also going to make you much more comfortable.
Next, we have structured training. This is where you take on a training plan which is going to help you become a better cyclist. This will push you harder than you might normally train and drive your body to make adaptations.
A training plan will have many different types of sessions, such as high-intensity interval training and long endurance rides. It will also include days when you are required to rest and power tests such as the FTP test.
The benefits of strength training are huge and many professionals go down this route to give themselves an edge over their competition. Not only does hitting the gym help you get stronger, but it also stops injuries and improves flexibility.
Exercises such as squats, lunges, sit-ups, and deadlifts can greatly improve your strength and pedaling technique. We recommend having a personal trainer show you how to do them if you are unsure so you don’t end up hurting yourself.
A Final Note
We use a lot of muscles when it comes to cycling, and knowing which goes a long way to help you understand the exercise. With this knowledge, you can improve as a cyclist and understand yourself much better when it comes to hitting those pedals. Thanks for taking the time to read this article, now you know what muscles biking works.