Breaking Down Cycling: What Muscles Does Biking Work, and How?

Jan 17, 2024
cyclist in peleton

Since the late 19th century, the bicycle has become progressively more entrenched into physical culture. As competitions were pioneered, stationary bikes manufactured, and exercise science started studying the sport of cycling, a question for the sport’s athletes and recreational enthusiasts naturally emerged, “What muscles does cycling work?” Well, let’s find out!

Anatomy of a Cyclist

When you look at a group of professional cyclists, you notice certain commonalities across the various athletic frames. Body composition, balance between upper and lower, the overdevelopment of certain muscles compared to others; these are bodies literally built for cycling, and best exemplify what the sport itself utilizes. Take a look at the picture below.

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

In broad terms, what stands out most is the lower body. Cycling is very much a lower-extremity dominated sport, and as we can see, the thighs and calves are highly developed in these elite level cyclists. The front of their shins also have noticeable bulk, and all this is in stark contrast to their upper bodies, which present themselves with comparatively lower levels of muscle mass.

This is a typical cyclist-specific body. Extremely lean and efficient with powerful legs and a light upper body. With this image in mind, let’s get to the question we’ve come here for.

What Muscles Does Biking Work?

The main action in cycling is pedaling, and the pedal stroke (a full revolution of the pedal) is typically broken up into two phases; power and recovery. The muscles being recruited are different depending on which phase you’re in and even where you are in each one. To best determine what our muscles are doing while cycling, we’ll look at each phase individually.

For reference, it can be helpful to imagine a clock face when picturing the pedal stroke in action…

The power phase, also known as the downstroke, takes place from the 12 o’clock to 6 o'clock position. The recovery phase, also known as the upstroke, occurs from the 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock position. The lowest point in the pedal stroke is called bottom dead centre (6 o’clock), the highest point is called top dead center (12 o’clock).

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Power Phase/Downstroke

During the power phase, each pedal stroke is initiated through a combinative action between the quadriceps (knee extensors), glutes (hip extensors) and hamstrings (who have a secondary action of hip extension). Together, these muscles push the pedal down through a straightening of the leg. It is the most exertive part of cycling, evidenced particularly by muscle mass in the quads.

In terms of stability and positioning, the muscles in a cyclist’s abdominal area are working to provide a stable foundation for your legs to push off of. This function is somewhat distorted through the stability provided by the saddle. Simultaneously, the lower back is fighting the forces of gravity to keep the torso at an appropriate angle (i.e. relaxed, aggressive, aero). 

Primary Muscles Used

  • Quadriceps (knee extension)
  • Gluteals (hip extension)
  • Hamstrings (hip extension)

Secondary Muscles Used

  • Calves (ankle extension)
  • Erector spinae, i.e. lower back (positioning)
  • Abdominals (stability)

Recovery Phase/Upstroke)

Upon hitting bottom dead center (remember, 6 o’clock position), the focus turns to bringing the pedal back up. Action in the calf muscles (mostly gastrocnemius) and the hamstrings (responsible for bending the knee) push and pull the pedal through its bottom position. The tibialis anterior (shin muscle) pulls the toes upwards, and the hip flexors drive the knee up.

We often think of endurance in terms of our legs when we talk about cycling, but shifting our focus to the torso provides a stark realization that these muscles are working hard for long periods of time, as well. Our midsection (particularly the lower back) is under constant stress and tension while riding, relieved only partially through the weight borne by the handlebars.

Primary Muscles Used

  • Iliopsoas (hip flexion)
  • Hamstrings (knee flexion)

Secondary Muscles Used

  • Tibialis anterior (dorsiflexion, i.e. pulling the toes upwards)
  • Rectus femoris (hip flexion, secondary function of this quadriceps muscle)
  • Erector spinae, i.e. lower back (positioning)
  • Abdominals (stability)

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Implications & Injuries in Cyclists

Now that we have briefly covered what muscles cycling works, we can start to understand why certain tissues tend to be stiff and/or become injured in people who ride often. Putting acute injuries aside (which result largely from accidents as opposed to muscle action), the chronic injury in our sport and the muscle imbalance that precedes it is what interests us here.

Lower back pain, for example, is a multi-faceted problem, often caused by short, tight hip flexors, a weak core and a weak lower back. Short hip flexors pull the lumbar spine into extension, the core is largely shut off because the saddle/handlebars are balancing us, and cyclists often neglect training the lower back in general; the perfect storm.

The quadriceps are dominant and often overdeveloped in relation to the hamstrings in many cyclists. While this may benefit cycling performance (at least initially), it can start to work against itself when things like knee/hip pain start cropping up. Stretching the quads, while at the same time creating more balance in the thigh are, or will soon be, the only option for relief.

Certain things can become amplified when we’re clipped in as opposed to riding free on the pedal. Action in the tibialis anterior (shin muscle) and hip flexors becomes much more pronounced because we’re able to more actively pull up on the pedal through the recovery phase. This extra strain can contribute to things like shin and hip pain in any level of cyclist.

 

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

How Do You Train Cycling Muscles?

Creating a strength training and mobility program that properly accounts for the performance demands of cycling, while at the same time helping to prevent injury and fix muscle imbalances is no small task, indeed. That’s why we’ve created a platform that cyclists at all levels of skill and experience can benefit from. This is Dynamic Cyclist.

Dynamic Cyclist is the number one training program to help cyclists train and compete pain-free. We have hundreds of comprehensive, follow-along video routines led by world class trainers to help you look, feel and perform your best. Stretching/mobility, strength training, warm ups and injury prevention programs are just some of what you’ll find on the inside.


Join the tens of thousands of cyclists worldwide who are feeling the benefits of our professional programming. Sign up for a 7-day free trial by clicking here!

 

Written by Eric Lister – Certified Personal Trainer & Corrective Exercise Specialist

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