The primary power-producing muscles used for cycling include the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The calf muscles, abs, and spinal erectors work with upper body muscles for stability while riding.
Many recognize cardiovascular fitness as quite important in cycling, and this is true. But cycling also provides a workout for your skeletal muscles. The power behind pedaling involves complex activation of several muscle groups. Of course, the most used muscles while riding are in the lower body – primarily the quadriceps and gluteal muscles. However, you also utilize muscle groups throughout the core and upper body to maintain balance and stability. The degree of activation of these muscle groups varies based on your cycling discipline and cycling equipment.
Muscles Used in Cycling Sports
Cycling requires you to use your muscles for two different purposes – generating power and balance. It necessitates activating a considerable amount of muscles in complex, coordinated patterns. Of course, it all begins with the pedaling action, which involves the quadriceps and glutes as the primary power sources. But when you ride, you need a stable platform to effectively deliver that power. This is where your core and upper body muscles come into play, as you need to maintain balance across cycling’s three points of contact.
Quadriceps – The main power producers
Hamstrings – Help stabilize the knee joint
Glutes – Generate power and stability
Calves – Help stabilize the ankle joint
Abs – Used to stabilize the upper body
Spinal erectors – Back muscles that stabilize the upper body
Upper Body Muscles
Deltoid – Support the weight of the upper body
Latissimus dorsi – Used for pulling the handlebars
Pectorals – Support the weight of the upper body
Muscle Fiber Types
As you ride, you continually activate muscle groups throughout the body to drive the pedals and remain upright. The leg muscles generate pedaling force, while various muscle groups throughout the body generate stability. But how exactly does cycling workout these muscles?
The fibers that make up our muscles can be broadly categorized into slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers. To put it most simply, the main difference between muscle fiber types comes down to how they are used. Slow-twitch fibers are predominantly used for low-intensity exercise but have superior endurance capabilities. On the other hand, fast-twitch fibers can generate more power but fatigue quickly.
So when you use your muscles during cycling, you are primarily training and using slow-twitch fibers. This is because cycling is predominantly an endurance activity. You tap into type 2 fibers at times, like during sprints and big gear climbs. But the vast majority of the time, it is all about endurance.
Muscles Used in the Pedaling Action
The pedaling action is a seemingly simple motion. Yet it involves several muscle groups working synergistically to provide power to the pedal stroke. The vast majority of muscles used in cycling are the quadriceps. However, the glutes and hamstrings also play important roles.
The quadriceps and gluteal muscles are the driving forces behind pedaling. The quadriceps are made up of four thigh muscles, with the vasts medial is, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris being the primary power sources. These muscles work together from the top to the bottom of the pedal stroke.
The glutes also contribute. The gluteus maximus provides extra power, while the gluteus medius and minimus stabilize the hips and modulate the external rotation of the thigh. Glute activation depends on heavily on-bike fit. Generally speaking, rotating the pelvis forward towards the handlebars results in greater activation. But even with a perfect cycling position, your body must activate the proper motor patterns
Lazy or inactive glutes can be an issue for many cyclists. Inactive glutes from limited activation outside of cycling can lead to knee issues. If the glutes are not being utilized, over time the brain compensates by offloading glute stabilization tasks to the limbs and hamstrings during pedaling. This means the quads have to both drive the pedal and stabilize the knee joint.
The leg muscles are most active from the 6 to 9 o’clock position of the pedal stroke. The vastus medial is the key muscle behind this activation. While the quadriceps produce most of the power, some of the load is taken up by the hamstrings. Additionally, they aid knee stabilization when the leg is fully extended. Emphasizing the hamstrings is like scraping something off the bottom of your shoe. This technique slightly increases power, reduces the load on the limbs, and helps smooth power delivery.
How to Train Your Quads, Glutes, and Hamstrings
There are two goals when training power-producing muscles: endurance and strength. Muscular endurance is the ability to repeatedly contract muscles. This is what helps you sustain reasonable high wattage and resists fatigue over long durations. Training muscular strength involves increasing the number and manner of fiber contractions within a muscle.
Training muscular endurance is relatively straightforward. You need to ride your bike and use your muscles. How much depends on the intensity. Muscular endurance is best built during base training seasons. There are two ways to conduct base training. The first is the traditional way with long rides at low intensity. The second, and more time-efficient method, is sweet spot base.
Strength training provides the stimulus to increase muscle mass and number of fibers, resulting in greater power. For quads, glutes, and hamstrings, the best moves are squats and deadlifts.
A stable core is critical for providing a platform to generate power and comfort while pedaling. The abs and spinal erectors work together to stabilize the upper body as you pedal. This allows you to effectively utilize the power you are generating. Adequate core strength is essential for resisting lower back pain over long rides.
How to Train Your Core Muscles
Unfortunately, cycling does not effectively work the abs or lower back. This is because the pedals, saddle, and handlebars take on most of the work of supporting your weight. So while you won’t get six-pack abs from riding, you can do some exercises to improve trunk strength.
Simple planks are a great way to start improving your core. If you’re just starting out, go for 30-second planks repeated 3-5 times. As you progress, build up time to 2-minute planks. There are many plank variations, like side plank, which is one good modifier.
Upper Body Muscles
While riding, the arm, shoulder, upper back, and chest muscles are used to varying degrees. Their activation depends on the terrain and cycling discipline. Riding technical single track, for example, works the upper body more than riding on flat pavement.
The deltoid, pectorals, and trapezius help bear the weight of the upper body. The rougher the riding, the more these muscles are utilized. In particular, weak deltoid can be an issue, often presenting as locked, straight arm positions. Since the arms act as shock absorbers, locked elbows lead to neck and shoulder pain. Shoulder strength is critical for timed event and triathlon riders riding in an aero position.
The latissimus dorsi are the largest muscles of the upper back. They expand and compress the rib cage when breathing. Additionally, they are used to pulling on the handlebars. This is especially true during sprints.
How to Train Your Upper Body Muscles
There are many ways to train the upper body muscles. Simple body weight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups work the upper body muscles well. You can take it a step further and try Spider-Man push-ups to incorporate some core work. If you have some dumbbells, rows work the back and core simultaneously. Bench press, overhead press, and push-ups are all effective ways to strengthen the upper body.
Muscles Used By Road Cyclists
The terrain you ride impacts which muscle groups are used while cycling. Riding on the road or smooth gravel, leg involvement is highest. On smooth surfaces, less stability is generally required. So your upper body and core muscles are not forced into action. Have you ever experienced lower back pain during a long ride though? Much of the time, this is caused by weak core muscles leading to poor posture.
Muscles Used By Mountain Bikers
In general, mountain bikers utilize more of their muscles, as technical trail riding requires more stability and balance. Of course, the leg muscles are the primary power source for pedaling, but upper body and core muscle involvement is higher. Compared to road cycling, the stabilizing actions on a mountain bike are rapid and repetitive, meaning type 2 fibers throughout the body play an important role.
Can You Build Muscle By Cycling?
Balanced muscle comes from increased muscle mass or lower overall body fat, but usually both. Cycling is healthy but does little to increase muscle mass, though it can help improve body composition. So in short, no you cannot build significant muscle by cycling alone.
Cycling does not increase strength or muscle mass because you are mostly using your muscles in very low-force repetition to burn calories. The secret to increasing muscle mass and strength is resistance training.
How Strong Should Cyclists Be?
To become a faster cyclist, you first need to become a stronger cyclist. But how strong do you need to be? We’ve developed strength training benchmarks for cyclists based on your cycling discipline and goals. These benchmarks are only for endurance athletes looking to improve performance, enhance movement quality, and reduce injury risk. Strength training is a great addition if you want to enhance the muscles used in cycling.
Cycling is an endurance sport that utilizes muscles throughout the entire body. While cycling can exercise the leg muscles, you are unlikely to see increases in muscle mass. Instead, only muscular endurance increases. Pairing with strength training can boost comfort and performance.
As an endurance cyclist, full body strength provides a foundation for power and efficiency. A stronger body is a more resistant body. General strength training for cyclists should target the major movement patterns and primary movers:
Hip and Knee Dominant Leg Exercises (e.g. squats and lunges)
Vertical Pulling for Back and Arms (e.g. pull-ups and lat pull-downs)
Horizontal Pulling for Back (e.g. rows)
Core Exercises (e.g. planks)
Shoulder Exercises (e.g. push-ups and shoulder presses)
These foundational exercises build overall durability against fatigue and injury while enhancing cycling power and efficiency. Shoot for sets of 5-12 repetitions on major compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses. Go for 3-4 sets per exercise. Overloading and progressively increasing weight, within the proper form, provides the strength stimulus.
As for specific benchmarks, a good goal for women is to deadlift 1x body weight and do 10-15 strict push-ups. For men, aim for 1.5x body weight deadlift and 15-20 standard push-ups. Attaining these strength levels provides immense benefits for endurance performance and injury resilience.
Of course, strength training is just one component of a complete training program. But including foundational exercises that target major movement patterns is key. Ultimately, improved strength equals improved cycling performance. The stronger cyclist is the faster cyclist.
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Post time: Jul-27-2023