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What muscles does cycling work and what are the benefits?

By Sarah Finley

  • The primary muscles engaged during cycling are the calfs, quads, glutes, hamstrings, tibialis, and hip flexors

  • Cycling is a cardio workout, helping to burn calories while toning various muscles

  • Other benefits of cycling include an increase in overall fitness and improved mental health

  • Cycling is a cheap way to exercise and can be done on a stationary bike or a road bike

During lockdown, the popularity of cycling skyrocketed. Indoor bike company Peloton doubled their revenue, while sales for road bikes and an interest in outdoor cycling soared too. The health benefits from regular cycling are many; most of us bought bikes for a particular fitness goal, to improve cardiovascular health or to help burn calories - but another benefit for regular cycling is an increase in muscle mass and tone.

Cycling on a regular basis can also have a positive impact on mood, with one study showing that 75% of cyclists saw a boost in their mental health, attributed to this new hobby. This low-impact aerobic exercise can be adopted by all fitness levels, and is also recommended for those with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Cycling engages many muscles at one time and therefore - when done regularly - can increase the mass and improve the tone of multiple muscle groups. But what are the primary muscles engaged during cycling, and how can you expect the exercise to change your body? Here's what the experts say

Which muscles does cycling work?

Cycling is a low-impact cardio workout that prominently works the leg muscles, most notably the thigh muscles and the calf muscles. Depending on your pedal stroke and your position on the bike, cycling can also engage surrounding muscle groups and your upper body, such as your core muscles.

An efficient pedal stroke utilises the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, tibialis, and hip flexors. These are responsible for providing the power needed to turn the pedals. Depending on where you are in the pedal stroke will influence which muscles are working and when.

Chris Stanton, master trainer for Wattbike and British triathlon coach explains

In other words, different muscles will be engaged at different points during the pedal stroke. For example, during the upstroke (when your feet are returning to the top of the stroke), is when your hamstrings are most active,” explains triathlete and CrossFit athlete Aimee Cringle.

Key muscles used for cycling

  • Glutes - The glutes are the main muscle group worked when cycling; they do most of the work on the downward pedal stroke.

  • Quads - Like the glutes, your quads are engaged as you push into the downward pedal stroke. Having strong glutes and quads will mean that you can generate more power, more quickly, which is beneficial during sprints.

  • Hamstrings - The muscles that run down the back of the leg - from the knee to the glute - get a lot of action as you pull the pedal back up to the top, otherwise known as the upstroke.

  • Calf muscles - Your calf muscles help to stabilise your pedal stroke and generate power as you cycle.

  • Core and back - Depending on the type of cycling you are doing, your upper body also gets a good workout. Your core and back muscles are utilised to stabilise your position on the bike. As such, working on your core strength with core exercises could help to maintain proper posture while in the saddle. Almost your entire body - including arms and shoulders - will be engaged during sprints and climbs.

How does cycling increase muscle mass?

You'll no doubt feel the impact of an intense cycling session on the cardiovascular system, but with a number of major muscles activated during a ride, it is also an effective way to increase muscle strength.

Cycling is largely an aerobic and cardiovascular activity, but force application is required in conjunction with leg speed to propel you forward. Because there is a resistance or residual force, micro tears will occur while training. The combination of leg speed and force applied, will determine the rate at which you build muscle.

Chris Stanton, master trainer for Wattbike and British triathlon coach explains

Final thoughts

Cycling regularly is a brilliant way to improve your cardiovascular fitness, while increasing strength across multiple muscle groups. You should notice improvements in muscular fitness predominantly in the lower body, however intense cycling sessions - such as sprints and climbs - will also engage muscles in the upper body. An individual cycling session can range from leisurely outdoor rides and lengthy endurance challenges, to indoor spin classes, high-intensity sprints and hill climbs, which means that it's an easily adaptable workout for people of all fitness abilities.

Frequently asked questions

Does cycling reduce waist size or glute size?

Cardio exercise, such as cycling, can help to reduce body fat - especially if you’re consistent with it and it is paired with a healthy diet. However all body compositions are unique; we lose fat from different areas of our bodies at different rates. If fat loss is your goal, you need to be in a calorie deficit, with a focus on nutritious, whole foods.

“Cycling can be an effective way to lose weight if partnered with the correct nutrition. Unlike running, it is not a high-impact activity which means you can usually perform it for longer periods without getting as tired, and - essential for weight loss - burn a reasonable amount of calories,” explains Cringle.

“This can lead to reducing your waist size as well as fat loss on other areas of your body, as long as you are in a caloric deficit, which is to say that you're eating fewer calories than you burn," she says.

How long do you need to cycle every day to see muscles grow?

"Whether you love long bike rides through the country, or a quick 30-minute indoor cycling class, both will help muscles grow," says Cringle.

A general principle of strength training is progressive overload, which also applies to cycling. This is when you increase the difficulty of an exercise - either by duration or load - to see results. “For muscle growth, you either need to cycle for longer periods so your muscle endurance improves, or at higher watts or resistance so that your muscles can tolerate cycling at a higher resistance," explains Cringle.

How long does it take to strengthen your muscles?

If you’re new to cycling and you increase your resistance levels quickly, you could see noticeable differences in your muscles over a short period of time.

However Cringle warns, “Building strength differs from person to person and largely depends on your nutrition and recovery, as well as your performance on the bike. If you cycle three times per week, you are likely to start seeing changes within the first few weeks - but only if your training programme includes progressive overload and it challenges you a little bit more each week.”

Stanton advises both cycling and protein are crucial for muscle growth; “I would advise a plan that incorporates high-intensity repeats for muscle growth. With the high-intensity repeats, I would look to increase the power targets at a set cadence. Muscle building is also dependent on your protein intake (ideally between 1.2g and 1.7g per kg of body weight per day, while you are also required to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle.”

Which is better, cycling or walking?

Both are fantastic forms of exercise with numerous benefits such as helping to improve cardiovascular health, and to reduce the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. If torching calories is your goal, cycling is the better option, as it requires a higher energy output than walking.