Body By Biking: What Muscles Does Cycling Work?

a man riding a bike on a road

Are you wondering what muscles does cycling work? If you are, you are not alone. Cycling is one of the best exercises for sculpting your entire body.

What Muscles Does Cycling Work?

female cyclist

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

So, what muscles does cycling work? In short, cycling works nearly all of your muscles. From every major muscle group in your legs to your core and upper back, to your heart and lungs, cycling hits it all.

While cycling works nearly every one of your muscles, there are primary and secondary muscles being worked. To sculpt the body of your dreams, you need to know when each muscle is targeted and what you can do to hit it harder. Are you ready to get started? Let's dive in.

Primary Muscles Worked by Cycling

What muscles does cycling work primarily? The primary muscles that cycling works are the quadriceps and hamstrings. Your quads provide most of the power during the downward pedal stroke. On the upward pedal stroke, your hamstrings are doing most of the work. To hit your hamstrings harder, ride a bike that requires cycling shoes. This requires you to pull the pedal up as well as lifting up your leg.

Secondary Muscles Worked by Cycling

upper legs of a cyclist

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Don't Underestimate Your Calves

Because your upper legs work so hard while you pedal, you may fail to notice your calves. However, these muscles work very hard, too. The calf muscles push and pull throughout the entire pedal stroke. A cycling session is like thousands of constant toe raises.

To work your calves harder, point your toes downward during the upward part of the stroke instead of keeping your foot flat during the revolution. Cycling shoes make it easier to do this, but you can achieve the same effect with traditional athletic shoes if you focus. You can also work intervals into your workout where you stand during your cycling session.

Do Not Ignore Your Core

Your lower abdominals, flank and lower back can all get a great workout during a cycling or spinning session. However, this requires you to maintain proper posture. Slouching, hunching your shoulders and letting your abs sag all put you at risk of injury and will not help you tone your muscles. Leaning forward deeply works your back muscles. The reclined position of a recumbent bike allows you to tone your abs.

Your Arms

Your arms are not used very much on recumbent or upright bikes. However, spinning bikes are very good for toning your arms. These bikes require you to use your upper body to support your weight on the handlebars. Riding a spinning bike will allow you to tone your upper back, shoulders and upper arms.

If you work out on an indoor bike, you can better tone your upper body with military presses, curls, flies and rows with light dumbbells. However, you should only do this if you feel confident you can balance on the bike. It is also extremely important to maintain excellent posture throughout your workout.

How to Build Strength for Cycling

Maybe you're asking “what muscles does cycling work” because you want to become a competitive or professional cyclist. If so, you may also wonder how to build strength to become a better cyclist. All muscles used for cycling are important to train. Your leg muscles provide power while your core helps you maintain your balance. For the most effective results, focus on strength training that works both your lower body and core. Such exercises include squats, single leg deadlifts and heel raises.


Squats are incredible compound exercises which focus on your glutes, quads, hamstrings and core. The power phase for a squat is very similar to the power phase on a bike. It requires both hip and knee extension. To get the most out of your squats, add weights with a dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell.

Single Leg Deadlifts

Single leg deadlifts are superior to deadlifts. When you work a single leg at a time, muscle imbalances are corrected since each leg must support the load independently. This workout targets the hips, hamstrings and lower back.

To complete this exercise, hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in your left hand hanging by your side. Stand on your left leg. Keeping your left leg bent slightly, complete a stiff-legged deadlift. Bend at your hip while extending your right leg behind you for balance. Continue to lower the weight until you are parallel to the ground. Then, return to the upright position. Perform 10 repetitions of this. Then, perform 10 single leg deadlifts standing on your right leg.

Heel Raises

Heel raises target the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. These are the large and small muscles that make up your calves. To complete a heel raise, also called a toe raise, stand with your feet about four inches apart and raise your heels off the floor slowly. Keep your knees straight. When you have lifted yourself as high as you can, hold for approximately six seconds. Then, lower your heels to the floor slowly.

Your calves lift your bodyweight thousands of times daily when you walk, so heel raises without weights are not particularly effective. To get the most out of this cross-training exercise, use dumbbells or a barbell. This has the added benefit of improving your grip strength and working your outer forearms.

Ideal Speed for Cycling

a racing cyclist

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Leg speed is an important component of cycling. A fast cadence targets the rectus femoris, the quadriceps muscle that raises the knee and foot up to and just past the 12 o'clock position of the pedal stroke. It also targets hip flexion and the calf muscles. A fast cadence will also help the opposite leg complete the downward power phase.

This concerted effort to maintain a high cadence improves your heart strength and allows you to pedal more efficiently during a race. You can focus on your training throughout the year, but it is absolutely critical the closer you get to your biggest race of the year.

While the average cyclist has a cadence of around 60 revolutions per minute, you should aim for 90 RPM to avoid leg fatigue and take the most advantage of your slow-twitch muscles. Advanced and elite athletes understand the importance of a proper cadence and complete around 80 to 100 revolutions per minute.

Importance of Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers

How to Build Strength for Cycling

Knowing what muscles does cycling work tells you which muscles to stretch before and after a ride. Complete dynamic, or mobile, stretches after your warmup. After your ride, complete static, or immobile, stretches.

Dynamic Stretches

Static Stretches

The Bottom Line

The short answer to what muscles does cycling work is almost all of them. To become a better cyclist, consider your cadence. To avoid burnout, aim for around 90 revolutions per minute. To gain functional strength and improve your endurance, perform squats, single leg deadlifts and heel raises. Since these require balance, they will work your legs and your core. You will wear out less quickly on the bike and become stronger and faster.

Finally, remember that even though your genetics are a significant factor in whether you are a distance cyclist or sprinter, you can work on strengthening your slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers to become more well-rounded.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay


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