The powerful effects cycling has on your muscles

As with any physical activity, regular cycling can help you to trim down and tone up. Incorporating a little two-wheeled exercise time into your workout routine or swapping out your car for a bike when commuting will have noticeable benefits on how your body looks and feels.

But what exactly is going on in there?

We’ve done a deep dive into which muscles benefit the most from cycling — and how you can keep them in peak condition.

What muscles does cycling work?

Quadriceps

Pedalling power: 39%

The quads produce around 39 percent of your pedalling power as they straighten the leg and produce the force you need to push down the pedal. These muscles can become extremely toned when cycling is mixed with targeted quad training — however, you need to warm-up consistently to avoid a pulled quad muscle or strain.

Hamstrings

Pedalling power: 10%

The hamstrings contribute about 10 percent of the power to your pedalling. The knee semi-flexes when cycling, which allows the hamstrings to generate force through the joint. Strength and endurance can be built in these muscles through hill-training, but it is advised to take it slow to prevent tearing or rupturing.

Calves

Pedalling power: 20%

The calves produce about 20 percent of your pedalling power. These muscles work alongside the hamstrings and quadriceps to keep the legs pedalling, as well as helping to stabilize the foot on the pedal. Cyclists are infamous for their extremely toned and strengthened calf muscles, which can be achieved through time on the bike and targeted training. It is essential to warm up and stretch before riding, as cyclists risk pulling calf muscles, calf tears or strain.

Glutes

Pedalling power: 27%

The glutes produce 27 percent of your pedalling power and keep the pelvis stable on the bike, as well as allowing for rotation of the hips when needed. Many cyclists don’t fully utilize these muscles which can mean that they aren’t as strong as they could be. This can be changed using targeted glute workouts such as sumo squats.

The core

Pedalling power: 4%

The core helps to reduce the side-to-side movements the body makes when riding, keeping you stable in the saddle. When properly engaged, it can also help to produce around 4 percent of your pedalling power. The biggest risk to the core comes when riding an ill-fitting bike, which can cause lower back pain.

The upper body

When standing, ducking or leaning forward on rides, your upper body is what helps you stay stable and retain your balance — especially when changing direction. Keeping your body weight upright like this for long periods of time can help to tone your arms. It’s important to ensure your positioning is correct when riding, as mistakes can lead to numbness and tingling in the arms, as well as wrist and thumb/hand pain.

How cycling changes your muscles

1. It improves their metabolic activity

As cycling involves a resistance aspect it’s a great sport for building muscle. Dropping your body fat percentage and toning up your muscles does more than just improve your physical appearance — it also means you’ll burn more calories.

Research suggests that a pound of muscle can burn up to 7 calories a day, even when sedentary. This may not sound like that impressive of an amount, but it quickly adds up — you can then burn 50 calories a week, doing absolutely nothing!

2. It helps to alleviate or prevent health problems

Keeping on the move is extremely beneficial for preventing health problems or improving day to day life for those experiencing them. Examples of these include:

Arthritis 

Strengthening the muscles through an exercise like cycling helps to support your joints by allowing them to better carry your weight during movement, relieving some of the pressure. It also works to lubricate these joints which, in turn, can help to reduce stiffness.

These points — combined with the fact that cycling is a fairly low-impact exercise — means that it is a great exercise choice for those with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.


Cardiovascular health

The heart is a muscular organ, meaning that exercising helps to strengthen it. Cycling is a great way to do this.

A study by the University of Glasgow found that commuters who used a bicycle to get to work were at a lower risk of heart disease than those using other transport methods. This isn’t a complete surprise, as getting in the saddle is known to give the heart, lungs and blood vessels a great workout.

Common cycling muscle mistakes you should avoid

As our infographic shows, with great pedalling power comes great responsibility. If you’re looking to reap the benefits of becoming a biker, it’s important to know which mistakes not to make to keep your muscles healthy.

1. Poor bike sizing

 

Incorrect bike sizing is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to muscle pain.

From the multifidus muscle deep in the lower back to the trapezius in the lower neck, incorrect bike sizing can put a severe strain on a whole myriad of muscles. Having handlebars too low can mean the neck needs to overcompensate by straining upwards or the back is left overly rounded. Take care of your muscles and avoid injury by properly sizing your bike before you buy.

2. Incorrect gear

 

Having the correct biking gear does more than just keeps you looking professional. Wearing cycling gear such as calf guards or compression socks can help to reduce muscle vibration when in the saddle. Stabilizing the muscle can, in turn, help to reduce your levels of fatigue.

Muscles aren’t the only area that can benefit from good gear. Ensuring your shorts fit correctly and contain the right materials (e.g. chamois leather) is a proven way to protect against pesky saddle sores. And to avoid the notorious foot numbness, avoid shoes that are too tight-fitting.

3. Failing to warm up or cool down when cycling

 

Warming up before cycling is essential. Performing a light warm-up gives your body the chance to move oxygenated blood to the muscles, rather than them becoming oxygen-indebted later on. This reduces the risk of muscle soreness and injury when you’re done.

A simple — yet effective —cycling warm-up is to ride for 10-12 minutes taking it slow and focusing on your muscles. If you don’t feel any pain or heaviness, start building speed. A warm-up can be as long as needed. For more challenging rides it’s a good idea to get a few minutes of harder riding into your preparation too.

After your workout giving your muscles some TLC with a foam roller is a great way to reduce tenderness and pain. Foam rolling any tense areas for 20-30 seconds can help you to relax, ready for the next session.

Give yourself a full-body workout

Training your entire body doesn’t have to keep you in the gym for long hours. Incorporating cycling into your daily routine, whether for the commute or just for fun, can easily cut your calories and give you the body of your dreams.