Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or a bit of a novice using an exercise bike, cycling gets a lot of your primary muscles working hard and is a great workout! As you’d expect, the main muscles we use when cycling are those found in our legs and in our bottoms. From the key muscles on the top of our legs and front of our thighs (our quadriceps) to our hamstrings and buttocks (gluteus maximus).
What body parts does cycling workout?
If you’re thinking of hopping on a saddle to kick-start your fitness, here’s a little more info about how cycling can work your upper body muscles along with being a full-body workout;
- Legs: Cycling focuses a lot on your legs and thigh muscles. It’s a fantastic workout for your quads (the muscles up front on your thighs), your hamstrings at the back of your thighs, the trusty gluteus maximus and gluteus medius (a fancy name for your bum muscles!), and let’s not forget the calves.
- Core Muscles: While you’re pedalling away, your core, including your abdominal muscles and back muscles, is also getting in on the action. These muscles play a pivotal role in keeping you balanced and controlled during your ride.
- Arms and Shoulders: If you’re on a racing bike or mountain biking, you’re relying on your arm muscles such as biceps, triceps, and shoulders to steer and maintain control.
- Heart and Lungs: While it might not be a traditional “body part”, it’s crucial to mention that cycling gets your heart pumping and lungs working, improving your health and efficiency. So, it’s not just a physical workout, it’s fantastic cardio too.
- Back: Your lower and upper back also chips in when cycling, especially when you’re holding a stable position over long rides or climbing steep paths.
- Hands and Wrists: Finally, your hands and wrists. They are steering, braking, and shifting gears, getting a nice little workout of their own.
What cycling does to your legs
Cycling has many benefits and is a great way to get fit. When starting out cycling, one of the most popular questions is understanding what it will do to your lower body muscles.
There are a lot of different motivations for this question. Some people are really keen to build up their thighs, calves and quads and are hopeful that they can build up muscles like they see on the athletes on the road or in the velodrome.
For others, their motivation for asking the question is exactly the opposite – they are worried about getting overly muscular legs.
In this article, we’ll dispel some myths about what cycling does for your legs, run through the genuine benefits that cycling has for your legs, and suggest some alternative exercises if you’re really keen to build leg muscles.
Will cycling make my legs big?
This answer will be a relief to some people and a source of disappointment to others – but the short answer is no. Cycling on its own will not make your legs huge.
The professional cyclists you see with huge thighs and bulging calves are likely doing a lot of additional strength training outside of cycling to aid in their muscle growth and muscle strength, and their physique is not one you can expect from cycling alone.
As an exercise on its own, cycling generally helps burn calories, reduce body fat, help with weight loss, and shape and tone your leg muscles.
If you’re interested in building the size of your leg muscles, the work you do off your bike is arguably more important – starting with your diet and any strength training or muscle mass training.
Cycling can give you a full lower body workout.
The main muscles used when cycling are your glutes and leg muscles:
- Gluteus Maximus. When you’re cycling, your glutes are working hard to move your legs. They are responsible for giving you the power to push your legs and feet down onto the pedals and are therefore in constant motion whilst you are pedalling.
- Hamstrings. Another big muscle group used when cycling is your hamstrings, which are used in both the upstroke and downstroke and are one of the most important muscles used during your pedal stroke.
- Quadriceps. Along with your glutes, the quadricep muscles are largely responsible for the downstroke part of the pedal stroke.
- Calf muscles. Working in conjunction with your quads and glutes, your calf muscles are also important for the down stroke.
In addition to these main muscle groups, cycling also uses your shin muscles, and can also help your biceps, triceps, deltoids (shoulders) and core get a workout.
Which part of the body does cycling tone?
Whether you’re outside on a road bike or indoors on a stationary bike, cycling is one of the best exercises you can do for leg tone and definition. All your main leg muscles are used when cycling and it is easy to quickly change your level of resistance to make sure you’re always challenging yourself. As an aerobic exercise, cycling is also great at helping you burn calories and decrease fat mass across your body, which will help will the definition and tone of your entire body.
Your thighs, hamstrings, and calves are going to become stronger and more defined with each pedal stroke. Your posterior, the gluteus maximus, is going to love you for choosing cycling. It’s one of the most engaged muscles during a ride, leading to a more sculpted backside. Your core inclusive of your abs and back muscles, is getting a secret workout, leading to a firmer and stronger midsection and body shape.
Cycling can help you improve your leg strength and endurance
It’s possible to adjust your cycling workout to improve your leg strength, by increasing the resistance and decreasing the speed at which you pedal (your cadence).
On a stationary bike at home or in the gym, this may be as simple as just increasing your resistance level. On a road bike, this will involve moving to a higher gear at a lower RPM.
It’s equally possible to adjust your cycling workout to improve the endurance of your leg muscles, by decreasing the resistance and increasing the speed at which you pedal.
On a stationary bike, you can just change the setting to a low resistance level. On a road bike, you move to a lower gear at a higher RPM.
How can I speed up my gains from cycling?
Alternate Sitting and Standing While Riding
The topic of cycling posture is an article of its own, and there is a lot of debate around the pros and cons of riding standing up vs riding seated.
However, there is little debate that you use different muscles when riding from a standing position than you do when seated. It’s suggested that in a standing position, you move your hips more and the activity of the quads, glutes and calves shifts slightly.
So alternating between sitting and standing might also help you achieve additional gains in strength, endurance and muscle tone.
If you’re an advanced cyclist and you’re finding that cycling on a flat surface isn’t delivering you the gains you need for muscle strength or improvements in your endurance performance, consider doing more riding uphill.
The force of gravity alone increases the amount of natural resistance and will make your quadriceps and hamstrings work harder. Remember to keep good form when working at high intensities climbing hills
What should I do alongside cycling if I want to increase the size of my legs?
Cycling is an amazingly healthy activity to help improve your overall fitness level, burn body fat, reduce body weight, increase your energy and metabolism levels, and improve the strength, tone, definition, and muscle endurance of your legs.
But if you’re looking to increase the size of your legs, you’ll want to supplement cycling with additional activities, a healthy diet, and a workout routine to help build more muscle mass.
The below resistance training and weightlifting exercises are recommended to help build bigger leg muscles:
- Back Squats
- Front Squats
- Leg Presses
- Walking Lunges
And the positive effects of extra work to build leg muscle in the gym – you’re also likely to help improve your cycling performance!