What Muscles Does Biking Work? (More Than You Think!)

One of the obvious benefits of cycling is increasing the strength in your legs. The more you ride, the stronger your legs become, and the more power you can put out. 

You get up hills quicker, you can ride faster, and you can ride even longer! What we often don’t realize is just how many muscles we work when we ride our bike. 

The constant “push and pull” motion of our legs after a long and hard ride will often make our quads burn. Our quadriceps tend to be the first muscles that comes to mind.

This is because you FEEL those suckers when you try to climb some stairs after a ride! For example, I know that I have really put in a hard indoor effort in the basement when my quads are screaming at me as I head upstairs. 

Cycling works way more than just your quadriceps, though. There are other muscles in your legs, as well as in your whole body, that are engaged when you are riding a bike.  

Intrigued? Read on to find out the specific muscles that you work while biking, and why this information is so helpful for you to know. 

Why It is Helpful to Know Which Muscles You Use While Biking? 

To put it simply, you want to know what muscles you are using while cycling and which muscles you need to strengthen to improve your performance. Interestingly, these are not always one in the same! 

Strength training and cycling can, and should, go hand in hand. You want to make sure that you are training the right muscles to strengthen your rides.  It is also important to make sure you aren’t over-training those muscles.

There’s nothing worse than getting on the bike after a strength workout and not being able to spin your legs because they are already fatigued from the three million squats you did yesterday.   In order to maintain this balance and sweet spot, you need to be aware of which muscles you are using in biking. 

Also, there are a lot of muscles you don’t use quite as much, but strengthening them can improve your performance and endurance on the bike. 

Your abdominal muscles are a great example of this. Core strength is so helpful for riding. 

It provides all of our support for our mid and upper body. You can actually tell if you have a strong core on the bike. 

If you can hold yourself pretty steady, and aren’t swaying from side to side, your core is engaged and is doing its job! According to this article from Cycling Tips, though, “cycling alone is not enough to build a strong core, and so you should supplement your bike time with off-the-bike strength exercises.”

It’s really helpful to be able to differentiate between the muscles you strengthen while cycling and the muscles you use while cycling. This way you don’t over-train the muscles you are building anyway, like your quads.

Similarly, it encourages you to train the additional muscles you need and engage like your core and arms. 

Do All Types Of Riding Utilize The Same Muscles? 

Pretty much, BUT different types of riding will engage muscles to a different extent. Though you will obviously use your legs for most types of cycling, you aren’t always using the same leg muscles the same way. 

For example, if you are riding a lot of hills you will use your leg muscles differently than when you are riding on a flat road. Additionally, if you are riding indoors you might not be using the same muscles that you use outdoors.

Generally speaking with indoor riding you don’t have to use muscles to balance quite as much. 

Finally, you will be using your core and arms more for activities that require coordination and balance. Think outdoor cycling versus indoor, or mountain biking versus road cycling.

Mountain biking in particular tends to require more upper body strength. This is because you are required to pull up on the bars to make it over technical terrain or to jump. You may also be hike-a-biking, which engages your upper body as you push your bike.

dakine hot laps in action

Why Is Climbing On The Bike Important? 

Quite simply, it engages your muscles even more and makes you a stronger cyclist. According to this article from Bicycling magazine, climbing help build core strength. When you climb, you engage your quads, hamstrings, and calves to a greater degree than when cycling on flats. 

As a result, climbing is an excellent way to build up your muscle strength in your legs. 

Do keep in mind that it is certainly more tiring, both on your muscles AND your lungs. Therefore, be sure not to burn yourself out with constant climbing. 

Many cyclists don’t have this problem! We tend to prefer a flat road, and can use a little encouragement to incorporate more hills.

The stronger your leg muscles become, the less intimidating you will find hills. Many cyclists will say hills don’t feel like they get easier with training, per se. However, you will find yourself getting up hills faster the more you ride them!

As we tackle more hills our confidence grows right alongside our strength. You may not grow to love hills, but you will know that you can get up them! 

Do I Engage Different Muscles In vs. Out of the Saddle? 

You aren’t necessarily engaging different muscles altogether, but you are engaging the muscles differently. 

Just about any rider can attest to the fact that it simply feels different to be in or out of the saddle. I find it can be helpful to stand for a bit to relieve some pressure and work your leg muscles in different ways. 

I do this both indoors as well as outdoors. Sometimes my butt just needs a break! 

Additionally, according to Ross Wilkinson, Ph.D. of the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia, as quoted in Bicycling.com,  “briefly switching between a seated and standing position during long climbs…likely helps to redistribute power requirements to different muscles.”

In other words, you are getting power out of your muscles differently by switching positions. 

If you are skeptical about out of the saddle work, either because you feel like it’s too hard or you feel unstable, I suggest practicing indoors.

A stationary bike or trainer will give you the added security and stability of getting out of the saddle. I am getting older, and definitely feel there is a benefit to engaging my muscles differently from time to time.

It makes me more well-rounded as a cyclist. Additionally, I find that by moving the stress on my muscles and joints around I tend to experience less pain and fatigue than when I keep it all the same. 

Okay…So What Exactly ARE These Muscles I Am Using Anyway? 

As cyclists we use our entire bodies to ride a bike. The primary muscles that we use are in our legs. We also use our core, back, and arm muscles too, for stability. 

Leg Muscles Used In Cycling 

In cycling, the primary leg muscles that we will use are our quadriceps (front of leg), hamstrings (back of leg), and glutes (upper rear). These are the muscles in our upper legs, and they are the ones that tend to generate a great deal of our power. 

When I started cycling regularly I found that of all my leg muscles, my quads changed the most in size and feel as well as visually. These suckers are FIRM…to the point where I can even see them while wearing tights! 

According to this article in TrainerRoad, “The Quads and Glutes are the powerhouses of the pedal stroke.” In other words, they are doing a great deal of the work for us. 

Additionally, we of course can’t leave out our calf muscles! They produce about 20 percent of our power according to Bicyling.com. Since I started cycling I have noticed increased definition in my calves that wasn’t present before.

I can definitely feel my calf muscles working when I am climbing up a hill. Sometimes they scream at me a little, but I am so grateful for them!

Cycling and Your Core/Back/Arms

One of the tricky things about biking is that a strong core is so helpful, but you don’t do a lot to strengthen it while you ride. Cycling engages your core muscles, especially when you are out of the saddle and going up hills.

Your core keeps you stable on the bike. It keeps your body from swaying from side to side.

Doing core workouts off the bike, say at least once a week, will help you keep these muscles strong. This will help you keep your effort in your legs, as opposed to keeping yourself on the bike!

Similarly, your back and arm muscles are instrumental in keeping you stable on the bike. According to this article from Bicyling.com, “Your Body on a Climb,” in addition to using core muscles on a climb, you also use your abs, back, and sides.

In fact, this article goes on to say that you can even strengthen your core on a climb too. That’s one more reason to embrace those hills!

Bottom Line: Muscles Worked While Biking

We usually thinking of most types of cycling as a cardio workout. This is certainly true!

However, we do also work and use several muscles and muscle groups while cycling. It’s so helpful to know that all cycling can work our leg muscles, but if we want to work our core while we ride, that we need to incorporate some hills.

Additionally, by knowing which muscles you work versus which muscles you use, it can help you decide how to structure your strength training to compliment your bike rides.

This knowledge will keep you strong both on and off the bike! At the end of the day we love to go faster and get stronger on our bike.

Knowing the basics of which muscles biking works is a great way to meet your cycling goals.

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About The Author

stacy smith

Stacy Ann Smith is a New England-based cyclist who strives to stay upright on her bike.  She is the founder of Sascy Cycling, and her mission is to encourage women to love their body and focus on what it can do, not what it looks like.  When Stacy’s not cycling she is teaching high school history and eating pizza with her husband and son.

IG: @sascycycling

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