What Muscles Does Cycling Work: Which muscles will cycling build and how to train them


When it comes to cycling, there is a lot of information available about which muscles are used during your bike ride. Whether you are a seasoned gym goer, who wants to know which areas you should be resting during gym sessions, or an avid cyclist, who wants to know which areas to train more, understanding which muscles you use while cycling is very important.

The main muscles used in cycling are the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings, quadriceps, and the calf muscles. These are all involved in the 12 o’clock to 4 o’clock cycle stroke, which is when your body puts out the most power. There are many other muscles such as abdominal muscles that play a supporting role.

So, we’ve established that there are a few key muscle groups involved in cycling, but what part of your cycle are they all involved in, and if you are looking to train these muscles, what exercises should you be focusing on? Finally, what are the other muscle groups involved that support these primary cycling muscles?

Which muscles do you use when cycling

There are actually many different muscles your body will use when cycling. While many will presume that you are only working out your legs, in reality, many areas all over your body will be working to move you and your bike along.

If you take a look at the table below you will see a majority of these muscles sorted from the top of your body to the bottom, as well as the role they play in riding a bike.

Body AreaMusclesRole
ShoulderDeltoidHolding upper body weight while cycling
Turning handlebars
Bike control
ArmBiceps
Triceps
Holding upper body weight while cycling
Turning handlebars
Bike control
AbdomenRectus Abdominus
Transversus Abdominus
Balance while riding
Holding up upper body weight
ButtocksGluteus Maximus
Gluteus Medius
Gluteus Minimus
Provides the majority of power during the down pedal
Thigh (Hamstring)Semimembranosus
Biceps Femoris
Bend the hip and knee for both the push-down and pull-up movement.
Thigh (Quadriceps)Vastus Medialis
Rectus Femoris
Vastus Lateralis
Support the buttock muscles to provide power in the down pedal
Calf (Front)Tibialis AnteriorDrawing your foot from 6 o’clock back up to 9 o’clock in the pedal stroke.
Calf (Back)Soleus
Gastrocnemius
Supports the buttock muscles in providing power in the down pedal
FootPlantar flexors
Dorsiflexors
Angling of the foot during pedaling to better apply force
A table showing the different muscles used for cycling and their roles

As you can see, there are many different muscles used when cycling, each of which helps to provide a specific function.

You can take a look at the video below which shows some of these muscles in action as you cycle.

What muscles benefit the most from cycling?

So, we’ve established that there are many muscles involved in cycling, but which ones are the primary muscles used for cycling and which work the most?

Every sport has its own set of “primary muscles” which are responsible for the main workload that takes place in the sports-specific motion (for cycling, this is pedaling). Primary muscles also called movers will be the muscles that the body calls upon when it needs to produce extra speed or force.

When riding a bike, the primary muscles are those in the hip and legs which provide cycling power for the pedals. In particular, the muscles which apply the force during the 12 o’clock to 4 o’clock position of the pedal stroke are the ones that are worked the most.

If you take a look at the image above, you will see the muscles which are worked most by cycling. We’ll take a closer look into each of these muscles including their specific role.

The Gluteus Maximus

The gluteal muscles, specifically the gluteus maximus, are located in the buttocks. These muscles provide the largest force onto the pedals as you cycle. These provide the majority of your power between the 12 o’clock and 4 o’clock hands of the pedal.

As we’ve already established, this is the time when most of your power is provided and so the gluteal muscles play a key role.

Hip thrusts and squats are the most common gym exercise that will work your gluteal muscles.

Quadriceps & Hamstrings

The Quadriceps and Hamstrings include the Rectus Femoris, Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Mediallis, Biceps Femoris, and Semimembranosus. These all play a very similar role to that of the gluteal muscles, however, are not as powerful. They start their action a little earlier on in the pedal, starting the motion for the gluteal muscles to take over.

The leg press is the most common gym exercise that will work the Quadriceps and Hamstrings.

Posterior Calf

The calf muscles, specifically those in the back of the calf (The Soleus, Gastrocnemius Medialis, and Gastrocnemius Lateralis), are much weaker than those of the gluteal region or quadriceps. While these muscles try their best to help out with the downward pedal, their main role starts once the pedals get down to the 4 o’clock region of the pedal, bringing them across the finish line to at the six o’clock portion of the pedal stroke.

Calf raises are the most common gym exercises that will work your posterior calf

Anterior Calf

After you have reached the bottom of your pedal stroke, the anterior calf’s (front of the calf’s) job is to bring the pedals back up and around, reloading the crank for another go-around. The tibialis anterior is located on the front side of the calf and is a real workhorse from that six to nine o’clock range when it is the only muscle working to move your leg.

Toe raises are the most common gym exercise that will work your anterior calf

Which muscles are involved in which element of the pedal

If you take a look at the image below, I’ve summarised which part of the pedal each of the main muscles that we’ve talked about are involved in. Remember, this won’t show you how much work each muscle is doing, just which part of the pedal they work during. The main body of your power comes from the 12 o’clock to 4 o’clock sections of the stroke.

Summary of what weight lifting exercises train different cycling muscles

If you want to train these specific muscles, try some of the exercises we’ve suggested below which focus predominately on these main areas. Also, make sure to take a look at our article on how to build muscle while cycling.

AreaExercise
Gluteal MusclesSquats
Hip Thrusts
Quadriceps & HamstringsLeg Press
Posterior CalfCalf Raises
Anterior CalfToe Raises

What muscles does cycling tone?

Muscle tone is not really a well-defined term. In reality, it just means having a low enough body fat percentage in the area in question that allows you to see the underlying muscle. Tone, therefore, comes as a result of low body fat and high muscle mass.

Therefore any of the muscles that cycling works on can become “toned”, as long as you have a low enough body fat percentage to be able to see the underlying muscle.

When it comes to cycling specifically, the first area you will likely notice become toned is your calves. This area has minimal fat deposits compared to other areas such as your thigh or buttocks, and as such any training you do in this area (either on the bike or in the gym) will result in quicker results if toning is your goal.

Overall

As you can see, many different muscle groups are used for cycling. However, the ones you use most and those that you are most likely to see changes in reside in your leg.

The gluteal (buttock muscles) apply the most force of any of your other muscles while cycling, however, your calf muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius) are the most likely to appear toned.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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