Whether you're hitting the road or the trail, there's no doubt that a two-wheeled workout can leave you feeling sore. It doesn’t matter if you're an experienced cyclist or you're getting started with biking for the first time, it’s helpful to understand what muscles biking works so you can get the most from your workout.
Here, we'll take a look at exactly what muscles are working when you're cycling--and check out some steps you can take to preemptively avoid soreness after spending some time logging cycling miles.
What are the most important muscles that leg cycling works?
There's no doubt about it--cycling can be a full-body workout, and it's normal to also feel your back, abs, and arms working while you're riding. Staying balanced is a full-body skill, and it can take time to get to know the muscles that you use when you’re riding. Even your forearms may get a workout from gripping the handlebars of your bike. That being said, most of the power in cycling comes from the lower body.
- Tibialis anterior (shins and calves)
- Soleus (calves)
- Gastrocnemius (calves)
- Vastus lateralis (quadriceps)
- Rectus femoris (quadriceps)
- Vastus medialis (quadriceps)
- Biceps femoris (hamstrings)
- Psoas (hip flexor)
- Gluteus maximus (butt)
*An important note: If you’re arm cycling, you’ll get an intense upper body workout, and you’ll especially feel the burn in your trapezius and rhomboid muscles.
There are several factors that can affect how much you depend on certain muscles to power you through your ride. Taking an indoor spin class will work different muscles than powering through a 100 mile trail ride, for example. Varying your speed and terrain can help you hit a larger percentage of muscle groups than sticking to the same routine time after time.
12 o'clock to 5 o'clock: What’s a pedal stroke?
Each time your foot moves in a full circle when you’re biking, you’re completing a pedal stroke. When you're in the saddle (the cycling term for sitting on the seat of your bike), your muscles are working hardest from the 12 o’clock to 5 o’clock positions of your pedal stroke. During this part of your stroke, your quads, glutes, and hamstrings are all working to exert the proper amount of force as you push your foot down to move the pedal. There's a mental aspect to this as well, as you need to consider your terrain and slope to decide how much force is required to move at your desired speed.
As your hip flexes to bring your foot to the 12 position, your muscles prepare to exert the force that pushes you forward. Once you hit the 6 position, your knees and hip flexors work together to bring you back to the start of your pedal stroke.
It's smart to pay attention to how your hips, knees, and muscles feel as you move through a full pedal cycle. If you feel weakness or tightness, see if you can pinpoint where it occurs. This will allow you to develop off-the-bike workouts that can help you pedal more efficiently.
Combine cardio and strength training to get faster and stronger
Looking to boost and strengthen the muscles used in cycling? You’ll want to check out these other outdoor activities, as well as put in some work in the gym. It’s important to strike a nice balance between cardio and strength training in order to build the muscles that allow you to fly down the trail.
Varying your cardio workouts can be a great way to support cycling. Don't forget, your heart is a muscle too. Running, swimming, and fast-paced walking can all help you develop your cardio fitness so you're better able to keep up on your bike.
A word of caution: be sure you're giving yourself time to recover in between cardio workouts. Swimming one day and biking the next is okay from time to time, but constant back-to-back cardio workouts can make it hard for you to fully recover, which can eventually have a negative effect on your fitness and your performance.
Ready to take your strength to the next level to help fuel your weekend rides?
Add these moves to your strength training routine:
- Heel raises: You already know that your calves put in work when you're on your bike, and strengthening them can help you get through your pedal cycle faster (and can help save you from soreness after your ride). To do heel raises, stand on the edge of a curb or the bottom stair of a staircase, with your toes supported and heels free. Use your calf muscles to raise your body up to tiptoe, and use control to slowly lower back to your starting position. Heel raises can be done with or without added weight.
- Single leg deadlifts: Stand with both feet parallel and hip-width apart, with a weight in one hand. Slowly lift the leg on the weighted side of your body behind you, keeping a slight bend in the planted leg. With hips square to the ground, lean your upper body slightly forward as you use your hamstrings to raise your back leg until you feel your glute tighten. Slowly lower back to starting position with control.
- Squats: Stand with both feet parallel and hip-width apart, with toes pointing forward. Shift your hips backward as you bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Already a squat pro? Throw some variation into your routine to challenge new muscle groups. Sumo squats (toes wide and pointing outward), narrow squats (feet together), and jump squats can all add a new challenge to your workout.
- Seated leg raise: Need to take a break and sit down? Don't worry–you can still keep your movement going. Sit on flat ground with your legs extended out in front of you. Fold your arms and use your core to sit tall as you lift one leg a few inches off the ground, using your quad and hip flexor to stabilize. Slowly lower back to starting position with control. Alternate legs.
When you're incorporating strength training into your cycling routine, two times per week is usually a good start. Plan for a light cycling workout the day after your strength training. Getting movement into your body can help to get rid of any post-lifting soreness, but overdoing it can lengthen your recovery time and negatively affect your performance.
Indoor vs. outdoor cycling: What you need to know
If you've ever taken a spin class, you know that it can be a challenge! That being said, indoor cycling works your muscles in a different way than outdoor cycling. When you're indoor cycling, you'll get a different workout that focuses almost completely on the lower body, as you're able to stand and change the resistance on your bike without having to worry about terrain or keeping your balance. When you're cycling outdoors, you need to use your entire body–including your core and your back--to stabilize as you navigate your path.
Safe recovery: How do you stay strong and injury-free?
Find that your calves, quads, or glutes are screaming after you're done with your ride? You're not alone. Soreness is actually caused by tiny tears in the muscles that will need to repair themselves after the workout. Post-cycling soreness is common, and there are a few steps that you can take to recover safely.
Before, during, and after your workout, staying hydrated is key to avoiding sore muscles. If you're working out for an hour or more, be sure to choose a drink infused with electrolytes (or make your own) to help your muscles recover. If you're planning on a super-intense ride, you may want to consider starting to boost your hydration in the days prior.
Use a foam roller
Using a foam roller is simple–and there are plenty of foam roller options that don’t break the bank. A foam roller is a tube-shaped piece of firm foam that you can sit on or lie on to help ease the aches and pains caused by exercise. First time using a foam roller? Check out a quick tutorial here.
Adhesions can develop between your muscle tissue and fascia (a thin piece of tissue that covers the muscles), and foam rolling can help to relieve these adhesions. Using a foam roller on your upper back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves can help stop soreness before it starts. Taking some time to chill out on the foam roller with a glass of water following your ride can be the perfect way to cool off.
Get your rest
We know--you're busy, and it can be tough to get the rest you need to recover after your workout. Doing so, however, isn't just good for your mind. It's also important for your body to get plenty of high-quality sleep following tough cycling workouts. Turning off screens an hour prior to bedtime can be a great way to help promote healthy sleep.
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