What Muscles Are You Actually Working on the Bike?
It’s more than a great cardio workout.
By Pam Moore•
Thinking about taking up cycling or just looking to take your cycling to the next level? Understanding the muscles used in a cycling workout can help you better prepare for your workout, recover more quickly after a session, and identify ways to make your routine more balanced. Whether you prefer to ride inside or outside, identify as a weekend warrior or a hardcore fitness enthusiast, here’s what you need to know about your cycling muscles to reach your goals—no matter what they are.
What Muscles Does a Bike Work?
The better question might be, “What muscles doesn’t a bike work?” Cycling engages just about every single muscle in your lower body, your core, and even parts of your upper body.
Your quads are the number one muscles you recruit while cycling, with your glutes being number two, according to Ann Trombley, MS, PT a physical therapist, cycling coach, and owner of Trail Master Coaching and Physical Therapy just outside of Boulder, Colorado.
Other leg muscles that play a role include your hip flexors, hamstrings, calf muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus), and shins, or anterior tibialis. And when you’re out of the saddle, you also engage your hip abductors (tensor fascia latae, or TFL) and adductors (inner thigh muscles), to help keep your hips and knees stable, says Trombley.
“If you’re efficient, you’re using all of your muscles,” she explains. That means exerting even, consistent pressure throughout the entire pedal stroke. For maximum efficiency—or a workout where you’re contracting all your muscles without overusing certain ones, Trombley suggests shooting for 90-110 revolutions per minute (RPM). If you’re riding a Peloton Bike or Bike+, this will show on your screen as your cadence. You’ll want to choose a resistance that’s not too hard, stay in the saddle, and consistently turn the pedals over at a relatively high rate of speed. (Peloton’s Low Impact rides are a great option for this.)
While you can also get plenty of benefits from increasing the resistance (or using a harder gear if you’re riding outside) and lowering your cadence to 85 RPM or less, you might find your legs fatigue more quickly, especially if you’re standing up out of the saddle. That’s not your imagination.
Trombley says mashing a hard gear at a lower cadence disproportionately engages your quads and glutes—which naturally increases the effort. Peloton cycling instructor Charlotte Weidenbach agrees. She explains that while getting out of the saddle makes you more powerful, that power comes at a cost. “We can push more resistance, which is perfect for going uphill. On the other hand, this is why we can't come out of the saddle for very long, as the high tension on those muscles will make them fatigue faster.”
While there’s a time and a place for riding in a hard gear at a lower cadence, it’s not only inefficient, it can also increase your risk of injury. “If you’re ‘mashing,’ you’re most likely working your quads [harder than usual], which is going to pull on your kneecap. That’s going to put more pressure on your kneecap, which is then going to rub on your femur,” explains Trombley. Additionally, the outsized glute contraction that’s required of this type of riding can pull on your low back muscles, which can set you up for low back pain, she says.
So does that mean you’ll be fine as long as you stay in the saddle? Not necessarily. A small 2016 study found that while efficiency decreased when participants were out of the saddle, the efficiency gap decreased as cycling intensity increased. In other words, the data suggest that the cyclists’ efficiency dropped not just because they got out of the saddle but also because the intensity was higher.
To work your muscles without creating unnecessary strain, prioritize variety. “A great way to increase performance, especially for indoor cycling, is switching from in the saddle to out of the saddle,” says Charlotte.
“You'll notice that especially when climbing (heavier resistances, lower cadences), at some point the resistance is almost impossible to push in the saddle. At this point, when you get up, you'll be able to sustain it for a while longer, as you engage more muscles and can use your body weight to push the resistance too. This combination builds great strength endurance.”
At first glance, cycling might not seem like it works your core (which includes your abdominal and back muscles), but when you look a little closer, it’s clear that it does—especially when you’re out of the saddle. According to Charlotte, “Core muscles stabilize our upper body all day, but especially when cycling out of the saddle.”
And that stabilization is key. As Trombley explains, “Your core is your platform.” Or put another way, “Do you want to be a wet spaghetti noodle or a dry one? If your core is loose, then your arms and legs are not going to be efficient.”
If you’re hoping for a true full body workout, you’re probably wondering, “Does cycling work the upper body?” For indoor cycling, unless you’re taking one of Peloton’s Intervals and Arms rides, your arms are primarily responsible for helping with balance on the bike. But when you’re outside, particularly on a mountain bike, it’s a different story. Trombley calls the trapezius, rhomboids, and pectoral muscles, the “core” of your upper body, and says they, along with your triceps are “huge for going downhill.”
Indoor Cycling vs. Outdoor Riding
When it comes to working your muscles, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re riding indoors or outdoors. A 2019 study found that while cyclists were more likely to generate consistent power indoors versus outdoors, the environment didn’t influence their overall performance.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ridden both indoors and outdoors; riding outside means contending with factors like wind, hills, and traffic lights. As Charlotte notes, “Generally, in indoor cycling, you don't stop your legs during the workout, whilst outdoors, when going down a hill, you might not move your legs at all. So indoor cycling can feel a lot tougher in a shorter amount of time.”
Another study not only confirmed that the environment didn’t affect cycling performance; it went a step further to see whether the environment had an impact on individual hip extensor and knee flexor muscles. The authors concluded that while the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) affected muscle activity, the environment didn’t.
Meanwhile, data suggests that indoor cycling comes with plenty of health benefits, regardless of the effect on your muscles. A 2019 metastudy found that indoor cycling may improve aerobic fitness, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle by Cycling?
How quickly and easily you build muscle through cycling is unique to each individual. While we don’t know exactly how to predict it, we do know it depends on a number of factors, including age, sex, athletic history, current fitness level, nutrition status, hydration, and how well you recover between sessions, says Trombley.
If you have a weightlifting background and you’re concerned that cycling will destroy the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build, data suggests you might not need to be concerned. A small study found that over a period of eight weeks, men who did a cycling workout immediately after their strength sessions twice a week experienced similar improvements in muscle size and strength versus those who only strength trained. (But of course they got the added benefits of a cardio workout.)
Another encouraging study found that over a 12-week period, men and women who engaged in a short but challenging cycling workout three times per week (including a total of just four minutes of high-intensity cycling per week) experienced both increases in leg muscle size and stamina.
Caring for Muscles Used During Cycling
To get the most out of your workout, it’s vital to get in both a solid warm-up and cool-down. Why? “Your warm-up gets the blood (and oxygen) flowing to help get our muscles and cardiovascular system ready to do harder work. The cooldown is also important to slowly allow the heart rate to decrease and to help clear out any waste in the muscles and blood vessels,” says Trombley.
Depending on the total duration of your workout, she suggests warming up and cooling down for 15-30 minutes, keeping your RPMs between 90 and 110, and maintaining an RPE of two to four. And according to the research, you don’t need to sweat the details of your warm-up too much. One study found that cyclists performed significantly better after both a hard warm-up and an easy warm-up versus no warm-up at all.
If you’re on a Peloton Bike or Bike+ or using the Peloton App with your own equipment, be sure to check out the cycling-specific Warm Ups and Cool Downs.
Building a Balanced Routine
Sure, the best way to become a better cyclist is to get on your bike and ride, but being a strong, sustainable cyclist requires balance. That means including cross-training and plenty of recovery in your routine.
Trombley suggests strength training to optimize your fitness and prevent injury. That might look like doing two sets of a weight you can handle for 12-15 reps and working toward two to three sets of five to eight reps at a heavier weight. If you’re training outdoors, shoot for three sessions a week during your off-season and once or twice a week when during peak season.
Core work is also essential. Moves like planks and plank variations are great. To spice things up, Charlotte recommends the Copenhagen plank, which is essentially a side plank with your upper leg supported on a chair or weight bench. “This will burn the core and adductors,” which offers a ton of bang for your buck, she says.
Whatever you do, do it consistently. Charlotte recommends doing at least ten minutes of core exercises twice a week to optimize performance and prevent back pain.
Trombley suggests prioritizing massage, whether that means going to a massage therapist or engaging in self-massage with a foam roller, tennis ball, or massage gun. She also says stretching can be helpful, whether that’s on your own or in a gentle yoga class.
Active recovery is vital, too, says Charlotte. Instead of doing hard sessions on consecutive days, follow an intense workout with an easier one. Charlotte suggests “a low-impact workout with the goal to increase the heart rate and the blood flow through your muscles without working them hard. For cycling, this means a high-cadence, low-resistance ride that gets you breathing faster without being completely out of breath. It can also be a longer walk or swim.”
Meanwhile, Trombley reminds us to keep the basics in mind. All the massage in the world can’t make up for underfueling, dehydration, or skimping on sleep.
And according to Trombley, the importance of recovery skyrockets as we age. If you’re noticing that at 40 or 50 you just can’t do what you used to do, start paying attention to your body’s cues. That might mean taking more days between your hard workouts, keeping your workouts a little shorter, or even prioritizing naps.