A regular cycling routine can help boost HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering HDL (bad) cholesterol (1), prevent type 2 diabetes (2), and has even been shown to reduce cardiovascular and all-cause mortality among people with diabetes (3).
Plus, it’s a great way to strengthen your entire body without overloading your joints.
It works both the pushing and pulling muscles of your lower body and gives your core and upper body some love, too. Exactly what muscles do you use when cycling? And, how does road biking differ from cycling indoors?
What Muscles Does Cycling Work?
In short, many—so long as you ride with good form. That means a focus on good posture. When you hinge forward at the hips, brace your core and upper back to keep your spine neutral. This intra-abdominal pressure keeps your spine safe and creates a stable base so your legs are able to generate more force.
Face your toes forward, and make sure your knees are tracking directly in front of you (not in or out). With your form in check, here are the muscles you can expect to hit.
The primary movers during cycling are in your legs—so you’re working your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. There are two phases of each pedal stroke: push and pull.
The push is where the majority of the work happens. When your knee extends, your quads, glutes, and hamstrings activate. Your calves join about a quarter of the way through each revolution to plantar-flex your ankle or push your toes down.
Pulling back up on the pedal, your glutes work to extend your hip, and your hamstrings bend your knee. Your tibialis anterior dorsiflexes the foot or pulls your toes up, which helps to snap your leg up through the dead range of the pedal stroke—which typically occurs from six to nine o’clock.
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, glute complex (maximus, minimus, medius), hamstrings, calves, and anterior tibialis.
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As you fight to maintain proper posture throughout your ride, you’ll engage your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis. With each pedal stroke, you’ll naturally sway side to side. Brace your oblique muscles to stop the sway as much as possible, and you’ll sculpt and strengthen your entire abdominal wall.
You’ll certainly strengthen your abs and obliques while biking, but a weak core can hold you back from riding with good form and generating maximum force from your legs.
Enter core exercises off your bike. Focus on moves that challenge stability and move one leg at a time, as you do on your bike, such as dead bugs, mountain climbers, and side planks with a leg raise.
Muscles Worked: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external and internal obliques, erector spinae.
Your upper body plays a supporting role during rides. As you hinge forward at the hips, the muscles in your back and chest activate to stabilize your torso and maintain an upright posture through the chest and shoulders.
Similar to a plank, your shoulders stabilize your upper body as you grip the handlebars. Shifting in and out of the saddle will strengthen your biceps and triceps in particular.
An underdeveloped upper body can hold you back and may even cause back tightness, pain, and injury. To strengthen your upper body for riding, focus on exercises that engage your biceps and triceps—like bicep curls and tricep extensions—and moves that emphasize good posture and shoulder health—like planks, dolphin pushups, and bodyweight skull crushers.
Muscles Worked: Pectorals (chest), anterior deltoid (front shoulder), latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, trapezius (traps), triceps, and biceps.
What Muscles Does Indoor Cycling Work Versus Outdoor Bike Riding?
Both indoor and outdoor biking are full-body workouts and have many similarities. However, an outdoor ride will typically be a harder workout than an indoor ride.
Generally, road bikes use more core, upper body, and intrinsic muscles like your inner and outer thighs, glute medius and minimus, and even little muscles in your feet and ankles. Why? An outdoor bike is less stable, so these muscles have to work harder to keep you balanced. Riding uphill outdoors also demands more on all your muscles.
However, indoor spin classes that incorporate upper body movements like pushups, curls, and presses work more of your upper body and core. Bonus: these moves strengthen your upper body and core for future rides.
Does Cycling Build Muscle?
Yes, aerobic exercise can build lean muscle. Surprised? According to Exercise Sport Science Review, there’s considerable evidence that cardio, such as cycling, can result in muscle hypertrophy (or growth) (4).
Don’t consider a spin on the bike a strength workout, though. Sure, it’s a great way to build muscular endurance, and you can crank up the resistance to challenge your muscles a little more. But you won’t work your muscles anywhere close to the level of a well-designed strength training session.