Knowing which muscles are used when cycling can make an enormous difference to your ride. Anyone who has spent any time on a bike will know that cycling can make for a challenging workout, and can push your heart rate way up towards its maximum if you work hard enough. The most noticeable side-effect of a tough ride, though, is the burning sensation in your legs.
However, it’s not immediately obvious which muscles or muscle fiber types are activated when cycling. In fact, while cycling is certainly a workout for the lower body, because of the different phases of movement involved in the pedal stroke, it engages a variety of muscles, according to researchers at the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
If you're thinking of investing in an indoor bike, you can have a look at our buying guide for the best exercise bikes to see what's available to suit your needs. Alternatively, if you're on the hunt for a home workout tool on a budget, our roundup of the best budget exercise bikes is a good place to start your search.
Or, if you're already saddled up with the right ride, read on to see if cycling could help you gain muscle.
The quadriceps are some of the largest muscles in the body and are located in the upper leg, on the front and side of the thigh. As the name (quad) suggests, there are four component parts: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
According to experts from the European Journal of Applied Physiology, studies have shown that the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis muscles are most activated during the first half of the ‘propulsion’ phase, which is when the crank – the component which attaches the pedal to the bike – goes from top dead center, or an angle of 0°, to the bottom, or 180°.
The study, cited by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that the peak activation point for the two vastii muscles is 80.8°, so just less than halfway through the propulsion part of the pedal stroke. The rectus femoris, which is in the middle of the front of the thigh, is activated earlier than the vastii, according to the study.
Many people, particularly more regular and experienced cyclists, attach their feet to the pedals, using either cleats – known as clipless pedals – or the more old-fashioned toe clips. At least one study, in the Scandinavian Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, has found that being attached to the pedals changes the way the rectus femoris is activated: A study in the journal found that that muscle was activated 20° earlier in the pedal stroke when riders used toe clips.
- Related: Does bike riding build your glutes?
The hamstrings, at the back of your thighs, are another of the major muscle groups used when cycling, and they do so in close coordination with quadriceps muscles. The European Journal of Applied Physiology study, which assessed muscle use at different points in the pedal stroke, concluded that "During pedaling, an optimization of quadriceps and hamstring muscle recruitment is desirable for producing power at the pedal.
"These muscle groups have been described as having different contributions at different phases of the pedal cycle, and different muscles within these groups can also be assumed to have different functional contributions."
Unsurprisingly, the hamstring muscles are mostly activated during the later stage of the pedal stroke. Studies have found activation of the semimembranosus and semitendinosus – two of the three hamstring muscles – at between 150° and 270° crank angle. The third hamstring muscle, the biceps femoris, is used throughout all stages of the pedal stroke, according to a study in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology.
According to a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, the tibialis anterior – "the largest of four muscles in the anterior compartment of the leg", according to the Wake Forest School of Medicine, is one of the "essential muscles" used in cycling. It runs down your shin.
The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy study found that the tibialis anterior was the only lower-leg muscle that was activated during the first half of the pedal stroke – that is, before the crank reached the 180° angle.
However, despite its "essential" role in the pedal stroke, the study by experts at the Scandinavian Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine found that the tibialis anterior was less activated than during walking – meaning cycling could cause less strain here than some other activities. "It is suggested that cycling might be a useful exercise in the rehabilitation of patients with injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament of the knee or Achilles’ tendon," the researchers wrote.
How important is it to stretch after cycling?
As we’ve seen, cycling uses a variety of muscles, in different ways and at different points in the pedal stroke. Experts have also shown that many of these muscles are used in conjunction with each other, particularly those in the quadriceps and hamstrings muscle groups. With these muscles so well-used, it may be a good idea to help them recover properly. So, how important is it to stretch after cycling?
First, it is worth noting that static stretching before cycling — or most forms of exercise — is now considered bad practice. Stretching cold muscles can cause injuries rather than making them less likely, according to Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic also cites research which has found that "pre-event stretching may actually decrease performance. Research has also shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength." This is particularly important considering how crucial the hamstring muscles are for cycling.
A dynamic warm-up is recommended instead. As experts writing in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism journal say, "there has been a shift from static stretching… within a warm-up to a greater emphasis on dynamic stretching", where your warm-up movements stretch the muscles at the same time.
There are few studies specifically on the subject of stretching after cycling, but one study, carried out by researchers at the University of Medical Sciences in Poznań, Poland found a correlation between stretching and injury prevention. As well as a warm up, the researchers said, stretching after cycling is "recommended" to stop muscle pain returning, if it has occurred. To learn more, check out our feature on the 10 stretches to do everyday.
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Sam Clark is a journalist based in London in the United Kingdom, who covers stories about fitness, sport and health, as well as the less heart-raising worlds of business and law. His sporting passions include running, cycling and squash. Sam has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Kent.