With any physical activity, there are primary and secondary muscle groups used to perform the required movements. These muscles all work in combination with each other to create the necessary movements for an individual to achieve their best performance. Though these muscles work together, they serve different purposes and functions.
In a sport like cycling, the legs are the primary movers throughout the performance. But the legs are comprised of multiple muscles, each serving their purpose to create movement. By understanding how these muscles work while cycling, you will know how to take care of these muscles to compete at your peak potential.
Beginning with the Primary Anatomy
Multiple muscle groups are used in cycling. However, certain muscle groups serve as the primary and secondary movers during the pedaling motion. The primary muscles used in cycling include:
Quadriceps (Rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius)- comprised of 4 muscles, this muscle group is located on the front upper leg (thigh). The primary functions of the quadriceps are knee extension and hip flexion (rectus femoris).
Hamstrings (Biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semitendinosus)- comprised of three muscles, this muscle group is located on the back upper leg (thigh). The primary function of the hamstrings is knee flexion and hip extension (when trunk is flexed).
Glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus)- comprised of three muscles, this muscle group is located on the buttocks (posterior) region. The primary functions of the glute muscles include extension, abduction, and external rotation of the hip joint.
Understanding the Secondary Anatomy
While muscles of the upper leg and buttocks provide the main output of effort during cycling, smaller muscle groups in the lower leg provide stability during the pedal stroke motion. These muscles include:
Calves (gastrocnemius and soleus)- comprised of three muscles, this muscle group is located at the back of the lower leg. The primary function of the calves is plantarflexion at the foot and ankle.
While the lower body produces the required movements in cycling, core muscles play a vital role in providing balance on the bike. A strong core will provide stability on the saddle of the bike and limit side to side movement during a pedal stroke. These muscles include:
Obliques: Located on the outsides of the abdomen, functions as a rotator of the trunk.
Transverse abdominis: Located directly beneath obliques, provides compression to ribs and viscera, which provides thoracic and pelvic stability.
How Are These Muscles Used?
For cyclists, the upper leg and buttocks generate the most force while pedaling. Mike Schultz best explains the pedal motion,
“…hip flexion, along with hip and knee extension are the primary movements of a pedal stroke. Between the 6 and 12 o’clock position in the pedal revolution, there is some knee flexion to help bring the pedal back to the top but helping that flexion is the greater downward force being placed on the opposite pedal, by the opposite leg. Any extra help bringing the returning pedal back to the top is a benefit. The muscles that help return the foot to the top range from the hamstrings and calves at the bottom of the stroke, pulling the foot backward, to the quadriceps at the top, lifting the foot and knee back to the 12 o’clock position.”
In other words, while one leg drives down the pedal using knee extension (quadriceps), hip extension (hamstrings and glutes) and plantarflexion (calves), the opposite leg is essentially performing the opposite movements such as hip flexion (rectus femoris), knee flexion (hamstrings) and dorsiflexion (tibialis anterior).
Bigger and Better?
With the upper and lower legs providing the bulk of power during cycling, muscle endurance will improve, though this may not always translate to developing bigger muscles. However, it depends on the competition level of the individual. For instance, for more elite cyclists doing more sprint or high-speed sessions, leg muscles will become more toned and improve cardiovascular endurance. Focusing on certain strengthening exercises off the bike is a better avenue of seeing your muscles develop and get bigger.
Exercises to Improve Strength
To build strength and muscle mass, strength exercises of the bike need to be incorporated in any individual’s workout routine. Specific muscle groups such as glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves are vital, but smaller targeted groups like abs and low back muscles are just as important. These strength exercises include:
- Squats: This exercise incorporates glutes, hamstrings, quads, and core muscles. The eccentric and concentric loading phases of this exercise best represent lower body movement during cycling (hip/knee flexion into hip/knee extension)
- Deadlift, normal or single leg: A hinge movement, this exercise focuses on hamstrings and low back muscles. Isolating one leg at a time will help improve any muscle imbalances and strength.
- Leg press: This exercise focuses on quads and glutes. Focuses more on loading the quads through hip and knee flexion and then overcoming weight with knee extension.
- Forward/side lunges: These exercises focus on glutes, adductors, quads, and hamstrings. This dynamic movement can also be used as a warm-up before beginning a bike routine.
- Heel Raises: This exercise focuses on the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the lower leg. While this is an exercise that requires little movement, targeting these smaller muscles will provide more strength and stability on the bike.
- Mountain climbers: While compressing the ribcage and flexing at the hips, core muscles are activated and relaxed. The strengthening of these core muscles will help provide stability on the bike and limit unwanted side-to-side movement.
Don’t Forget to Stretch
Though focusing on strength and speed improvement is important to maintain endurance while cycling, a good stretch routine before and after cycling can help reduce injury and warm-up the muscles. These helpful stretches include:
- Quadricep Stretch
- Supine Hamstring Stretch
- Calf Stretch
- Piriformis/Glute Stretch
- Child’s Pose
- Upper Trap Stretch
- Deltoid Stretch
Though cycling is a low-impact sport, injuries are still prevalent and bothersome. Knee pain, low back pain, and even neck pain can be common overuse injuries associated with the sport. Helpful tips to avoid these injuries include:
- Stretch: A proper stretch routine before and after a cycling session helps elongate, warm-up, and provide recovery for the muscles used.
- Hydration: By being adequately hydrated before and during cycling can help reduce the chance of dehydration, which can lead to muscle cramps, headaches, and exhaustion.
- Strength/endurance training: By incorporating strengthening exercises into your workout routine, muscles will become stronger and provide more stability during long cycling sessions. Combine your muscle training with breathing training to improve cardiorespiratory endurance as well.
- Ice: If muscles or joints are feeling sore after cycling, icing down these muscles for 10-15 minutes will help reduce inflammation.
- Rest/Recovery: It is important to listen to your body. If you begin to feel pain in your muscles or joints while cycling, the best fix is to stop what you’re doing and rest and recover. Instead of trying to push through the pain, simply stopping activity can be very beneficial in reducing exacerbation of any injury you may experience.
Keep It Rolling
The muscles used while cycling greatly encompass the low body. These muscles will produce the greatest effort during the pedal stroke during cycling, and in turn, take on the biggest load. Building a routine of strength, stretching, and recovery to these muscles can be the difference in your peak performance!