You muscles are getting more out of your favorite form of cardio than you realize.

By Gabrielle Kassel
April 29, 2021
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Buy a Peloton or similar in the last year? Ditch the subway for fresh air and a bike lane? Or finally start using the folding bike you've had in storage? You're not alone! The implementation of social distancing guidelines, subsequent gym closings, and the desire to get outside safely amidst the global pandemic have led to an increase in indoor and outdoor two-wheeling.

Bike shops report a record number of road and indoor bike sales in 2020, with sales spiking 75 percent for traditional bikes, 203 percent for leisure bikes, and 150 percent for mountain bikes compared to last year, according to The NPD Group, a market research company. At-home cycling brand Peloton doubled its 2019 revenue, with $1.8 billion total revenue for 2020, and Peloton alternatives such as Echelon and NordicTrack also did exceptionally well in 2020.

If you're one of the many people who have contributed to the trend, you might be curious about what muscles biking works exactly. To help shed light on all the benefits of your new favorite sport, cycling coaches and cycling instructors answer the question 'what muscles does bike riding use,' and give tips for strengthening those body parts off the saddle for boosted performance. Trust, if you haven't already joined the riding revolution, learning all the muscles the activity works will make you want to ride. (Related: 9 Accessories to Transform Your Stationary Bike Into a DIY Peloton)

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Credit: Getty Images

What muscles does biking work?

As you might guess, the primary movers during biking are in your legs: your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles, says biking expert Melissa Sebastian, health and wellness coordinator with Trek Bikes. When done with proper form, each pedal rotation is made up of a push (when the knee extends) and a pull (when the knee bends upward). As you push down on the pedal, you're using all the muscles in your quads, she says, as well as the muscles in your calves. "Then as you pull back and up, your hamstring glutes, and shin muscles get activated," she says.

The surface you're riding on makes a difference. Riding up a hill demands more quads and calf muscles than flat land, says Sebastian. When you go downhill, it's usually momentum — not your muscles — moving you forward, so your legs are typically working a bit less, she says. On a stationary bike you can't climb literal hills, but you can crank up the resistance to mimic an uphill course, or release it to recreate a downhill coast.

You'll work many of the muscles in your upper body while biking, too. Your body calls on your biceps, triceps, and shoulders to maintain proper position (shoulders down, elbows bent and tucked in toward body, wrists neutral), says Sebastian. You also use your upper back and chest to hold your upper body in position and remain stable, she says.

Riding also works your core big time. "When your seat and handles are properly set up your core is engaged the entire time," says Kathleen Kulikowski, Master SoulCycle Instructor on Equinox . (For reference, your handlebars and saddle should be at hip height. Sitting in the saddle with your leg fully extended downward, your knee should be slightly bent at about a 25- to 35-degree angle.)

What muscles does indoor cycling work vs. outdoor bike riding?

Gladdd you asked! Both indoor and outdoor biking qualify as full-body exercises, and the type of bike you're riding won't change the muscles being used. However, the type of bike can affect just how much certain muscles are being taxed. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Mountain Biking)

Generally, outdoor bikes draw on your core and upper body more than stationary bikes. Since road bikes are less stable, the upper back, chest, and core have to work harder to do their job of keeping you balanced, explains Sebastian. "The transverse abdominis — the muscle that encompasses the entire middle of your body like a wide belt — has to work especially hard on unstable surfaces to keep the body from shifting from side to side as you ride," she says.

If you're taking an indoor cycling class that incorporates additional movements (for example bicep curls, shoulder presses, or tricep dips), you will work your arm muscles more than a ride that doesn't incorporate those moves. Additionally, any class that incorporates hands-free riding or dance-like shimmies and shakes will require additional core activation in order to keep you from flopping off, says Sebastian.

What are the other benefits of riding a bike?

Increased muscle mass and strength are damn good reasons to hop on a bike, no doubt — but the benefits of cycling go beyond that.

In addition to strengthening your muscles, biking (indoors or outdoors) is good for your heart, says Kulikowski. In fact, one 2016 study published in the journal Circulation found that people who cycled regularly had about a 15 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to non-cyclists. Even just 30 minutes on the bike per week was linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. (Related: 5 Simple Ways To Prevent Heart Disease).

Particularly noteworthy about biking is that — unlike a lot of other popular good-for-your-heart exercises — it's low-impact. For example, "running uses the same lower body muscles in almost the exact same way as biking, but biking is far better for your joints," says Sebastian. Creating impact is not always a bad thing because it can help train smaller muscles in the foot, ankle, and knee that do not get used enough to create great stability in that joint, she says. But for people with preexisting knee and ankle injuries who are prescribed a lower-impact exercise regime, biking is the top-notch choice.

As far as mental benefits, studies have linked cycling to lowered levels of stress and anxiety, possibly because it can help boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that regulates your mood. Plus, both outdoor and indoor cycling have potential mental health perks since research suggests any regular exercise can alleviate long-term depression.

While there is a financial cost to enter, otherwise, biking is an accessible exercise for people all across the fitness spectrum, says Kulikowski.

What are the best cross-training workouts for biking?

Can you meet your strength goals by riding alone? Possibly. However, Sebastian recommends that all bikers add resistance training to their schedules to "maximize longevity on the bike, reduce injury risk, and fight against potential muscle imbalances."

The best strengthening plan for a cyclist will incorporate movements across all planes of motion — not just the sagittal plane, which is the plane of motion used during biking, according to Sebastian. "That means movements such as squats, deadlifts, lunges with a twist, lateral tube walking, hip extensions, planks, supermans, back flys, and back rows," she says.

In addition to protecting your body, doing these movements will also make you a better rider, according to Kulikowski. "Strengthening the muscles you use on the bike, when off the bike, will help you activate them more easily while you ride and thus make you a better biker," she explains.

Exactly how you incorporate these exercises into your routine will vary based on your current fitness level, training age, and fitness goals. One option might be to ride Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, lift on Tuesday and Thursday, and rest on the weekend. But to find the perfect program for you, both experts recommend consulting a fitness professional.

The bottom line: Whether you're in an indoor or outdoor rider, pedaling does your mind and muscles a serious solid.

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