Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist as well as being a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.
In your quest for fitness, you might head off to the gym and overlook the old bicycle you have in the shed. Or, you could put that bike to use.
We all know that cycling is a fantastic exercise, benefiting both your overall health and fitness. As an endurance sport, cycling can be exceptionally good for cardiovascular fitness while also helping with weight loss.
The truth is, cycling is an excellent alternative to the gym. However, if you don't feel comfortable riding outside, use a stationary bike or take a spinning class.
Read on to learn more about how cycling helps tone muscles, improve physique, and boost body image. Cycling can help to improve muscle tone in the areas of your legs, butt, and stomach.
Cardiovascular and Toning Benefits of Cycling
Which Muscles Does Cycling Work?
We all know that cycling is a fantastic workout for our muscles, but which muscles do we exercise (and tone) while we're riding a bike?
Leg muscles used while cycling:
- Quadraceps muscles (front of thighs)
- Hamstrings (rear of thigh)
- Calf muscles
- Hip flexors
- Gluteus Maximus (your butt)
- Plantarflexors of the foot
- Dorsiflexors of the foot
Together all of these muscles contract in a sequence that creates the pedaling motion.
Upper body muscles used while cycling are mainly for support and stabilisation, but this is still a great workout:
- Abdominal muscles (internal and external)
- Arm muscles
- Chest and shoulders
- Muscles of the back
Where would you like to tone up and improve through cycling?
Competitive Cyclists Always Have Fantastic, Toned Butts!
How Does Cycling Tone the Quadricep Muscles (Thighs)?
If the circular motion of pedaling a bike were a clock, the thigh muscles, or quads, engage at the 9 o'clock position, in the pull-upstroke phase. It's specifically one of the quadriceps muscle group that is involved: the rectus femoris.
The cycle begins when the hip and knee press down on the pedal. This action is helped by the glute and quad muscles and, later, by the hamstrings and calf muscles.
How Do Cycling Exercises Tone Your Butt (Glutes)?
We'd all like a little more lift and tone to our rear, and cycling is an exceptionally good activity to tone your gluteal muscles.
Your gluteus maximus is responsible for the initiation of the downward phase of the cycling pedal stroke and are therefore worked whenever you're pedaling.
- You can help to improve your muscle tone by heading for the hills and getting out of the saddle. Steep hills force you to work harder to start each pedal stroke. Riding uphill is hard work and will place large amounts of stress on both your glutes and thigh muscles, giving them a hard workout and stimulating muscle fiber damage. This damage is what you want. It leads to improvement in strength and muscle tone once your muscles recover.
Cycling to Tone Your Calf Muscles
Cycling works the muscles of your calves (soleus and gastrocnemius muscles) through the action of plantarflexion during the pedal stroke.
Plantarflexion is effectively the same action your feet create when you stand on tip-toes. This happens at the points of the pedal stroke which correspond to five and six on a clock face, as your foot flexes and your toes point downwards.
Your calf muscles only play a small role in cycling, but the benefits will be well worthwhile. You'll want to dig out those shorts or short skirts to show off your legs!
Can You Get a Flat Stomach From Cycling?
Many of us have a layer of adipose tissue (fat) around our mid-sections, right where a nice, flat stomach should be. How does cycling, which doesn't use your abdominal muscles as a prime mover, help tone your abs?
- Cycling gets your heart rate up, which burns calories and can lead to weight loss (if you eat sensibly).
- While cycling, you activate your abs to keep stable as you pedal. Your abdominal muscles form part of the body's core muscle unit, which provides a stable platform for riding and allows you to use your upper body for support and smooth steering.
- Your abdominal muscles (and the posterior muscles of the abdomen) contract isometrically to provide stability. These constant contractions in your core help to tone the abdominal muscles. They also improve abdominal muscle strength and endurance.
How to correctly activate your abdominal muscles for cycling:
- To ensure correct form while you cycle, tense your stomach muscles to pull your navel inwards. Pull your stomach in tightly and downwards slightly, towards your pubic bone. Try to maintain this throughout your cycling workout and after a short time, it will become your natural cycling posture.
Working Out on an Indoor Bike
If you can't ride outside, due to weather or other factors, cycling indoors on a stationary exercise bike is just as effective for muscle toning. Choose a hilly course program, so you have to work harder and get the most benefits.
There are two types of exercise bikes. On an upright bike, the rider pedals in an upright position, like an outdoor bike. On a recumbent bike, the rider is in a reclined position. These bikes provide more back support.
If you don't have access to an indoor bike, an elliptical trainer is also a great way to tone your gluteal muscles, legs, and core abdominals.
For those who cannot ride outside, indoor cycling is still resistance training. It gets your heart rate up and works muscle groups in both the upper and lower body.
Which Muscles Does a Recumbent Bike Work?
Outdoor recumbent bikes offer more back support than upright bikes. It may take a little getting used to, but sitting lower in a bucket seat with a backrest can be ideal for cyclists who want to give their back a break.
Working out on a recumbent bike works these muscles:
- Quadriceps (thighs)
- Glutes (your butt)
- Hamstrings (yes, these are muscles!)
- Tibialis anterior (shin muscles)
- Abs (your core muscles)
8 Strength-Training Exercises for Cyclists
- Barbell or dumbbell lifts: These exercises strengthen your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Lunges: Work your quadriceps, hamstrings, and hips.
- Leg-lifts (both legs): Work your abdominals and hip flexors.
- Planks: Lift one leg to increase difficulty and strengthen the lower back.
- Half-squat with barbell: Bend your knees to a 45-degree angle.
- Step-ups: Choose a step that isn't too high
- Crunches: Strengthen the core.
- Skipping rope: Great for your calves.
How to Train to Get the Most Out of Cycling
Follow these tips to get the most out of your cycling exercise.
- Make sure your seat height is set for comfort. Your knee should be bent slightly at the base of the pedal stroke when the foot is at a right angle to the floor
- Always build up cycling volume slowly, to avoid injury.
- Try to maintain a cadence of 90-120 rpm, as this will put minimal stress on your joints.
- If you don't feel comfortable riding outside, use a stationary bike or take a spinning class.
- Make sure you dress right for the weather. There's no logic in cycling if you can't keep warm or feel uncomfortable.
- Take your muscle toning to new levels by using clip-less pedals. When your foot isn't held in place with a clip, your muscles are in control of the whole pedal stroke, which leads to a better toning effect.
- Hills are your friend in your attempt to improve fitness, strength, and muscle tone. Don't be afraid to get out of the saddle!
- If you're struggling for comfort on a spin bike or your own bicycle, consider this cheap and easy comfort fix. A gel saddle cover can enhance comfort and you can easily move it from bike to bike.
Tips to Tone and Build Strength for Cycling
Good Luck with Your Muscle Toning
Enjoy cycling and thanks for reading!
—Liam Hallam, CyclingFitness
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Liam Hallam
Mandy on July 30, 2019:
There's nothing more exhilarating than going for a cycle on a comfortable bicycle. Fitness benefits are a bonus.
Ana Maria Orantes from Miami Florida on February 26, 2019:
Good morning mister Liam Hallam. Thank you for the knowledge on the bicycle’s information. It is good to know what muscles are getting the benefits of the exercises. I am glad to know that the bikes are one of the best machine to workout. I wish you a wonderful day.
Rosa Borges on September 04, 2018:
We got rid of our Harley-Davidson Road King and purchased two bicycles we’ve been bicycle riding every day since!
anddi on July 19, 2018:
exercise bike benefits – 5 Benefits You Need to Know Before You Buy : When you enter a fitness center or a typical gym all over the world, exercise bikes are something you will not miss easily. It is a “must have” for all indoor gyms. Why is it so? Because there are so many benefits to using this exercise equipment. It is loved by many people because of its effectiveness in cardio workouts and simplicity to use. In urban cities, indoor exercise is one of the best ways to exercise given the hectic work schedules of most people.
ExDurisGloria on September 19, 2017:
One missing from this and it's a big one for women, especially those with pelvic pain or pelvic organ prolapse, is the Pelvic Floor muscle group. Cycling is an excellent way of strengthening these muscles in a low impact way.
Gloria on August 20, 2017:
Love cycling...its an amazing stress reliever...riding for 60 minutes to 90 minutes 3 times a week has tone by legs and stomach
Helena on August 16, 2017:
The following benefit is confusing. It advises us to use pedals without clips (clip-less pedals) but then goes on to qualify this by explaining why it's better to use pedals with clips. So which is it - clips or no clips?
"Take your muscle toning to new levels by using clip-less pedals. When your foot remains clipped into the pedal, your muscles are in control of the whole pedal stroke which leads to a better toning effect."
Cerise on April 05, 2017:
I love cycling, best workout. An hour a day keeps me perky!
Sam Matthews on March 25, 2017:
Cycling has been an amazing benefit to my life. I work as a designer in the Film and Games industry so as you can expect. I spend long hours in front of the computer at work in the office. I had been riding for about a year prior to this job and was thinking about starting up at the Gym, but it didn't make sense spending all day in the office and then coming home and going to another Office type environment. Imstead I feel so much better coming home especially in these brighter evenings and having a nice bike ride in the fresh air.
Dianemae on July 07, 2015:
I love riding. Wind in my face, smell of fresh air and now you told me all the benefits. When I was growing up, I would ride in the cemetery..no dogs and no cars. Good article.
Akoria Ofega from Nigeria on July 06, 2015:
This is really interesting. I'd love to commend the thorough work you have done on the topic. Kuddos
Nathan on June 28, 2015:
They should forever stop using the phrase toning a muscle. You cant tone a muscle. Tone refers to the activity of a muscle. So you can "tone" a muscle down or up. Activate or inhibit a muscle