What Muscles Does Cycling Tone? [ANALYSIS]

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The Short Answer

Cycling tones muscles below the waist, such as the glutes, quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, and hip flexors. It also provides some benefits to the core and arms. Combined with a healthy diet, cycling can contribute to overall body shape changes by burning fat. Results vary based on individual factors.

Cycling is well known to provide physical and mental health benefits. Overall well-being is helped by a positive boost to your mind, body, and soul. Focusing on the body workout part, cycling is an aerobic, resistance activity that tones your core and lower muscles. Your arms get a workout, too.

1. What Muscles Are Worked While Cycling? 

The main muscles activated while cycling are below the waist, but we also derive some benefits to the core and arms. Our power comes mainly from the glutes, the quadriceps, the calves, the hamstrings, and the hip flexors. Balance and stability are needed to deliver power to the biceps, triceps, and abs.

No two people are the same, but this guide presents a template for the different muscles used. Think of a right pedal stroke as a circular clock face going in the opposite direction from the left pedal stroke.

The glutes you use to sit produce around 27% of the power when pedaling and are working hardest at the top of the pedal stroke. Your quadriceps run along the front of the leg from hip to knee. They give you 39% of your pedal power and work hardest as each right pedal stroke goes from 2 to 6 o’clock.

Your calves produce around 20% of the effort needed and are working hardest from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock. The hamstrings give you 10% of the power as you swing the pedal back up to 9 o’clock. Finally, getting you back to 12 o’clock requires the hip flexors, which give you the final 4% of your power.

2. Is Cycling Good for Muscle Toning?

Cycling is great for muscle toning, and you can start at any age. This aerobic exercise is a form of resistance training that works the endurance muscles, which are sometimes referred to as ‘slow-twitch’ muscles. These muscles are generally leaner, and working with them creates a narrower profile. 

‘Fast-twitch’ muscles are needed for strength training and bursts of power. Working with weights increases their size. Most of us will have a 50:50 split of fast and slow twitch muscles, but regular commuting and leisure cycling will most likely develop more of the slow twitch version. 

The intensity of your riding style marks a difference between muscle growth and muscle toning. One way to check the intensity of your riding is to get to grips with your maximum heart rate. There are many ways to check this, but the most cost-effective is subtracting your age from 220, as this measurement suggests. 

This study suggests that in younger adults new to regular physical exercise, muscles will grow when the exercise intensity is performed at 75%-85% of the maximum heart rate. This is considered the more vigorous end of the activity scale – you’ll be out of breath and not likely to keep up a regular conversation as you ride. 

If you don’t push yourselves to this level, your muscles will likely be toned and less bulky. The endurance muscle fibres you work are also more resistant to becoming tired, which will boost your morale for more riding. As we discover here, there are a lot of changes going on in the body at once when you cycle.

Cycling has very low impact compared to running and walking—the turning motion and seater position put less pressure on the muscles. The rate of muscle damage is lower, nearly half as low as running. Something called DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) is lower, too.

This is crucial. It normally starts a day or two after the workout, and keeping it at bay or in the background will boost your motivation for consistent exercise.

3. Effect of Cycling on Body Shape

Cycling is likely to change body shape, but more so in conjunction with other amended lifestyle aspects. Aerobic exercise burns calories. Only 25% of body shape changes come from cycling alone. The other 75% will come from diet. The noticeable effects will be different for your partner, cycling friends, or fellow commuters. 

No two bodies are the same, and perhaps we have different exercise goals. Cycling to work, as we examine here, is likely to work the muscles less than if we were a member of a cycling club doing really intensive training. But they will be working the same muscles.

For decades, gyms have included exercise bikes as an essential part of their kit. That’s a sign of the good that comes from turning pedals. There are benefits for your cardiovascular system, as we examine here

There are generally considered to be three types of body shapes, as we see here. These are endomorph (more body fat and less muscle), mesomorph (relatively solid shape, more muscle than fat), and ectomorph (lean build, less natural muscle than a mesomorph). The body type plays a huge part in determining body shape. Cycling will impact each person’s body shape in different ways.

One month of regular bicycle riding is expected to start producing visible results. Lifestyle, diet, and exercise frequency will make a huge difference in the rate you see improvements. Regular, short rides, like commuting, should burn 1,000 calories per week. Riding at 12 miles per hour might see you burn over 500 calories in 60 minutes. There’s more information here

There are ways to burn more calories and build muscles without significantly changing routines. For example, riding on more elevated roads will increase effort and burn more calories.

The extra effort will also target your upper arms and core muscles because you pull more on the handlebars. If it’s safe, you may even stand up while pedaling to shift the emphasis onto muscles in the core and thighs.

Your cadence (or the number of times you revolve your pedals per minute) will influence how toned your muscles become. More fat will be burned if you manage 90-110 revolutions per minute. This might mean some experimentation with gears and less time ‘freewheeling’, but you’ll be leaner than if you cycle at a lower cadence, as this increases resistance and builds more bulk.


4. Does Cycling Tone Your Stomach?

Cycling burns fat in the body and should produce results that tone the stomach. If you laid 5kg of fat out and did the same for muscle, the profile and mass simply take up less area. It’s a pretty gross image, but muscle is much leaner than fat. Your core gets a workout, which builds muscle, too.

As you ride, even though you are seated, your core works to keep your body balanced and centered on the bicycle. A good core is vital for efficient pedaling, and your body tends to find the most effective way of turning the pedals. Toning mainly comes from burning fat, however.

5. Does Cycling Tone Your Legs?

Cycling will tone your legs when you work at a medium intensity. If you start to work intensively and powerfully – with increased heart rate and really forcing your legs by pedaling in really high gear and low cadence, you’ll see bulk replacing tone. Resistance will build more noticeable muscle.

There’s less stress involved in cycling at a higher cadence – turning the pedals more quickly – than grinding at a lower cadence. One example of tone v muscle is to compare images of the legs of an Olympic track cyclist and an Olympic road cyclist. It is the same sport, but one generally requires powerful surges over short distances and times compared to the other, which requires more sustained periods of endurance.

Track cyclists use weights to grow their muscles, enhancing development, but the principles are true.


6. Does Cycling Tone “Thighs and Bum”?

Cycling will tone the legs and seated muscles. The fat contained there will degrade and deplete after regular workouts. Exercise increases the metabolism, which helps reduce muscle mass quicker. Varying the cadence may hasten this process a bit. Results do take time for different body shapes and sizes.

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