Skip to Content

11 Surprising Benefits Of Cycling Backwards (Yes, Really!)

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.--

I’ve heard a lot about cycling backwards recently and decided to give it a go. Having tried it consistently over the last month now, I feel like I’ve lived through many of the positive features that people say about it.

Cycling backwards can be used as a form of cross-training for cyclists. It helps you think about your form, activate muscles in a different way and helps to expend a greater amount of energy for less actual output.

Please note, when we’re talking about backwards cycling – this is pedalling backwards on a stationary bike indoors. There are clearly lots of dangerous issues involved in cycling backwards on an actual bike outdoors – please don’t do this!

Anyway, in this post, I’ll look at exactly what the most important 11 benefits are of cycling backwards. This will show you the following:

  • Why you might want to incorporate it into your cycling schedule
  • What the research says
  • Why exercising backwards is beneficial
  • The many benefits of cycling backwards
Benefits of cycling backwards

1. Greater Activation Of The Quadriceps

There was an interesting study done on backwards cycling in 2015, sponsored by ACE. (Source)

To summarize, this looked at two groups of eight adults (both male and female), who engaged in the same tests.

The test involved both cycling forwards and backwards at different intervals. During the tests, the study measured many things, including:

  • Energy consumption
  • Heart rate
  • VO2 max
  • The activation levels of different muscles

One thing I experienced myself through cycling backwards, and is backed up in this study, is that cycling backwards actually leads to a greater level of activation of the main cycling muscle group – the quadriceps.

The quadriceps are the large muscle group found in the front to the thighs. It is one of the strongest and largest muscle groups in the body.

During regular forward cycling, the quads are the key muscle group that drives forward the pedals, assisted by the glutes, calves, and hamstrings.

In cycling backwards, it seems the same is true, and the quads lead the way! However, you are using the quads in a slightly different way. Also, it appears that the quads are having to work harder.

Benefits for the quads include:

  • They are moving in a different though similar way
  • This leads to greater muscle development
  • You think about the form and movement of the quads, which helps when you cycle forwards.

2. ‘Pulling’ Motion Rather Than Pushing

The cyclists involved in the study reported that the backwards cycling motion felt more like pulling than the normal pushing force of the legs on the pedals. Having done it myself, I can also vouch for this.

To go back to the main muscle groups, the three muscle groups that are really driving the pedalling motion are:

  • The quads
  • The glutes
  • The calves

In forwards cycling, all three of these muscle groups are activated at the same time.

They are activated from the moment that a leg reaches the top of the pedalling rotation, and are firing all the time as they force down on the pedal to the bottom of the pedal revolution.

They are relatively at rest from the bottom of the pedal revolution to the top.

The main force they are all exerting is a downwards force slightly forwards and downwards on the pedal.

In backwards cycling, things are different. The same muscle groups are being used. However, this time they activated during the down pedal (which is going at a slightly different angle). But the quads are firing when the pedal comes up as well.

This is where the pulling sensation comes in.

In the study I mentioned before, the summary was that the glutes, calves and hamstrings expended the same energy cycling either forwards or backwards, but the quads experienced much greater energy expenditure.

3. Burns 16% More Calories

Another surprising benefit is how many more calories you can burn cycling backwards.

The study, that I mentioned before, came to a figure of 16% more calories burned for the same amount of work.

This measures cyclists going at the same speed, with the same resistance, and with the same amount of effort.

If weight loss is a goal of yours, then this is very significant. Forwards cycling tends to burn anywhere from about 500 to 1000 calories an hour, depending on the intensity and your weight (among other factors).

I’ve created the following table, showing the number of calories you can expect to burn if you cycle at an average speed of 12mph for thirty minutes (very achievable for most cyclists). I have factored in the weight of the cyclists, and also cycling forwards and backwards:

WeightCalories Burned Over 6 miles ForwardsCalories Burned Over 6 miles Cycling Backwards (Assuming extra 16%)
54kg (120lb)230267
66kg (140lb)255296
73kg (160lb)300348
82kg (180lb)335389
91kg (200lb)365423
100kg (220lb)420487
109kg (240lb)470545

As you can see, the change in calorie deficit between forwards and backward is quite significant. Allied with a healthy diet, this would be really proactive in helping you shed weight.

4. A Form Of Cross Training

One of the key benefits of cycling backwards is that it is a form of cross-training, but one that is closely linked to the original activity (normal cycling).

Cross-training is basically training for a specific event by using a different event. A runner may use rowing as a form of cross-training, for example, to strengthen their glutes and quads.

In the case of backwards cycling, you are trying to improve your forwards cycling by cycling backwards. Cycling backwards uses almost all of the same muscles as forwards cycling, but it uses them in a different way.

This helps for the following reasons:

  • It activates the same muscles but uses them in a slightly different way
  • It enhances muscle development and tone
  • It improves endurance

Many fitness experts agree that to get the most out of cross-training, you want to select two disciplines that are similar. Forwards and backwards cycling are clearly about as similar as you can possibly get.

5. Forces You to Think About Form

One of the key benefits extolled about exercising backwards, in general, is that it helps you think about technique and form. (Source)

You have less muscle memory involved as you perform the activity. Many things you will be doing unconsciously when you cycle forwards, you now need to think about.

This means that your attention has to really focus on what you are doing.

There is an element of mindfulness involved. You have to be deliberate about how you are sitting, and how you are moving your legs. You really think about how your muscles are moving, and the mechanics of your body.

This can help you improve your form and technique when cycling forwards.

Linked to this, I found an excellent video all about backwards walking. Even though this is clearly about walking (and not cycling), many of the benefits are the same – and the mental side of it is one of the biggest takeaways. Here is the video here:

6. Greater Heart Rate

A key finding of the study I mentioned earlier, and one that is relatively simple to provide evidence for, is that cycling backwards leads to a greater heart rate than cycling forwards.

It was found that even if the cycling speed is the same both forwards and backwards, and the amount of resistance and effort was also equal, then the cyclist’s heart rate was greater going backwards.

In general, the cyclists’ hearts beat 8 times per minute more during backwards cycling than forwards.

This is not enormous, but it is certainly significant and noticeable.

7. Uses Muscles In Different Ways

Another difference between backwards and forwards cycling is that the muscles are used in slightly different ways.

For example, as I stated before, the quads are involved in pulling and not just pushing.

I personally feel more of a burn in the hamstrings cycling backwards than forwards, and I think this is something to do with this pulling motion as opposed to pushing.

The pedal stroke is different – you are rotating in a different direction. The knee joint is moving differently, and so of course are all the associated muscles. This helps to develop muscle toning and development.

8. Avoiding Plateaus in Effort and Performance

An important consideration in exercising backwards is that it freshens things up. (Source)

When training in a discipline regularly you can find yourself at a plateau. This is when either your performance or the effort that you are putting in has reached a constant level, and you are not moving forward.

A feeling of progress is a positive one for most people training in a sport or exercise.

Backwards cycling offers a possible technique to break out of this plateau. It provides an extra level of cardio work, while also giving the muscles a different workout.

Perhaps even more importantly, it freshens up your mental approach to cycling. It helps you return to forwards cycling with added zeal and fervour.

9. Less Stress On Knees

There is some evidence that cycling backwards exerts less stress on the knees.

In fairness, cycling is generally an excellent exercise for knee health anyway. It is low-impact and is therefore kind to the knee joint.

However, there is some benefit in cycling backwards for those that are experiencing repetitive strain-type injuries to the knee as a result of overuse. Cycling backwards activates the muscles and knee-joint in a slightly different way and therefore may be a welcome respite for those experiencing issues.

10. Greater VO2 Max

VO2 Max is the amount of oxygen that your body is able to absorb during exercise (Source). It is a figure that tends to increase with training.

A surprising result of the study sponsored by ACE was that cycling backwards actually led to a 7% increase in the VO2 max level recorded.

VO2 max is a key indicator of your level of cardio ability, and all-around athletic ability. It is influenced by a range of factors, including:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Fitness
  • Other factors such as altitude

We are all able to improve our VO2 max by improving our fitness and cardio. Cycling backwards has proved to be an excellent way of doing this.

11. Speed Up Metabolism

An added bonus of increased calorie burning, VO2 Max and heart rate, is that it speeds up your metabolism.

Metabolism is the chemical process in the body that turns food into energy. An increased metabolism has a range of benefits such as:

  • Weight loss
  • More energy
  • Enhanced sleep

So it’s backwards cycling once again for the win!