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I don’t know about you, but when I cycle anywhere, the biggest burn I feel is in the quads and the glutes. These are definitely the two muscle groups that do the most work. But which is the more dominant of the two?
The quadriceps are the most dominant muscle group when cycling. This muscle group at the front of your thigh is largely responsible for driving downwards on the pedals. The glutes are of secondary importance, and there are contributions from the calves and hamstrings.
In this post, I’ll take a look at:
- Exactly how the quads are the most dominant muscle when we cycle
- What the main muscles used in cycling are and how and when do they operate
- The main muscles used in climbing
- The main muscles used in sprinting
- How to build muscle mass through cycling
- What burning in your quads means when cycling
- Strength training exercises for quads
- Strength training exercises for the glutes
Quads Are The Dominant Muscle During Cycling
For the vast majority of types of cycling, the quadriceps are the dominant muscle group.
The quadriceps are the largest group of muscles found in the body. (Source) They are also known as the quadriceps femoris (for all you science boffins out there.)
There is some conjecture as to whether they are actually the strongest muscle group as well, though this could be the glutes. (Source) Apparently, it’s hard to measure!
Either way, though, they’re seriously strong – and it’s the quads that do the majority share of the work when cycling.
They are actually fully activated about half of the time when you are cycling. They are activated just before the top of the pedal stroke, and then they push down all the way to the bottom of the stroke.
When one is active the other is at brief rest, and this repetitive cycle continues again and again.
Why are they more active than the hamstrings on the other side of the leg?
Well, in general cycling is more of a pushing activity than a pulling one. When we’re cycling we can feel ourselves pushing down on the pedals, rather than pulling up on them.
If you don’t have clips on your shoes, then pulling up on the pedals isn’t even possible anyway. But even if you are fully clipped in, it’s still more of a push than a pull.
What Is The Role Of The Glutes In Cycling?
They are activated at the same time as the quads in the cycling motion, and basically, help them in the same action.
The glutes are activated from the very top of the pedal stroke to the bottom. They are helping to force the leg down, which in turn is powering downwards on the pedals to drive you forward.
Same as the quads, they are firing for about half of the full pedal revolution. When one is fully activated, the other one is at rest, and this cycle alternates repeatedly.
What Are The Other Main Muscles Used In Cycling And How?
The main other two muscle groups used in cycling are the hamstrings and the calves.
The hamstrings are the only muscle that is activated fully during the upswing of the pedal.
They are in action from the bottom of the pedal stroke until the top. If you have your feet clipped into the pedals, then you can potentially exert extra force through the hamstrings by pulling the pedals upwards.
The calves join forces with the quads and the glutes in exerting a downward force on the pedals. They are activated from the top of the pedal swing to the bottom. So, once again, they are active for about half of a full revolution.
The Main Four Muscle Groups During Cycling – Their Role And Importance
|Muscle Group||Role In Cycling||Importance|
|Quadriceps||Pushing the pedal down from the top of the pedal stroke to the bottom||High|
|Glutes||Pushing leg down to power pedal down stroke from top to the bottom||Medium-high|
|Hamstrings||Helping to raise the leg from the bottom of the pedal stroke to the top||Medium|
|Calves||Helping to push the pedal down from the top of the stroke to bottom||Medium|
I found the following fantastic video on Youtube that talks you through exactly how all the muscles work during cycling:
Main Muscles In Climbing
Just to mix things up a little, everything I’ve spoken about so far is assuming more of a sitting position and standard cycling conditions. However, what happens when you start to climb hills?
Well, this mixes everything up quite a bit. During climbing, the quads are still important, but the proportion of effort goes up significantly from both the glutes and the calves.
This is not to say that the glutes and calves become more important. But it is to say that the quads maintain their level of effort, while both the glutes and calves take things up quite a few notches.
Main Muscles In Sprinting
The same is true in cycle sprinting.
The quads are still important, but the calves and glutes are now taking on more of the burden. This is especially true if the cyclist is out of their seat.
If their feet are clipped in as well, the hamstrings will also be much more strongly activated during sprinting. They will be working to force those pedals up during the upswing part of the pedal motion.
How To Build Muscle Mass Through Cycling
Cycling is a really good way to tone your muscles, and you can potentially add some muscle mass as well.
In general, cycling is excellent at helping you lose unwanted body fat. This will give a more defined look to your muscles.
Cycling can also tone the muscles. It acts like a form of weight training.
Weight training works by placing a muscle under stress by coming up against resistance. The muscle fibers tear slightly and grow back bigger and stronger.
Cycling is a form of resistance. It applies a level of resistance to the four main muscle groups I’ve been talking about (quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves), and will gently build and tone them over time.
It should be noted, however, that if you really want to develop muscle mass quickly, then weight training will provide much more solid results for you.
If more gradual muscle definition is more your goal, though, cycling is the perfect match. There are a couple of ways you can really help to speed up the process of developing muscle mass through cycling:
1. Using A High Resistance
The higher the resistance, the more muscle you will be able to build. It’s that simple! Higher resistance results in greater tearing of muscle fibers which will grow back bigger and stronger.
2. Interval Sprint Training
Introducing interval sprints into your cycling can add up to 40% more muscle development. It places greater stress on your muscles for shorter bursts, as well as getting the cardiovascular system going to its optimum level.
3. Replicating Climbing
If you are outdoors, then climb up hills! If indoors, then get out of your saddle, turn up the resistance, and replicate the action of climbing.
Climbing fully activates all the main muscle groups to their optimum level.
Burning In Quads – It Means This
I often hear cyclists complain about burning in their quads while cycling and nowhere else. Although this does of course make sense, because this is the muscle that is doing the most work, this can also be a bit of a warning sign.
Myself, I always feel a burn in my glutes and quads simultaneously, and I think this is a more normal reaction.
If you are feeling a burn in just your quads, this suggests that you may need to strengthen your glutes. Weak glutes mean the quads need to over-compensate.
The quads will always be fully activated when cycling, but they might not be getting the help they need from the glutes.
Top tip – if you always feel a burn in the quads but not the glutes, then it might be time to strengthen those glutes!
Strength Training For Quads
You’ve probably worked out now that the most important muscle used in cycling is the quads. And you’d be right!
So it kind of makes sense that if you want to increase your cycling power and speed, then strength training on the quads is something to target.
But what are the best exercises for strength training for the quads? Here are three you can try:
Lunges – you can do these with your body weight, or holding a dumbbell or larger weight. You can lunge forwards or backwards
Sumo squats – Stand with legs wider than shoulder-width apart. Squat down so the knees are bent to about 90 degrees and then back up. You can use body weight, a dumbbell, or a larger weight.
Lunge pulses – These are similar to lunges, but you bounce up and down when you get into the low lunge position.
Box jumps – You normally need a platform or padded cube to jump onto for these. From a standing start, with both feet near each other, jump up and land on the platform or box. Then step down and repeat.
You can check out a fantastic 5-minute quad workout in this video:
Strength Training For Glutes
Of course, the second most important muscle group for cyclists is the glutes. But what are the best exercises to build these?
There’s probably not much surprise that quite a lot of the exercises that work to develop quad strength also develop glute strength at the same time.
So, some excellent ones for the glutes also are:
Sumo squats (see above)
Lunges (see above)
Reverse lunges – Basically stepping backward, and lunging. You can use either body weight or a dumbbell.
Hip thrusts – Lie facing the ceiling, with your back supported on a medicine ball or chair, and your knees bent at 90% with your feet on the floor. Lower your midsection down towards the floor, and then lunge back up to your starting position. You can use body weight, or hold a dumbbell at your midsection.
I found these fantastic four glute exercises in this video from Mad Fit. Definitely worth checking out: