The main muscles worked in a stationary bike workout are your heart and lower body muscles:
All forms of cardio exercise, such as running, cycling, stair climbing, and the elliptical trainer, will strengthen your heart and lungs and burn calories.
In this article, you will learn about the benefits of exercising on a stationary bike, as well as the main muscles worked in a stationary bike workout.
Table of Contents
Benefits of Stationary Bike Workouts
Stationary bike workouts strengthen your lower body muscles and provide numerous benefits to your fitness and health, including the following:
- Improving cardiovascular health and strengthening the heart and lungs.1
- Improving aerobic capacity (VO2 max).
- Improving markers of health, such as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol and improving blood sugar regulation.2
- Burning calories and boosting metabolic rate to help support weight loss.3
- Improving mood.
- Decreasing stress and anxiety.
So, what muscle groups are worked by stationary bike workouts or indoor cycling workouts? Which muscles will you strengthen with an exercise bike?
Different Types of Stationary Bikes
Different muscles might be used on different types of stationary bikes, so let’s go over some of the most common types.
- Traditional upright bikes
- Recumbent bike
- Spin bikes
- Air resistance bike (Air bike)
Traditional Upright Bikes
The most common and traditional stationary exercise bike is the standard upright bike. It looks more or less like a normal bike but without the wheels, and you sit in an upright position with your feet below your hips, and your hands on a fixed handle.
A recumbent exercise bike positions your body differently than traditional exercise bikes. Rather than sitting upright with your feet directly below your hips on the pedals, a recumbent bike has you seated in a reclined position, more like a chair. Your legs are extended out in front of your body, so the angle in which you are peddling is different.
Although the joint angles and range of motion of the pedal stroke vary between the upright vs recumbent exercise bike, there’s quite a bit of overlap in the general muscles worked cycling in either position.
However, the activation of the tibialis anterior (shin muscle) and semitendinosus (a hamstring muscle) is greater on the recumbent bike, whereas the rectus femoris (a quad muscle) is activated more on an upright stationary bike vs recumbent stationary bike.
In addition to these forms of stationary bikes, there are also indoor cycling bikes, which are often referred to as spin bikes.
The muscles worked in indoor cycling or riding a spin bike are essentially identical to those of a regular upright exercise bike. However, the workout style for a spinning workout vs a stationary bike workout on a traditional upright exercise bike with magnetic resistance often differs.
Typically, indoor cycling workouts on a spin bike involve high-intensity interval training with some climbing out of the saddle, which means that you may stand up on the pedals rather than stay seated the entire time.
When you stand up and ride, as if simulating a steep uphill climb with outdoor biking, the muscles worked in your biking workout will expand beyond just the lower body muscles.
In addition to working all of the muscles in your legs and lower body, indoor cycling workouts may engage the core muscles, shoulder muscles, and upper back muscles more significantly if you are indeed climbing off of the seat.
Air Resistance Bike (Air Bike)
Lastly, another form of exercise bike is the air resistance bike or fan bike, traditionally known as an Airdyne bike or an Assault bike. You may have seen these forms of exercise bikes in a CrossFit gym.
The primary difference between one of these fan or wind-resistance bikes and a standard stationary bike is that the wind-resistance bike usually includes movable handlebars. As you pedal the bike, you can pump your arms back and forth, pushing and pulling on the handlebars in a reciprocal pattern as if replicating the arm motion when running or using an elliptical machine.
The benefit of this type of stationary bike workout is that the muscles used cycling with an Airdyne bike better replicate the full-body exercise of running or using an elliptical machine rather than the typical lower-body-only nature of the regular exercise bike workout muscular activation.
Given the breadth of types of stationary bikes available, there isn’t a black-and-white answer to the question: “What muscles are the muscles worked on a stationary bike?”
However, because most stationary bike workouts take place on either a traditional upright stationary bike, an indoor cycling or spin bike, or potentially a recumbent bike, we will primarily focus on the stationary bike workout muscles for these types of exercise bikes.
Muscles Worked on a Stationary Bike
When you are seated on the stationary bike seat (also known as a “saddle”), the muscles worked cycling are primarily just the muscle groups in your legs, namely the quads, hip flexors, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes, and calves to a lesser degree.
Knowing which muscles you are working with any type of physical activity can help you develop a well-rounded workout routine and can help you improve your movement mechanics by bringing awareness to the muscle groups you should be activating during your workout.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the main muscles worked during a stationary bike workout.
One of the primary muscle groups worked on a stationary bike is the quadriceps muscle group.
The quadriceps, commonly referred to as the quads, include four muscles that run down the front of the thigh from the front of the hip joint to just below the knee joint:
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus medius
- Vastus intermedius
- Vastus lateralis muscles
Because the quads cross both the hip joint and knee joint, the quadriceps function as biarticular muscles.
This means that the muscle groups control motions at two different joints (the hip joint and the knee joint).
The quadriceps flex the hip and extend the knee. You can picture hip flexion as the action that occurs when you are standing upright, and you go to lift your thigh up towards your chest. Knee extension is just another way of saying straightening the knee, so if your knee is bent (flexed), the quads contract to straighten it back out.
Of all of the stationary bike muscles, the quadriceps are arguably the most heavily involved throughout the entire pedal stroke. For this reason, if you are new to exercise bike workouts or spin class workouts, you may find that your quads are particularly sore after your first couple of workouts relative to your other leg muscles.
If you imagine the motion or arc of movement that your legs move through when you perform an exercise bike workout, your hip and knee are in a constant cycle of flexion and extension throughout the pedal stroke.
Let’s consider the entire pedal stroke on a stationary bike or spin bike.
- The pedal stroke begins when your foot is at the top position closest to your head and ends when that same foot returns to the same top position.
- When your foot is at the top of the pedal stroke, your hip is flexed and your knee is flexed or bent.
- Then, the quadriceps contract to help straighten your knee so that you can press the pedal down towards the floor.
Therefore, during the downward portion of the cycling pedal stroke, the quadriceps (particularly the rectus femoris muscle) contract to straighten your knee until your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke near the floor.
For example, studies that have examined muscle activation during stationary bike workouts using EMG have found that the rectus femoris, the large quad muscle that runs down the center of the thigh, is most active during the first quarter and last quarter of the cycling pedal stroke.5
The first quarter of the cycling pedal stroke occurs from when your foot is in the top position until it is halfway down to the bottom of the floor whereas the final quarter occurs when your foot is already down past the bottom and halfway back up to the top all the way up until it is up to the top.
The reason that the quadriceps are most active during the first quarter and last quarter of the pedal revolution is that in the first quarter, as you initiate the movement of the pedal down towards the ground, you are contracting your quads to straighten your knee.
On the opposite side of the pedal stroke as you are finishing to come back to the top, your quadriceps contract again. However, this time, the primary role is flexing the hip so that you can get your foot back up to the top position.
The glutes, which refer to the gluteal muscles, are the muscles in your buttocks. The three primary gluteal muscles worked by exercise bike workouts include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.
The gluteus maximus muscle is the largest, strongest, and most significant contributor to the pedal stroke in terms of the butt muscles targeted in the list of stationary bike workout muscles.
This muscle plays a pivotal role in hip extension, which refers to the motion of bringing your leg back behind your body. For example, when you are walking, hip extension is occurring in your trailing leg when you advance the other leg forward to take a step forward.
Therefore, when you are doing a stationary bike workout, the gluteus maximus muscle is heavily involved in the first phase of the pedal stroke when you’re pushing the pedal down towards the floor.
Envision yourself when you first hop on to the exercise bike to begin your stationary bike workout. In this starting position, you typically have one knee straight with the foot close to the floor, and one knee and hip flexed so that the foot is up at the top of the pedal path, ready to press down on the pedal.
In this position, the leg of the foot on top is in a position of hip flexion. Then, your glute muscles contract to help extend the hip so that you can press the pedal down.
The other two gluteal muscles, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, do play a role in hip extension. However, these smaller muscles are more significantly involved in controlling hip rotation and abduction.
Because a stationary bike has the pedals locked into a specific path of motion, the exercise bike workout muscles involve less stabilizing action from the gluteus medius than an activity like running, in which your hips have to work to support your body in the frontal plane (side-to-side motion) when you weight-bear on one leg.
The hamstrings are the group of three muscles that run down the backside of your thighs from the bottom of the pelvis at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) to the back of your knee.
The hamstring muscle group includes the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris muscles. The hamstrings are considered the antagonistic muscle group to the quadriceps, which means that they oppose the motions of the quads.
Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings are biarticular muscles because they also control actions at the hip and the knee. However, instead of flexing the hip and extending the knee like the quads, the hamstrings extend the hip and flex (bend) the knee. Recall that the glutes also extend the hip, which again is the motion of bringing your leg back behind your body.
Although exercise bike workouts use the hamstrings throughout the pedal stroke, the majority of the workload on the hamstrings occurs in the second half of the pedal stroke when you are bending your knee to return the pedal up to the top starting position. This is because the glutes are more powerful muscles and generally take on the bulk of the workload of initially extending the hip at the start of the pedal stroke.
The reason why it is important to use the foot straps on the stationary bike rather than just pressing your feet on the pedals and pushing the pedals down is that by using the foot straps or toe cages, your foot stays secured onto the pedal. This allows you to pull up on the pedal as you ride the bike.
In doing so, you can activate your hamstrings and help balance out the workload of the stationary bike workout muscles involved from being almost solely focused on the quadriceps, to using the quads and hamstrings for a smoother, more powerful pedal stroke. You will get a similar muscular benefit by wearing cycling shoes clipped into the pedals on a spin bike.
Another one of the key muscle groups worked during a stationary bike workout is the hip flexor muscles. The hip flexors are a group of muscles located at the front of the hip and pelvis that help flex the leg at the hip.
The primary muscles in the hip flexor group are the psoas major and the iliacus (which are together called the iliopsoas). That said, the rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles), sartorius, and pectineus also are involved in hip flexion.
The hip flexors contract in the second half of the cycling pedal stroke to help bring your straightened leg back up to the flexed starting position.
Although the main stationary bike workout muscles are the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors, exercise bike workouts also strengthen the calves, which are the muscles that run along the back of your lower leg from just behind your knee down to your heel bone. The calf muscles taper into the prominent Achilles tendon in the back of your ankle.
The calf muscle group includes two distinct muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Of the two calf muscles, the gastrocnemius is the larger, stronger, and more significant contributor to exercise biking workouts.
The gastrocnemius helps bend the knee and plantarflex the ankle. Ankle plantar flexion can be envisioned as the motion that you make with your foot when you press down on the gas pedal of a car or stand up on tiptoes.
There are two points in the cycling movement pattern where the calf muscles are activated:
- At the very bottom of the pedal stroke when your leg is extended, the gastrocnemius calf muscle works with your hamstrings to help flex the knee as you bring the pedal back up to the top position.
- The calf muscles are also working just before you hit the bottom of the pedal stroke on the way down to help you plantarflex the ankle. When you’re pressing down on the pedal, you are pointing your toe downward somewhat, and the calf muscles help permit this motion.
Doing so helps you maximize the strength and power of your pedal stroke so that you can ride more efficiently, particularly if you are doing a stationary bike workout on a high resistance level.
If you are doing an indoor cycling workout on a spin bike and you stand up on your pedals and lift your butt off of the saddle, your calves will also help generate that force to get your body up and off of the saddle into the upright climbing position.
An often-overlooked muscle worked by stationary bike workouts is the tibialis anterior. This is a thin muscle that runs down the inside compartment of the front of your shin. The tibialis anterior helps dorsiflex the ankle, which is the opposite motion of the gastrocnemius plantar flexing the ankle. You can envision dorsiflexion as bringing your toes up towards the ceiling.
The reason that stationary bike workouts use this muscle is that the tibialis anterior helps draw your toes upward and bring the pedal back to the starting position in the second half of the pedal stroke.
Although most discussions of stationary bike workout muscles focus solely on the skeletal muscles in your legs, riding an exercise bike also works your heart.
Your heart consists of what is known as cardiac muscle tissue, so it is indeed a muscle. Cycling is a fantastic form of aerobic exercise. If you consistently perform stationary bike workouts, you will strengthen your heart, enabling your heart to contract more forcefully.
This, in turn, can lower your resting heart rate and even exercise heart rate because as the heart becomes stronger and more efficient, it can pump a greater volume of blood out to your body with every heartbeat. This means that your heart no longer needs to beat as many times per minute to meet the oxygen in nutrient needs of your muscles and other tissues.
Other Muscles Worked By Exercise Bike Workouts
Although a stationary bike workout is predominantly a lower-body exercise, depending on the type of exercise bike you are using and the type of workout you are doing, stationary bike workouts may also use some muscles in the upper body and core.
As mentioned, if you are doing spin bike workouts that involve climbing out of the saddle, you will have to use your shoulders and arms (mainly triceps) to support your body weight. Removing the ability to support your weight and balance on the bike seat will engage your core muscles, including your abs and lower back muscles.
Similarly, if you are riding an air-resistance bike with opposable handlebars, you will use your shoulders, arms, upper back muscles, and core muscles throughout the stationary bike workout as you push and pull the handlebars.
How Can I Strengthen the Muscles Worked On a Stationary Bike?
Beginners often find that their muscles are sore after exercise bike workouts. When you take on exercise that you are unaccustomed to, it takes time to develop muscular strength and endurance.
As your legs get stronger, exercise bike workouts will start to feel easier, so it is important to increase the resistance if you want to continue building muscle and increasing your strength.
You can also build muscle and increase strength with stationary bike workouts by doing high-intensity intervals with higher resistance or higher cadence (revolutions per minute). Gradually increase the length of your stationary bike workouts to improve your muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and stamina.
Because the muscles worked on an exercise bike are primarily the muscles in your lower body, consider supplementing your stationary bike workouts with upper body and core workouts to develop more well-rounded, full-body strength.
Need some guidance on an upper-body strengthening workout? Check out our upper body dumbbell workout.
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