Leg Muscles Used in the Cycling Pedal Stroke

Updated on May 26, 2016
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. A keen cyclist, runner, and obstacle racer, he ran his first ultra-marathon in 2016.

Cycling Anatomy: Leg Muscles in Action

Visual representation of Cycling Anatomy in action.
Visual representation of Cycling Anatomy in action. | Source

Muscles Used During Cycling

Which leg muscles are used during each cycling pedal stroke? And at which points in the pedalling action are the muscles activated?

The training effect of cycling mostly takes place in the lower body. The upper body muscles are mainly used for balance and posture while bicycling.

It is important for a cyclist to have a strong core (abdominal muscles and lower back).

While looking a relatively simple action there are a large number of cycling muscles utilised in every pedal revolution in their agonist and antagonist states and the pedal stroke has two distinct phases: the Power Phase and the Recovery Phase.

The table below shows how each leg muscle is used during the cycling leg muscle action. The diagram below gives a clear view of the pedal stroke action and cycling muscle recruitment patterns, including their activation points, and the complexity of a synergistic cycling pedal stroke which features almost every significant muscle within the leg at some point in the pedal action.

The Power Phase of the Cyclist's Pedal Stroke

  1. From the top of the pedal stroke, a cyclist utilizes their hip extensors (gluteus maximus muscle) which initiates the Power Phase of the pedal stroke until point at 3 on a clock face
  2. From the point of 3 to 5 on the clock face the knee extensors activate: vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. Many cyclists associate this point with generating the most force for their pedal stroke; this is particularly prominent while climbing out of the saddle on steep gradients.
  3. From positions 5 to 6, plantar flexion occurs, thanks to the gastrocnemius which causes the toes to point outwards.

The Muscles of the Cycling Pedal Stroke in Action: Road Racing

Muscles used during cycling pedal stroke in action during racing
Muscles used during cycling pedal stroke in action during racing

The Recovery Phase of the Cyclists’ Pedal Stroke

  1. From 6 to 8, the Tibialis Anterior draws the toe upwards towards the shin. (dorsiflexion)
  2. From 8 to 10, the hip flexors of the Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus and Biceps Femoris pull the heel upwards towards the buttocks.
  3. From 10 to 12, the hip flexors of the liacus and Psoas finish off the pedal stroke.

Leg Muscle Functions and Their Recruitment During Bicycling

Best Known As 
Muscle function while cycling 
Vastus Medialis 
Quadracep (Quads) 
Extension at the knee combined with hip flexion during the initial downward phase of the pedal stroke 
Biceps Femoris 
Recruitment pulls the heel back towards the buttocks as part of the pull back phase. 
Gluteus Maximus 
Initiates the downwards push down phase
Iliacus and Psoas 
Hip Flexor 
Hip flexion
Vastus Lateralis
Hip extensors
Recruitment during push down phase
Upper Calf Muscle 
Pointing of the toes (Plantarflexion) during climbing and pull up phase of pedal stroke 
Lower Calf Muscle 
Recruitment contributes to knee flexion 
Semimembranosus and Semitendinosus
Pull back phase with biceps femoris. 
Tibialis Anterior 
Front Of Shin
Bringing foot up towards the shin (Dorsiflexion) 
An insight into the leg muscles used and their functions while cycling

Visual Representation of Leg Muscle Anatomy During the Cycling Pedal Stroke

Cycling leg muscle anatomy and their use during the pedal stroke.
Cycling leg muscle anatomy and their use during the pedal stroke.

How Your Brain Affects Your Cycling

There are so many aspects of human anatomy and physiology which are involved in the action of riding a bicycle. Your brain provides you with motivation and intellect through your cerebral cortex, while your cerebellum has responsibility for your balance and co-ordination.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Liam Hallam

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      • profile image

        Dude 2 years ago

        Yeah this website is great never fails to turn me on....... to go out to bike

      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 3 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Jen for your comment. A golf ball style massager can help tightness although in my opinion most exercisers go too far when doing it themselves. The same with foam rollers- It's easy to overdo it- especially after a workout then doing some heavy self massage. In terms of recovery you get in what you get out. I would argue that if you're having to use a number of supplements you likely have a weakness in your diet.

        Thanks for trying to spam the link too.

      • profile image

        Jen 3 years ago

        My trainer recommended I use a golf ball muscle roller to massage and really dig into my muscles which feels amazing and then I take Biosteel organic supplements which seem to help in the recovery process as well. Check it out and see what you think? www.zzathletics.com

      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 3 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Matt for that information, I'll check out that resource although the schematic is a rudimentary visual insight into muscle activation throughout the pedal stroke. Most research indicates that most of the leg muscles have some EMG activity during the whole pedal stroke however that is very difficult to explain without writing a full research paper.

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        Matt 3 years ago

        Uh, the graphic is theorhetical and inaccurate. That is NOT what happens in the pedal stroke. Look to Ryan and Gregor 1992 for actual EMG's of muscle activation

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        Matthias M. 3 years ago from USA Baby

        Yeah the pedaling stroke is a surprisingly complicated movement, and I'm constantly working to reduce inefficiencies in mine. Flexibility goes a long way toward achieving that goal and frequent stretching and/or yoga should be part of any cyclists training plan

      • Hezekiah profile image

        Hezekiah 3 years ago from Japan

        Very interesting diagram you have there. I should try more cycling to build up my calf muscles. They are quite strong at the moment because I work out at the gym, but I think cycling will get them more definition.

      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 3 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks BruiseWayne42 for your feedback- I hope it's helped you in some way, CF

      • BruiseWayne42 profile image

        David BruiseDude 3 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

        Wow.. Very interesting and a lot of great information...

      • Easy Exercise profile image

        Kelly A Burnett 4 years ago from United States

        Liam Hallam Cycling Fitness, I always advise my personal trainer clients that if you wish to take your fitness to the next plateau or if you are just beginning, you must pay attention to the leg muscles. The leg muscles contain the largest and longest muscles in the body. One of the items I fault water aerobics for is too much upper body and not enough leg movements. Water aerobics is often too afraid of "swimming" and using the legs when in fact that gives one of the best workouts. The very best swim fitness instructors always include movements that exhaust the muscles in the legs. Outstanding article with allot of detail and research.

      • dobo700 profile image

        dobo700 5 years ago from Australia

        This is a very interesting perspective on cycling. I will have to pay attention on my ride home tonight.


      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Wilbury Steve good luck with getting back into cycling as the benefits are great. I personally find running can be a little on the monotonous side and love the fact that you explore too.

      • wilbury steve profile image

        Steve Webb 6 years ago from Great Wakering, England

        When i was at school many years ago I used to cycle 60 miles a week. I've decided to cycle regularly again, it's more appealing than running for me, so I found this hub extremely helpful & informative with excellent diagrams. Thanks for posting! :>)

      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Hemendra, Those diagrams are fantastic at illustrating the muscle activation points of the pedal stroke. Thanks for your feedback.

      • profile image

        Hemendra Kumar Saini 6 years ago

        Really Great hub. very informative. Really like the way you illustrated whole info with diagrams.

      • CyclingFitness profile image

        Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks for the feedback Fineprint. The diagram is a fantastic way of showing how the pedal stroke works in motion.

        At present i'm working my way through various cycling related topics and core stability for cyclists is part of those so watch this space.

      • Fineprint profile image

        Fineprint 6 years ago from AL

        Informative article. I really like the diagram show which muscle is used at which position. Do you have any plans on writing an article for core exercises?