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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 who 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.

© 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 2 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.

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      Jen 2 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?

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 2 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 2 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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