There are a lot of reasons to love biking, whether it brings back nostalgic childhood memories, provides an eco- and wallet-friendly mode of transportation, or gives you an energizing way to move your legs to a Beyoncé playlist without needing to know any dance moves. Beyond all of that, biking can also be a great workout with benefits beyond getting your heart pumping.
We asked the experts how bicycling benefits the body, what muscle groups it works, and how to decide what type of cycling is right for you (and how frequently you should do it).
What Are the Benefits of Biking?
Spend more than a few minutes on a bike and you’ll likely feel the immediate cardio impact, among other things. “Cycling, whether indoors or outdoors, can benefit the lungs, heart, skeleton, muscles, and the mind,” says Bianca Beldini, DPT, who is also a USA Triathlon Level 1 coach, competitive age group triathlete, and Schwinn indoor spin certified.
Biking can also help get you stronger without overly taxing your joints. “Cycling is a non-impact aerobic exercise that can improve cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health without causing substantial compression through the joints while contributing to building strength and power of the core and lower extremities,” says Beldini.
And if you or your body are not a fan of higher impact cardio like running or jumping exercises such as burpees, biking is an effective alternative. “Biking is a non-weight bearing activity, which means it puts less stress on joints of the hips, knees, and ankles. This means it can be quite beneficial for those that have joint pain with walking or running,” says Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT.
What Muscles Does Biking Use?
As you may suspect, biking requires a lot of lower body work. “It will give you an amazing leg workout—mostly the quads, hamstrings, and glutes,” says Lauren De Crescenzo, a former professional cyclist and Strava athlete. “By pushing the pedals, you need to recruit your lungs and your heart muscle.”
Different parts of your legs are activated throughout each pedal stroke. Beldini breaks it down in detail: “There are 4 parts of the pedal stroke which resemble a clock. The 12 o’clock position is at the top of the pedal and this initiates the first part of the push power phase, otherwise known as hip extension and is activated by the gluteus maximus. As the pedal begins to approach the 3 o’clock position, the power phase begins and activates knee extension which is performed strongly by the quadriceps (quads).
Moving towards the 6 o’clock pedal position, the ankle begins to plantar flex (point down) and engages the gastrocnemius (the large calf muscle). As the pedal moves from 6 to 9 o’clock, the initiation of the upstroke or the pull power phase begins and is done so by dorsiflexing the ankle which is controlled by the anterior tibialis (shin muscle) and engagement of the hamstring group to flex the knee while the strongest pull upwards past 9 o’clock triggers the psoas (hip flexor) to engage.”
How Do You Increase the Difficulty or Intensity of a Bike Ride?
Just because you’re sitting down when biking, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a challenging workout. There are a number of levers you can pull to level up (or level down) any bike ride. “This can come in the form of resistance, hills, and speed. A variety of all three in intervals is a great option” says McManus.
“The steeper the climb, the more resistance you’ll feel on your pedals,” adds De Crescenzo, who loves hills so much that she once climbed the elevation of Mt. Everest in one day. But even if you don’t have access to a nearby mountain, “you can add resistance by either shifting into a harder gear on a flat road or by adding resistance to an indoor bike,” she says.
How Many Calories Does an Average Bike Ride Burn?
There’s no magic number for calories burned while biking. “Calorie burn is completely dependent on the weight of the rider, the amount of energy they are using to ride, and the time and distance they are riding. The more power output, the ‘harder’ the ride, the more calories burned,” says Beldini.
For example, according to Harvard Health Publishing, a 155-pound person can burn 260 calories in 30 minutes riding a stationary bike at a moderate pace, and 446 calories in 30 minutes riding a bike at 16-19 mph.
How Long (and How Often) Should You Bike to See Benefits?
There are no hard and fast rules on how long and often you should ride a bike, as it depends on individual fitness levels, goals, and more. “If you are doing a HIIT workout on your bike where you are doing short bursts of high intensity work with rests in between, then 20-30 minutes can get you great benefits. If you are not working as hard or have different goals like endurance or recovery, then 45-60 minutes may be appropriate,” says McManus.
Consistency with any exercise, including biking, is the key to results. Beldini says if you cycled 4-5 times a week and did strength or cross-training on the other days, you would likely see improvements in strength, VO2 max, cardio function, balance, coordination, and core stability. But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. “Anything done over and over again can contribute to an overuse injury. Just like fitting yourself into the correct shoe, one must be fit properly to a bike,” she says.
Listen to your body and ride at your own pace. “Start slow and build gradually. It’s a long-term investment. By starting with just a few hours a week, you’ll build a base and see huge improvements quickly,” suggests De Crescenzo.
What Are the Main Differences Between Biking Outside vs. Indoor Cycling?
Whether you ride down the street or in your living room, get on either bike and you’ll get some form of exercise in. Indoor biking can provide more control for a beginner rider, allowing someone to feel more comfortable and safe standing on the pedals or balancing on the bike, says Beldini. And then, of course, you have more control of your environment, including whatever throwback playlist you feel like listening and singing along to.
Indoor biking is also a convention option for anyone with a desk job. “Indoor is great if you work from 9-5 during the week and don’t have any daylight to sneak in a ride. It is super-efficient because you can get straight to a workout and don’t need to worry about getting through traffic,” says De Crescenzo.
Outdoor biking, on the other hand, offers the advantage of being outside and breathing fresh air, but is obviously subject to available daylight hours or unpredictable road conditions, weather, and traffic. “Road cycling can build muscular strength along with coordination and balance skills … and gives the rider an opportunity to travel and explore the world in a healthy way,” says Beldini. Morning riders can also benefit by getting some sunlight to “help reset your circadian rhythm for sleep, make vitamin D, and decrease stress,” says McManus.