What Actually Happens to Your Body When You Cycle

You’ve been to your local cycling studio, you loved the workout and you’ve gone back for more. But have you ever actually stopped to wonder what actually happens to your body during a cycling class? Yes, you get so, so sweaty listening to trap music very close to someone you’ve never met before. Yes, you go through an internal, emotional rant, and maybe even plan the near murder of your peppy instructor making you sprint uphill back-to-back telling you it feels good. But what is it that keeps you coming back? What muscles are you working out? What will your body look like if you continue to do it? Lucky for you, we’re digging deep to answer all your questions about this indoor cycling craze. What’s all the hype? Let’s get right to it.

What muscles do you work out?

Legs: It’s no surprise that when you cycle, you are mainly working your legs. As you push and pull the pedals, you a primarily targeting the quadriceps (front of thigh – mainly used when pushing), hamstrings (back of thigh – mainly used when pulling), and glutes. You also work out the lower part of your legs, including the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles (in your calf).

Stabilization (Core & Back): While you are riding, you also need to stabilize your body in order to successfully drive each pedal stroke without looking crazy (if you are indoor cycling), or falling off your bike (if you are cycling outdoors). For that reason it comes as no surprise that you do target your abdominal muscles during your ride. It’s important to note, however that during indoor cycling exercises, you must be conscious of constantly engaging your core in order to really target these muscles, as it is a bit easier to neglect them on the stationary bike. Studios like Flywheel include “jog” and “climb” sequences that target your abs even more. For proper positioning, make sure that you are pulling your navel to your spine to really engage your core, or tucking your lower abdominal muscles. When you are out of the saddle, try to keep your hips as far back as possible, right over the seat, and minimize any lateral curve of the spine.

Your back also helps to stabilize your body. When you first start cycling you may feel some sensitivity in your lower back – until your muscles get stronger that is. You may want to put your handlebars a bit higher during your first rides and then lower as you begin to build those lower back, stability muscles. These muscles are specifically targeted when you are out of the seat in a climbing position.

Arms: Riders asked for it, and indoor cycling studios listened. Although cycling does activate your shoulders, biceps and triceps muscles, we can’t really vouch that it’s an ideal arm workout. For that reason cycling studios have incorporated added “arm sections” or choreography to give riders a full-body workout.

Why do you feel euphoric after class?

It’s actually surprising to watch the indoor cycling experience. Before class, most riders are sometimes tired, sleepy, and semi-worried. During class, most of them feel like they want to die, and immediately after class they are so euphoric, happy, and ready to take on the world. Cycling, like running releases a substantial amount of endorphins. According to WebMD, “Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner's high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.” This article states that these endorphins are said to diminish the feeling of pain and act as sedatives, helping to reduce depression. Bye, bye prescription drugs, hello exercise.

Is cycling the best form of cardio out there?

Let’s first name all of the “best” forms of cardio out there – meaning the ones that burn the most calories in the least amount of time. You have running, cycling, rowing, swimming and jumping rope. According to you burn 600 calories per hour of running, 600 calories per hour of cycling, 840 calories per hour while rowing, 1,000 calories per hour while jumping rope, and 600 calories per hour while swimming. Now, the average person will be less likely to pick up a jump rope for an entire hour, or want to jump in the pool, so let’s rule those out of the equation. Rowing machines are scarce and although you may find one, finding the motivation and hand strength to pull on the handles for an entire hour may be an unrealistic goal. That leaves running and cycling. When you get tired while running, you can always slow down a bit, making it easier to continue your exercise for the entire hour. Cycling classes are offered in 45-60 minute ranges, so it is more likely that you will complete the whole thing. With that being said, injuries that result from running are greater than cycling. According to Bodybuilding “Cycling involves the same muscles as does running, but has the added advantage of being lower impact, therefore making it ideal for virtually anyone.” So is cycling the best cardio workout? Maybe not for professional swimmers, boxers or rowers – but for the average person trying to stay away from injuries, I’d say it’s pretty damn close.

What about during class?

There are many different formats of indoor cycling, some with more choreography, others with a HIIT training approach. Your typical cycling class will include about 45-60 minutes of work including a warm-up and a cool-down. Prepare for your heart rate to soar during this time, as you work to build both your cardiovascular and muscular endurance. states that "A study from Sweden found that one hour of spinning was enough to trigger the release of blood chemicals associated with heart stress or changes. While that may sound like a bad thing, these blood chemicals—or biomarkers—signal the heart is getting a good workout." In addition, several other studies including one from Jinger Gottschall, an associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State University, state that HIIT training is not only beneficial for your average Joe, it has proven to improve even trained athletes. She states that increases in lung and heart capacity have been proven in every test they have done and that cycling is “the optimal cardio workout," praising it for it's low-impact attributes.

So.. what are you waiting for? Grab some shoes and clip in.. it might change your life.

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