Cycling Technique and Muscles

Cycling Technique & Muscle Activation:

Thanks all for taking the time to read my blog about cycling. I’m only a physiotherapist and by no means a coach or bike fitter so these are just my observations and understanding from reading around the topic.


Cycling Muscle Co-ordination

The diagram to the left demonstrates the muscular sequence of events in the correct cycling pedal turn.

Right at the top phase of the pedal strike the power should come straight on via the glutes, the muscles of the bottom, and power down to a point where the large quadriceps muscles share the power and gradually become the dominant mover in the sequence.

During the lower section of this movement the calf muscles join the quadriceps to push the pedal through the lowest section of the pedal turn. It is then the turn of the muscles of the shin to pull the toes back up to level the foot out and the hamstring muscles to bring in a powerful pull back up. The final stage of the movement is the muscles of the hip flexors pulling the knee back up to the start phase.

When a cyclist cycles with this sharing of power there is much greater ability to create higher wattage, power, on the bike by not having any dead spots of power during the cycle rotation. It also means that there is greater use of all muscles and no overuse of one muscle group which helps prevent injury and muscle overuse issues.

Common Faults and Corrections

The most common problems that we see with cyclists of all levels are:

  • Overuse of the quadriceps – most people who cycle tend to rely too much on the big muscles of the quadriceps and this can result in reduced power due to inhibition
  • Lack of power on the lift phase – The current advice from British Cycling is that amateurs need to not be concerned regarding the upstroke of pedalling. The risk is an increased overload of the hip flexors. Training the hamstrings and the hip flexors to be able to perform this task is essential if you are to maximise all phases of movement. So an incremental increase in focusing on the pulling on the up stroke should be gradually introduced. However, this comes with a warning: DO NOT TAKE PRESSURE OFF THE OPPOSITE DOWN STROKE. Its easy when learning to ride smoothly to focus on too many things. The skill in using clip in pedals & shoes is timing, up stroke pulling whilst maintaining downward pressure on the opposite down stroke.
  • Tight muscles across hips and hip flexor strain– Its easy, in the beginning to overload the hip flexors due to the flexed nature of cycling. Like all sports, exposure should be gradual and incremental over a number of weeks. The hip is key in cycling and needs to work in an optimal range. The muscles around the hip, as we can see on the diagram above, are important for generating power (hip extensors) but also for moving the foot into the power phase (hip flexor). It’s important not to overwork the hip flexors and not to have too much hip flexion resulting in the anterior hip compression. If the hip has a lack of ability to efficiently bring the knee to the top phase of movement the body usually compensates through the upper body, resulting in swaying at the lumbar spine. This is commonly seen when you watch a cyclist from behind and see their back swaying from side to side with every pedal lift. This happens as the body makes room for the knee to be lifted through and puts a great deal of stress on the spine and the muscles of the lower back. Good range of movement and wiggins_2270877bstrength through the hips allows for good knee lift through the top end of pedal phase and power to go straight on, with the body holding tight and allowing maximum power transfer through the pedals. Lack of adequate range here also tends to result in repeated lower back tightness and pain.
  • Toes pointing down or toes pointing up? The current trend is neither, British cycling advocates a neutral foot position so that the power of the calf complex can be optimised.  If you watch cyclists you will see a vast number who cycle with the toes lower than the heels at all phases of movement. This style of rising will often be partnered with the body being positioned too far forward so that the knee can get over the pedal. This toe pointing style of riding makes it very difficult to use the glutes effectively in the first phase of movement and also makes it much harder to bring the knee back over the top phase of movement at the end of the pedal movement and be ready for starting the next phase. Equally, toes pointing up can result in a loss of power generation from the large calf complex which is particularly utilised in the down phase of the pedal stroke. Ultimately you should find your own style, don’t copy others, find what’s comfortable for you & riding styles can depend on your sport: For example, a triathlete might not be encouraged to ride with toes up because they might utilise their calf complex which in turn might inhibit the initial stages of their running. Yet on the other hand, should a world champion triathlete ask if they should change they’re cycling foot position, probably not: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it’
  • Knee alignment over toes. During all phases of cycle movement, when you watch from the front, the knee alignment should be almost directly above the line of the toes at all times. This is particularly important at the top and power phase of movement. This alignment during power phase allows all power that the cyclist generates to be transferred down through the leg and into the pedal. If this alignment is out the power will not be directed down into the pedal, therefore losing power. The added lateral movement through the body will add strain into the joints of the knee, ankles and pressure across the foot.


Thank you for reading and I hope this has given you some insight into cycling technique and mechanics of muscle use when partaking in all levels of the sport.


Always remember to enjoy cycling and Lycra is cool, whatever anyone else says. We offer physiotherapy, pilates, & sports massage in Crouch End & Finsbury Park. Please book online here



Team TAP


Published by

TA Physio

am driven and passionate about healthcare focused on delivering successful patient outcomes through personalised rehabilitation. So far, I have established a successful career in physiotherapy rehabilitation and gained valuable experience in contributing to marketing strategies within multi-national companies. In 2005 I graduated from UWIC with a degree in science, health, exercise and sport, and then specialised in Physiotherapy and graduated Coventry University in 2008. Since commencing my physiotherapy career I have gained valuable experience in musculoskeletal, sports rehabilitation, and community based neurological and falls prevention rehabilitation within the NHS. In 2010 I set up TA Physio to provide a personal and flexible service for clientele requiring sports rehabilitation, falls prevention & rehabilitation, musculoskeletal physiotherapy as well as bio mechanical assessment in North London. In 2011 I joined AposTherapy as a junior therapist and developed over 2 years to become a Senior AposTherapist in 2013. Recently I have been promoted to lead the London Clinic development and growth reporting directly to the UK Clinical Lead and overseeing ten members of clinical staff. The responsibilities included developing vital HCP links to build referral pathways, accountable for staff development and clinical needs of the AposTherapy London Clinic. In 2014 I provided physiotherapy to elite athletes at The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. I was based within the busy and dynamic polyclinic within the Athletes' Villages. The aim is to help Glasgow 2014 deliver a direct access physiotherapy service to the people at the heart of the Games. Specialties: Gait Analysis, Deviations and Gait Rehabilitation; Sports Specific Rehabilitation; Orthopaedic Post Operative Rehabilitation; Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy; Clinical Blog Writing; Development and Growth of Clinical Services; Presenting to Healthcare Professionals & Advisory Boards.

11 thoughts on “Cycling Technique and Muscles

  1. Shouldn’t be using any calf for power gen, only stabilisation. This is generally accepted across the board

    1. Thanks for the input. Would you care to elaborate further.

      I find it difficult to believe that no calf involvement for power generation could happen. The stabilisation concept for the calf I understand.

    2. Socal I’m a physiotherapist and bike fitter. As cycling is a CKC activity that involves plantarflexion and dorsiflexion, can you tell me how you might only use the calf for stabilisation and not for any power generation through the pedal stroke. Especially as the gastroc is a weak knee flexor?

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. Incredibly interesting article indeed.. I’ve been searching for this kind of info for sometime. As a “self-taught” cyclist I find myself overthinking what I do when ride (fixed gear street/track and geared gravel/road). Luckily the fixed gear (and the mandatory spd pedals) introduced me early to pulling and generally trying to apply power on the 360 degrees of the pedal rotation. One thing that I often think about is: should I use mi ankles to pedal? should I push down the foot and lift it up bending the ankle or should the lower leg and the foot act as a single entity? I find myself using the ankles a lot, maybe because I have huge feet (14US!!) and I can afford a greater leverage? Anyway, thanks for the info!

    1. Niccolo, thanks for those insights. The consensus now is to reduce ankle movements and especially not having pointed toes at the top of the up stroke as the hip will be forced up resulting in it being shut down.

  3. As a cycling coach who helps people achieve a better position, I have been surprised by the varied responses I have seen to your article.

    I would be interested in a chat to see whether we might explore working together, I am also a hypnotherapist, my contact number is 07985020674.

    Best regards
    Mike Beasant

  4. I agree with Socal, although it is inevitable that some gastroc engagement will take place. Fact is, you want to isolate the gastrocs and VMO as much as you can, which you don’t mention, because they are a major inhibitor of performance when they cramp due to over engagement, especially the VMO. In isolating the weaker muscle groups while seated, you preserve them for when you need to stand and engage them, in that vital last segment of the race (talking RR or crit).

    You do not mention altering seat height to achieve both the correct pedalling technique and correct position to disengage the aforementioned muscles while pedalling seated.

    Knee alignment – if you have viewed and reviewed as many riders as I have while performing functional bike fits, you’ll know that perfect knee alignment around the whole pedalling stroke is rare. I’d be happy to listen to any suggestion you would have to correct this, or do you think we should leave it ‘as is’ so as not to introduce further biomechanical issues?

    There a number of ‘muscle engagement around the pedalling stroke’ graphics that are different to yours, and not many of them highlight the VMO either, so how does this muscle become over-developed in riders who ride with a high saddle if it is not engaged a lot?

    For someone who is professionally qualified, your article is weak, general, and lacks peer reviewed reference sources, so you could just be making it up from all the stuff you have read on the internet!

    1. Gary,
      thank you for the comments and insights you’ve shared following the article I’ve written. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to address some key points.

      In response to your comments above I have the following to say:
      1) I find it near on impossible to isolate the gastroc let alone the VMO when cycling – so for me to suggest that to clients, so that they can preserve their use when they need to push, it’s a ludicrous idea. Fair enough, encouraging a greater power generation through calf complex recruitment is a realistic achievement but to suggest you can isolate and recruit VMO when it’s needed, does not seem realistic or even human. A literature review by Smith et al. (2009) looked at 700 papers and concluded: ‘insufficient good quality evidence to state whether the VM is composed of two separate components, the proximal VML and the distal VMO’ – suggesting that the VMO as a strain of muscle in the VM may not exist. Research by Syme et al. (2009) questioned if it is possible to specifically train the VMO (which according to your comment, would enhance performance at the end stages of a race or TT) or whether general training of the quadriceps has an effect on knee pain. No significant difference in training methods was noted after an 8 week training regime.

      2) Seat height is important and so I should mention that the correct seat height will help with optimising the use of lower limb muscles in cycling and avoid overload of structures. In my experience, I often suggest seat height changes with PFJ overload which can occur even in the club & elite cyclists. There is a fantastic paper by Dye 2005 outlining the concept of ‘Envelope of Function’ suggesting that the patella can be overloaded and training homeostasis is not maintained in the ‘supra-physiological zone’ which leads to PFJ problems in people. The VMO is only one factor in cycling mechanics and mainly has an impact on knee extension through its attachment to the patella. Its attachment to the patella is now understood to be about the angle of attachment and number of fibres that attach, meaning that those that use the quads (VMO specific or not) develop more fibre attachments and at a greater angle of attachment. Claire Robertson (fellow physio and researcher) has done a small sided study regarding this which is nicely presented in a short video: – So my understanding of the enlarged VMO in many cyclists is down to the increased training load and repetitions of quadriceps recruitment rather than an isolated recruitment of it through sprints at an end of a race.
      If you’re interested in more reading about patella femoral treatment, I’d recommend Barton et al (2015) – The ‘Best Practice Guide to Conservative Management of Patellofemoral Pain’: incorporating level 1 evidence with expert clinical reasoning – fantastic read.

      3) Knee alignment, I agree with you that its rare for someone to achieve optimal alignment through the whole pedal stroke. The changing of anyone’s cycling biomechanics needs to be necessary and gradual. It’s not advisable to change anything if they’re top of their class and winning each week. We usually only recommend changes with pain or problems. However, biomechanics in cycling are not the only factor that contributes towards problems developing in the cyclist. Other factors include but are not exclusive to: general fitness, bike fit, bike geometry, nutrition whilst riding, previous injury and training loads to name a few. Like I said at the top of my article, i’m a physio so this is from a physio perspective not a bike fitter or coach perspective.

      4) The article was aimed at cyclists not health care professionals and so it is general to engage the reader. Not all cyclists are scientists or wish to be burden with all the research that we read in order to understand what causes problems within cycling.

      Thanks once again for commenting.

Comments are closed.