After finishing your first spin class, you’ll probably notice a couple of things: you’re drenched in sweat, and your legs feel like jelly.
Most people intuitively know that any type of cycling uses the muscles in your legs – but what muscles does spinning work?
And what are the benefits of spin class besides strengthening the muscles in the legs?
Knowing the benefits of spin class can give you that much more motivation to get back in the saddle when your mind tries to tell you otherwise.
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- What Muscles Does Spinning Work?
- The 8 Benefits of Spin Class
Let’s jump in!
What Muscles Does Spinning Work?
Like any form of cycling, spinning strengthens the muscles in your legs, but specifically what muscles does spin work?
When you’re seated on the saddle, the muscular workload for spinning is almost entirely centered on the muscles of the legs, namely the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
The calves are also worked to a lesser degree.
The glutes, or gluteal muscles, are the muscles in your buttocks. The three primary gluteal muscles are gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.
The gluteus maximus is the largest, strongest, and most significant contributor to the cycling pedal stroke.
This muscle plays a crucial role in hip extension, which occurs during the first phase of the pedal stroke when you’re pushing the pedal down toward the floor.
If you think about hopping on the bike for a spin class, you have one leg extended with the foot close to the floor, and one hip flexed so that the foot is up, ready to press down on the pedal.
In this flexed position, the glutes fire to help extend the hip so that you can press the pedal down.
Spin class can help you build stronger glutes – particularly if you increase the resistance on the spin bike and begin every pedal stroke with a powerful hip extension movement.
One of the primary muscles worked by spinning is your quads.
The quadriceps, usually just referred to as the quads, include four muscles that run down the front of the thigh from the hip joint to the knee joint.
This muscle group includes:
- rectus femoris
- vastus medius
- vastus intermedius
- vastus lateralis
The quads are “biarticular” muscles because they help flex the hip as well as extend the knee.
If you think about the motion that your legs make as you pedal the spin bike, you’re constantly flexing the hip and extending the knee throughout the different phases of the pedal revolution.
During the downward phase of the pedal stroke, the quadriceps (particularly the rectus femoris muscle) contract to straighten the knee.
For example, studies that have used EMG to measure muscle activation have found that the rectus femoris – the primary muscle that runs down the center of the thigh – is most active during the first and last quarter of the cycling pedal stroke.
The pedal stroke begins when the foot is at the top position and ends when the foot returns to the same position.
Therefore, the first quarter involves the initial crank of the pedal towards the floor until the foot is as far forward as it will get (and is halfway to the lowest position down by the floor).
The last quarter of the cycling stroke takes your foot from the position that it gets behind you back up to the top.
The quadriceps play a key role in initiating that powerful knee extension at the beginning of the pedal stroke. Then, at the end of the pedal stroke, the quadriceps contract to help flex the hip.
The hamstrings are the group of muscles that run along the backside of your thighs and oppose the motion of the quadriceps.
The hamstring muscle group is made up of the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris muscles.
Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings are biarticular muscles, but instead of flexing the hip and extending the knee, the hamstrings extend the hip and flex the knee.
Although spinning works the hamstrings throughout the cycling motion, the primary workload on the hamstrings occurs in the second half of the pedal stroke when you’re flexing the knee to return the leg to the starting position.
Essentially, when you clip into the pedals on the spin bike, the hamstrings are activated to help you pull the pedal back up to the starting position.
Additionally, at the beginning of the pedal stroke, the hamstrings help the glutes extend the hip, but most of the power for this movement should be derived from the glutes rather than the hamstrings.
Particularly if you are clipped into the pedals, one of the main muscle groups worked by spinning is the hip flexors.
The hip flexors refer to a group of muscles located at the front of the hip and pelvis that help flex the leg at the hip.
The primary muscles in the hip flexor group are the psoas major and the iliacus (which are together called the iliopsoas), but the rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles), sartorius, and pectineus also are involved in hip flexion.
The hip flexors contract concentrically in the second half of the cycling stroke to help bring the extended leg back up to the flexed starting position.
The calves, which are the muscles in the back of the lower leg, are also worked during spin class – to a lesser extent.
There are two muscles that make up the calf muscle group: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
Of the two muscles, the gastrocnemius is the stronger, larger, and more significant contributor to the cycling motion.
The gastrocnemius helps flex the knee and plantar flex the foot, which can be thought of as the motion that your foot makes when you are pressing down on the gas pedal.
Therefore, the calf muscles contract to help the hamstrings flex the knee on the second half of the pedal stroke as you return to the starting position.
The calf muscles are also activated at the very bottom of the pedal stroke when you press your foot down and plantarflex the ankle, driving the foot into the pedal.
Finally, because the balls of your feet are clipped onto the spin bike pedals, if you come up out of the saddle and stand on your pedals, your calves have to generate force to help support the upright climbing position.
The tibialis anterior muscle runs down the inside of the front of the shin and helps “dorsiflex” the ankle – which can be thought of as bringing your toes up towards the ceiling.
In this way, the tibialis anterior opposes the motion of the calf muscle.
This muscle is activated during the backend of the pedal stroke, to help draw your toes upward and bring the pedal back to the starting position.
Other Muscles Worked By Spinning
Although spinning is predominantly a lower-body exercise, depending on your form and technique, spinning can also strengthen the muscles in the core and upper body.
For example, any time you climb out of the saddle and stand on the pedals, you are actively engaging your core, shoulders, and triceps.
Although muscles of the upper body and core can be engaged while spinning in the saddle, it’s really when you climb that the abdominal muscles and upper-body muscles are used because your body weight is unsupported by the saddle.
Benefits of Spin Class
In addition to strengthening all of the aforementioned muscles, the following are additional benefits of spin class:
- Improving cardiovascular health and strengthening the heart and lungs.
- Improving aerobic fitness.
- Burning calories and boosting metabolic rate.
- Improving markers of health, such as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol and improving blood sugar regulation.
- Decreasing stress and anxiety.
- Improving mood.
As your legs get stronger, spinning will start to feel easier, so it is important to crank up that resistance if you want to continue building muscle and increasing your strength.
Play around with increasing your cadence and climbing up out of the saddle to vary the workload on your muscles.
Enjoy the ride!