Whether you’re cycling indoors or outside, having strong legs can help you pedal efficiently and with power. The stronger you are, the less energy it takes to keep those wheels spinning, which is helpful on everything from long stretches of flat road to intense, uphill sprints. However, while cycling is one of the best low-impact cardio workouts you can do, it’s not the best way to build up your leg muscles.
To learn more about which exercises can really target your legs and improve your cycling, we turned to Aaptiv trainer John Thornhill and personal trainer Matthew Martin. As avid cyclists, they understand the importance of keeping your legs strong, even if that means hopping off the bike and picking up some weights.
From tried-and-true powerlifting favorites to easygoing bodyweight moves, there’s no shortage of ways to train your legs. If you’re a cyclist looking to enhance your riding or you just want to add some leg exercises into your workout that will help you conquer your next indoor cycling class, we’ve got you covered.
Squat to Overhead Press
“Squats are one of the best full-body exercises you can do,” Thornhill says. Here, he adds a dumbbell press to the squat for a total-body challenge.
Grab a set of light dumbbells and stand tall, with the weights resting on your shoulders. Keeping your chest open and core locked in, hinge your hips back and bend your knees until your hamstrings are parallel to the ground. As you return to starting position, drive through your heels and engage your glutes, pressing the dumbbells overhead. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps. As you get stronger, add more weight.
“Cycling is a quad-dominant workout, so it’s important to strengthen other muscles in your legs to achieve well-rounded strength and, as a result, become a better cyclist,” Thornhill says.
Grab dumbbells or a barbell. Stand tall with the weight resting on your thighs. With a flat back and a slight knee bend, send your hips back and hinge forward, bringing the weight down just below your knees. As you rise back up to starting position, focus on engaging your glutes and hamstrings. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
Thornhill likes performing hamstring curls on a stability ball to work the back of the legs. To keep the ball steady, you must engage your core, too.
While cycling is one of the best low-impact cardio workouts you can do, the best way to build up your leg muscles is with bodyweight moves.
Lie on the ground with your feet on a ball. Keep your head and shoulders on the floor, and send your hips up, squeezing your glutes and inner thighs. Then bend your knees and curl the ball inward, making a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Slowly extend your legs back to starting position. Do two sets of 12 to 15 reps.
“As someone who cycles nearly every day, I personally have a love-hate relationship with these,” Thornhill says. “They burn so good! But I know they are necessary to add to my routine, so I add them into my leg days.”
You’ll need light dumbbells and either a bench or box. Grab the dumbbells and rest them at your side, standing tall. Stagger your feet in a lunge position, with your right leg in front and the top of your left foot resting on the bench. Keeping your weight in your right leg, bend your left knee down until your right hamstring is parallel to the ground. Try to keep your right knee from going over your toes. Return to the standing position. Do two sets of 10 to 12 reps per leg.
“The simple step-up can be done with or without weight,” Martin says. “But to get the most benefit, try using moderate-weight dumbbells and really focus on driving your raised foot down through the step.”
With dumbbells in your hands, stand in front of a box or bench—something about 12 inches high. Bring one foot up to the top of the box and press through the platform, raising yourself up until both feet are on the box. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then slowly step down. Do 10 to 12 reps, then alternate leading legs.
Resistance-Band Side Steps
Many cyclists battle tight hips and sore knees. According to Martin, that’s because biking primarily builds your quads and hamstrings. So if you neglect nearby muscles such as the hip flexors, adductors, and abductors, you may experience discomfort or muscle imbalances.
Loop a resistance band around your ankles, choosing one that pulls taut when your feet are about hip-width apart. Step out with your right foot, then let your left foot follow. Take 10 steps to your right, then switch legs and side step back to your starting position.
“The side lunge will open up and strengthen your inner legs,” Martin says. He mentions that it’s a great countermove to the side steps above and can be done as a bodyweight move or while holding a kettlebell at chest height.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Step out wide to your left, bending your knee and dropping your hips until your left thigh is parallel to the ground. Drive through your left heel, pushing back to the starting position. Alternate sides, aiming for 10 reps on each leg.