Have you ever wondered how some people could maintain a chiseled midsection while others carry around a “beer-gut?” You may think that some folks are just born with good genetics, and others are simply cursed with a life deprived of being able to show off their “six-pack.”
You may also be wondering, can cycling give you ripped abs? After all, you spend a good deal of time riding your bike, and there should be some kind of reward in the form of a beautiful physique.
The answer is yes! You can develop an incredible “washboard” while enjoying the sport of cycling. However, in order to utilize a plan to achieve that goal, a basic understanding of how the body functions is essential.
Many different muscles work together to help propel your bike forward. Collectively, they make a huge impact on the force output generated by your body while pedaling.
The hip adductors (inner thigh muscles)
These long, muscular bands run down along the inside of your leg and allow you to keep from flaring your knees outward while riding. The adductors start from the hip and connect to the tibia (lower leg bone).
Their main job is to pull the leg into the centerline of the body and assist other muscles with leg flexion.
The hip abductors (outer thigh muscles)
These muscles often get confused with the adductors, since the name is similar, but they work to help increase power during the pedals’ downstroke. Unlike the adductors, they run along the outside of the leg.
Their primary mission is to draw the leg to the outside of the body, similar to a karate kick. This action allows you to keep your foot straight on the pedals.
The hip extensors (glutes and tensor muscles)
From about the 12 o’clock to the 3 o’clock pedal positions, these powerful muscles work together to provide the most force for the entire pedal stroke. They have the ability to fire quickly and give you a strong burst of energy during the start of a race.
The knee extensors (quadriceps)
Once the pedal reaches the 3 o’clock position, it is time for the quads to take over. Power through the pedal stroke is enhanced as the knee becomes fully extended.
The knee flexors (hamstrings)
During the recovery phase of the stroke, the hamstrings engage to help pull the pedal back to the 12 o’clock position. The rider needs to clip into the pedals to accomplish this. Otherwise, the pedals will be pushed downward instead of pulling upward, thereby defeating the pedal stroke.
The hamstrings are the most overlooked, yet some of the most important muscles for the cyclist. They not only add speed and power through the pedal stroke but also help avoid injury by keeping the knee from hyperextending.
The abdominals (abs)
Central to the performance of nearly all human movement is the abdominal muscle group, allowing you to bend, twist, and hold a position for long periods. Three primary muscles make up the abdominal wall:
1. The rectus abdominus
This is the muscle that forms the illusion of the “six-pack.” Its principal function is to hold you steady while you ride your bike from the drops position.
It also acts as a shock absorber/stabilizer through unexpected bumps, rough terrain, and tight corners. It accomplishes this vital mission by contracting and releasing at just the right times to help keep you on your bike.
2. Internal and external obliques
The obliques allow you to reach down and grab your water quickly if you drop it on the ground next to your bike. They also help with the twisting motion required to look over your shoulder to see if a car is sneaking up behind you while riding. Their main job is to help assist you with the action of bending and rotating in different directions without falling off your bike.
3. Transverse abdominus
This muscle is located on either side of the main abdominal wall and helps stabilize the other abdominal muscles. It also acts as a powerful assistant to the other muscles while performing a crunch exercise.
How do your abs work while cycling?
During every movement you perform, from mounting your bike to climbing a steep hill, your abs are working hard for you. Bending, twisting, and looking over your shoulder all require these powerful midsection muscles to cooperate in unison. The amount of work they perform at any given moment depends on your force output.
For example, while cruising along at 80 RPM in a lower gear, your force output is maybe only six on a scale of 1-10. Although your abdominals are working, the muscular contractions are minimal. The isometric force required to hold you steady on your bike is less than what it would be if you were working above a level-eight.
On the other hand, if you are climbing up a steep hill and decide to push to the top while riding out of the saddle, you can expect the abs to be working a lot harder. All the muscles in and around the abdominal wall contract more intensely to maintain stability.
During the initial phase of the pedal rotation (12 o’clock to 3 o’clock position), the obliques and transverse abdominus muscles work together to provide extra support for the trunk. The result is a summation of forces by all the muscles, generating collective energy to propel the bike forward at a faster speed. If the abdominals are weak or unstable, the leg muscles may be less effective since the abdominal wall would collapse and absorb the forces generated.
The same principle can be applied to the recovery phase(6 o’clock to 12 o’clock position) of the pedal rotation. Providing the rider is clipped in, the pulling effect of the foot lifting the pedal increases the workload on the abdominals. The transverse and oblique muscles contract as the hip is flexed, and the knee is raised.
The cycle starts again as the top of the pedal arc reaches its amortization phase and then transitions back to its maximum force output. With every turn of the crankset, the abdominals are working hard to provide power and stability to the rider’s core cycling muscles.
Nutrition plays a huge role
Everyone has abdominal muscles. Some people are unable to show them off due to a layer of adipose tissue (fat) covering their abdominal wall. You get rid of that fat layer by combining the right type of nutrition at the correct times, coupled with strenuous bouts of cycling workouts.
Foods such as brown rice, green vegetables, and fresh fish should be part of every cyclist’s diet. Not only will you get the proper nutrients needed for long rides, but the thermogenic effect of balanced nutrition will provide maximum fat burning.
It should be mentioned that a low-carb diet has no place in the serious cyclist’s riding schedule. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for every aerobic athlete, including cyclists.
By reducing or eliminating these important macronutrients, you starve your muscles of their main fuel source. And starved muscles have decreased fat-burning capacity!
Instead, eliminate junk foods such as fast-food burgers, fries, and sugary drinks. Opt for the “good” carbs such as whole-grain foods, leafy green vegetables, and fresh, northern-grown fruits.
Meal timing is also critical to making your abdominals show. It is better to eat for what you are going to do instead of for what you have already done. For example, it is more beneficial to get most of your calories before a strenuous ride than to wait until it is over.
Being able to utilize your energy reserves during exercise is vital since the alternative means storing more fat around your midsection.
Tips on developing ripped abs while cycling
It would be a daring proposition to ask a professional cyclist to lift their shirt and show off their midsection. But if you could, you would see that their abdominal muscles are not necessarily large, but well-defined, which is what most people aspire to. So what is the secret to getting those we-defined abs?
1. Fuel up before you ride
As mentioned earlier, proper nutrition is the key to fat burning. It is best not to be hungry while riding, especially on long treks. Strong muscles burn fat faster than weak ones, and the right nutrients are essential for keeping the muscles fueled up.
If the muscles become depleted of energy during high levels of stress and workloads, they tend to atrophy (get smaller). The result could be a slower metabolism and increased fat storage around the midsection.
2. Throw some high-intensity workouts into your routine
Leisurely rides with a group or by yourself are often fun and enjoyable, but they don’t necessarily do the trick when it comes to developing your abdominal muscles. Instead, it is better to mix in a few rides per week that intensely challenge your aerobic capacity.
Studies show that short bouts of high-intensity aerobic exercise works the best for decreasing fat around the midsection. The increased oxygen uptake releases stored fat cells that are used as an additional energy source for the body. The end result is a leaner, tighter set of ab muscles that you can actually see.
Cruise intervals can be the safest way to add intensity to your long rides. The idea here is to start slow and throw in some short bursts of high-intensity effort followed by longer periods of moderate workloads.
For example, suppose you are cruising along at a comfortable cadence of 90 RPM for about 10minutes. Your heart rate at this point is about 65-70% of max. You gear-up a few levels and go to 110 RPM for about 2 minutes, increasing to about 85% HR (heart rate).
Depending on your fitness level, you can perform several repetitions, increasing fatigue as you go and further utilizing oxygen for fat burning.
3. Don’t neglect your hill workouts
Similar to cruise intervals, riding along a range of gentle, rolling hills will vary the intensity just enough to increase HR beyond your normal baseline. Above 80% for a few minutes at a time is ideal.
A variation of this is the anaerobic strength conditioning workout, where you climb a steep hill while maintaining your normal cadence. When you reach the summit, your body is in an oxygen deficit, which means as you recover, your body will try and get as much as it can while speeding up your heart rate.
The result is increased oxygen uptake and increased stored fat burning!
4. Get your protein in after your ride
The muscles mentioned earlier work hard to keep you propelled forward as you ride through the countryside. Be sure to reward them with a high-quality whey protein shake as soon as your workout is over.
Be sure to purchase a product containing a complete BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) profile. BCAA’s are essential for aiding the process of protein synthesis in the body. They also help aid in muscle recovery by lessening the damaging effects of repetitive exercise.