The Muscular Balancing Act

How to avoid imbalances that can impair your performance and cause injuries.

Most people think about balancing their checkbooks or their work-family responsibilities but their muscle strength and stability? Not so much. The trouble is, muscle imbalances, which can occur with indoor cycling among other physical activities, can impair your athletic performance and lead to poor posture, gait abnormalities, and muscle or joint injuries.

This isn’t exclusively about discrepancies in strength between, say, your left and right thigh muscles.

It’s also about imbalances between opposing sets of muscles such as your quadriceps and hamstrings. Cycling involves a coordinated effort between key muscle groups: For every primary muscle that initiates a movement (called the agonist), there’s another muscle group that acts in opposition (called the antagonist). These synergistic muscles should be working together so that the muscles in the front of your body work well with the muscles in the back of your body.

“When you’re sitting [while cycling], your hip flexors are working in order for your hips to stay flexed,” explains Maurice Williams, M.S., C.S.C.S., NASM-Master Trainer and owner of Move Well Fitness, based in Bethesda, Maryland. “The problem is the muscles on your other side—your glute muscles and your hamstrings—are not necessarily working and that’s what can create the imbalance. When one set of muscles is overactive, there’s wear and tear over time, and the muscle becomes shorter and shorter, then it’s not working as efficiently as it should”—which can lead to injury.


The goal should be to avoid letting one muscle group overpower another, and the best way to do that is to train various muscle groups evenly to build overall strength and stability. With indoor cycling, that means using a proper pedal stroke, pushing the pedal forward then pulling through the bottom of the pedal stroke and lifting from the knees on the way up.

Here’s a look at how opposing muscle groups work together in indoor cycling:

Quadriceps and hamstrings: For many indoor cyclists, the quads, which help flex the hips, play a dominant role in generating pedal strokes, pushing against heavy resistance, or exerting power during sprints. But the hamstrings are involved in the upstroke and they get a lot of work when you’re riding fully extended in a standing position. The concern is: If your quads do more than their fair share of the work in indoor cycling, you can end up with knee pain, Williams says.   

Hip flexors and glutes: While cycling, your hip flexors are constantly working to lift and lower your legs as you pedal. You use your glute muscles more when you’re riding in a standing position. Since most people spend more time in the saddle than not, your body can adapt to riding in a bent-over position and your hip flexors can become tight as a result, which places strain on your lower back, Williams warns.

Abs and lower back: While riding in a bent-over position, your superficial abdominal muscles will be engaged to keep you upright and some of your back muscles will contract to balance your position.

Over time, however, “the muscles in your back can become overstretched like a weakened rubber band,” Williams warns, which can lead to injury.

Preventing these imbalances requires some attention to detail on and off the bike. You’ll want to challenge your less-dominant side (your left leg if you usually power your pedal strokes with your right, for example) with single-leg pedaling drills during your workout. Also, be sure to stretch your quads, hamstring, glutes, and hip flexors after each indoor cycling workout.

In addition, invest some time in doing strength-training exercises that will fortify these key muscle groups. To strengthen your hamstrings and quads, do single-leg curls, lunges, and deadlifts, Williams advises. To strengthen your hip and glute muscles, do clamshells, single-leg bridges, and single-leg squats. To build strength in your core, you’ll want to do front and side planks, and opposite-arm-and-leg reaches. To bolster your back strength, stick with modified cobras, which protect your neck from injury through hyperextension. Taking these steps can help you improve your cycling performance and comfort—and steer clear of injuries.

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