Muscle Coordination & the Importance of Big Gear Work in Cycling

Ollie Blake

Muscle coordination is a key determinant of both maximum power output and efficiency in cycling (2, 9). In other words the way the muscles work together is more important for power and efficiency than any one muscle. Energy costs can increase 21 times above resting levels in trained cyclists (1) with the majority from the working leg muscles. Fortunately numerous muscles cross each joint, which allows for different muscle coordination strategies. For example, elite cyclists activate their muscles for shorter durations than recreational cyclists during each pedal (3) resulting in reduced metabolic costs. This is because a muscle that is actively contracting longer requires more energy and in recreational cyclists this results in muscles on opposite sides of a joint working against each other.

Cadence and power output play important roles in muscle coordination (6). For example, the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) is relatively well utilized at low power outputs, while the  primary power producing muscles such as the quadriceps (4) are relatively inactive at low power outputs, but increase substantially with increased demands (5). For example, elite road cyclists chose cadences around 90-100 rpm for long distance road races, the record for the longest distance covered in one hour on a bike has traditionally been set at approximately 105 rpm (8) and maximum power output is thought to occur at approximately 120 rpm (7).

This gives more support to the idea that specificity is a key component to proper training since cadence and power output selection determines the muscle coordination used, which has a significant impact on power production and efficiency. Therefore cycling easy mile after mile will train your body to use a muscle coordination strategy optimized for easy cycling. Training in the big, harder gears used in time-trials and triathlons will enable the use of muscle coordination strategies optimized for racing allowing for increased efficiency on race day.

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2.         Blake OM, Champoux Y, Wakeling JM. Muscle Coordination Patterns for Efficient Cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2012;44(5):926-938.[cited 2012 Oct 23 ]

3.         Chapman AR, Vicenzino B, Blanch P, Hodges PW. Patterns of leg muscle recruitment vary between novice and highly trained cyclists. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2008;18(3):359-371.

4.         Ericson MO. On the biomechanics of cycling. A study of joint and muscle load during exercise on the bicycle ergometer. Scand J Rehabil Med Suppl1986;16:1-43.

5.         Hug F, Bendahan D, Le Fur Y, Cozzone PJ, Grelot L. Heterogeneity of muscle recruitment pattern during pedaling in professional road cyclists: a magnetic resonance imaging and electromyography study. Eur J Appl Physiol 2004;92(3):334-342.

6.         Hug F, Dorel S. Electromyographic analysis of pedaling: a review. J Electromyogr Kinesiol2009;19(2):182-198.

7.         Sargeant AJ, Hoinville E, Young A. Maximum leg force and power output during short-term dynamic exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 1981;51(5):1175-1182.[cited 2013 Apr 25 ]

8.         Sargeant AJ. Human power output and muscle fatigue. Int. J. Sports Med. 1994;15(3):116.[cited 2013 Apr 25 ]

9.         Wakeling JM, Blake OM, Chan HK. Muscle coordination is key to the power output and mechanical efficiency of limb movements. J Exp Biol2010;213(3):487-49

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