What Muscles Does Cycling in the Air Work?

Cycling in the air, also called the bicycle maneuver, is an exercise that requires you to lie on your back, raise your legs and circle them as you would when riding a bike. When you perform this exercise, you work all the muscles in your abdominal group, as well as supporting muscles in your hips.

A woman in workout gear lays on a yoga mat in the park on her back doing the bicycle maneuver. (Image: savageultralight/iStock/Getty Images)

Affected Muscles

The main muscles engaged in a bicycle maneuver are the paired rectus abdominus muscles -- which form the “six-pack” at the front of your abdomen -- and the external and internal obliques, which sit in pairs on either side of your rectus muscles and help you rotate, or twist, your torso. Another, deeper pair of abdominal muscles, called the transversus abdominus muscles, support your other abdominals during this exercise. You receive additional support from your hip flexors, or iliopsoas muscles, which run from your spine and pelvis to your upper femur.

Exercise Effectiveness

The bicycle maneuver is the single most effective exercise you can perform if you want to work your rectus abdominus muscles, according to a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise and conducted at San Diego State University’s Biomechanics Lab in 1991. It is also the second most effective exercise you can perform if you want to work your oblique muscles. Other effective exercises for your rectus muscles include the captain’s chair, vertical leg crunches and crunches performed on an exercise ball. Other effective exercises for your oblique muscles include the hover, reverse crunch and captain’s chair.

Exercise Modifications

People with good abdominal strength and relatively low amounts of abdominal fat can usually perform the bicycle maneuver with their upper bodies elevated slightly above the floor, AskTheTrainer.com explains. This is typically the best way to get an abdominal workout. However, if you have poor abdominal strength and relatively high amounts of body fat, you may need to keep your upper back on the floor throughout the exercise. This adjustment lowers the load on your abdominal muscles and increases the load on your hip flexors.

Complementary Exercises

Despite the general effectiveness of the bicycle maneuver, ACE notes that any abdominal exercise will produce different results in different individuals. To achieve the best possible overall results, lead ACE study researcher Peter Francis, Ph.D., recommends that you use other highly rated abdominal exercises along with the bicycle maneuver and practice them daily in five-minute sessions. This approach will allow you to work your abs in subtly varying ways and help you avoid the boredom of an unchanging exercise routine. If any particular exercise doesn’t suit you, drop it and pick another one to add to your routine. Ask your doctor and a certified personal trainer for more information on the bicycle maneuver and other effective abdominal exercises.

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