I often hear people say “your bike is a whole-body gym”. I know my upper body workout will never be close to the workout my legs get, but so long as I’m a bike commuter, I figure I ought to get as much as I can out of it. I have a Trek 8.3DS, flat handlebars, no bullhorns, no upright grips.

How do I adjust my riding style/choice of bike/choice of equipment/types of rides to maximize whatever upper body exercise biking can give me?

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    Get a bike you pedal with your hands???? Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 20:14
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    Not sure that a bike is a "whole body" gym. Ever noticed pro racers? Very few of them have significant upper body development. Now, triathletes. That's a different story...
    – user313
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 17:15
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    Cycling gets the cardiovascular system and legs into great shape, but not even the legs get total development. Late one summer after extensive cycling; I did a 16 mile loop hike up and down a steep, rugged mountain, and my legs were thoroughly sore for 3 days afterwards. ;~) Thus the benefits of cross-training became obvious.
    – user313
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 17:29
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    Use your bike as weight-lifting object!
    – Jahaziel
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 20:59
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    Get a bmx bike and do bunnyhops or nose manuals.
    – dotjoe
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 19:23

8 Answers 8


The "pure" answer to the question as asked is probably as others have said, climb as much as possible. But perhaps a better answer is to admit that cycling is awesome for aerobic fitness and leg strength but not as great on the upper body.

Obviously, cross-training is an option, but even if you are 100% committed to your bike, you can probably get significant results from two common calisthenics pre and/or post ride: Push-ups and Pull-ups. The key is that you want to develop your chest/shoulders/triceps (pushing) and your back/biceps (pulling), and doing multi-joint exercises is likely more efficient/helpful than isolation exercises. If you can't do pull-ups and don't have access to a lat pulldown machine you can help yourself by using your legs to give yourself a gentle assist. If you have or can scrounge some dumbbells you can do a bit more.

Try this:

  • Do a set of 20-25 pushups, then 8-12 pull-ups, either just before or just after you put on your shorts/jersey.
  • Do a second set 5 minutes later after you've made up your water bottles, etc., put on your shoes, whatever.
  • Pump up your tires and get your bike "ready," then do a third set.

Go for a ride, and try to get in as much climbing as possible. You'll probably be amazed at how quickly your strength will improve just with three sets of good form concentrated upper body calisthenics pre-ride. Again, if you have dumbbells or a weight bench you could do bench presses/military presses, or laterals, and you could do rows to help with the "pull," but the goal isn't really do to a full on weightlifting session, just some quick calisthenics with one effective push and one effective pull exercise and at least two, preferably three sets as you prep for your ride.

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    I have a physiology book that says the following: "[E]xperiments on muscle building have shown that six nearly maximal muscle contractions performed in three sets 3 days a week give approximately optimal increase in muscle strength, without producing chronic muscle fatigue." As you said that is not that much, if one thinks about it! Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 4:00

I think there are two important ways to use your upper body riding a bicycle:

  • Ride very steep hills, where you need to pull up the handlebar and swing your upper body to counteract the torque on the pedals (specially if you ride a bike without extra-low gears);
  • Riding over technical terrain, like XC mountain bike and other stuff.

While commuting, you can do these (or at least a bit of these) if you choose some unusual route if you live in a hilly area.

If that is not the case, I am afraid riding itself is not enough to provide significant upper-body exercise (except postural "exercise", which might indeed induce health issues if too prolongued).

Hope this helps

  • I know this is implicit in the answer but you need to be climbing out of the saddle so it is your upper body doing some of the work.
    – dumbledad
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 17:15
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    @dumbledad I disagree. Even if you're in the saddle, there is much flexor-extensor action both in the arms and the erectors of the spine, specially for steep grades, to the point of feeling muscular soreness in the forearms after more gruelling sections. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 12:35
  • Isn't this advice damaging for the knees? After all, we strive for high cadence in order to limit the forces on the knees.
    – Vorac
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 14:01
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    @Vorac as I understand, there is room for training super-high cadences and also more slowly-grinding ones. Usually, what is not recommended is to ride low cadences like everyday, at cruise-speeds. Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 16:32

There is a way to train your upper body while riding, but it's not the way most of people think of. Have you ever looked at pro BMXers arms? I rode BMX myself and can confirm that lots of bunnyhops, manuals and jumps are serious upper back, and whole arms workout. Just think of it, in a bunnyhop you pull with your lower and upper back, together with the arms, then you push using again your back and arms. But I don't know how this could go under common term of riding :-)


From years of experience, I have found that riding with your upper body (arms/ chest / back) flexed, you will get a significantly better upper body work out than with your upper body relaxed, where you don't get any work out. If your riding on rough terrain try to jump and wheelie your front tire over objects here and there; if your riding on the street, try to jump curbs and bunny hop on curbs here and there, just be careful with traffic...try to find a trail/ route that you can master. A quick upper body work out after your done riding helps as well.


Something mentioned before but without explaination:

The position you sit while riding can affect upper body strength. When changing from a long ride on a cruiser to a long ride on a road bike, after the road bike trek I feel my arms working harder from holding more of my body weight up.

The geometry of your frame, seat height and handlebar position can greatly affect how much work your upper body does while cycling. If I had a mountain bike, I wouldn't however try to adjust a mountain bike to road bike dropdowns specifically for this though!

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    If you're using your arms to hold up your body weight, you need to reposition your saddle or change your posture so that most of your weight is over the pedals. Sheldon Brown said "good overall bike position would assure that the rider is well balanced and does not have to expend excessive muscular energy in the arms and shoulders to support his weight in any of them. " Commented May 22, 2012 at 16:00

Your bike is not a whole body gym. You could do sprints standing in extreme gears, accelerating as fast as possible. Sprinters tend to have developed upper bodies. They don't develop them on the bike, but they use them enough.


On a stationary bike you can press down in your thighs with both hands while you pedal to get a pretty good upper body workout.

On a moving bike you might be able to use one hand to steer and one hand to press on a thigh.


Biking is not an upper body work out.

As a matter of fact: on longer treks I have found my arms getting rather numb. Riding a stationary bicycle that works both arms and legs simultaneously is an upper body workout. Riding a stationary bicycle that just pedals like your standard bicycle is not an upper body work out. Sorry ...

Unless you are not using your hands on the handle bars and swinging your arms wildly or flapping them, you are not exercising your upper body while riding a standard bicycle. While exercising: make sure you do get enough liquids when riding and don't overdo it, because it can be a long way home.

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