Cycling, often lauded for its cardiovascular benefits, has been a staple exercise for fitness enthusiasts and commuters alike.
But beyond its renowned impact on cardiovascular health, a question looms large: Does cycling build muscle?
In short: Yes, cycling does build muscle. However, it’s arguably more important to understand how and why cycling builds muscle, which muscle groups cycling works, and – equally importantly – which ones it doesn’t.
When working with cyclists and runners at my clinic, I would often see people avoiding cardiovascular exercise because they were worried about losing muscle mass.
While cycling is a renowned aerobic exercise, it also contributes to muscle development.
In this article, we delve into the physiological responses of the body to cycling, identify the primary muscles engaged during biking, and look at the nuances of muscle growth in cycling.
Let’s get into it!
Does Cycling Build Muscle?
Although cycling is primarily recognized as an aerobic exercise, its repetitive nature and muscle engagement also contribute to muscle development, especially for beginners or those returning to exercise.
When we cycle, the body undergoes a stimulus-response cycle. The act of pedaling stimulates specific muscle groups, and the body, in response, adapts to meet the demands imposed by the activity.
This continuous cycle of stimulus and response builds muscle.
That said, if you commute a few kilometers on the bike each morning, you can expect a different physiological response from a professional track cyclist.
The extent of muscle growth depends on various factors, including:
#1: Resistance And Intensity
Within the world of cycling, there are a variety of different disciplines, each with its own unique demands on the body in terms of resistance and intensity.
For example, road cycling generally involves moderate resistance on flat terrains, with higher intensities while climbing hills.
The endurance aspect of cycling will require more engagement from slow-twitch muscle fibers.
If we’re to look at another example, such as track cycling events, they will involve high resistance and high intensity. This will primarily elicit a physiological response from fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Here are the differences:
Slow-Twitch (Type I) Muscle Fibers
Endurance-based cycling, such as road cycling and indoor cycling at lower resistances, predominantly engages slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are associated with endurance and do not hypertrophy (increase in size) as significantly as fast-twitch fibers.
Fast-Twitch (Type II) Muscle Fibers
High-intensity activities like sprinting, uphill climbs, and sprint-oriented track cycling engage fast-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers have a greater potential for hypertrophy, contributing to increased muscle size, strength, and power.
Because most forms of cycling favor endurance over short bursts of intense effort, cycling typically tends to stimulate slow-twitch muscle fibers to a greater extent than fast-twitch muscle fibers, which do not hypertrophy (grow in size) to the same extent.
Therefore, cyclists typically develop a lean, toned physique, rather than significant muscle bulk, even though they are building muscle through cycling.
So, if your objective is to make your legs bigger through cycling, you should primarily focus on training that targets fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Incorporating resistance, either through inclines, gears, or specialized training, will likely increase the workload on muscles, potentially promoting muscle hypertrophy. Higher-intensity cycling, such as interval training, can also help stimulate further muscle growth.
#2: Nutrition and Hydration
Adequate nutrition, in particular protein intake, is crucial for muscle repair and growth. Without the appropriate fuel for repair and growth, you’ll unlikely put on any muscle, even if you are cycling.
Both men and women benefit from a balanced intake of macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrates are essential for providing energy during rides, proteins support post-cycling muscle repair and growth, and healthy fats contribute to overall well-being.
Nutritional needs vary between individuals, and factors such as age, weight, and training intensity should be considered. Consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian can help tailor nutrition recommendations based on specific goals and requirements.
Hydration is equally important to support overall muscle function and prevent cramping.
#3: Individual Variability
The effects of cycling on muscle development will have significant variations due to individual differences, such as genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
While regular cycling stimulates muscle groups, contributing to adaptations such as hypertrophy and enhanced strength, the extent of these changes varies among individuals.
Factors such as testosterone levels, genetic predispositions, and basal metabolic rates influence the degree of muscle growth.
You may improve your cardiovascular fitness and power output but fall short when it comes to visual changes and muscle growth.
Think of the professional peloton, where riders covering similar distances display diverse muscle shapes, emphasizing that the effects of cycling on body composition are inherently nuanced and individualized.
Understanding Muscle Activation During The Pedal Stroke
To understand how cycling contributes to muscle growth, it’s helpful to break down the pedal stroke and how it engages different muscles.
In each phase of your pedal stroke, an array of muscles will be working in harmony to maintain form and function.
The pedal stroke can be divided into four phases:
- The Downstroke
- The Bottom Dead Center
- The Upstroke
- The Top Dead Center
Let’s take a look at which muscles are involved in each section:
The downstroke is the phase where a significant proportion of the power is generated as the cyclist exerts downward force on the pedal, propelling the bike forward.
The quadriceps and gluteus maximus are the primary muscles engaged during this phase, working in unison to generate power.
#2. Bottom Dead Center
As the pedal reaches the lowest point, the hamstrings and gastrocnemius dominate the movement.
These leg muscles stabilize the knee joint and assist in pulling the pedal through the bottom-dead-center position.
The upstroke is often an underappreciated phase of the pedal stroke, but plays an important role in muscle engagement, especially when using clipless pedals.
The hamstrings continue their engagement, assisted by the hip flexors and tibialis anterior, lifting the opposite leg and preparing it for the next downstroke.
#4. Top Dead Center
At the top dead center, the hip flexors and abdominals help bring the pedal back to the starting position, completing the pedal stroke cycle.
Avoid these common mistakes!
- A lot of cyclists make the error of overreliance on the downstroke phase, neglecting the top and bottom stroke phases, leading to wasted energy.
- Another mistake involves bouncing on the saddle, a result of not transitioning smoothly through the bottom part of the stroke, causing both energy wastage and discomfort.
What muscles does biking work?
Now, the million dollar questions: Does cycling make your legs bigger, and what muscles does bike riding work?
Below is a list of the main muscles worked during cycling. Note that there are plenty of others that are involved, too, but these are doing the majority of the work.
Engaging the quadriceps in cycling is paramount for generating the force required during the downstroke phase.
Comprising multiple individual muscles at the front of your thigh, including the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris, the quadriceps work collectively to extend the knee, contributing to the effective propulsion of the pedal downward.
Gluteus Maximus (Glutes)
The gluteus maximus, being the largest muscle in the body, takes center stage during the downstroke phase in cycling.
Its contractions are important for hip extension, playing a crucial role in generating the force necessary to propel the bike forward with each pedal revolution.
Positioned at the back of the thigh, the hamstrings – made up of the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus – play a versatile while cycling.
The hamstrings contribute to both the bottom dead center and upstroke phases. As these muscles flex the knee and extend the hip, they facilitate a seamless pedal revolution, ensuring efficiency throughout the cycling motion.
Gastrocnemius (Calf Muscles)
The gastrocnemius, a specific muscle within the calf, plays a crucial role in cycling, particularly during the bottom dead center.
It stabilizes the ankle and aids in pulling the pedal through the lowest point of the pedal stroke, contributing to the fluidity of the entire cycling motion.
- See also: Does Cycling Make Your Calves Bigger?
The hip flexors, encompassing the iliopsoas and rectus femoris, play a pivotal role in cycling during both the upstroke and top-dead-center phases.
These muscles lift the leg during the upstroke and contribute to returning the pedal to the starting position.
The abdominals play a multifaceted role in cycling, contributing during the top-dead-center phase by assisting the hip flexors in bringing the pedal back up.
Beyond this, they are crucial for stabilizing the core throughout the entire pedal stroke, maintaining balance and coordination for an effective cycling motion.
Let’s take a deeper look at the role of the abs in cycling below!
How Does Biking Work Your Abs?
While cycling predominantly works the lower body, the core muscles are actively engaged throughout the entire pedal stroke.
As the pedal stroke begins, the abdominals are involved in stabilizing the torso, ensuring balance, and transferring power from the lower body to the pedals. Without the core, you would likely topple over pretty quickly!
This continuous engagement becomes particularly pronounced during the upstroke and top-dead-center phases, in which the core works in tandem with the hip flexors to bring the pedal back to the starting position.
Not only does cycling work your abdominals, but it can also help you lose belly fat, which may contribute to more visible abdominal muscles.
That said, cycling may not provide the same level of isolated core activation as specific core-focused exercises. Additional activities such as planks, crunches, or rotational exercises might be necessary to comprehensively target all aspects of the abdominals.
Visible abs are not solely a result of localized exercises; they are built through a combination of factors, including overall body fat reduction, muscle development, and genetic predispositions.
Cycling, as an aerobic exercise, contributes to calorie expenditure and can aid in reducing overall body fat, including abdominal fat.
Does Cycling Give You Massive Thighs?
The short answer is no.
So why do track cyclists like Chris Hoy have thighs the size of tree trunks?
Track cyclists don’t just pedal around the velodrome to build their legs. They spend lots of time doing strength training in the gym to ensure that they have incredible top-end power to cover short distances as fast as possible.
There is only so much aerobic exercise can do when it comes to building muscle. As discussed previously, most forms of cycling primarily engage your slow-twitch muscle fibers – which become resistant to fatigue through training but don’t bulk up as much as fast-twitch muscle fibers.
To really bulk up your legs, you need to regularly do lots of heavy lifting in the gym. You also need to take in lots of extra calories and high-quality protein to fuel the reparation of your muscles after intense workouts.
Does Cycling Tone Your Legs?
Yes, cycling will tone your legs.
Although the slow-twitch muscle fibers engaged in endurance cycling will add less muscle bulk than fast-twitch muscle fibers, they will still add definition to your leg muscles.
Equally importantly, regular cycling will help burn body fat. This in turn will result in muscles becoming more visible, contributing to a toned appearance for your legs.
How Long Does It Take To Build Muscle From Cycling?
The good news is that after cycling regularly for three to four weeks, you are likely to start to see some small results. You’ll also notice that your stamina has increased and your leg muscles may have become a little more defined.
However, you will need to put in consistent effort for three to four months before you see a considerable difference in how toned or muscular your legs are.
One of the advantages of building muscle is that it becomes harder for your body to store fat. Once you start building muscle through cycling, the extra muscle tissue raises your body’s resting metabolic rate, meaning you’ll burn extra calories even when you are sitting at your desk.
Ten pounds of extra muscle will make your body burn 50 more calories a day when you are resting. The same weight in fat burns just 20. The extra muscle will effectively act as a furnace for calories.
So, you’re unlikely to be gaining more fat if you’re packing on the muscle, which will go a long way to help tone your legs.
What Muscle Groups Are Not Worked by Biking?
So, we know which muscles cycling works – but which muscles get relatively little workout from cycling?
For those seeking a more comprehensive strength training regimen, it’s essential to acknowledge the muscles that might not receive as much attention during cycling
To achieve a whole-body workout, a strength training routine should be implemented that includes exercises specifically targeting these muscle groups, alongside those that are worked in cycling.
Here are the muscle groups that are not primarily worked by cycling:
Shoulders and Back
One of the primary areas with less engagement during cycling is the upper body.
The muscles of the shoulders and back are utilized in stabilization so are worked to some extent while cycling, but do not contribute actively to the pedal stroke.
Biceps and Triceps
The biceps and triceps, key players in arm movements, are relatively underutilized in cycling.
They play a role in maintaining a proper riding position via the handlebars and may become tired on long endurance rides, but do not exert significant force while cycling.
Muscles of the chest, including the pectoralis major and minor, experience relatively little engagement during cycling.
Now You Know All About Building Muscle Through Cycling…
When getting on your bike, remember – muscle growth isn’t a one-size-fits-all jersey. The gains in muscle size and strength will depend upon your type of cycling, nutrition, and individuality.
So, pedal on, embrace the burn, and enjoy the ride ahead of you. The muscle gains will likely come with time!