Health

Does Cycling Build Muscle? (The Truth)

does cycling build muscle

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Yes! If you’re a casual cyclist or even a dedicated rider for most of the week, you’ll notice muscle development in specific muscle groups as your fitness level increases.

If you’ve ever seen an indoor track cyclist you’ll quickly notice their massive tree-trunk legs, but that’s taken to the extreme, and they typically combine their riding regime with weight or resistance training.

How Can I Gain Muscle by Cycling?

Regular cycling can lead to muscle growth, strength, increased definition, and endurance in particular muscle groups.

Cycling primarily targets specific muscle groups rather than promoting overall muscle mass gains. Lower body muscles are typically more engaged like the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core muscles for stability and balance. 

IMAGE CREDIT: ANDRE VAN DER WESTHUIZEN

Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology indicates that cycling can increase muscle protein synthesis – which is a process necessary for muscle growth (Moore et al., 2014). Another study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that regular cycling training increased muscle fiber cross-sectional area, meaning muscle size, and improved strength (Takahashi, K et al., 2022).

If you’re interested in building muscle specifically, shorten your rides and introduce sprints or high-effort segments on flat roads or hills.

How Much Should I Cycle to Build Muscle?

3 to 4 high-intensity cycling sessions per week will stimulate muscle growth

To stimulate muscle growth, it’s generally recommended to engage in challenging cycling workouts pushing you to your limits. Aim for at least three to four high-intensity cycling sessions per week, with each session lasting 45 minutes to an hour.

The amount of cycling required to build muscle depends on various factors, including your current fitness level, intensity of cycling, duration of workouts, and frequency of sessions. Include segments of intense effort; 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off for 5 minutes, recover (without stopping), and repeat.  

Remember to change your position on the bike from seated to standing, and focus on using equal and measured force throughout your body. You’ll hone your technique while activating your core for a better all-round workout. This will provide your muscles with sufficient stimulus to grow and adapt.

Muscle growth occurs when you achieve an overload – or push beyond your thresholds to shock the muscles into growth to better cater for your next session.

As your muscles adapt, it grows increasingly important to introduce variety into your workouts. After a few months of training, you’ll reach a training and development plateau. This is when your body has adapted fully to your current training regime, and the muscles aren’t as shocked and worn from doing the same workout. 

At this point, you should evolve your cycling workout into more demanding sessions by adjusting the on/off time segments or introducing cross-training with weights.   

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that cyclists who trained four times per week for eight weeks experienced improvements in muscle strength and power (Paoli et al., 2017). The frequency of these muscle-building cycling sessions must be broken up by periods of rest and recovery. 

When you exercise and push beyond your limits, or chase a serious burn, you’re causing microscopic tears in your muscle fibers which heal during recovery. It’s important to allow your muscles to recover fully, otherwise, you’re re-tearing the same fibers which only postpones your time to recover and grow while increasing your risk of injury.

Does Cycling Make You Lean or Bulky?

cycing is more likely to promote a lean physique rather than bulky muscles

Cycling is more likely to promote a lean physique rather than bulky muscles. The repetitive motion of cycling primarily develops muscular endurance and definition, rather than significant muscle growth. 

It can help reduce body fat and improve overall body composition by burning calories and increasing cardiovascular fitness. Chris McGlory PhD., assistant professor at Queen’s University in Canada has this to say; “Endurance performance is more about remodelling the muscle so that it has more mitochondrial proteins that process oxygen, not simply having more muscle proteins”.

If you’re seeking a leaner appearance with toned muscles, cycling can be an excellent choice. You can use nutrition to cater to your goals, and if it’s to grow in size and strength, you’d need to consume more calories than you’re burning during your sessions with a particular focus on recovery.

How Can I Use Nutrition to Improve My Cycling?

to gain muscle, you should consume 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight

What and when you eat is important if you have a specific health and fitness goal in mind. The rule of thumb is to consume fewer calories than you’re burning to lose weight and increase muscle tone, or to consume slightly more if your training is demanding and your goal is to increase muscle size and strength.

So, how much protein should you consume per day to gain muscle? Craig Weller, Precision Nutrition’s Director of Exercise Systems, shares you should aim for 0.75 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Protein contains amino acids – the base building blocks of muscle tissue. You should aim for around 360 to 480 extra calories per day.

The best sources of protein-rich foods are chicken, fish, eggs, and Greek yogurt. Combine your protein with non-starchy vegetables including spinach, cauliflower, carrots, and fiber-rich foods like beans and whole grains. 

Consume most of your calories before and after your workouts, for the best performance, consume carbohydrates and fats before, and most of your protein after. It’s beneficial to have a protein powder for convenience and speedy delivery of what your body needs for recovery, there’s a reason bodybuilders always have a shaker to hand!

Will Cycling Bulk Up My Legs?

Cycling can certainly contribute to developing stronger and more defined leg muscles.

Regular cycling workouts engage and strengthen the major leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps, and hamstrings. However, it’s important to note that genetics, diet, and overall training routine also play significant roles in determining the size and shape of your leg muscles.

If your primary goal is to bulk up your legs, combining cycling with resistance training exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and leg presses can be more effective. Introduce 2 or more weight-lifting sessions per week at your local gym. This will rapidly increase the strength in your legs, and combined with regular riding, you’ll improve the endurance of your muscles. 

Performing well in both aspects of cross-training over time will bulk up your legs, with genetics playing a factor in overall size and shape.

IMAGE CREDIT: ANDRE VAN DER WESTHUIZEN

What Happens If You Cycle Every Day?

daily cycling benefits

Cycling every day can be beneficial for cardiovascular health, weight management, overall fitness, and well-being. However, it’s essential to consider appropriate recovery and listen to your body to prevent overuse injuries.

Cycling every day without proper rest and recovery may lead to muscle fatigue, decreased performance, and increased risk of injury. It’s recommended to incorporate rest days into your cycling routine to allow your muscles time to repair and adapt. 

Additionally, cross-training activities and incorporating variety in your workouts can help prevent overuse injuries and promote overall fitness and muscle development.

Cycling is one of the best low-impact sports to improve and tone your physique. There are a variety of cycling disciplines to explore if you’re set on a particular style of riding and the fitness benefits that come with it. 

Mountain biking can be more demanding on your legs when climbing trails, road cycling allows you to focus on your workout plan and the specific demands of the route. Push yourself and the gains in muscle size will follow with the right amount of nutrition and rest.

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