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Cycling can be a great form of exercise to work your muscles and increase your endurance as an athlete. However, whether or not you are building muscle will be determined by the kind of cycling that you are doing and the goals you have for your workout. For instance, training to be the fastest mountain biker in a race might give you strong legs and good definition but less apparent muscle mass. With the right training both on and off the bike, cycling should not result in a loss of muscle.
1. Small Changes You Should Make
As with any aerobic exercise that increases your heart rate and burns calories, adequate nutrition and recovery are necessary to prevent the loss of those hard-earned muscles. If your focus is on using cycling to build muscles, you should check tips before you get started:
Stand While Riding
When you ride seated, you are not giving your legs much opportunity to push through resistance. If your goal is to increase or maintain muscle, focus on spending more time standing in the saddle. Standing will create more intensity for your leg muscles. To create an even better workout for your legs, try riding slowly and focus on lifting your heel. This will create more weight for your downstroke and more resistance for your upstroke.
Following the same logic, riding uphill will also increase resistance for your legs and make them work harder, giving you a better workout. Gravity will force your hamstrings and quadriceps to work harder to get your body uphill.
Train According to Your Cadence
Knowledge of your natural cadence is a useful tool for modifying your workouts and maximize performance. Most people’s natural cadence while riding is somewhere between 90-100 rpm. Once you find your cadence, you can customize workouts to your fitness level. Try increasing resistance and riding just below your natural cadence to help build muscle.
Sprints are a great way to burn your muscles and force them to work harder. Many riders use cycling sprints as a way to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Complete sprints on a straight-away, flat surface with enough resistance from the gears to maintain your sprint speed for 30 seconds.
2. Cardio and Muscle Mass
Your body is composed of fat and lean body mass (LBM). Having a high LBM means having a low percentage of body fat and a high percentage of muscle; fitness experts typically refer to this body composition as being made up of “lean muscle mass.”
The only way to increase your muscle mass is to perform strength training exercises. Endurance or cardiovascular training may increase your muscle definition, make your muscles stronger, or even add a little bit of muscle, but they will not build large amounts of muscle the way that strength training does.
Cardiovascular exercise uses repetitive movement to burn calories and therefore burn body fat. It is a hugely beneficial type of exercise for your health: it improves your mood, strengthens your heart, and helps you shed unwanted weight.
Loss of muscle mass will only occur if you implement severe caloric restrictions. Burning between 500 and 1,000 calories more than you consume per day is a safe calorie deficiency. Anything more than that will likely burn water and muscle instead of fat.
Depending on your fitness goals, building muscle endurance training may be more important for performance than muscle strength training. For example, mountain biker Jenni King says that cyclists who are serious about winning mountain bike races should focus on muscular endurance, or the ability of your muscles to repeatedly exert force against resistance, rather than on strength training.
3. Cycling: Cardio or Strength Training?
Cycling is less likely to leave you with huge bulging muscles. It does, however, utilize body weight, gravity, and increased gear settings (resistance) to stress the muscle tissue in your legs, requiring them to grow and repair and therefore build muscle. Using the tips in the above sections will help you focus on building muscle during your ride. However, if you are serious about gaining muscle mass then it is important to combine your cycling workouts with strength training.
Exercises like mountain biking and spinning are great for increasing your muscle endurance. Riding a bike of any kind most intensely targets your hamstring and quadriceps muscles. Cycling also uses calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus.
If you incorporate lots of resistance into your training with these activities, then you are more likely to help build muscle and increase muscle definition. However, even though cycling will not quickly build your muscles, it will not break them down as long as you are training appropriately.
Proper training includes alternating your cardio days of cycling with strength training days that are more focused on isolated movements and are targeted specifically to build muscles. Some people claim that they have been able to achieve better muscle definition focusing solely on their cycling workouts.
That may be true, and you may also see the appearance of new muscle when you incorporate maximum resistance cycling on a regular basis. However, if your goal is to gain a lot of new muscle or body build, cycling will not get you there by itself.
Cycling is a great cardio activity that has the added benefit of also increasing muscle endurance. Most balanced fitness plans will incorporate both strength training to build muscle, cardio to burn fat, and endurance training to make those muscles stronger.
Cycling is a beneficial exercise to include in your fitness regimen and will not result in the loss of your muscles as long as you are eating a balanced diet and refueling with protein and carbohydrates after your workouts.
This article was last updated on March 14, 2022 .