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Are you a cyclist wondering which exercise is better for building leg strength – cycling or squats? The answer is not straightforward.
The good news is that both exercises offer benefits, so having them in your routine is the best option for optimal results. If you’re looking to learn more about the specifics of each exercise and weigh up your options, you’ve come to the right place.
While cycling is great for building endurance and toning your legs, squats are more effective for building strength.
Keep reading though, and by the end of this blog, you’ll have all the information you need to make an informed decision.
Cycling is the activity or sport of riding a bicycle and is roughly of three types:
- Road Racing: On a flat pavement, over a prolonged distance.
- Pursuit: Chasing another cyclist and trying to overtake them.
- Cyclocross: Ride through various terrains like sand, snow, or rocks.
It generally involves your leg muscles and some core muscles, increasing your endurance over time.
An exercise in which the trainee works on their thigh muscles. They start from a standing position, lower down their hips, and then come back up.
With time, you can add weight to your squats in the form of dumbbells or barbells, or anything that provides resistance. It makes squats a highly versatile form of workout that can be modified and adopted for different types of training.
What’s the Difference?
While that was a short overview, we will dive deep into the differences between both workouts.
Endurance – Cycling (Winner) 🏆
It refers to how long your body can continue pumping through an activity – the number of reps.
You build your endurance way more with cycling because of the required reps. You have to pedal constantly over a very long distance, which trains your muscles to develop endurance.
Squats also train your endurance since it’s a heavy workout, and people increase their reps over time. Still, squats usually have fewer repetitions than cycling, so cycling is better for endurance training.
Strength Training – Squats (Winner) 🏆
Strength training requires you to exert maximum force in a controlled fashion. It puts a lot of opposition against your muscles, and they need to work hard to overcome this. They build your slow twitch fibers.
Cycling does not achieve this since the force applied by your legs is relatively lower than in squats. Squats, even without any extra weight, are a more strength-demanding exercise due to the body weight. Your thighs must work hard to lower and lift your body, which weighs a lot if you think about it.
Squats train your strength considerably more than cycling.
Power Training – Squats (Winner) 🏆
Power refers to doing a high-resistance exercise as swiftly as possible. The idea is to complete a single rep in the shortest possible time without losing control. They build your fast twitch fibers.
Yet again, squats are a better way of improving your power if done correctly. Even though cyclists sometimes pedal extremely fast and thus require some power, the resistance is usually not high. With squats, you can time your whole workout and make it more power centric. As we discussed earlier, since squats involve more resistance, when combined with speed, it gives you more power in comparison to cycling.
Squats are a more balanced exercise than cycling (winner 🏆). Squats target many muscles, and cycling only focuses on a limited amount of muscles. Therefore, one is more balanced than the other.
Burning Calories – Cycling (Winner) 🏆
Burning calories means using more energy.
Even though squats are a more robust and strength-building exercise, and to some extent, help you burn calories, they still cannot come close to cycling, which burns way more calories. Cycling presses you to go over long distances and durations.
Since cycling does not put up as much resistance on your body, your body has a more aerobic response. It means your body does not get exhausted. So you do a lot of work for an extended amount of time without much fatigue.
Therefore, with its high reps (in thousands), cycling is a better way to burn calories than squatting.
Target Muscles – Cycling focuses on a smaller number of muscles than squatting (Winner) 🏆
With cycling, two-thirds of the total power comes from two muscle groups – the glutes and the quads.
The glutes are your hip muscles, and the quads are your front thigh muscles. These two are the only muscle group to see any resistance during cycling. Other muscles involved are your lower abs and back for stabilizing, your arm muscles, and your calves and hamstrings muscles.
Different types of cycling will hit other muscles, but this is a rough pattern that will emerge when cycling.
A powerful sprint works the glutes and quads more, while steeper gradients take an extra toll on the glutes alone. High cadence at low torque, over 100 rpm, focuses more on joint stability, so it works your calves and hamstrings. Mountain bikes also work on your core muscles due to extra mobility.
Squats work on a lot of different groups of muscles. While the main power comes from your thigh muscles, it strengthens your core muscles. Squats, therefore, help you build your body overall as well.
However, the main muscles that experience the most significant resistance are those of your lower body (source). These include:
- The glutes – buttocks
- The quads – front thigh
- The hamstrings – back thigh
- The adductors – groin
- Hip Flexors
Different variations of squats also target some other muscles. A back squat will also work your arm, shoulder, back, and chest muscles (source).
Bulking Leg Muscles – Squats (Winner) 🏆
Bulking any muscles – or just building muscles, requires you to do certain things. Just any exercise will not help you make big muscles. You need to follow specific steps to enhance muscle building in your body.
To induce the process of muscle building, you need to put your muscles under strain. The process begins when microscopic damage to the muscle fibers occurs due to weight lifting. The greater the weight lifted, the more damage. This microdamage is a good thing in this context.
When your body has healed and re-established the integrity of your muscle, the healing process slightly boosts the condition of your muscles.
This constant cycle of damage and healing causes your muscles to enlarge and grow. Once your muscle has adapted to a certain amount of stress, it stops getting damaged, so you need to increase the weight every time to increase your muscle mass. You can see below a video explaining this mechanism.
This was a brief explanation of how muscle grows, and you can now understand why squats take the win without a doubt about bulking. Squats demand a severe amount of muscle strength because of the high resistance. This force-intensive exercise means your muscles will grow in size, as we discussed earlier.
While cycling will grow your muscles, but only to a small degree since you will only apply a consistent force each time you pedal. Cycling is repetitive, has a restricted range of motion, and provides limited resistance. Your muscle will not increase in bulk after a certain point since a more potent stimulus is needed.
Squats bulk muscles more than cycling.
Which is more Cardio-centric? Cycling (Winner) 🏆
Cardio means working your heart muscle and lungs. It requires you to do aerobic exercises. Cycling requires you to work your muscles for an extended period without excessive power. Although the workout will not need you to apply an increasing amount of strength, the long duration of the exercise makes it enormously energy intensive.
Over time, cycling improves your body’s circulation by improving your heart and lung efficiency. Your heart becomes better at pumping more blood in a single cycle, and the lungs oxygenate your blood more efficiently. For squats, this is kind of similar, but not totally.
Squats do require a lot of energy and are mildly aerobic and cardio-strengthening, but not as much as cycling. It focuses more on strength and little on burning calories.
Cycling is more cardio-centric than Squats.
Building Abs – Depends (Draw) 🤝
Building abs is where both of these exercises come to a stalemate. Let’s first briefly talk about building abs. Despite working out extraordinarily hard, many people cannot seem to make perfectly shaped and visible abdominal muscles. You need to do two things together to build and showcase them.
Firstly, to train them like any other muscle group, so they bulk. It is the part which most people can do. The second important thing to remember when building those abdominal muscles is losing body fat. It is the tricky part that most people trying to get the “six-pack” fail at.
Losing body fat requires doing an extreme amount of cardio and burning the already present body fat. Furthermore, it would be best if you also control your diet excessively. Because even if you have bulky core muscles, the fat covering them will not give you the good look you were aiming for.
Squats work on your core muscles – obliques and rectus abdominis. They shape these muscles and build your abs, making them more defined, doing half the job of getting well-defined and visible abs. However, losing body fat is still left and is quite difficult for many people.
Cycling, in contrast, due to being considerably energy-intensive, burns calories and, ultimately, fat. It reduces overall body fat by burning calories. Clearing the fat covering them helps make your already-built abdominal muscles more prominent. Cycling also works your lower abs, so if you aim to make them more noticeable, it helps you in that domain.
Which is Safer? Squats (Winner) 🏆
Not only can you squat anywhere, but it is also much safer than cycling. Squats only work your muscles and cause sore and joint pain if not done correctly (source). These problems usually fix on their own if you stop the harmful stimulus causing the issues.
However, with cycling, you are exposed to many dangers. Numerous occasions arise where you are prone to accidents. You could get injured by unbalancing and falling from a speedy ride or knocked down due to bad terrain. In either scenario, the safety hazard is considerably more remarkable when compared to that of performing squats.
Versatility (Draw) 🤝
Both of the exercises being discussed are very flexible. We can modify them into many forms to produce different results according to our desires and targets.
Squats, once mastered, can be changed into something like back squats to improve the entire body’s strength or jump squats to improve power.
Similarly, cycling on a steep mountain with high resistance and low cadence will boost your power and strength, or cycling through a track stretching many kilometers to burn a large amount of fat.
Can I Replace Leg Day with Cycling?
The simple answer is no. Every health expert will tell you never to switch leg days with cycling. While cycling is not bad, in fact, it’s better for certain things. However, it can never replace squats for all the reasons we discussed earlier.
Refer to this infographic to see the overall difference between the two.
What to do then, Cycling or Squats?
It is best to combine both of these in your workout schedule. Both are incredibly versatile forms of exercise that can significantly help you to improve your health and physique.
We suggest you incorporate squats to increase your muscle power and strength. And then use this increased strength and ability to increase your cadence, i.e., your speed. This dual exercise schedule will keep you in perfect shape and yield excellent results.
Although it’s best to consult an expert, you can start by assigning two days a week for squats and observe how your performance on the road improves. You should be able to pull off a higher cadence after enhancing the strength in your muscles.
We cannot state which is better than the other as both of them have unique features and benefits that they can provide to us. While cycling improves your overall stamina and endurance and reduces fat, squats focus more on muscle building and power.
We hope this article helped you decide what’s best for you according to your goals and your physical health.