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I know whenever I cycle to work, the biggest burn I feel is in my quads, particularly in the last stretch up a hill before I get to the office. So does this mean cycling strengthens quads?
Cycling does strengthen the quads to a degree. Cycling acts as light resistance training, causing muscle fiber to strengthen and rebuild. This is heightened by climbing or cycling against high resistance. However, for optimum quad strength, weight training is preferable.
So, in a nutshell, cycling will certainly add some strength to your quads, and this could be a fantastic bi-product of cycling, depending on what your goals are.
I’ve been an avid cyclist for the best part of twenty years now, and in this post, I’ll look at the most important 11 facts about whether cycling strengthens your quads.
1. Quads Are The Main Muscle In Cycling
In cycling, there are really four main muscle groups that do all the work. These are:
And guess which one of these is the most important? You’ve guessed it! It’s the quads.
The quads are the quadriceps, and they are the large group of muscles found on the front of the thigh. This muscle group has one of the largest muscle masses in the whole body, and may well be the most powerful. (Source)
The quads are the driving force behind the pedaling motion, closely followed by the glutes.
2. How The Quads Work In Cycling
The quads are activated from the very top of the pedal revolution all the way to the bottom. As you can probably see, this is half the pedal revolution.
When the returns back up from the bottom to the top of its cycle, the quads are briefly at rest.
This means that the quads are activated fully half of the time when cycling, and when one is activated the other is at rest.
The main job of the quads is to force downwards on the pedal, spinning it around, and propelling the bike forward.
The quads are aided in this action by the glutes and the calves, which are both also activated from the top of the pedal revolution to the bottom. The hamstrings are the only muscles that are activated fully at a different time, from the bottom of the pedal revolution to the top.
This is really because cycling is essentially a pushing activity rather than a pulling one, and the majority of the force is exerted in pushing down on the pedals.
3. Cycling Acts Like Resistance Training (To A Point)
If strengthening your quads is a target for you, then cycling can definitely help to a point. Cycling will certainly tone the muscle, and you can add some extra muscle mass through biking.
This is because cycling essentially works like traditional weight resistance training.
In weight training, people use their muscles to exert force against weights. For example, if you are doing bicep curls, your biceps are exerting a force against the dumbbell and forcing it upwards.
This force results in small tears being created in your muscles. These are called ‘micro-tears’. These micro-tears will heal and build back stronger.
This is the muscle’s way of adapting, and being more ready next time it encounters a similar weight to be more able to deal with it.
In cycling, the resistance your muscles are exerting against is the resistance of the pedals. Ever felt a burn in your quads when you cycle? It’s the most common place to feel it.
This is because cycling against resistance is causing micro-tears in your quads. These will subsequently be growing new muscle fibers, and rebuilding slightly bigger and stronger.
4. Cycling Is Not The Optimal Way To Grow Quads
However, I have to tell you that the amount of muscle development you see from cycling will never be massive. This is because cycling is done using only a relatively light form of resistance.
If you think about weight lifting in the gym, to get the fastest muscle development you really need to use weights that you can lift at the optimal number of reps. The current thinking is that you want to lift weights between 6-12 times to generate maximum muscle growth (and use between 3 to 6 reps).
6-12 reps causes the optimum level of micro-tears in the muscle for it to grow back most strongly.
To build muscle endurance, you want to lift weights somewhere between 12 and 20 reps each time. Above 20 reps, it is more a case of building muscle stamina.
This is the bracket that cycling comes into. If you could only perform 6-12 reps (pedals) on your bike, then something must be seriously wrong with your bike! Or maybe you are going up an unbelievably steep hill.
Realistically, we are always going to be doing hundreds of reps in a row, so the number of micro-tears is fewer. This will lead to some muscle development, but nowhere near as much as weight training.
Here is a table, that demonstrates the kind of muscle development to expect from a different number of exercise reps:
|Number Of Repetitions Of An Exercise||Target Aim|
|1-5 Reps||To increase strength and power, but not necessarily increase muscle size|
|6-12 Reps||Increase muscle size|
|12-20 Reps||Increase muscle endurance|
|20+ Reps||Tone muscle through cardio-style resistance|
Some data drawn from nerdfitness.com. (Source)
5. Cycling Tones Rather Than Builds (Generally)
To put the whole thing in a nutshell, cycling tones the quads rather than builds a lot of muscle.
Your legs will look more chiseled, and more aesthetically pleasing.
Cycling is also a great way to lose weight. If you cycle alongside a reasonably targeted diet, then you have a high chance of shedding body fat.
This will help to make your legs ‘look’ more toned and muscular, and just generally more pleasing.
However, if building your quads through cycling is high on your agenda, there are still some things that you can try…
6. Try Speed Interval Training
One of the best ways to enhance the amount of muscle you can develop through cycling is to use speed interval training.
What is this?
Speed interval training is a bit like it sounds. Basically, you alternate periods of speed and sprinting with periods of relative rest.
The idea is that even if you cover the same distance over the same time, if you use speed interval training then you will more strongly develop both your cardio abilities and some muscle mass.
A cycling speed interval training session might start with a ten-minute steady cycling period to warm up, followed by one-minute sprints with thirty-second breaks alternated.
During a full session, you can alter lots of things, including:
- The intensity of your sprinting periods
- The frequency of your sprints
- The length of your rest periods
You can do this kind of training both outdoors on indoors.
7. Try Climbing For Larger Quads
Possibly the best way to really activate the quads and develop muscle mass while cycling is to try climbing.
If you are outdoors, this basically means finding hills and slopes that you can ride up. Try to keep your form and posture when going up hills. Also, many cyclists (including the great Miguel Indurain) state that you should try to stay seated as long as possible.
This will conserve a lot of energy.
If you are cycling on a stationary bike indoors, then you can replicate going uphill by turning up the resistance really high.
It’s good to alternate periods of climbing with periods of simulated flat (when the resistance is turned back low again).
You can of course also come out of the saddle, and this puts more force on your legs and quads as it adds the force of body weight to the pedaling motion.
8. Maximize Resistance
This is the simple way of thinking about how to develop muscle through cycling. The more resistance the better!
Along with some of the suggestions I’ve already made (such as cycling up hills), you can also do this through:
- Carrying heavy bags (for example a loaded rucksack) on your back
- Carrying a load, for example shopping in a trailer
- Going over difficult terrain, such as cycling through long grass
9. Be In A Calorific Excess To Build Muscle
One thing to think about when you’re intent on building muscle is being in a calorific excess.
What does this mean?
Well, you basically need leftover calories to burn to turn them into muscle.
Cycling is quite a rapid burner of calories. A single hour of cycling can burn anywhere between about 500 and 1000 calories depending on the intensity.
If you want intense cycling and muscle building to work together (and they can), then you will need to be taking on board enough calories.
Some top tips for this include:
- Protein is King. Try to include protein in every meal. Some protein-rich foods include eggs, poultry, red meat, and fish
- Try to eat about every three hours
- Eat whole foods and avoid processed
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetable, potentially with every meal
10. Feeling A Burn In Quads – It Means This
If you’re feeling a burn in your quads then this is usually good! It means something is happening, and muscle is being activated and developing.
However, it is normal to feel a burn in other muscle groups as well, usually the glutes. I would say that if you feel a burn in both the glutes and the quads then you doing everything right.
You could add the calves to this list as well.
However, if you’re only feeling the burn in the quads, then this could mean that something is going wrong. This is particularly the case if this burn becomes slightly painful.
Often the cause of this is weak glutes. If you don’t have the power required in your glutes, then your quads have to over-compensate.
The remedy for this is not rocket science – it is strengthening your glutes!
You can do this through a range of exercises, including:
- A weighted deadlift
- Sumo squats (either with or without weights)
- Reverses lunges
11. Use Weight Training Exercises To Build Muscle
As I’ve now mentioned a few times, if you want bigger and stronger quads, then the best way to achieve this in the shortest possible time is to do targeted weight training exercises.
What are the best weight training exercises for quads?
Here are four of the best:
Squat – Stand with your feet at shoulder width. Keeping your back straight, bend your legs and squat down until your knees are at about 90 degrees. Raise back up and repeat.
Barbell Squat – This is the same as a standard squat, only you add a heavy dumbbell which you hold up horizontally under your chin
Leg Press – Sit in the machine with your knees up near your chest, and your feet on the weighted platform. Push the platform forward until your legs are nearly extended, and then return slowly to your original position.
Leg Raise – Sit with the bar on your shins, and your legs at ninety degrees. Push the bar upwards with your shins until your legs are straight, then return to the original position.
If you’re looking for extra ideas, here is an excellent video showcasing an intense 5-minute dumbbell quad workout: