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If you want to look like Schwarzenegger at his peak then spinning is not going to get you there.
However, if you’re looking for a form of cardio that also builds some muscle as a bonus, then spinning is exactly the thing you are looking for!
I’ve tried spinning on and off for more than a decade, and I’ve seen the muscle-toning and building properties that it definitely offers.
In this post, I’ll describe the 14 crucial ways that spinning builds muscle.
1. Five Major Muscle Groups At Work
The first thing to understand is that spinning activates a large proportion of the muscle groups in your body.
In particular, it really hones in on five muscle groups. These are:
- The glutes
- The quads
- The core
- The hamstrings
- The calves
Basically, it is the entirety of your lower and central body. These muscle groups are used throughout the whole session.
More about each one coming up, particularly:
- How the muscle works during spinning
- How to get the most out of it
- The effects on that muscle after spinning
2. Spinning Works Like Resistance Training (To An Extent)
Let me take a look at how spinning works on your muscles.
To an extent, it works a bit like resistance training. In traditional resistance training, such as lifting weights, a muscle will be exerting itself against an opposing force.
So, for example, if you do bicep curls, your biceps are opposing the force of the dumbbells. This makes small tears in the muscle which are imaginatively called ‘micro-tears’.
These micro-tears rebuild, and the muscle grows back bigger and stronger.
To an extent, the same is happening when you go spinning. Your body is working against resistance which will be causing some very small micro-tears in the muscles. These micro-tears then grow back bigger and more powerful.
This process is greatly enhanced if you cycle against high resistance, or get up out of the saddle.
However, I have to say that this muscle building is only quite low level compared to other forms of weight resistance training.
If your primary goal is building muscle, then the best way to achieve that is through resistance weight training.
However, if a low level of muscle building is your goal, probably on top of all the cardio benefits, then spinning is perfect for you.
3. High Reps Means Some Muscle Development And High Endurance
Let me expand on the last point.
Spinning is a high-repetition activity. This means that it is excellent for developing muscle endurance, while also developing some level of muscle strengthening.
In a nutshell, this means that when you spin, you are repeating the same movement hundreds of times (i.e. spinning the pedals).
With exercises that develop a high amount of muscle mass, this is not the case.
The optimum number of reps for muscle development is 6-12 reps, performed in a series of 3-6 sets.
If you are going for all-out power (not just size), then 2-5 reps are best.
In cycling, you are doing hundreds, even thousands, of the same thing. This boosts cardio, and increases muscle endurance, but will also add some muscle, especially if you know what you are doing.
Here’s a simple table, that shows how many reps to do of certain exercises and the effect this has on the associated muscle:
|Number Of Reps||Impact|
|2-5 Reps, 3 Sets||Increase strength and power. However, this does not necessarily increase muscle size|
|6-12 Reps, 3-6 Sets||Increase the muscle size|
|12-20 Reps, 3 Sets||The optimum level for muscle endurance|
|20+ Reps, Interval Training||Tone muscle through cardio-style resistance|
4. It Can Be Noticeable…Fast!
Now for a big bonus of spinning. It can work its wonders…fast!
Many people report seeing benefits even in the first week in terms of muscle toning. This is especially true if you go spinning at least three times per week. (Source)
In the past, I have tried anything from spinning once per week to every day per week. You will definitely see much more significant results from spinning 3-6 times per week.
Results you may see early include:
- Losing some fat from key areas. Often with women, this is the buttocks and hips, and with men, it is the trunk area. (Source)
- See some muscle toning
- Improvements in circulation
5. Quads – Powerhouse Of The Whole System
Let’s get specifically to the key muscles involved now.
And the most important muscle group in cycling is the quadriceps (quads). This is the large group of muscles at the front of your thigh.
These are the powerhouse of the whole cycling engine.
Their main role is to force down on the pedals from the top of the pedal revolution to the bottom. They are then relatively at rest from the bottom of the pedal circle to the top.
This means that the quads are therefore activated at least half of the time. They are continually expanding and contracting throughout.
When you spin, the biggest burn you will feel will be in the quads. They are also the muscle that will be built the most strongly through cycling.
6. Glutes Develop Through 3 Key Roles!
The second most important muscle group in cycling is the glutes.
This is the muscle group in your buttocks. These muscles are toned and built through spinning. During cycling, they actually have three separate roles, which are:
To Apply Down Force To The Pedals
This is their most important role. The glutes work in sync with the quads to drive power into the pedals. They help to move you forward.
To Stabilize The Hips
Another very important role, but one that is much less obvious, is that they act to stabilize the hips.
As you spin, you want to keep your hips relatively straight and immobile. It is the glutes that do this.
If you have weak glutes, then your hips would be moving all over the place as you cycle. This would put a strain on the back, and also slow you down, and make your cycling much less efficient.
Strong glutes help keep the hips level, and everything else follows from there.
Free Up The Legs
Strong glutes also let your legs do their thing! Weak glutes mean the legs have to stabilize the hips, and that takes power away from the pedaling motion.
Strong glutes mean the opposite – the legs are free to cycle!
If you’re looking for ways to further activate and build your glutes through cycling, then I came across this excellent video by Kirsten Allen where she suggests some great tips:
7. Develops Your Core
A less obvious area that is being well worked by cycling is your core. Although you wouldn’t get a full 12-pack by spinning alone, it can contribute.
Your core muscles help to keep you balanced as you cycle.
Your core also helps you to keep a good posture as you cycle. This generally means keeping your back straight and angled forward.
A good posture takes the strain off your back and helps everything flow more smoothly.
8. Grows Muscle In The Calves
You will often see truly astonishing calf muscles on pro cyclists and Tour de France veterans.
The cycling motion means the calves are working against resistance when you go spinning.
Calves are actually working alongside the quads and the glutes. All three act as one to push downwards on the pedals.
In general, cycling is more of a pushing exercise than a pulling one, and the main force is down. The calves work to do this, and some muscle development is the result.
The calves are worked harder when you leave your saddle.
9. Develop Your Hamstrings
The hamstrings are not one of the primary muscle groups in the cycling motion, but they are still important.
They actually work at the opposite time, and in the opposite way to the glutes, quads, and calves.
The hamstrings are activated from the bottom of the pedal stroke to the top. The hamstrings are essentially being used to raise the leg and bend the knee.
As a result of spinning, your hamstrings will become toned and you could build muscle.
Here are the muscle areas you can expect to see progress in from spinning if you go 3+ times per week:
|Muscle Group||Importance In Spinning||Role In Cycling|
|Quads||High||Driving down on the pedals|
|Glutes||High||Driving pedals, stabilizing hips, supporting legs|
|Hamstrings||Medium||Raising leg and bending knee|
|Calves||Medium-High||Driving down on the pedals|
|Core||Medium||Balance body, and support posture|
10. Develops Muscles Around The Knee
One of the things that attract many people to cycling is that it is really friendly to our knees compared to other high-impact forms of cardio like running.
There are several reasons for this. Cycling is low-impact, meaning it is smooth and does not jolt the joints.
Just as important for knee health is the fact that spinning has on building muscle around the knees. This was highlighted in a study in the National Library Of Medicine.
(Source) This found that cycling positively promoted cartilage health and knee ligament health.
How did it do that?
Well, apparently it found that cycling didn’t add strain to either knee ligaments or cartilage while helping to strengthen muscles in the area too (particularly the quads).
In a nutshell, stronger legs mean less strain on the knee joint, so hopefully healthier and happier knees.
11. Uses High Resistance
Like with any resistance training, to get optimum results for strength, you’ll need to increase the intensity.
Spinning classes are excellent at doing this. If you’ve ever been to one, you know that you normally alternate between periods of low-resistance cycling, followed by periods of high-resistance.
It is the high resistance periods that will be building the most muscles. The low-resistance periods are good for boosting cardio, and recovery.
If you’re spinning by yourself, be sure to include as many high-resistance periods as you can, where you turn the resistance up as high as you can go, and really feel the burn.
12. Uses Interval Training
Another way to really optimize your ride is to include interval training.
This is an integral part of spinning anyway. It basically means to split your training up into periods of high intensity and low intensity.
This gets much greater results from the same amount of time, even if the distance and average speed of your ride is the same.
During a spinning class, your ride will be split into intervals that will:
- Increase in intensity
- Increase in frequency
- Mimic going up steeper and steeper hills
- Blend recovery periods with periods of high intensity
If you want to learn more about the magic of interval training, my favorite video about this subject is definitely this one by the Vegan Cyclist:
13. Stand Up In The Saddle
Another way that spinning really helps to build muscle is by getting you up in the saddle.
When seated, spinning is a non-weight-bearing activity. This means that your body weight is not supported by your legs (instead it is held up by your saddle).
However, when you come out of the saddle, spinning becomes a weight-bearing activity. This means that your weight is supported by your legs, and there is a lot more downward force being applied to your muscles.
Standing in the saddle strengthens your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves in particular.
14. Tones And Sculpts
As you can probably see, spinning really does act to tone and sculpt your muscles, particularly in your lower and mid-body.
It can help you look more aesthetically sculpted and visually more pleasing.
Spinning builds healthy muscles that are:
- More toned and sculpted
- Have better endurance
- Are bigger