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When I think of resistance training I instinctively think of lifting weights in the gym.
But is cycling a type of resistance training? You’re applying a force against a resistance…right?
Cycling is a type of high-repetition resistance training. Cycling will tone muscles and build muscle endurance by offering a repetitive movement against a low force.
If you’re looking to get legs like Schwarzenneger in his prime, then cycling isn’t really the thing. Pumping weights in the gym is the way to go.
But if you’re looking for something that will add a little extra muscle, while having fantastic cardio benefits, cycling is definitely the thing for you.
In this post, I’ll take a look at the 14 most important facts about cycling being a type of resistance training, and how this all works.
1. Cycling Is Resistance Training (In A Small Way)
To an extent, cycling is resistance training.
Resistance training is basically your muscles acting against an opposing force repeatedly.
For example, weight training in the gym is probably the most well-known type of resistance training. When you do bicep curls, for example, your biceps are acting against the force of the weight (the resistance).
This creates small tears in the muscle fibers in your biceps. These are imaginatively called ‘micro-tears’. These tears will rebuild over the next few days, and your muscle will become stronger and to some extent larger.
In cycling, your legs are acting against the force of the pedals. So, it definitely is resistance training to an extent, though it will have nothing like the impact of lifting weights if you’re trying to put on a lot of muscle mass.
Why not? Well, here’s why…
2. High-Repetition Exercise
Cycling is a high-repetition exercise.
When you are cycling, your legs are turning the pedals literally thousands of times per ride. This means that cycling is not really a great way for building a lot of extra muscle (though you will build some).
The best way to build muscle is by doing exercises that use a high resistance, and you are only able to do a few repetitions of each exercise.
In the gym, it is understood that you should be performing 6-12 repetitions of each exercise over 3-6 sets. This is optimal for muscle development and strengthening.
Professional weight lifters will be doing 1-5 repetitions of extremely strenuous exercises. They are trying to develop power, and not muscle size.
Any exercise that is more than 20 repetitions is particularly working on muscle endurance and muscle toning. Cycling clearly falls into this category.
Here is a table that breaks down the kinds of repetitions to expect for each specific target:
|Number Of Repetitions Of An Exercise
|To increase strength and power, but not necessarily increase muscle size
|Increase muscle size
|Increase muscle endurance
|Tone muscle through cardio-style resistance
3. Cycling Is Ideal For Muscle Toning (With Some Muscle Building)
All this means that cycling is really good at toning the muscles, rather than growing them (that much).
What exactly is ‘toning’. Well, there is a lot of discussion and dispute about this, but putting it simply – toning is some muscle development and growth without rapid expansion or becoming too bulky. (Source) This is the kind of development that cycling promotes so well.
Cycling will sculpt your body in a range of ways. Lots of cycling can help you lose fatty deposits in parts of your body.
For women, the first place they often lose weight is the hips and buttocks. Losing fat here will give the impression of being more toned (as well as the muscles actually being more sculpted anyway).
Men tend to lose weight first around the stomach area, so your trunk can look more aesthetically pleasing.
4. Muscle Endurance
Medical News Today defines muscle endurance as ‘the ability to continue contracting a muscle, or group of muscles, against resistance, such as weights or body weight, over a period of time.’ (Source)
This is the real muscle benefit that cycling provides in spades!
The key muscle groups used in cycling get more resilient to exercise and recovery through cycling sessions. Over time, the muscles will:
- Be able to contract harder and for longer
- Recover more quickly in between sessions
- Be able to work and support each other more efficiently
Which muscles are most impacted by cycling?
Muscle endurance is the ability to continue contracting a muscle, or group of muscles, against resistance, such as weights or body weight, over a period of time.Medical News Today
5. Tones Quads
The most important muscle group in cycling is the quads. This is the large muscle group that is found at the front of the thigh.
The quads are responsible for driving down on the pedals and propelling the bike forward. They are the main force in the motion (closely followed by the glutes).
The quads are active from the top of the pedal revolution to the bottom. Then they are relatively at rest from the bottom of the pedal arc to the top.
They are fully active 50% of the time, and when one is pushing down, the other is relatively at rest.
But what does all this mean for the impact on your quads? Well, if there’s one muscle that’s going to get the maximum toning from cycling then it’s your quads.
6. Builds Muscle In Glutes
The second most important muscle group in cycling is the glutes. These work alongside the quads to drive forwards on the pedals.
The glutes are often the area where many people find the most visible difference in their body shape if they do lots of cycling. This especially relates to many women, as the buttock area is often the first place that they lose fat when they are in the process of losing weight.
The glutes have three roles in cycling:
- Helping with power to drive the pedals –
- Keeping the hips stable – this helps keep your core stable and also maximizes the efficiency of your pedaling. Weak glutes result in your hips swinging about all over the place, which in turn slows your legs down
- Keeping the knees stable – again this helps the legs to simply focus on pushing down on the pedals
An important issue to think about is that you can train your glutes to actually generate more power by up-skilling your technique. The following Youtube video from Mark Allen Coaching shows you how to do exactly this:
7. Builds Calves
Slightly less important than the glutes and the quads are the calves.
They are the third of the three muscle groups that act alongside the glutes and quads to push downwards on the pedals.
Take a look at the legs of pro cyclists, and the definition of the calves is often astonishing!
Cycling is really good at toning and sculpting gorgeous calf muscles.
8. Builds Hamstrings
The hamstrings are the muscle group behind the thighs. They are important in cycling because they work by themselves.
When the quads, glutes, and calves are all acting in one direction, the hamstrings are actually acting in the opposite way.
During cycling, the hamstrings are in action from the bottom of the pedal stroke to the top. They are responsible for bending the leg.
This is another muscle group that is toned by cycling.
9. Tones Core
It’s probably less obvious that your core is getting activated when cycling than in other forms of cardio (such as rowing).
However, it’s definitely happening!
The core has several roles:
- Keeping the body’s positive posture
- Keeping the strain off your back
- Keeping your balance
The core is worked much more thoroughly when you leave the saddle.
10. Higher Resistance The More Muscle Is Developed
If your goal is to build muscle through cycling, then it definitely is possible if you follow some particular strategies.
The first one is to turn the resistance up as high as possible.
If you are cycling outdoors, this will probably mean cycling up hills.
If indoors, just turn the resistance on the bike up as far as it will go. Even if you can only sustain this level of resistance for 30 seconds or a minute, this is just the type of high-resistance low repetition task that will be building some muscle.
11. Use Interval Training
If you want to really up the ante, then interval training is where it is at.
This basically means splitting your cycling session up into sections of high and lower intensity. This can be done either indoors or outside.
Research available from the National Library of Medicine suggests that ‘interval training induces numerous physiological adaptations that improve exercise capacity (maximal oxygen uptake, aerobic endurance, anaerobic capacity, etc.’ (Source)
Imagine two cyclists – both travel the same distance at the same average speed, but one is constantly at the same speed, while the other breaks their ride into intervals of high and low intensity. Research confirms that the one using intervals will receive many more benefits from the experience.
To do interval training, simply break your ride up into sprints, climbs, and periods of relatively easy cycling.
During your session, you can:
- Make the sprinting intervals longer as you go through the session
- Make the sprinting intervals more intense
- Increase the frequency of the sprints
My favorite video by far on the subject of interval training is the following one from the Vegan Cyclist:
12. Climb For Added Resistance
If you’re cycling outdoors, the best way to experience both high resistance and interval training is through taking on climbs.
This could be a series of short climbs (if you can find them), or just one long climb.
This is the ultimate leg burner!
If you’re indoors, then just replicate this by turning up the intensity and getting out of the saddle.
13. Get Out Of The Saddle
Getting out of the saddle really puts a lot more positive force on your cycling muscles.
When seated, cycling is a non-weight-bearing activity. That means that your body weight is not supported by your legs.
However, when you leave your saddle, your body weight is acting as an extra force against your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and even your core.
This really helps to develop more muscle than staying seated. You can stay out of your saddle for long periods, or just integrate periods into an interval training regime.
Here’s some excellent tips from the Livestrong Youtube channel about how to cycle to make your legs more muscular:
14. Cycle On Rough Terrain
If you really want to work out all your muscles to their optimum, then rough terrain really helps to turn the heat up.
The muscles have to work to absorb shocks and impacts, and this works them out a whole lot more than just cycling on flat surfaces.
Bumps and undulations help to work the muscles laterally as well as in a straight line.