Many people take up cycling to get healthier and improve how they look, but a large part of this is how big our muscles are. Certainly, when I started cycling I wondered how much my legs would grow after seeing pictures of professional cyclists online. But, does cycling actually build muscle?
Cycling will build muscle, particularly in your buttocks, thighs, and calf. However, the type of cycling you do will play a large part in how much muscle you build, with sprints or hill climbing resulting in a larger muscle mass than endurance or road cycling.
So, cycling can build muscle as long as you do the right type of cycling. But which type of cycling is the best, and why does the type of cycling you are doing make a difference in how much muscle you will build?
Can Cycling Build Muscle?
How do you build muscle?
In order to understand if cycling can build muscle or which type of cycling is the best for it, it is important to understand how the body actually builds muscle in the first place.
Building muscle actually occurs after exercise. As you work your muscles you damage the muscles themselves, and it is while the muscles are repairing that they grow back stronger and larger.
As you exercise and use your muscles, small little tears called “microtraumas” occur. These are tears within the muscle fiber itself. As the muscles heal themselves, they actually “over repair” the damage in two key ways.
Firstly, they add extra muscle tissue as they grow back, and secondly, they store more chemicals such as glycogen or water (which your muscles use for energy). These together mean that the next time you use the muscle, they are better adapted to that exercise and will be more prepared to prevent further damage.
It is important to differentiate the two ways in which your muscles over-repair themselves because both have two different functions.
The extra muscle fibers you form help to increase your extra muscle mass (the size of your muscles). While the extra muscle fibers do add a little to the overall strength of your muscle, they are much more important when deciding the size of your muscles than the strength.
The majority of the improvement in the strength of your muscle comes as a result of the extra energy that you have packed into your muscle cells (like that glycogen we talked about above). These help you get more energy per cell, which actually increases the weight you can lift.
Different types of exercise are more prone to making your body repair itself in a certain way. Exercises that work your muscles very hard for a short amount of time (for example lifting weights) stimulate more muscle fiber growth, whereas exercises that make your muscles work at a low level for a very long time (for example jogging), stimulate them to store more energy and chemicals.
So what does this mean for you? This was a very long and detailed way of saying that the type of exercise you do has a huge impact on the way you build muscle.
Cycling definitely can build muscle, however, you will want to focus on a certain type of cycling if you want to increase the size of your muscles.
Which type of cycling will build the most muscle?
So, we’ve established that in order to build the largest muscles, we want to focus on cycling which works the muscles very hard for a short period of time.
Does cycling build leg muscle?
Cycling works lots of muscles around your body, not just in your legs. The main muscles you will be working on are in your bum, thing, and calf. (If you want to take a more detailed look at the muscles you use while cycling take a look at my article on which muscles cycling works and how to train them)
So which type of cycling does this best?
Road or endurance cycling is not very efficient at working out your muscle groups very hard for a short amount of time. In some situations, you may have some of this type of exercise (for example when setting off from a standstill, or when going up a sharp incline), but in reality, the majority of your riding will predispose your muscles to increase their energy stores rather than grow in size.
This is the reason why long-distance cyclists, for example, bike tourers do not have large thighs or legs, but in fact very lean and toned ones.
Sprints or Track Racing
Sprint cyclists such as Mark Cavendish often have much larger leg muscles than the long-distance endurance riders they might be partnered with. This is because, during a bike sprint, your muscles are being worked in a perfect way to promote muscle mass growth.
In fact, some studies have shown that this is the only type of cycling that is effective at building muscle mass or strength.
During a sprint, the muscle fibers need to be activated at a very high level for a short amount of time, resulting in lots of microtrauma and lots of extra muscle growth as they repair.
It’s important to mention though that the legs of a professional track or sprint cyclist don’t come as the result of cycling alone. Most will spend as many hours in the gym doing specific strength training as they do cycling.
Mountain biking fits nicely in the middle of sprint cycling and endurance cycling. While you are often exercising for a prolonged period of time, you also have to work your muscles particularly hard for certain sections of the trail (particularly when cycling uphill).
Mountain biking will also encourage muscle growth in other areas such as your arms more than other types of cycling. This is because, during a mountain bike ride, you have to put much more work into your upper arms to control the bike than you do on other types of cycling such as on a road bike.
As you can see, cycling does have the ability to build muscle, however, it will not be as effective as other exercises that have muscle growth as their main goal (for example weight training). On the other hand, as cycling builds muscle and burns fat, it is very good at producing a toned appearance, as the muscles underneath are much more visible than when there is less overlying tissue.
Long-term cycling will result in an increased size of your leg muscles and you will likely notice some visible gains when you first start, but if muscle gains are your main goal, you will be best off spending time in the gym doing squats.