When it comes to cycling, many people will expect to get huge legs like they see on the TV, but in reality, a lot of cyclists never have this level of muscle growth. As a keen cyclist, I thought I’d take a look into how much cycling you actually need to do in order to increase your muscle, and what factors will impact how long it might take?
You need to cycle at least two times per week in order to build muscle from cycling. Doing so, you should start to notice an increase in your muscles after 7 weeks. How much cycling you need to do can be reduced by doing extra strength training sessions at the gym and optimizing your diet.
So, you need to be cycling at least twice per week, and even then you can’t expect to see any results for 7 weeks. But how did we come to this number, and what other ways can you use to speed up any muscle gains?
How much cycling do you need to do to build muscle?
When it comes to putting on muscle from cycling, everyone is going to be different. I asked a large group of cyclists how long it took them to notice any physical changes in their bodies from cycling. This really helped to get a better understanding of the average time it might take.
As you can see, the majority of the cyclists I spoke to only started to notice the impact of their cycling at around the 6-week mark. Across the whole group, the average amount of time it took before people noticed their physical changes was 7 weeks.
Bear in mind that these cyclists all had different training regimes, some of them were supplementing their cycling with work in the gym, and they all will have hugely different starting points.
In reality, when I looked more closely at those cyclists who were not doing any extra strength training alongside their cycling, the majority of answers fell into the “more than 8 weeks” category.
This time is significantly longer than you would expect from muscle gains when doing specific weight training at a gym. This may well be a result of cycling being a less efficient way of building muscle, or the fact that the main goal of cycling is not to build muscle. As a result, many of these cyclists may not have been optimizing other areas of their lives (such as diet) to effectively increase muscle mass.
It is important to note that you will be building muscle before you can see it. When it comes to regular weight training, you would expect to feel strength changes in about two to three weeks whereas you would only expect to see changes after four to six weeks.
How much should I cycle to build muscle?
So, you’ll need to be cycling for around six to eight weeks before you really start to notice any difference. But how much should you actually be cycling during this time?
When it comes to how often you should be cycling, you need to balance the time you are spending cycling with the time you need to give your muscles to rest and repair.
With any training aimed at building muscle, exercising 2 or more times a week is vastly superior to one day alone.
So, you should be looking to do at least 2 days a week of cycling in order to most effectively build muscle. In reality, given cycling is less optimal than other forms of weight training, you may well want to increase this to 3 or 4 times per week to build muscle in the fastest way.
As we’ve already established though, you will want to ensure you are building in enough time for your muscles to rest and repair. Without this step, you will significantly reduce your rate of muscle growth.
Most health authorities will suggest building in at least 1 day of rest between sessions exercising the same muscles. As cycling always works on the same muscle set, this means you will probably not want to cycle more than every other day (if building muscle is your primary goal).
What factors impact how much cycling you will need to do to build muscle?
So we’ve seen generally how long it might take to build muscle from cycling, how about you personally? In reality, there are many different factors that will impact how long it takes you to build muscle from cycling, all of which will be specific to you.
The type of cycling you are doing
When it comes to cycling, the amount of muscle you will build is very dependent on the type of cycling you are doing. Just take a look at a professional bike sprinter compared to a professional endurance rider.
In general, long-distance cycling is better for burning calories and fat than it is for putting on muscle. If your main goal is building muscle then you will want to focus on interval or high-intensity training.
High-intensity training has been shown in studies to be the best way of putting on muscle when cycling, and in some cases, the only form of cycling that builds muscle effectively.
This involves doing short bursts of cycling as fast as you can, often on an incline for around 30 seconds, then taking a substantial break to give your body time to recover. This is then repeated multiple times. For an example of a HIT Bike training regime, take a look at this plan from anytime fitness.
How often you are cycling
Apart from the type of cycling you are doing, the amount of cycling you are doing and how frequently you a riding a bike will also impact how long it will take you to build muscle. If you are cycling at least two times a week (as I suggested above), then you will be building muscle much more quickly than someone who is only cycling once a week.
In fact, only cycling one day a week is likely to result in you not gaining any muscle mass at all.
The quality of your diet
As with almost all areas of fitness, your diet will play a key role in how long it will take you to notice any muscle gains. In fact, without a proper diet, you are unlikely to notice any extra muscle at all.
First of all, you will want to look at the total amount of calories you are eating. If you want to prioritize increased muscle mass then you will want to be eating a calorie surplus. This ensures your body has enough energy to make more muscle, and also ensures your body does not start to burn any muscle to use as energy for cycling.
If you want to learn more about how to avoid your body burning your muscle while cycling or the best way to gain extra muscle while cycling, take a look at my article here.
Apart from calories, you also need to ensure you are eating enough protein. Protein in your diet is broken down into amino acids which in turn form the building blocks of muscle. Without enough protein, your body isn’t able to build the muscle it wants to.
How much sleep & rest you are getting
Another key factor to consider is how much rest time you are giving your muscles. This is both in the form of actual sleep, but also rest days.
Muscles grow by being “torn” during exercise and repairing themselves. As they grow back they come back bigger and stronger to hopefully be better prepared for the next time they are required.
If you aren’t giving your muscles adequate time to recover, then any muscle gains will be significantly slower, and the quality of your exercise will be worse.
Not only this but not building in enough rest days or sleep into a routine is a sure-fire way to get an injury.
If you are adding in any extra weight training
We’ve already established that formal work in a gym or strength training is more efficient than cycling is for building muscle, so naturally, if you are including any of this in your training regime you will build muscle more quickly than if you weren’t.
In order to build muscle as quickly as you can, you will want to incorporate some resistance training such as squats with your regular cycling.
The way that you are measuring your muscle growth
When it comes to monitoring any muscle gains, the way you are tracking your progress can also cause you to think you are making slower gains than you are.
Many people will use appearance alone to measure muscle mass. While this is effective (and in reality the main reason any of us care about muscles in the first place), muscles can easily be hidden by excess body fat, and you may well think you have not made any progress when you have.
What may be more effective is measuring your actual strength in the muscles you are using. Obviously, cycling will work your lower body, with areas such as your glutes and quads taking on most of the work. It may be beneficial to test out your starting strength in some of these areas, for example seeing how much you can squat before you start, so that you can compare yourself to this later and more accurately see results.
How much muscle you already have
While it seems a bit counterintuitive, the more muscle you already have, the harder it is to build more muscle. When you initially start cycling you will likely notice changes in the first few months, however, after this, you are likely to notice less rapid progress.
Everyone has a maximum potential for muscle growth, the closer you get to yours, the harder it gets to build more muscle.
This is also true for weight training, beginners might expect to see muscle growth in four to six weeks whereas more advanced lifters will have to change up their training regimes and spend more time (around 8 weeks) to notice any further progress.
How old you are
As with all of our other bodily functions, building muscle is more difficult as you get older. Once you get past the age of 50, your body finds it much more difficult to build extra muscle and the process will therefore take longer. This is a result of hormonal changes in your body, as well as the fact that your body is just not as efficient as it was when you were younger.
How much muscle your parents had
You may well have already noticed that the ability to build muscle runs in families. This is the result of our genetics. Genetics determine many things about us, including how responsive our muscles our to training, as well as the levels of hormones in our body such as testosterone.
Hormone levels, testosterone specifically, play a huge role in how quickly you can put on muscle. It is the increased testosterone levels that cause men to have more muscle than women.
In fact, testosterone levels will increase how quickly and efficiently you build muscle by up to 30%, which is why many sports agencies ban steroid use in tournaments (testosterone is a steroid).
As you can see, the amount of time it will take to build muscle from cycling is very variable. It will depend on many factors including your training regime, diet, and other factors you can’t control such as your genetics.