You’ve been putting hours on the bike, making progress with speed and endurance – but your quad muscles are nowhere to be found. It may leave you wondering if cycling is building your leg muscles, especially if you feel yourself getting stronger.
So Does Cycling Build Leg Muscle?
While cyclists are likely to get stronger legs through biking, they will not necessarily get bigger legs. Think of the professional cyclists you see on TV. They’re able to put out loads of power while still being incredibly lean.
If you’re wondering how you can grow the size of your legs as a cyclist, read on.
Does Cycling Make Your Legs Bigger?
Cycling does not typically make legs bigger. Cycling is primarily an endurance activity, working both your aerobic and anaerobic systems. While the riders are putting out power and working with resistance while they ride, they are not putting enough load on their legs to see a noticeable increase in muscle size.
In fact, you may notice your legs getting smaller, but with more definition. This is likely to be the case if you are cycling frequently and consuming fewer calories than you burn (Source).
While the cardio portion of the ride burns calories, your legs are ultimately strengthening, which can lead to seeing definition as you burn fat and gain muscle.
While cycling won’t make your legs bigger, it can still help with overall muscle growth and strength, so it’s definitely possible that you’ll notice a difference in your body composition the longer you ride your bike. If you want larger muscles, though, you’ll need to incorporate strength training into your routine.
Do You Gain Muscle from Cycling?
Yes, you can gain muscle from cycling. The resistance component of riding a bike translates into some muscle growth, especially in the legs. You’re likely to see a difference in your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. You may also even notice a difference in your core. All of the balancing and coordination required to stay on your bike (particularly over tricky terrain) comes from having a strong, stable core. If you’re biking enough to burn fat, you may see a more toned stomach emerge. (Source)
That being said, you’d need to be doing a lot of squats and lunges to get quads like a track sprinter. Muscle requires a ton of fuel (primarily protein) to grow, so if you’re losing weight, you’re likely not also gaining muscle (Source).
In fact, you may actually gain weight as you build muscle. Muscle is leaner than fat, so you can lose a pant size as the scale goes up – this is referred to as body recomposition (Source).
It’s very important to incorporate some form of off-the-bike strength training in your plan to limit the chance of injury, but always make sure you’re giving your body adequate time to recover.
For more on this, we also highly recommend that you check out our post “Is Cycling a Good Leg Workout? Is It Enough!“
How to Build More Leg Muscle Cycling?
There are ways you can increase the resistance while you’re biking to stimulate more muscle growth. Here are a few options you can incorporate into your rides (Source):
Stand up to pedal
Standing up to pedal will give you the chance to use different muscles. It will also add more weight to each down-stroke pedal and increase the resistance you feel on the up-stroke. You likely notice a burning in your quads when you sit to pedal – standing to pedal will put more of the focus into your hamstrings and glutes.
This is especially true if you’re clipped in (it’s a bit harder to “pull” from your hamstrings on flat pedals).
It can be tempting to find routes without a lot of elevation change, but adding more hills into your session will make you a stronger cyclist overall. By riding uphill, you’re forcing your body to push both your bike and the weight of your body to the top (thanks, gravity).
Slow your cadence
Slowing down your pedaling will force you to do more of the work rather than relying on the momentum from the bike. Riding slow also often translates into a harder gear, which means more resistance overall.
Push into high gear
Shifting up into a higher gear is one of the easiest ways to stimulate your muscles during the ride. A higher gear means more resistance, which stresses the muscle tissue. Stressed muscle tissue then goes through a recovery and repair process, leading to muscle growth. (But remember – the recovery part is important!)
Add some sprints
It may sound counter-intuitive, but adding sprints can ultimately lead to muscle growth. You’ll want to put your bike in a gear that you can sustain for a 30 second sprint and do some intervals at that pace (ideally on a flat straight-away). Just be careful not to overdo it – you want muscle gain, not muscle strain.
Also, we recommend that you check out our post titled “Is Cycling Better Than Running & Walking ? (Weight Loss, Fitness, Social Element & Joints Impact)“
What Strength Training Exercises Build Leg Muscle?
If you really want to grow the size of your legs, you’ll need to add strength training to your routine. It’s important to find balance, so don’t add a powerlifting plan while you’re in the peak of a race season. Instead, it can help to think of seasons of training. Build muscle size during your “off” season, and then maintain that muscle in your “on” season.
To grow muscle, you’ll need to do a weightlifting plan that incorporates a progressive overload method . This either means an increase in working weight (adding 5 pounds) or an increase in volume (adding more reps). (Source)
It can also be helpful to incorporate single-leg variations to make sure you don’t end up with a muscle or strength imbalance. These can be exercises like lunges, split squats, single leg glute bridges, and single leg Romanian deadlifts.
However, it’s important to have a well-balanced training plan that works all parts of your body. While cycling is very leg-dominant, it still utilizes arm, back, and core muscles. Being stronger off the bike can lead to greater stability, speed, and strength on the bike.
Finally, be sure you’re consuming adequate fuel – especially protein – if you’re trying to grow the size of your muscles. This is often referred to as a “bulk” so you’re likely to see weight gain along with your growing muscle size. You may end up needing to choose between bigger muscles or being lighter on the bike. As long as you’re staying healthy and able to recover adequately, it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Things to keep in mind
Cycling has a ton of benefits for your physical and mental health, but growing huge legs probably isn’t one of them. If you want to see the size of your quads and hamstrings increase, you’ll need to focus more on weight lifting than on increased cycling. A solid combination of cycling and strength training will lead to greater results on and off the bike.