Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.
Can Cycling Give you Big Muscles?
Can Biking Build Your Leg Muscles?
We all know that cycling is a great workout that has many health, fitness and muscular benefits, but building leg muscles through cycling can be a divisive factor for many people.
Women often want a better physique without adding bulk to areas like their thighs and calves, whereas men often tend to want to add a little more muscle to their body frame.
This article targets some of the myths associated with biking and leg muscle building, as well as providing insight into how you can use cycling to get a step closer to the body you've been dreaming of.
The reality is a lot different from the myths that friends and family might have you believe. We're here to explain the facts about the effects bicycling will have on your thigh and calf bulk.
What Do You Think?
The Big Myth About Big Thighs
Contrary to what many educated exercisers might believe or choose to share, you shouldn't be worrying that cycling will build huge quadriceps (front of thigh) and calf muscles, especially if you're doing normal riding.
Endurance cycling can actually prevent you from building big muscles. This is because cycling for extended periods of time stimulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol within the body. Generally any workouts over 90 minutes can have this effect; however the stimulation point can vary between exercisers.
Whether you're biking to work to save a few dollars or decided to take up cycling to help you lose a few extra pounds of body fat, you might have heard a relative or friend mutter a warning to be careful because "Biking builds big thighs".
The real truth is that general cycling isn't an activity to add significant muscle mass and bulk to your thighs and calves. Its endurance nature means the stress placed on your muscles every pedal stroke is never going to be significant enough to target mass building in most people.
Exactly Where Are Those Bulky, Muscular Thighs?
But Competitive Cyclists Have Big Thighs
If you look at an image of professional cyclists (like the road cyclists featured here), would you consider those "big thighs"? These riders have well developed musculature but in the grand scheme of things, it would be hard to say that they have huge leg muscles or something undesirable within the general population.
The cyclists who tend to have extraordinarily large leg muscles tend to be those whose side of the sport is on the velodrome, with an emphasis on sprint events. Just like the bulk required by a 100-metre runner like Usain Bolt, a track sprinter needs to be able to develop otherworldly levels of power when they turn their pedals to power themselves forwards at speeds in excess of 60+ km/h.
Sprinters in cycling terms tend to develop their muscles more through gym work to develop the ability to generate immense forces on the bike. As a result, this gym work often leads to an increase in musculature (but not always). Some riders are naturally powerful. Consider Mark Cavendish. The Manx Missile is a rider who at first glance doesn't come across as someone who can turn his pedals a few times and be travelling ridiculously fast, yet put him on the Champs Elyse at the end of the Tour De France and you know he's fast.
Does Cycling Up Hills Add Leg Muscle?
If you've looked up terms like 'how to build leg muscles by cycling' on the Internet you'll find that a lot of articles encourage you to head for the hills to add leg bulk from bicycling. The reality of that is rather strange, as you will find that many of the strongest hill riders as part of races like the Tour De France are often the leanest and with some of the most slender legs you'd ever see on a rider.
To cycle up Maintain Passes successfully, you need to overcome gravity. This means that a rider has to be lightweight. To add muscle to their physique, bodybuilders works towards exhausting their muscles over short bouts to really challenge their muscles. A mountain climbing cyclist is aiming not to push themselves to fatigue. The thousands of pedal revolutions encountered going up the legendary Alp D'Huez in France will challenge a riders' endurance capabilities more than their physical strength, leading to more of a toning effect than muscle growth.
A Bike Ride on a Summer Day
The Reality: Cycling Increases Muscle Tone
In reality the endurance nature of cycling is never going to lead to any significant form of muscle bulking for most of the population. Some exercisers may see a long term slight increase in musculature; however for significant amounts of muscle hypertrophy, significant specific training is required.
Those thousands of pedal revolutions in any bike ride are going to have a great effect on your leg muscles. Increasing blood flow through your capillary networks and leading to a toning effect due to the repetitive nature of the activity.
If you perform a toning exercise for an extended period of time it can lead to a slight amount of hypertrophy; however this will likely be minimal and have little effect on dress size and thigh volume.
Bicycling Can Make Your Thighs Look Slimmer
In contrast to adding bulk to your thighs, there is a strong possibility (certainly initially if you're new to an exercise program or overweight) that regular cycling can lead to slimmer thighs and calves.
Cycling could help you to reduce your body adipose tissue stores. We all have a layer of fat that lies between our muscles and skin. It's what stops many people seeing their amazing six-pack they have hiding away.
By using cycling and participating in a healthy diet regime you can start to 'eat away' at your fat tissue stores, which can lead to a slimmer, healthier you. By losing some of the fat that's stored around your thighs and calves, you'll likely start to notice that your legs are slimmer than they once were. Be aware though that your fat stores cannot be spot reduced. Cycling won't just help to remove fat from your legs but from your whole body.
miked1919@ on June 01, 2015:
The legs and the butt slim down. Specialized workouts build the legs. They are very tough to develop. I was blessed with big powerful legs. I have to thank my parents.
Liam Hallam (author) from Nottingham UK on June 01, 2015:
Thanks pierrepons. Track cyclists are an exception to the rule if you consider the sprinters. You wouldn't find a pursuiter with a 80+ kg body and the thighs of a rugby player usually as they're focus is endurance but the likes of a Bourgain has to have huge amounts of musculature to turn such a huge gear and they're a minority within the sport of cycling
pierrepons on May 21, 2015:
Have you ever seen a cyclist track in real life? Of course it builds huge legs, I've done plenty races and 70% of comptetitors had big legs, when not very big legs, including me, without doing any musculation. Ones who're skinny are for some particular reasons, particularly in pro races : lack of proteins (income vs outcome : much training), intentionally or not.
miked1919@ on June 23, 2013:
Thanks for debunking old myths. I am a personal trainer. I constantly have to explain to people that building muscle is incredibly hard work. It requires specialized training and specific dieting.
I guess they see someone like me. I still have big muscles from weight training. I cycle a lot. Many people asked me whether I got my big muscles from cycling. I almost have to laugh. Cycling is great for toning, and it is excellent for shedding extra body fat.
Kenneth C Agudo from Tiwi, Philippines on May 26, 2013:
wonderful, I feel that you love bicycling based on your hubs ;-)
Shea on May 10, 2013:
Great hub. I used to be a personal trainer and I was always debunking the myth of huge legs from cycling. I encouraged my clients to ride to help slim down. The ones that did were amazed at how their legs slimmed up.