“Will indoor cycling make my legs big?” I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the years. A few people told me their personal trainers told them that. Others just made the assumption based on the fact that we are constantly using our legs (not a bad assumption). The question was always asked as if people feared they would walk out of class with bulging quadriceps, calves and glutes.
I’m sure that I may have been asked this question more than some because....well....my legs are quite big. It is rare for me to find a pair of cycling shorts that fit comfortably without cutting of the circulation to my lower legs. For the record, I didn’t get my legs from cycling. Back in the day, my primary sport was baseball. Coming out of high school, I looked to have a promising career as a ball player until I blew out my shoulder. I was a catcher. Catchers find themselves sitting in a squat for most of their lives. To make matters worse, one of my early coaches used to have me (and the 2 other catchers on our team) run around the field in a squat position. I can only image what that must have looked like. My legs were so big during my last year of baseball that I was the only player who did not have his last name on their back. The back of my uniform read “Piano Legs”.
So it is understandable that someone would walk into my class, look down at my legs, and fear they would never be able to wear a skirt again after some indoor cycling rides with me. The fact is that cycling reduced much of the bulky-ness of my legs and toned them. No joke, my legs used to be twice the size as they are now. So why did this happen? First, cycling doesn’t provide high impact on the muscles (unless you crash into something which is unlikely indoors). Impact, such as when the foot strikes the ground when running or jumping, will cause the muscle to rapidly resist force resulting in an eccentric contraction. An eccentric contraction will cause the muscle fibers to lengthen as they attempt to stabilize the joints (resist collapsing or flexing). This impact can be very traumatic on the muscle resulting in micro-tears and muscle growth. Second, indoor cycling usually does not provide consistent muscle overload which would provoke more muscle fiber recruitment. Portions of a class may have some explosive efforts or muscular strength drills, but the majority of the time will be spent at low to moderate workloads.
Cycling is predominantly a high repetition activity. In general, high repetition exercise will serve to tone muscle because it promotes increased blood flow and muscle conditioning without the overload. Using weight training as a comparison, someone lifting weights to build muscle mass will target heavy loads and sets consisting of 6 to 10 repetitions. A person interested in toning their muscles will use lighter weight and sets of 15 to 20+ repetitions. Applying this concept to indoor cycling, we are pedaling thousands of rotations (repetitions) per hour*, which is going to have an overall toning and conditioning affect on the muscles.
So the answer is no, it is highly unlikely that indoor cycling will bulk up your legs. So ride away and advertise your class as the way to a beautiful, toned and fit body (at least the legs anyway).
* An average cadence of 80 RPM for a 60 minute class will result in 4800 pedal rotations for one leg.
Originally posted 2011-06-26 06:00:14.
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Tom I am not with you with your exemple on excentric activity will make you have bulky legs.
You talk about jumping ??? Watch theyr legs there are not as bulky as a sprinter roadie.
I played and train pro squash player for year my guy did NOT have bulky legs and I do not know any sport that brink more excentric contraction than squash.
For builky leg:
-first there is genetic: when I watch my kids one will turn 1 in a week and the other one is 2 and a half theyr have builky legs … not coming from me but my wife familly.
-second training as you explain with baseball. Cycling you can work on builky legs but not really indoor. For that the charge have to be really high and explosive and indoor it is not possible to really work that and keep it SAFE and accesible to our fitness population.
But that is a subject we always have to face, I have a climber body type so it is easier for to explain it compare to your more sprinter legs. But there we have 2 differents body type and that is make a lot. I can not easilly build muscle.
One question regarding that, when I was watching some pro cyclist with tiny caves muscles and nice quads I was in admiration, I mostly train indoor and do push more than spin BUT since this winter I am riding once or twice a week on my fixie imposing my legs to spin faster than what I am already do (and that is fast) and now I have the legs I have always wanted decent quads and long and tiny caves …
Pascal, you are correct that genetics has much to do with muscle development. However, if you read my post again, you will see that I was merely listing the training modalities and functional muscle activity NOT present in “indoor” cycling. Both high impact muscle recruitment and overload “can” promote muscle grown. The amount of growth will depend on the person’s individual genetic make-up. Overall, indoor cycling is a high-repetition activity which lends itself well to muscle conditioning and toning.
I love the photo! As instructors it is amazing to me that there are still so many misconceptions about ‘bulking up’. It’s also important to let women know (and it seems as if it’s the women who are, generally, more concerned) that the ability for them to ‘bulk up’ is far less because of increased estrogen and decreased testosterone.
If you talk to female powerlifters they spend hours a day trying to build muscle and it’s very difficult.
Dawn, nicely put. My wife was a bodybuilder and the amount of time (or should I say focus) it took to build muscle is incredible. It requires heavy weights, low repetitions and working to failure. Then there is the nutrition piece. As you say, it is hard to bulk up, particularly in cycling where the loads are “considerably” much lighter and the repetitions (rotations) are seemingly endless in comparison.
It’s true; sometimes I hear comments from women who fear/complain about getting ‘big legs’ from cycling classes. However, the amount of calories from all nutrients consumed could be a reason for the ‘big legs’ syndrome: there could be an imbalance of calories in. I also remind them to gauge muscle hypertrophy/fat gain or loss with how their clothes feel. The goal is to gain muscle while losing some intramuscular
or visceral fat. Once this is achieved everything is in balance: diet/exercise is going well. I see this more often than not; both men and women start to look leaner while gaining increased muscular strength. All the more reason for adding indoor cycling to the activity list!
Tom…..I could certainly understand why folk’d ask you that question but they ask me the same. Or rather, they tell me that’s why they don’t pedal with resistance…..they don’t want big thighs. You’ve seen my thighs……you couldn’t cite a bigger example of a disconnect in thinking if you tried.
Truth be told, your legs are a bit on the bulky side as compare with most cyclists, right? I think that the idea of “big thighs” for cyclists is a bit of a myth for the reasons you cite (well, maybe….just barely maybe….the sprinters are an exception) but what most folk are thinking of when they see “muscular” cyclist’s legs in their minds eye is the disproportion between the muscular definition of the legs vs. the relatively “slight” appearnace of the upper body.
That’s my theory anyway. If only it was as easy as using appropriate resistance in an IDC class…..sigh