When looking for workouts and exercise modalities to improve body composition, there’s a number of options available to you. These options suit different groups of people based on several factors: convenience, equipment, and facilities required, technical skills required for the activity, and likelihood to cause injury or exacerbate previous injuries to name a few.
On one end of the spectrum, we have an activity like running: minimal equipment or facilities required, little technique required, but hard on the body. On the other end of the spectrum we have activities like swimming: excellent for cardio and a total-body workout but requires proper facilities and excellent technique.
Right in the middle of the spectrum sits cycling: an exercise modality almost anyone can use as part of their program to lose weight, gain muscle, and improve body composition.
In this article, we’ll discuss the science behind why cycling is an excellent way to improve body composition and how you can incorporate it into your existing exercise routines to boost your gains.
You’ve decided that cycling might be a great way for you to start improving your body. What kind of results can you expect? Well, there’s plenty of science showing that cycling is a fantastic way to both lose fat and gain muscle in a relatively short amount of time-- especially in the lower body.
Take this study, for example: with a workout that consisted of twelve weeks of three weekly sprint workouts, both men and women added 5% of size to their quadriceps. The protocol consisted of only 4 x 20-second sprints three times a week. The four minutes total of sprint work also resulted in a 4.8% increase in fatigue resistance as measured by high-repetition knee extensions. Even with warm-up and cool down, this is an extremely time-effective way to train!
Another study investigated the benefits of high-intensity, low-volume training in a gym setting (that’s a fancy way of saying spin class). Short, high-intensity sessions of only twenty-five minutes, performed three times a week, were enough to reduce abdominal fat.The research also showed a massive 9% improvement in VO2 max, an indicator of aerobic fitness.
Researchers in this study found equally impressive results: adult women lost 3.6% of fat mass in only 6 weeks of high-intensity cycling performed three times per week.
Although high-intensity training is an excellent way to train, it can also be strenuous on the body and mind, so it’s a good idea to mix it up and substitute some HIIT days for lower-intensity or moderate intensity training as both of these will still result in positive benefits.
It’s also smart to change the program you use for high-intensity training to keep from stagnating. This where group classes, like spin, really shine: you have constant motivation and an instructor who is tasked with keeping each session productive and engaging.
Overall, cycling provides benefits like:
So, you’ve seen that cycling can be both practical and effective. However, does buying a bike or joining a spin class sound like too much commitment? Are you wondering why you wouldn’t just stick with the tried-and-true form of cardio, running?
After all, running is even more practical than cycling: the only equipment you need is a pair of shoes and athletic clothes. Any gym that has a spin bike will also have treadmills, and to train outdoors all you need is a sidewalk, walking path or the local high school’s track.
While it is true that running might surpass cycling for practicality, and it’s a great way to get a workout, there are many reasons why cycling might be a better form of exercise for many people. A big reason is that while running is a good way to lose fat, cycling can be a better exercise for people who want to lose fat while gaining or maintaining muscle mass.
Research has shown that ultra-endurance cyclists didn’t lose skeletal muscle mass after a 600-kilometer event, despite losing significant amounts of weight through fat and dehydration. This contrasts with similar events in running which have been shown to be catabolic and reduce muscle mass. Additionally, cycling has a lower impact on joints so can be sustained more effectively for long-term training and body recomposition.
A separate study shows cycling causes substantially less inflammation, muscle soreness, and muscle damage than running when the two sports were matched for intensity and duration. The results researchers found in this study were dramatic. Muscle damage markers ranged from 134-404% higher in runners than cyclists, inflammation markers were 256% higher, and runners reported 87% higher levels of muscle soreness. This muscle damage and inflammation can be catabolic, and it can negatively influence other training sessions. Cycling, on the other hand, is less damaging, and clears the way for more frequent training either on the bike or using other exercise modalities.
That means with cycling, you can train harder, maintain the intensity of your strength workouts, and make better progress in both fat loss and muscle gain without the possible muscle damage that can from other cardio exercises like running.
Cycling might be an excellent activity, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. For general fitness and body composition, cycling does have drawbacks and pitfalls. Luckily these are easily avoided! You should remember that there’s no one perfect form of exercise, and only by including a variety of exercises will you get the best results.
First, and perhaps the most obvious one: cycling is a lower-body centric activity. Look at a professional cyclist and you’ll notice a lean physique with eye-popping leg musculature, yet a toothpick-thin upper body. More serious is what researchers have found regarding bone density.
In a study of masters-aged cyclists, 84% were deemed to have osteoporosis or osteopenia, compared to only 50% of the non-cycling control group. This is different than runners because unlike in running, the weight of the body is not impacting the bones, causing them to strengthen over time.
Luckily, these problems are solved by a simple but well-rounded gym program. A full body strength routine will hit those neglected upper body muscles, and combining strength and endurance training will not only facilitate changes in body composition but also help maintain or strengthen bones.
Since weight training also improves bone density, where cyclists can have problems, it’s even more important for older trainees. The noted study concludes that there was strong evidence that competitive cyclists should include resistance training in order to maintain bone density. It’s clear that for many reasons, combining your cycling training with some time doing strength work is ideal for fitness, health, and body composition.
In another study, adding cycling to a normal resistance training routine helped cyclists gain muscle mass and lose fat by adding a strength training routine to their ordinary cycling training.
This may be because endurance exercise burns a lot of calories, strength training typically does a better job of raising the resting metabolic rate.
So if you decide to take up cycling for the lower-body benefits, remember to also keep your strength and resistance training to keep your bone density healthy!
There are many ways you can include cycling into your everyday routine. If you don’t want to bike to work, you can visit your gym and hop on a stationary bike. You can also join a spin class, which is an engaging and fun way to get in a high-intensity workout with the support of others.
If you’re already a gym-goer and concerned that cycling will interfere with strength and muscle gains made in the gym, don’t be!
Researchers found that following a strength workout with a high-intensity cycling one didn’t stop progress in muscular strength or size: in fact, trainees increased muscle fiber size by roughly 17% during a 2-month training period. Increasing muscle fiber size means larger and more powerful muscles.
Combining cycling with strength work will increase the positive effects of your training, allowing you to improve body composition more effectively.
If you’re less of a weight-lifter and more of a cardio nut, then consider implementing cycling for its low-impact nature, making it a safer and less damaging activity than running. There are many ways to participate in cycling, from mountain biking to joining a road cycling club, to participating in events like charity rides and races.
While cycling may have some negative effects like lowering bone density, a well-rounded training routine that incorporates cycling can improve body composition. Even very short sessions, when done with the right intensity, can give you the results you’re looking for.
There are a million ways you can incorporate cycling into your weekly routine, but if you’re looking for specific suggestions, incorporating a few spin classes into your program is a great way to start. If you’ve got your own bike, then try the occasional longer ride on the weekends.
If you’re looking for accountability and a reason to stick to your training, then considering signing up for a charity ride. That will give you the motivation to get in your miles, you’ll feel great after accomplishing your goal, and you’ll be supporting a good cause.
However, you choose to incorporate cycling into your routine, work hard and enjoy the results!
Christian Parrett is a former professional cyclist who now runs Kinetic Potential Coaching, where he's dedicated to coaching cyclists of all levels.