Biking is an immensely popular sport that anyone can participate in. Regardless of whether or not you bike for fun or use it as a workout there's a multitude of health benefits that come with the activity. At the same time there are a few myths and misconceptions behind biking that this article hopes to clarify.
Table of Contents
Biking and your Cardiovascular Health
Biking can be very beneficial to your cardiovascular health. One of the good things about biking is that it can be both an aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and offer benefits from both styles of exercise.
What is Aerobic exercise and how does biking relate?
Biking is primarily an aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise depends primarily on the aerobic energy-generating process, which is reliant on oxygen in the bloodstream. Some examples of other aerobic exercises include:
An aerobic style of biking focuses on long distances, relatively flat inclines, and going at a pace that you can maintain for extended periods of time.
What are the benefits of Aerobic Exercise?
As described by MedicineNet Aerobic exercise makes the heart stronger, more efficient, and capable of moving more oxygen-carrying blood. The lungs become accustomed to taking in larger amounts of oxygen and your muscles become capable of using the extra oxygen.
What is Anaerobic exercise and how does biking apply?
An anaerobic exercise is one that is done without oxygen. As described by the World Journal of Diabetes, during anaerobic exercise your body, as an attempt to produce more energy, relies on energy sources such as glucose stored in your muscles. This is because the exercise is too intense over a short period of time for oxygen to provide enough fuel.
Some examples of anaerobic exercise include:
- Strength training
An anaerobic style of biking would include biking up steep hills, or doing short “sprints” or intervals where you bike as fast as possible.
What are the benefits of Anaerobic exercise?
Anaerobic exercises are recognized for their ability to quickly burn calories even when at rest. Also, as described by HeathLine, many anaerobic exercises help build lean muscle mass which in turn helps build more calories. Anaerobic exercise increases the size and quantity of powerful fast twitch fibers which in turn improve one's power strength and can also lead to muscle growth.
If you take a look at the difference in physiques between joggers and sprinters, you’ll see sprinters often have more muscular physiques that help them explode in short bursts of energies.
What are the benefits of biking?
Whether you bike aerobically or anaerobically, biking comes with various benefits
Biking is good for your mental health
Those who are new to the sport of cycling might underestimate just how good it can be for your mental health. There's also the obvious release of adrenaline and endorphins that comes with exercise especially when combined with an outdoors experience. There are so many ways that exercise can boost your mood: there’s the basic release of adrenaline and endorphins. In the end it can also just be a solid way of clearing your mind as you are cycling through neighborhoods.
When it comes to mental health biking can be an especially engaging and prolonged activity that can cause a decrease in levels of anxiety, depression and stress overall according to Cycling Weekly.
Biking is good for fat loss
Cycling is a very popular activity for burning calories. Not only does it boost your metabolic rate but according to Cycling Weekly but cycling can also burn between 400 and 1000 calories an hour which primarily depends on the rider's intensity and weight.
However to ensure consistent results it is important to set realistic goals for yourself in terms of how much time you're willing to spend booking and the frequency at which you're going to bike.
The good thing is that shorter high intensity rides are preferable when it comes to burning calories. This is great news that might not have a lot of time to dedicate towards the sport.
If you have a lot of time however and are looking for something a little easier you can go for a longer ride with a more consistent pace. However, it is important to acknowledge that if burning fat is your ultimate goal you need to ride at a pace that keeps your heart-rate between 68 and 79 percent of your max heart rate.
As you become more experienced in cycling you become more capable of riding faster and longer which again leads to more fat loss.
Biking builds muscle
Since there is a level of resistance involved in cycling, there is potential to build muscle and strength.
Many major muscle groups are targeted when cycling, especially those around the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves.
As outlined by Bill Bone Bike Law the muscles that biking works are
- Calf – Soleus, and gastrocnemius.
- Thigh – Hamstrings and quadriceps.
- Glutes/Buttocks – Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
- Arms – Biceps, and triceps.
- Shoulders – Deltoids
- Foot – Plantar flexors, and dorsiflexors
As you pedal forward with a full range of motion your quadriceps are doing most of the work to pedal down and are simultaneously using your glutes. Your hamstrings are also doing some work, although more indirectly. With each pedal you're also constantly working out your calves that can help improve your overall level of athleticism.
In general, the most effective way to build muscle while biking would be with an anaerobic style of biking, such as incorporating short sprints between slower intervals. One could also switch between steep and lower inclines to alter resistance on an interval basis. Further, one could just use the gear on their bike to increase the resistance they push against. Regardless of the method, to ensure maximal gains in strength and muscle it's important to ensure that you're fitting in at least 1-2 intense bike rides a week.
Biking prevents illnesses
As discussed previously biking can be really good for burning calories, strengthening your heart, and boosting your mental health. As a result, it can be especially good at preserving your overall health and immune system while preventing illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
For example, multiple studies have found that cycling can be attributed to the reduced risk of getting heart disease or cancer in half. According to Betterhealth, if you cycle, the chance of bowel cancer is reduced. Even more so some evidence suggests that regular cycling reduces the risk of breast cancer.
Biking is extremely low impact
Since cycling does not involve direct impact with the floor it is a very low impact sport. At the same time however cycling can lead to improved joint mobility since you're making them accustomed to moving in full ranges of motion. As a result, biking is a sport that almost anyone can participate in whether it is for fun or for a workout
Frequently Asked Questions
Does biking allow for as much muscle growth as weight training?
There seems to be a couple of misconceptions about weather biking will give you crazy massive and strong legs or bigger glutes.
Biking is typically an aerobic dominant exercise that works your endurance muscle fibers making them more resistant but not necessarily causing them to bulk up.
The reality is that the level of muscle hypertrophy with cycling “is one-third of the muscle hypertrophy you get from resistance training,” according to a study on biking and hypertrophy. This basically means that the rate at which you are going to be putting on muscle is going to be a lot slower when compared to resistance training. At the same time it also suggests the amount of muscle you are going to be capable of gaining might be limited as well.
So when you look at professional cyclists a lot of their muscle comes from cycling due to their years of training and effort however a lot of it can also come from additional strength training programs. Of course in order to match their physiques you would definitely need to bike as much as these professionals do, which can be anything from 15+ hours a week.
Furthermore, cycling is a quad dominant exercise telling us that other muscles are not going to be as targeted or exposed to metabolic stress. This means that biking may not be the best choice if you are trying to focus on other muscles like your glutes or hamstrings. Furthermore, as you are burning calories you might even slow down your gains as you might be burning off calories you need to build muscle.
Essentially, if your main goal is to build muscle, biking may not be the most efficient way to reach that goal. With that said, you can still build muscle while biking.
Do biking and other forms of cardio prevent muscle growth?
There is a common belief that too much cardio will take away from your ability to build muscle and for the most part it is true. The big problem is that cardio takes away from those same resources your body needs to build muscle.
For example, long sessions of cardio burn off calories that could be crucial if you are trying to stay in a caloric surplus, which is almost always essential to building muscle. Also, excessive cardio before weight training can affect your session due to fatigue.
However, that does not necessarily mean cardio is always bad for weight training. In a research study by Mid Sweden University, there seems to have been some evidence to suggest that a combination of cardio and weight training could actually be beneficial for muscle growth.
The researchers originally believed that cardio was good for muscle growth and they found evidence to support it through a 5 week study that measured different levels of muscle volume when weight training and cardio were both used.
Interestingly enough, the muscle being measured was the quadriceps which is the main muscle used when biking. The results demonstrated that those that were exposed to cardio and weight training had their “muscle fibre size increase by 17% in the legs that did cardio and strength training, compared with 9% in the strength-rained leg.”
To be on the safer side, it is suggested that people commit to HIIT cycling workouts for cardio. This would basically look like pushing yourself to climb steep hills or pedaling at a relatively fast pace with a high resistance in short bursts.
HIIT cycling workouts are optimal because it promotes the secretion of growth hormones and testosterone necessary for the process of building muscle. Also, HIIT is especially effective because it essentially pushers your body to use more of its muscle tissue.
In the end as long as you're still capable of strictly committing to a weight training regimen and providing your body with the right nutrition and rest cardio should not lead to muscle loss.
Do stationary bikes offer the same benefits as biking outdoors?
There is a lot of confusion over whether there's any difference between working out on a stationary bike vs going for a ride on your bike outdoors. For the most part, yes there is a big difference as to what each type of activity will provide you in terms of a workout.
For starters, stationary bikes contain a fly-wheel which incorporates the hamstring muscle more during the workout when compared to road biking. Another thing to keep in mind is that a stationary bike can sometimes offer less resistance as the flyweight will build momentum as you push down on the pedals. This will make the experience of a stationary bike a lot easier and less effective for building strength when compared to biking up a hill, or even going through a flat road outdoors.
Biking outdoors often comes with its fair share of natural obstacles like hills and bumpy roads. Pushing through these stimuli are beneficial for muscle growth and endurance.
On top of that, a multitude of muscles in your body are putting an effort towards maintaining balance, helping you uphills and holding up your weight.
In terms of why someone would prefer a stationary bike one of the biggest factors is its convenience. It is a lot more convenient for someone to just crank up the gears on a stationary bike and cycling in bursts than to find a challenging route in the outdoors.
Further, there is no need to deal with traffic and worry about a flat wheel. At the same time however, there's no stimulation from the outdoors which can make the workout a little boring. Though one could make up for this lack of stimuli with a digital riding experience or a group class.
In summary, biking indoors vs outdoors comes with trade offs on boths sides, and you should choose the method that leads to consistent workouts, as that is always the key to results.
Biking overall is an amazing sport that can be beneficial for a multitude of reasons such as mental health, building muscle/resistance, fat loss, preventing illnesses and its accessibility to all age groups.
Biking is also extremely good for cardiovascular health and can be done anaerobically and aerobically. Each one comes with its own set of benefits and purposes. This allows for everyone to adjust the biking workouts according to their needs and get the most out of it.
However, biking is not a substitute for weight training and other forms of resistance training if you are trying to prioritize muscle growth.
While there are often concerns about cardio being detrimental for building muscle, a smart incorporation of cardio along with weight training will not really take away from your gains.
There are various differences between biking on a stationary bike vs. biking outdoors and it is important to consider these differences when choosing which to commit to. For the most part outdoor biking is considered to be more of a challenge as it forces you to demand more from the muscles involved in the activity in the form of resistance, balance, and stability demands, but biking indoors comes with a variety of its own benefits both physically and mentally.
Biking overall offers a lot of value and can be used for a great workout or as a fantastic stress reliever!
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