Supplementing Strength Training With Indoor Cycling May Be the Secret to the Strongest Legs and Butt Ever
Have you ever felt personally victimized by the seat on an indoor cycling bike? After several instances of finding no success in getting my butt comfortable on the seat of a stationary bike, I decided to focus on running. For a long time, that was the only way I worked on my cardio fitness. Until recently, that is.
A few months ago, I received an opportunity to test the NordicTrack Commercial S221 Studio Cycle exercise bike. Though I was apprehensive at first, given my track record with bike saddle discomfort, I ultimately decided to give it a shot. I don’t have a gym in my apartment building, and the ability to have equipment that allows me to work out any time without leaving home was alluring. I have a lot of friends who swear by cycling for strengthening their calves and thighs. So, curious about the impact of indoor cycling as a cross-training workout, I went forth.
Here’s what happened when I swapped running with indoor cycling for a month
After receiving the bike, I decided to add three days of cycling (as opposed to running) to the three days of strength training I was already doing and see what the outcome would be after one month. I was curious if I would actually notice a difference in my lower-body strength with this combination of exercise, as compared to the mix of strength-training and running I’ve been used to.
The NordicTrack I used partners with iFit, an interactive personal-training platform with on-demand fitness classes. Users have the ability to do unguided track rides, studio bootcamps with trainers, and “outdoor” rides where you have a first-person view of what it would be like to be riding outside with the trainer. Because I already have a specific strength-training program I follow, I skipped the bootcamps and went right for the outdoor rides.
The series I chose for my month of testing was the ride through Bhutan with iFit master trainer John Peel, CPT. As he led the way through the gorgeous scenery (which almost made me forget the pain in my butt from the bike seat I wasn’t use to), the bike automatically changed the incline and resistance according to the actual terrain in Bhutan, which I loved because I didn’t even have the option to take it easy on myself.
I should pause here and make a note that when it comes to at-home workouts, I’m good for doing the bare minimum and taking long breaks on the couch to answer a text message, eat a snack, or fold laundry. This bike made it much harder to do that.
After switching to indoor cycling for my cross-training exercise, I can honestly say I’ve never felt my quads, glutes, and calves working harder.
As someone who has strictly stuck to running when it comes to cardio, after switching to indoor cycling for my cross-training exercise, I can honestly say I’ve never felt my quads, glutes, and calves working harder. Those muscles were sore the day after a workout, too. In fact, I was grateful for the days I had off to lift in-between cycling workouts just to give my legs and butt a little break.
Peel, who felt like my bestie after riding through Bhutan together, was kind enough to talk to me on the phone about indoor cycling as cross- training, and he confirmed that strength training in addition to cycling is indeed the way to go. “Set aside certain days where you’re not just pounding away on the bike, but you’re actually working more specific movements for strength training off the bike,” Peel says of the power of cross-training to strengthen your whole body.
The bike is lower-body dominant, he explains, which is great for your quads and will strengthen them. But cycling can also lead to weaknesses in your hip flexors, glutes, lower back, and core when you’re not pairing it with strength training.
“Set aside certain days where you’re not just pounding away on the bike, but you’re actually working more specific movements for strength training off the bike.” —John Peel, CPT
As I continued to cross-train with my cycling and strength classes throughout the month, I did start to notice a few things in my rides and my lifts.
When I first started cycling, I was using whatever resistance and incline the bike chose for me. It was more than enough, and I often found achieving the suggested revolutions per minute (RPMs) difficult. However, by the end of the month, I was actually hitting the RPMs fairly easily with the pre-chosen programming. I even ended up adding more resistance. That’s something I didn’t think I would be doing when I first got on the bike a month earlier.
On the strength-training side of my cross-training, I saw huge gains in my lifts—specifically my squats, as my quads felt more activated than usual. Plus, I hit a personal record on my one-rep max, which is the most weight you can lift for a single repetition. Would I have done that regardless? Maybe, but I’d like to think the bike helped.
How to know if cross-training with indoor cycling is helping you build strength
As much as I thought I might be seeing strength results as a result of indoor cycling cross-training, I wasn’t quite sure how to know for real. Peel offered some tips for tracking your strength on the bike, and he broke it down in comparison to running.
“Someone who runs a 10-minute mile, that’s equivalent to almost being able to bike 3.5 miles in 10 minutes. Set that 3.5-mile mark on the bike and see how long you can go with pushing a good steady state where you’re not absolutely destroying yourself. See how well your heart rate functions and how well it responds to that 3.5 miles,” he says.
He suggests doing the above test once every month, taking notes about your heart rate and how difficult the session feels, to get a baseline to use as a benchmark.
Ultimately, I think cross-training with indoor cycling as opposed to running helped me strengthen my lower body, specifically my quads, after a month. I also see more definition in my legs than I’ve seen in a while.
The best part? I could do 50 percent of my workouts for the month at home. Oh, and in case you’re wondering if the bike seat and I ever managed to get along during this time, the answer is yes. My bike-loving friends I mentioned earlier told me eventually my tush would stop hurting the more I rode, and it turns out they were right about that, too.