As cycling explodes in popularity, reflected by Peloton’s IPO, SoulCycle’s intended IPO, and Amazon semi-joining in, it’s important to know that cycling in itself does not build a well-rounded body. In fact, it does the opposite. Cycling is an example of exercises that break the body down, rather than build it up. And this is not primarily because of the endurance aspect, as not all cycling workouts are high duration, especially not those held in corporate gym cycling studios. The degenerative risks associated with cycling are built into the movement pattern itself.
Any experienced personal trainer, and, certainly, any decent physical therapist should be able to ascertain with little difficulty the posture challenges and muscle imbalance-inducing risks inherent in cycling form. When many people think about exercise, they focus on results, not the method. Fat loss is the primary goal of many adults. A such, when they select an activity, the focus is caloric burn. Often forgotten or not even registered on the minds of most of us is the importance of good posture and muscle balance or synergy. While cycling, the body is hinged forward, shortening the hip flexors and over lengthening the back at the same time; the quads are used predominantly over other muscle groups, such as the glutes, lower back, and upper back. One issue becomes very apparent: unequal stress on muscle groups (muscle imbalance). Muscle balance and synergy are not just important to safely and proficiently play a sport, but for functional movement throughout everyday life. Tight hip flexors can create ongoing posture issues and can disrupt something as everyday as your walking gait.
I understand cycling for transportation, but biomechanically, it’s confounding how it has become such a marketed form of exercise to gain physical fitness when it so blatantly runs contrary to what physical fitness actually means. Physical fitness is the ability to execute full-body movement, by way of good mobility, flexibility, cardiovascular ability, and muscle synergy.
“Physical fitness is one’s ability to execute daily activities with optimal performance, endurance, and strength with the management of disease, fatigue, and stress and reduced sedentary behavior.” – Nerissa Campbell, Stefanie De Jesus, Harry Prapavessis. “Physical Fitness.” Springer Academic Publishing
The definition of physical fitness can be more narrowly defined based on a specific sport, but generally speaking, physical fitness describes a body free of mechanical limitations. Cycling form, on the other hand, forces muscle imbalances, which leads to mechanical limitations, e.g., tight hip flexors, poor posture, limited lateral strength and range. The words, “reduced sedentary behavior,” in the above definition from Springer directly point to cycling form. Cycling involves sitting. Sitting is poor for posture, never mind the cardiovascular benefits the activity offers. This benefit-drawback entanglement is akin to when someone believes they are being proactive about their physical fitness when they select a stability ball chair over a standing desk. A standing desk addresses posture, core engagement, and blood circulation. A stability ball addresses upper body posture and core stability, not blood circulation or body mechanics from the waist down. As with traditional chairs (and cycling) tight hip flexors can be borne from prolonged sitting on a stability ball.
Beyond being a form of transportation, cycling is not functional in the kinesiological sense: it will not aid in full-body control and movement through space; it will not enhance your ability to squat down, lift objects, and have enhanced flexibility or mobility. In other words, beyond cardiovascular capacity and quad lactate tolerance, cycling will not improve your ability to perform everyday activities or act in different emergency situations. Worse, prolonged sitting in a position that tightens the hip flexors and overarches the back, will serve to create a tighter and less mobile body the longer the activity is carried out – on a daily or yearly timescale.
Cycling offers simple calorie burn by way of repetitive movement, along with an endurance high, and a community of zealot-like enthusiasts. None of which offer overall physical ability, never mind functional fitness. If caloric burn is the goal, strength training, which can burn calories for days after a workout, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are smarter alternatives to reaching high caloric burn, and those activities are regenerative (build the body up), versus degenerative (break the body down) because they are multi-joint, muscle-building movements that increase growth hormone levels.*
Danger in High Accessibility
Repetitive motion activities like cycling and running, are highly accessible, meaning there is a low learning threshold for the body: putting one foot in front of the other or pushing pedals forward over and over again. Other exercise forms, such as strength training, yoga, and other skills-based exercise cannot be so readily adopted. In fact, some exercises are not achievable without sometimes years of practice, e.g., a freeform handstand push-up or a Destroyer of the Universe pose. So, once an easily accessible, repetitive stress exercise is adopted, the average person with the goal of fat loss often thinks, “if I just repeat this movement over and over again, I’ll burn such and such amount of calories.” And, unfortunately, that’s often the extent of thinking involved. Mechanics, however, matter if one desires true physical fitness and functional ability.
If your goal is lifelong fitness, a shortcut to maintaining and reaching that goal with little difficulty is to focus on exercise programs and nutrition techniques that are regenerative, not degenerative. Sort out what activities are too narrowly focused on one or only a few aspects of fitness, e.g., strength, but not cardiovascular health; flexibility, but not strength; cardiovascular health, but not mobility, flexibility, or full-body strength – that’s the pitfall of cycling: it’s too single-sided. Instead, emphasize exercises that train muscles to work synergistically, rather than exercises that overload only specific muscle groups. Also follow a nutrition program that supports a variety of food options from different food groups that can be adhered to without unreasonable standards or guidelines.
Again, cycling is not functional, but like running, its low learning curve attracts many. A logical alternative to focusing on a single sport that can lead to possible detrimental effects on the body is to cross-train, which helps develop full-body functionality. For more information on functional fitness that can build the body up in any age group and maintain a functional, agile, strong, flexible, and mobile body, click the image below and also research functional exercise on your own.
If you still desire to engage in cycling after reading this post, there are solutions to lessen the built-in negative effects it can have on your body. The article, “Sitting, Cycling Posture and Back Problems,” describes the posture and muscle-imbalance risks inherent in cycling and offers mitigation exercises that can be undertaken in addition to cycling.
Sources “Exercise Library.” FunctionalMovement.com. https://www.functionalmovement.com/exercises *"Growth Hormone – Raising Exercises.” Canadian Academy of Sports Nutrition. https://www.caasn.com/growth-hormone-raising-exercises.html#:~:text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20even,production%20is%20progressive%20weight%20training. “IT Band injuries and cycling: what you need to know.” Thomas McDaniel. https://www.bikeradar.com/advice/fitness-and-training/it-band-injuries-and-cycling-what-you-need-to-know/ “Physical Fitness.” Nerissa Campbell, Stefanie De Jesus, Harry Prapavessis. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4419-1005-9_1167 “What Functional Training Is and Why It's Important.” Amy Marturana Winderl, C.P.T. https://www.self.com/story/what-functional-training-is-why-its-important “What is Physical Fitness.” CHARLES CORBIN & GUY LE MASURIER. https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/what-is-physical-fitness
As an athlete for over 19 years and a broke single mom for most of that time, I created brokesinglemomfitness.com, now LLAFIT.com, to aid anyone who believes the road to fitness requires a lot of cash or time. In reality, the way to fitness is paved with knowledge and firm principles; teaching readers how to master both is the goal of this site. LLAFIT – Lifelong Applied Fitness