Does spinning lead to bulky quads?

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Spinning cause bulk Rag-and-Bone-Spring-Jeans

We’ve heard this comment about eight million times (maybe you have, too): “I love to spin, but I don’t want to bulk up my quads.”

While no one who said this to us wanted to be quoted, we’ve literally heard such comments as, “I can’t fit into my Rag & Bone jeans anymore.”

So amid the growing chatter and concern that this popular cardio workout may be a great way to torch calories, but at the expense of thicker thighs, we wanted to know, is this an urban fitness myth spun out of control? Or does spinning really lead to bigger quads?

We interviewed fitness expert and cycling guru Kristin Kenney, as well as top instructors from rival studios Flywheel and SoulCycle, Holly Rilinger and Kym Perfetto. Their findings? Indoor cycling does not necessarily lead to larger legs—but the following six factors could be behind any perceived bulk. Learn what they are now. —Rosa Levitan


Your Genes

Chromosomes play a major role in whether or not you can fit into your skinny jeans, say both SoulCycle’s Perfetto and Flywheel’s Rilinger (pictured here).

“The size of your quads is highly dependent on genetics. I’ve had strong quads since I was about eight years old,” says Rilinger, who’s muscly from head to toe.

In fact, most spin instructors don’t have her kind of definition!


Your Body Type

Are you wispy thin or athletically built? Body type is a factor, no matter what your workout is, says Perfetto (pictured here). Consider the three main body types—endomorphs, ectomorphs, and mesomorphs—and which you might be.

Ectomorphs are generally tall, thin, and lanky and have a hard time putting on muscle. Endomorphs and mesomorphs, however, respond much more quickly to resistance training and build muscle with relative ease. Doing any sport could create this change.

SoulCycle class

Your Spinning Starting Point

Your starting point on a spin bike plays a big role in whether and how you build muscle. Perfetto points out that a 115-pound fashion model who’s never cycled will gain muscle from it, while a bodybuilder or a super athletic type may see the opposite effect.

These changes may be short term, says Perfetto. “If your jeans are initially tighter after a few weeks of cycling, don’t freak out,” she says. “Your quads might bulk up a bit at first, but the overall amount of cardio will balance it out.”

Why? Developed quads help you burn more fat overall. The large muscle group responds quickly to activity and increases muscle-to-fat ratio within the body, which in turn increases your metabolic rate.

Photo: Cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com

Ragu Shells
Your Diet

Confirming what we might already suspect: “Cycling doesn’t make your legs bigger, but bread and pasta do,” says Rilinger. In other words, increased activity doesn’t mean you can disregard healthy eating habits.

Turns out, weight gain corresponding to increased physical activity is very common, with new riders falsely thinking that because they just torched 650 calories on a bike, they can eat whatever they want. (Sorry!)

Pinkberry and fruit cute nails

Your Recovery

Fitness expert Kristin Kenney, who's the creator of HIGH GEAR cycling classes at Equinox, says dealing with a boost in appetite due to increased spin sessions can be tricky, too. “New riders may experience a large calorie deficit and lack proper recovery, resulting in an unusual level of hunger,” she says.

Chowing down on Pinkberry after class won’t keep you full, and you’re likely to crave more high-calorie foods later. Kenney recommends eating a small meal of four ounces of lean protein and complex carbohydrates post-workout to stay full and ensure muscle recovery.

Flywheel spinning weights
Your Cycling Form

While spinning’s a “quad-dominant” workout, to quote actor Max Greenfield (aka Schmidt from "New Girl"), that doesn’t mean only the quads are worked. That’s kind of like saying push-ups only work the arms.

Spinning also activates your abs, hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles. You know when your instructor says to use your abs? Use your abs! And when they say not to grip the handlebars? It’s to activate muscles in the back and glutes. When you focus on pulling up with the pedal (rather than jamming it down), then you’re drawing on the hamstrings.

Riding incorrectly not only leads to injury, but may cause unwanted muscle growth, says Perfetto, whose legs are sculpted but not a bit bulky.

She’s one more reason why we won't let quad-bulking concerns slow us down on the bike: Have a look at the bods of most spin instructors—they’re lean-legged spinning machines, and they’re prob on a bike way more than you. (Not that there’s anything wrong with strong, sexy quads!)


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12 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. July 12th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I like this article as it is important for people to not pass on a great workout due to misinformation.

    Just yesterday, a female friend of mine told me “I heard kettlebell’s are good for working out, but I don’t want to look like Schwarzenegger!”

    Obviously that won’t happen.

  2. July 13th, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Flat feet … no big quads… easy peasy… ask Jennifer Sage who runs the Indoor cycle Association. She’s been teaching a million years and she doesn’t have big thighs, quads, glutes. Correct posture . I teach 10 classes every week, just toned legs. Flat feet. Don’t point your toes down.

  3. July 13th, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Agreed, it’s all about your form and posture. How you are sitting or standing in your pelvis plays a direct role on your quads. All leg movements should be supported by the abdominals, because your hip flexors reside in your low back and abdomen, not just the pelvis.

    You should feel you are cycling from your whole body; back, abs, butt, hamstrings and feet.

    As for your feet, it’s ok to point your foot on the extension of the leg to open the hip. Foot flexion is great for lengthening the back line of the body and foot extension is great for lengthening the front line. Move your feet so that they don’t get tight, and cramp up. Cycling should mirror your locomotive leg and foot patterns during walking.

    Happy cycling!

  4. July 16th, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Mark, I don¡¯t agree with you, I think the post was helpful and not shallow at all.

  5. July 28th, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    As a yoga teacher for many years, this is what I tell my sister, Carol Pratt, an avid spinner at Soulcyle with an equally avid thigh obsession: While spinning demands that one work ones legs, the real demand is in the hips. Ones legs are extensions of the pelvis. Spinners should be sitting on the paraneum, their center, equadistant between the pubis, coxys, and two buttock bones. In this way one fully engages the hip joints, rather than overplaying leg muscles. If spinners only push with their legs and bypass their pelvis, the pelvis gets no oxygen, squishing the organs that are meant to give you access to the biggest joint in your body which gives you stability as well as mobility. If you are sitting on your center, you are basically supporting your most primitive organs: your endocrine glands, adrenals, spleen, pancreas. The glands are your circuit breakers. When you spin in your quads instead of your hips your lower body isn’t oxygenated so your muscles get dense, like hard packed dirt, thus bulky quads. When one works from the hips and pelvis one gets a longer muscle, more air (lungs), a longer battery charge (kidneys), and a heart that pumps more efficiently.

    I staunchly disagree with those who contend that we are stuck with our DNA. The body is organic material and like anything else in nature it’s constantly changing in response to weather, diet, habit, thoughts and behavior. Good form can reform, transform and inform the body. Because the body learns through repetition, one can set up conditions differently from what our habits dictate. So as I tell my twin sister, be a wise, esoteric yogi and stick your ass out, sit on the opening of your vagina, and back bend. In this way your are not bulking up your thighs, you are making your lungs powerful. It will make you powerful. Watch my sis to see if she’s listening.

  6. August 29th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Sorry but this was a completely non committal atempt at negating the big quads and spinning myth which in fact is not a myth.
    I am 5’9, 125 pound female and had been in track growing up. On to weights, out door cycling and spinning.
    Fact of the matter, if you are spinning corectly you simply bulk up.
    Just look at pro cyclist with quads as big as their waists.
    No additional pasta or pink berry calories required.

    I’ve for gone the spinning over the summer and replaced with power walks and Rag and Bone are fitting again…..3 months later.

  7. September 5th, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    First off…what is wrong with strong legs with a little muscle mass on it? Secondly, I have been spinning consistently for 4 months and it anything my legs have toned up a lot. I think in most spin classes there maybe a big emphasis on the climbing and isolation. If you take a good spin class it would be balance all over and less bulk on the thighs. Just my experience.

  8. February 16th, 2014 at 8:44 am

    exercise physiologist chiming in… from a scientific standpoint all the research supports the notion that spinning or outdoor cycling causing bulky thighs to be A MYTH. I cant believe in 2014 people still believe this. From science we know that to get muscle hypertrophy you must lift heavy loads where you fatigue the muscle between 6-12 reps and you must focus on eccentric muscle contraction. in cycling reps would be like revolutions (think of pedal stroke like a leg press). do you do 6-12 pedal strokes? for example if a class averaged 90RPMS and you did 45 minutes that would be 4.500 reps. and if you know anything about the biomechanics of the pedal stroke it is mostly concentric work not eccentric. you can google victoria pendleton an olympic sprinter and see that she is no where near bulky. male sprinter might be but that is because they have the hormones to support muscle gains – not to mention does anyone know how much training these pros are doing to get those types of gains, your average “spinner” is not doing this. they are probably barely using resistance and therefore generating very little power aka very little caloric expenditure and therefore sure might not see results from spinning (it is way too easy to cheat indoors, and then over consume calories and gain fat – if you don’t cheat, eat right you will not experience hypertrophy. now yes, you will have a normal amount of muscle but not mass. if you want zero muscle and want to be “skinny” model type body than yes don’t workout at all and just watch your calories, but that is a physique goal, very different than a health and fitness goal.

  9. May 15th, 2014 at 12:52 am

    MYTH with a capital M. 5’9″ 125 would be pretty THIN. I am 5’10” 150 male, and no one would EVER mistake me for being bulky, and I have been a cycling ectomorph for almost 25 years.

    The very act of prolonged concentric exercise will tend (over time) to strip the muscle down if done long enough and without adequate protein intake, especially in the early a.m. hours of the sleep cycle, where one is most at risk for catabolism. Muscle fiber can also be used as an energy source, so the body actually eats muscle to provide energy or scavenge protein if needed.

    Comparing a spinner who might visit the gym two or three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes to a pro level cyclist is ridiculous, and more akin to comparing an ant to an elephant.

    If you follow pro cycling at all, then you know that these “athletes” are all on various “programs” that help them maintain the power to climb mountains for 6 hours a day in a major tour event. A female spinner might be lucky to produce 100W for 30 minutes, while a male pro cyclist will be able to produce 450-475W for 60 minutes, or 300W for 4 to 5 hours…and they will do it for three weeks straight…they will be “very” lucky to not lose muscle mass for the duration. Moreover, in regards to PED’s, it is required reading to learn just what fuels some of these teams even today. History has some REAL horror stories, with EPO barely scratching the surface.

    High rpm, low resistance spinning will more likely strip away fat and give an illusion of bulk, but it will be merely a mirage, as women have much lower levels of testosterone in which to add bulk. Spinning is simply not a muscle-building exercise.

  10. Dre
    June 13th, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    The jury is still out on EXACTLY the reasons why people gain muscle.

    1. Genetics — so some people gain more muscle doing similar activities
    2. Diet — clearly need the nutrients
    3. Hormones — the balance of hormones may change throughout cycles of life

    When you are spinning consistently, also depending on your resistance, it makes sense that the body would attempt to make adaptations for the next round.

    A particular adaptation would be increasing the storage space of muscle glycogen in the legs/thighs/glutes which in effect would increase the size of those areas.

    Moreover, someone who is doing strength training ALONG with spinning is even MORE likely to get muscle growth effects.

    Either way, the answer is yes and no. But CAN spinning bulk up the quads? Yes.

  11. August 10th, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Well, maybe Rag and Bones should be changing or us changing brands? Why bother to push our minds inside a box/ thighs inside a paradigm? Products are supposed to work for us, not us to fit in them

  12. August 10th, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Well, maybe Rag and Bones should be changing or us changing brands? Why bother to push our minds inside a box/ thighs inside a paradigm? Products are supposed to work for us, not us to fit in them ;)

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