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If by cycling you mean general, somewhat commute-like cycling on paved roads then it probably isn’t, depending heavily on the terrain you ride on and how hard or quicker you work on the pedaling. However, if you’re referring to exercise bikes or mountain biking, that’s where the page flips and the answer becomes yes.
So hard cycling against the terrain and gravity, or for the purpose of exercising is definitely resistance training.
Let’s get into details by first exploring what exactly is resistance training and how cycling becomes a part of it.
What’s resistance training?
Technically, any kind of training where you have to work against some resistance is ‘resistance-training’. The generic picture that comes to mind here is that of weight lifting and other ‘strength-training’ related exercises like bench-pressing, push-ups or pull-ups, etc.
In exercises like weight lifting, you have a very obvious resistance working against you i.e. the weight of the dumbbell or the barbell. You have to push or pull it up (working against the resistance of gravity) to achieve movement. That’s what all the strain is going into.
Now consider the case of a person on a treadmill. Here, the person doesn’t have to work against any direct and obvious kind of resistance as in the case of a weight trainer even though technically the person on the treadmill is pushing back the track and in return, the track pushes them back. But that’s the Newtonian perception of it and people aren’t really viewing the world from that kind of a perspective all the time so it’s safe to say that in the same way that a person on a treadmill isn’t resistance training, a normal cyclist isn’t resistance training either.
Check out our complete guide on the best exercise bikes.
Are exercise biking and mountain biking any different?
Having explained and defined the concept of resistance training in general, let’s consider the cases of cycling that can be easily considered as being resistance training or resistance cycling i.e the exercise bike and the mountain bike.
The reason these can both safely be called ‘resistance-exercises’ is that in either of these exercises, you have to work against an obvious resistance.
In mountain biking, the resistance has to do with the terrain rather than the actual bike itself. You often may have to cover terrain that demands more energy (like gravel or mud or any uneven terrain) even though you may not be covering that much distance for the energy that you’re putting in. In other words, the resistance increases from the general road-friction level to obstacle-level resistance. Mountain bikers also have to face a considerable amount of resistance going uphill so overall that makes mountain biking a much more ‘resistant’ exercise compared to road biking or commuting.
When we consider exercise bikes, we are talking about bikes that have some kind of resistance mechanism on them (which can be based on friction or electromagnetics) so that you have to push against that resistance in order to move the drivetrain. This is basically why exercise bikes, especially spin bikes are used extensively in resistance training exercise sessions like spin classes. You can increase or decrease the resistance on an exercise bike very easily which is part of the reason why exercise bikes are so versatile. The versatility isn’t an exclusively spin bike feature though. It spreads across the spectrum of exercise bikes. In fact, traditional exercise bikes can be considered even more flexible in their use than spin bikes since they’re designed for more casual and less intense use even if they can be used for exercise programs as intense as HIIT.
How do I make cycling more of a resistance-training exercise?
Now, let’s look into how you may make your regimen more similar to what you would experience in resistance training. If you want to make cycling a more resistant exercise, you can choose terrains that are harder to cover rather than going for straight roads. However, if the change of terrain is not an easy option or unavailable, then consider investing in an exercise bike. Which will make it possible for you to achieve the desired results with just the normal bike on the normal terrain. A couple of things that you could do is either train for longer periods of time or start doing a sort of a HIIT regimen on the bike itself (or maybe even a mix of both).
Biking for longer periods of time may have similar results as to strength training because the more you increase the duration of the exercise, the more you’re pushing your metabolism. We know that mitochondria concentration and muscle mass are dependent on regular, intense, and taxing exercise. If those are the three things you’re looking for in a ‘resistance exercise’, you can create a routine on the bike that’ll help you achieve that. Though it may not be the same thing as doing lunges or squats, if you enjoy biking, investing more time into it and biking for longer periods of time may result in getting you the same output or rewards as you would expect from a traditional resistance training exercise.
The other thing you could do is incorporate a sort of HIIT regimen into your biking routine. If you choose to do it this way, you can start to look at biking like any other harder-hitting exercise. You would start with some warm-up, maybe 5-7 minutes of normal or moderate effort pedaling and then (assuming you have the sort of tracks or surroundings to do so) start pedaling almost as hard as you could ( the technical threshold is 80% of your maximum heart rate) so as to put your muscles under a substantial amount of stress. At the end of this 3-5 minute intense period, you may be feeling something similar to what you would feel in your lower body if you were running or doing squats. This fatigue should greatly impact your strength and endurance in the long run if you do it frequently enough. As you build these two traits up, you would become more at home with doing more and more intense periods during the HIIT regimen followed by the intermittent or in-between relaxing periods. In the end, you would just let loose and go with the breeze to let your body slide into the recovery period.
It’s important however to go easy if you choose to go down either of these roads (longer runs or HIIT regimen) and you should keep an especially close eye on yourself if you choose the HIIT course. Doing it twice a week should be adequate at the start if you’re really pushing yourself. But if you prefer going easy, you can dial up the frequency as to what you’re comfortable with. In the end, you just want a means to build up your strength and your endurance without striking any cords too hard.