Want bigger arms? Take up cycling before weight training, says new study

Cardio exercise before weight training can help you build muscle, according to research

Cycling before building muscle at the gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Do you do cardio as well as lifting weights? With only a limited amount of time to work out, lots of people may prefer to just get in the gym, lift some weights and leave. We're certainly guilty of this too: if you're squeezing in a 45-minute gym session in before work, a short warm-up is all you've got time to do before hitting the barbell. 

However, a recent study, albeit one with a small participant pool, has us reconsidering the way we train, jumping on one of the best exercise bikes before the next adjustable dumbbells workout. 

Research from the Swedish School of Sport and Health Science (opens in new tab), published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked at the effect 20 minutes of interval cycling had on subsequent responses in the muscles of eight men, after a tricep-heavy gym session. The men tried the same session twice, once with cycling, and once without. 

Theoretically, exercise bikes predominantly work the muscles in your legs and posterior chain. Cardio gets blood pumping round the body as your muscles demand more oxygen, but because you're seated during cycling, there's little activation of your core or arms, even though it's a great cardiovascular workout. 

Therefore, the cycling shouldn't have affected muscle growth in the triceps very much, if at all. 

spin class to build muscle

(Image credit: Getty Images)

However, the researchers found the opposite: after cardio, the men's bodies had much higher levels of proteins and other "genetic markers" which helped stimulate muscle growth. 

Speaking to the New York Times (opens in new tab), Dr Marcus Moberg, one of the study's first authors, said: “The most fascinating finding is that some biochemical factors evoked by the leg endurance exercise entered the bloodstream and were then able to influence processes in a completely different group of muscles, and in a way that seems to be beneficial for the training adaptations in the arms.”

We'd have thought, logically, equipment like the best elliptical machines would have been a preferable way to warm up, as these machines have handles so you can pump your arms as well as your legs. However, Moberg and the other authors have found that just getting active and doing cardio prior to weights could "prime" the body for optimal muscle growth.  

Of course, larger studies are needed to confirm this, as the sample size is extremely small. However, cardiovascular exercise like cycling and running is extraordinarily beneficial, even if endurance isn't your main goal. 

Spinning can help you lose weight and reduce your blood pressure according to Spanish researchers (opens in new tab), while treadmills allow you to do everything from walk while watching Netflix to hardcore uphill sprint training. They're great cardio machines – check out our best treadmill guide for more on what they can do for you. 

Matt Evans
News Editor

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.