Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New Legs! The Bicycle as Sculptor

Since I started riding Graham (my Rivendell Sam Hillborne), a few readers have commented that I have nicely defined legs in my pictures. I generally don't do well with compliments, but I think this particular one is worth addressing - because I have my bicycle to thank for it.

The legs are quite "new" and seem to be a direct result of riding a roadbike. Having ridden upright bicycles since Spring last year, I experienced a general increase in my level of fitness and some definition in the calf muscles, but nothing like this. Before the roadbike, the area above the knees was ...shall we say, cottage-cheeselike. Now it's long, lean muscles, and I still can't quite believe that they are mine.

The change began to happen almost immediately when I started to ride in a leaned over posture, and even in the process of cycling, I can feel the difference between this kind of cycling vs riding an upright bike: When I am leaned over, it feels as if I am pushing with the back of my thighs; when I am upright, it feels as if I am pushing with my calves. When going uphill, the strain increases, but it always remains within the bike-specific muscle group. That is, I never feel as if I am pushing with the back of my thighs on one of my loop-frame bicycles, even when going up the steepest hills.

I have the bad habit of forming theories too soon about things I do not entirely understand, so I asked an acquaintance - bicycle fit expert Kevin Saunders - whether what I felt happening is real or imagined.

Kevin's explanation was that the glutes (butt muscles) and quadriceps (thigh muscles) need the cyclist to be bent over for them to engage, so it makes sense that this should happen when cycling in a leaned over posture. Furthermore, if you are pushing down hard enough on the pedals, you are holding up your torso with your core and back muscles, which act as a resistance to the load generated by the glutes and quads. Essentially, this means that the muscles in your abdomen and back will get strengthened as well - resulting in a flat tummy and a decrease in "muffinage" - both of which I have noticed as well.

Don't worry, readers: This is not a fitness website and I do not intend to start regaling you with the details of getting in shape. But I do get questions from women about fitness, and I think that may be because they feel more comfortable asking me (a self-admitted "unathletic girl") than someone who was more sporty to begin with. Getting in shape was never my goal, but I admit it is a nice side-effect. The bicycle is a talented sculptor!

31 comments:

  1. Great Legs!! I hope to have some myself someday soon....though I do have to say that my legs do seem more toned to me from biking and less "jiggly"

    I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to riding a bike again with drop bars but its great that you have and that you are seeing a nice side benefit too

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  2. "The bicycle is a talented sculptor!" Love that. Well said.

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  3. I was wondering why that phrase sounded so "right", then realised it echoes the structure of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter - a book I happen to like.

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  4. most certainly the bicycle is a gifted sculptor! I love, not only the definition in my legs, but the inches that stay off my waistline (now being in my mid-30s, I have to watch out for!) as a result... and there is no doubt that the "road" bike is a particularly voracious and talented artisan.

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  5. ...and for the record; if it weren't for cycling, I would lead (to my shame) a pretty sedentary life.

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  6. Yes, same here. I hate jogging and I am pathetic at team sports. I did play tennis in high-school, but since the nerve damage in my hands I can no longer maintain a decent grip on the tennis racket. I'd pretty much be sitting all day and occasionally strolling if it weren't for cycling.

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  7. Nice legs indeed (I know I'm jealous - but healthy jealousy is good, right?)! I'm not sure that I noticed you having "bad" legs prior to the road bike (though of course I can only go by the pictures posted), but it's always wonderful to feel a change in our own bodies, and even better when others start to notice.

    I do have a question for you, and please feel free not to answer it if you'd prefer, as I know I am prying a bit into your personal life, but I'm curious about the nerve damage in your hands and how it happened. Is it something that developed over time, or were you injured? I ask only because I have hand/wrist issues myself, and while I would love to ride a road bicycle, I have found that the only style of bike that seems to keep my hands/wrists from injury is the upright style. I keep thinking maybe there's a road bike out there that would work for me, but it remains elusive... admittedly though, I have feared even trying as mountain bikes are definitely off limits for me, and I keep thinking that it would be even worse on a road bike.

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  8. GE - I am fairly slender, so they never looked "bad" (especially under leggings) - but one can be slender and "cottage cheesy" at the same time : ))

    The nerve damage is both from an underlying condition that is slowly getting worse as I get older, and from several injuries on top of that. It is ironic that we tend to hurt the areas of our bodies that are already damaged! For me, it is not so much upright bike vs roadbike, as the angle at which the hands are held - the gripping area of the handlebars must be to the sides and not straight in front of me, and the weight must not be on my hands. On a well-balanced roadbike this is possible to achieve.

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  9. Velouria...

    This is good information to have, so I very much appreciate it. I have to giggle about the injuring body parts that are already not great, as I know that feeling well.

    Many thanks again!

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  10. I have to ride upright because of my carpal tunnel syndrome. I wish I could lean as I would LOVE to have some leaner thighs!!!

    Cheers,
    Laura

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  11. I don't want to think how out of shape i'd be if i didn't ride!

    Then again, i am not 'out of shape' because that implies i was ever 'in shape' to begin with.

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  12. Ooo La la! Now you can say with pride they do indeed go all the way up! :)

    I never knew that about the different muscle groups used in cycling. Good to know! Makes me want to hurry up and get my Fuji back on the road, since it has drop bars. I have noticed a difference in my legs as well, especially since switching from the Hercules to the Kettler mixte. I had thought that I was going to be cheating myself out of some exercise by moving to a lighter weight bike with more gears, but I've gone down 2 jean sizes in the last 2 months! Very interesting. I'm a small person to begin with though, so maybe I should avoid the leaned over position. There might not be anything left of me by the end of the summer! :)

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  13. I'm fortunate enough not to have experienced any nerve damage or carpal tunnel syndrome in my hands, but I definitely see how drop bars may be uncomfortable, especially if not fitted just right. To those of you who have problems with drop bars -- have you ever tried triathlon/aero bars with elbow rests? I've never tried them myself, since there was no need, but if the main pressure points are shifted from the hands to the elbows, would that perhaps make for a more comfortable ride? That way one can still lean over and engage those muscles in the legs that one wants to tone. Just a thought.

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  14. One day I'll have legs like yours...if only. ;-)

    Now you know one of the reasons why racers ride dropped bars: They force cyclists to use those muscles, which, of course, leads to more power and speed.

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  15. I noticed the difference when I started to ride the road bike more for purely fun-distance-pushing my boundaries rides. Unfortunately, in utilizing my glutes more, I am having to be very careful to not wreck my back as I have an unstable pelvis. Everything is a trade off- great legs, bad back : )

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  16. I noticed this in your recent photos, but refrained from mentioning it out of gentlemanly restraint. Where I'm from, observations such as these are permitted only by close friends of the same gender or one's spouse after the 10th anniversary.

    But now that you raise the topic... Good for you! You look fit and your posts have an underlying optimism about them that bespeaks a contented author.

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  17. Velouria, after viewing the recent photo of you and the Raleigh, it occurred to me that you have been pedaling yourself into excellent cycling condition. Those 30-mile rides will do that. I considered making a comment but decided it might not be appropriate to get too personal. I'm glad others have noticed.

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  18. Hey baybeee- nice legzzzzz!

    Now that I've vented my inner construction worker, I'll say that while I don't work my hams much (a little, but not primarily) on an upright bike, the primary force I note is in my quads, not my calves.
    When I run, I have problems with compartment syndrome in my calves, so not overworking my calves is an important advantage of biking for me.

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  19. Those who are saying they cannot ride with drop bars because of carpel tunnel, I am wondering how you hold the handlebars and how the weight on you bike is distributed. For me, drop bars were a solution to carpel tunnel-like symptoms, because they offer so many hand positions, whereas an upright bike offers only one.

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  20. Very interesting! Makes me think maybe I'll install drop bars on my vintage mixte project.

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  21. cycler - do you stand up when going uphill, or tilt forward on the saddle on your bike?..

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  22. Since riding with drop bars I've also noticed a big difference in my thigh muscles...they 'bulge' out somewhat now!
    But yes...cycling is certainly a great way to keep fit and get from a to b. :)

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  23. My theory on why the bicycle is the best mode of transportation is along with everything else, it gives back physical fitness to the rider. What I love about biking regularly is that it keeps you at a base level of fitness. Last summer I finally got my mum back in the saddle and our winter was mild enough for her to ride year round (yay mum!) I saw in her and she saw in herself an improved mood, outlook, self esteem. Simply because no matter what she did with the rest of her day, she was getting in about 30-60 mins of biking a day. My life has been similarly affected by riding regularly and it is one of the reasons I get weepy eyed when I think about biking - it has the potential for people to feel better about themselves!

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  24. Totally OT but

    Where do you get your leggings? lol:)

    Thanks

    Fiona

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  25. Fiona - I wear leggings out pretty quickly and have tons of them, mainly from Target ($6!), H&M, and a no-name shop in Vienna, when I am there. I've also gotten some from American Apparel and Victoria's Secret in the past, but they wear out as fast as the cheaper ones.

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  26. Grrr my reply was eaten by a Blogger monster.

    Thanks for letting me know. I am ordering some from sock dreams as I have a 10% off code but I'm always looking for other great sources too. If only they had a Target up here. I'll have to check H&M tomorrow too

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  27. I noticed the same thing when I started riding my road bike more as well. I had the same 'are these MY legs?!' reaction when I caught a glance in the mirror. I've noticed that the definition has gone away a bit since i've been on my upright bikes - but I jumped back on my road bike this week and am seeing improvements after just 3 days :)

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  28. Indeed!

    My thighs got much more defined when I started riding Oma, though, especially right above the knee. Probably because all through the winter I feel like I'm on a leg weight machine the entire commute, pushing through the terrible winds.

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  29. This post came to mind recently.

    Ten years ago, I purchased a pair of tall riding-style boots from Boden (English ladieswear company). They are beautiful, traditionally made timeless classic boots in the most sumptuous black leather. I purchased them with the thought that, with care, they'd last a lifetime. I wore them frequently through five English winters. Each spring I slathered them in leather food, tucked them into boot bags and their original paper and box, and stashed them on a shelf at the top of my wardrobe.

    Then one first-chilly-day-of-autumn morning five years ago, I unwrapped them with anticipation... only to find I could not zip them up! I blinked and tried again. Nope, the calves were just too big. Both legs. The disbelief! The following autumn, the same. And a year later, again. Last year, I didn't even pull the box out of the wardrobe to try. :(

    I've thought of my lovely boots from time to time with some sorrow. I've even shopped around for something comparable with a bigger fitting round the calves. But I haven't seen any other boots I liked half so well. (Even from Boden.) Something would always be not quite right: the toe too pointed... or too chunky; the heel too high... or too flat; the style too frumpy... or too modern!

    This summer my cycling mileage -- like yours -- skyrocketed, first with the vintage mixte and more recently with my first drop-bar road bike. I began noticing changes in how my legs looked but frankly was still quite self-critical, focusing on certain changes I'd still like to see (like more definition round the knee) rather than appreciating what actually HAS changed.

    Until a few days ago, when my eyes lit on my calves...

    Last night, southern England got the first heavy frost of the season. This morning, I pulled out the step stool, stretched up to the top of the wardrobe, pulled down the battered Boden box, sat down and unwrapped my boots, slipped my feet into them... and ....

    Zipped them up.

    You can sign me,
    one very very happy lady cyclist today! :)

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  30. I´ve noticed since I took up cycling, thatI weigh more than what my build and waist should make most guess, and my legs are solid as rock!

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  31. Its beens said I have very powerful thighs from many arduous cycling trips to Baskin Robbins, someimtes twice a day. Its oover a mile each way. I often have to go ack and fnd more change and so that makes the trip much longer, even ....daunting.

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