Why Do Cyclists Have Skinny Arms?

Cyclists are known for their lean physiques and impressive leg muscles, but more often than not, the muscular development of their upper bodies is severely lagging.

The majority of road cyclists have flat chests and thin, narrow backs. However, the extraordinarily skinny arms receive more attention because the jersey does not fully cover them.

Sometimes the level of upper body thinness among cyclists reaches such high-levels that even average people who don’t train wonder – why do cyclists have such skinny arms?

Cyclists have small arms because most cycling disciplines don’t demand strong biceps and triceps and encourage the athletes to keep their weight low for optimal performance.

Cycling Doesn’t Require Sick Upper-Body Strength

Cycling is a full-body sport, but only the legs and the hips muscles have to exert significant force to propel the rider forward.

The contribution of the upper body consists of stabilization and pulling when riding out of the saddle, but the intensity isn’t high enough to trigger muscular hypertrophy.

In consequence, cyclists often showcase poor upper body development unless they perform resistance training exercises targeting the neglected muscle groups.

Big Upper Body = Hindrance

Classic road cycling involves a lot of climbing uphill – an activity greatly facilitated by a lighter bodyweight. The more you weigh, the harder you have to work to get yourself to the top of the hill.

For that reason, cyclists have scary low body fat levels bordering on unhealthy. But body fat reduction isn’t the only path to optimizing one’s body for long hours of cycling.

Avoiding unnecessary muscular development is another way to remain light and efficient. And since the sport does not require a high level of upper body strength, it’s only natural to sacrifice arm, chest, and back muscle in the name of higher performance.

Another downside of excessive muscle mass is its effect on endurance. The more muscle you carry, the more oxygen you need to sustain the effort output. Minimizing the upper body musculature reduces that demand.

Lighter Bodyweight = Small Arms

Many cyclists are quite light for their height. The pursuit of low bodyweight numbers inhibits future hypertrophy.

Below is a table with the heights and weights of some popular road cyclists.

CyclistHeightWeightBMI*
Alberto Contador176cm/5’9.5″62kg/136.4lbs20.0
Petar Sagan184cm/6’0.5″78kg/171.6lbs23.0
Ian Stannard189cm/6’2″80kg/176lbs22.4
Joey Rosskopf187cm/6’2″76kg/167lbs21.7
Julien Vermote179cm/5’11”71kg/156lbs22.2
Tom Dumoulin185cm/6’1″69kg/151.8lbs20.2
Julian Alaphilippe173cm/5’8″62kg/136lbs20.7
Richie Porte172cm/5’8″62kg/136lbs21.0
Chris Froome186cm/6’1.5″66kg/145lbs19.1
Simon Clarke175cm/5’9″63kg/138.6lbs20.6
Taylor Phinney1.97m/6’6″86kg/189lbs22.2
Ryder Hesjedal188cm/6’273kg/160lbs20.7
Wout Poels183cm/6′66kg/145lbs19.7
Rigoberto Urán173cm/5’8″62kg/136lbs20.7
Pierre Rolland184cm/6’0.5″67kg/147lbs19.8

*BMI – body mass index

As you can see, many cyclists don’t weigh a lot, and even the tall ones are under 200lbs. It’s hard to have impressive arms when you are light, and most of your resistance training is focused on the lower body.

FAQ: Are bodyweight and arm size correlated? Yes. The body grows as a unit. Even if you train just your arms, their growth will be limited by how much you weigh. If you’re 6’1″ and 140lbs, it would be quite difficult to have truly big arms (e.g., 15 inches+) even if that’s the only muscle group that you’re hitting at the gym.

The body will let you get away with it for a while, meaning your arms will grow a bit without substantial bodyweight increase, but eventually, the gains will plateau. The only way to reach beyond will be to gain additional bodyweight.

Do All Cyclists Have Small Arms?

The cyclists with the smallest arms are usually the climber specialists also known as “grimpeurs”.

As the name suggests, climbing specialists excel greatly at climbing roads with incredible inclines. Unsurprisingly, those are also the lightest cyclists with the lowest body mass index.

Below is a table including the height, bodyweight, and body mass index of legendary climbers.

Note: The list is not meant to rank the climbers in terms of performance. At the end of the day, they are/were all great. Also, many more names could be added to the list.

Legendary Climbing Specialists

CyclistHeight WeightBMI
Marco Pantani172cm/5’8″57kg/125lbs19.3
Charly Gaul173cm/5’8″64kg/140.8lbs21.4
Gino Bartali172cm/5’8″66kg/145.222.3
Richard Virenque179cm/5’10.5″65kg/143lbs20.3
Pedro Delado171cm/5’7.5″64kg/140.8lbs21.9
Luis Herrera169cm/5’6.5″57kg/125lbs20
Joop Zoetemelk173cm/5’8″68kg/149.6lbs22.7
Claudio Chiappucci172cm/5’8″67kg/147.4lbs22.6

The data above reveals that specializing in climbing requires cyclists to be light. Their body mass is optimized for performance and is more of a requirement than a choice.

Track Cyclists

Having said that, not all cyclists are light. Track cyclists are very muscular and walk around with legs that make even dedicated bodybuilders envious.

The main motif is once again the search for optimal performance.

Track cyclists are massive because the nature of the sport requires it. They are training like sprinters rather than marathon runners because their goal is to generate a lot of power over a short period – an activity facilitated and enhanced by large muscles.

The muscle fibers responsible for fast and explosive movements are called fast-twitch whereas the fibers working the hardest during endurance events are known as slow-twitch.

Fast-twitch fibers are capable of significantly greater hypertrophy than slow-twitch fibers. Hence why weightlifters, sprinters, and track cyclists display so much muscularity – they’ve optimized their network of fast-twitch fibers through training.

Also, sprinters don’t receive a penalty for being too heavy because their races do not require insane endurance and end very quickly in comparison to a cycling tour. This allows track cyclists to carry muscle mass that would be detrimental when climbing a mountain for hours.

And while track cyclists technically don’t need very big arms, the anabolic environment that they create for their legs has an impact on their upper bodies too because the organism works as a unit. When you gain weight, it shows everywhere.

Note: Track cyclists don’t develop their musculature only on the track. They follow strength training regimens including basic barbell exercises like squat and bench presses. Subsequently, their limbs and trunk muscles grow significantly even though their sport is not dependent on upper-body mass.

The table below contains the stats of elite track sprinters.

Track Sprinters

CyclistHeightWeightBMI
Harrie Lavreysen181cm/5’11.5″91kg/200lbs27.8
Mateusz Rudyk176cm/5’9″86kg/189lbs27.8
Tomohiro Fukaya169cm/5’7″79kg/173lbs27.7
Azizulhasni Awang168/5’6″67kg/147.423.7
Jair Tjon En Fa166cm/5’5.5″75kg/165lbs27.2
Denis Dmitrie176cm/5’9″92kg/202lbs29.7
Paul Nicholas 170cm/5’7″75kg/165lbs26.0
Sándor Szalontay179cm/5’11”88kg/193lbs27.5
Yudai Nitta173cm/5’8″77kg/169.4lbs25.7
Jason Kenny177cm/5’10”80kg/176lbs25.5

The average BMI of the track cyclists in the table above is 26.86. Meanwhile, the average BMI of climber specialists from the previous table is 21.3. That’s a 19% difference in favor of track cyclists.

You would be hard-pressed to find a track cyclist with a BMI under 20.

Hence why track cyclists have significantly larger arms and legs than climbers.

Mountain Bikers, BMX Riders, FreeStylers

Mountain bikers, BMX riders, and other cyclists doing technical riding and stunts are also heavier up top. Many techniques and tricks used in those sports involve the upper body to a larger extent than it may look from the outside.

For example, bunny hopping, which is the base of BMX riding, places stress on the back because the rider is holding the bars and extending his hips – a motion similar to a barbell pull like a deadlift or a power clean.

Hence why it’s not uncommon to get sore spinal erectors when learning moves like bunny hops and manuals.

Additionally, gaining extra muscle mass is useful for improving joint stabilization during landings. And since the elbows and the wrists take some of the impact, it helps to have strong forearms, biceps, and triceps even though no trick is limited by arm strength.

Unlike road cyclists, freestylers do not receive a penalty for being heavy because the discipline consists of high-intensity effort followed by plenty of rest.

Nonetheless, it’s very common to see skinny guys with small arms even among the stunt-oriented cyclists.

Catabolic Training

Professional cyclists spent a lot more time on the bike than the average person. Training sessions lasting 6 or even 8 hours are not unheard of. That amount of cardio harms muscle building because it raises once’s cortisol (stress) levels while also burning a substantial amount of calories.

When you add the usual low caloric diets meant to keep the bodyweight of the rider low, you get a recipe for a highly catabolic environment that prevents cyclists from gaining muscle mass.

When the required protein and calories aren’t present, no amount of training can make a muscle grow.

Also, the gruesome cycling regimes destroy the central nervous system of the riders and prevent them from inserting a lot of effort into gym training.

As a consequence, the only muscle groups that have noticeable development are the quadriceps and sometimes the calves if the rider has good genetics for growth in that area.

Having said that, the legs of road cyclists who ride great distances are not all that big. It’s hard to have an exceptional leg circumference when you don’t weigh much yourself.

Performance > Aesthetics

Professional athletes do extreme sacrifices to improve their performance. Sumo wrestlers eat a lot to maintain their weight, ballerinas are on permanent diets, some sports players sleep in altitude chambers, others inject performance-enhancing drugs…etc.

Cyclists are not an exception. The track guys perform weightlifting exercises to build their power whereas the roadies sacrifice upper body mass and look malnourished, especially with their clothes on, to become more efficient.

At the end of the day, the purpose of their training isn’t to build an aesthetic physique generating a stream of hearts on Instagram. Athletes look the way they do because that body shape has proven to be the most optimal for their sport.

What Incentives Do Cyclists Have to Train Their Arms?

Cyclists don’t have a strong incentive to train and develop their arms, especially when you account for the fact that arm gains equal “dead bodyweight gains”.

“Dead bodyweight gains” is a term describing weight that doesn’t directly help performance. A wide back and massive biceps will not help a climber cyclist. They make cycling uphill more difficult by adding drag and demanding more power output and an extra influx of oxygen.

As far as performance is concerned, the only incentive for a cyclist to train their upper body is balance and injury prevention. But more often than not, this amounts to training the spinal erectors, the abdominal wall, and the shoulders. The arms receive little focus.

Meanwhile, here are all the benefits that climbing cyclists get from keeping their upper bodies thin:

  • Less weight
  • Less drag
  • More endurance

But even if cyclists were to brutally murder their arms in the gym, insane growth would not take place due to the high number of cardio hours and the restrictive diets.

At the end of the day, training is the stimulus whereas food is the construction material. To gain muscle mass, both conditions have to be present.

Should Recreational Riders Copy The Pros?

Minimizing upper body hypertrophy by limiting your bodyweight and adjusting your training does not seem to offer many benefits for recreational cyclists.

Weekend warriors won’t gain much from walking around with skinny upper bodies for the sake of cutting a few seconds from their best time.

It’s wiser to include upper body exercises that target the primary upper body muscle groups.

Below is a table with movements classified by the muscle group that they work:

BackChestBicepsTriceps
DeadliftsBench pressBarbell curlsLying Triceps extensions
Pull-upsDipsDumbbell curlsTriceps push-downs
Barbell rowsOverhead press

Adding a routine combining some of the еьерцисес above would be very beneficial to a recreational cyclist who wants to have a balanced muscular development.

Below is an example upper body routine:

Deadlifts – 2 sets of 5 reps
Bench press – 3 sets of 10 reps
Pull-ups – 2 sets of 6-8 reps
Triceps extensions – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Biceps curls – 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Performing the routine above even only once a week will do a lot to boost the untrained upper body of a cyclist.

FAQ: I’m a cyclist who hates going to the gym? But I still want to build up my upper body. Any suggestions?

Yes. You can simply do lots of bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, dips and push-ups. The core muscles could also be trained at home with movements like planks and hanging leg raises.

Similar training does not need a lot of equipment. It can be done in the park or at home with a little imagination.

You could also purchase some elastic bands to perform corrective exercises at home.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ian

    Thanks. Full of insight and very helpful.

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