Abstract The cyclic plastic response of a single crystalline thin beam subject to combined cyclic tension and bending is analyzed using two-dimensional discrete dislocation plasticity. In this contribution, special attention is paid to the difference in the inherent mechanism of the size effect for different cyclic loads. Results show that the cyclic plastic response has a strong size effect for both cyclic pure tension–compression and pure bending. However, the inherent mechanisms are different. The dislocation starvation mechanism dominates the cyclic tension–compression while the geometrically necessary dislocation dominates the cyclic pure bending. When the combined cyclic tension and bending are applied to the thin beam, the cyclic moment–rotation response shows strong size effect while the stress–strain response shows weak or even no size effect. In addition, it is also found that the cyclic loading paths have considerable influences on the shape of the cyclic stress–strain loops.