Building Muscle through Mountain Biking: Is It Possible?


As a low-impact aerobic activity, mountain biking has grown in popularity over the past few decades. It offers a wide variety of benefits and is suitable for all levels. Whether you cycle to commute, exercise, or compete, you might be curious about what muscles or body parts, exactly, are activated and worked when mountain biking. In this article, we shed light on the benefits of building muscle through mountain biking and how it can improve strength and performance by targeting key muscle groups.

Building muscle through mountain biking is an effective way to target the upper body, core, and lower body muscles. Key muscles exercised in the upper body include the biceps, triceps, and deltoids. Muscles exercised in the core include the abs and obliques. Muscles exercised in the lower body include the glutes and leg muscles. Mountain biking is also good for people because it improves cardiovascular fitness and endurance, as well as coordination and balance.

Although mountain biking is primarily considered a cardiovascular activity, it also works the skeletal muscles, as this research paper from the Physiological Reports Journal points out. These muscle groups work together to provide the power that drives the pedals. The muscles in the lower body are activated the most when cycling, while the muscle groups in the core and upper body help to balance and stabilize. The activation level of these muscle groups will vary depending on your biking discipline and level of bike fitness.

Additionally, according to this study by the European Journal of Sport Science, your position on the bike is also crucial for effective cycling as it dictates muscle activation. With an incorrect saddle position, you won’t be able to drive your major muscles efficiently, and this can result in aches and pains. To prevent this, check out our article on how to choose the ideal MTB saddle position. Our article on how to reduce mountain bike saddle pain will also come in handy.

What Muscles Does Mountain Biking Work?

Essentially mountain biking works all the muscles of the body, although the muscles of the lower body do work harder than the muscles of the upper body.

Mountain biking works the upper body, core, and lower body muscles. The quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles work the hardest. 

As this article from the European Journal of Applied Physiology discusses, the major muscle groups exercised by biking are in the lower body, namely the quadriceps, hamstring, and gluteal muscles. Additionally, the core muscles (abdominal muscles and erector spinae), in conjunction with the upper body muscles, are useful for stability and support while riding the bike. Check out this animation video for an illustration of the muscles working at each point during the pedal cycle.

Although mountain biking works out the muscles involved, additional workouts are still recommended for efficient cycling so it helps to incorporate some training exercises into your routine. This will help you activate your muscles more easily while riding, maximize endurance on the bike, stop muscle imbalances, and reduce the risk of injuries. Here is a strength training workout video to get you started and you can invest in a segmental body composition scale like this to measure your muscle mass while you progress through your strength training.

Building muscle through mountain biking is possible as all major muscle groups are engaged during the activity.
All of the major muscle groups in the body are toned and strengthened by mountain biking. Source: MerlinCycles.

Make sure also to read our related article for a deeper look into mountain biking core strength for more information.

Mountain biking works on the following muscles:

The Upper Body

As this research paper from the Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging Journal concludes, the upper body muscles are continually active while cycling, especially during high-intensity cycling. Upper body support is needed to support the wide range of positions riders take while biking, from upright to aerodynamic positions. These continuous changes in body movements place pressure on the upper body, helping to condition and strengthen the region. Different riding disciplines, terrains, and positions will have varying effects on the level of activation. Here are the muscle groups in the upper body worked by mountain biking:

The nature of mountain biking requires the upper body muscles to engage because of continuously changing body movements and positions which means those muscles become built and stronger.
Regular mountain biking helps work out and tone the upper body muscles. Source: media.istockphoto.com.

These are the muscle groups of the upper body that are built as a result of mountain biking:

1. Biceps and Triceps

The biceps and triceps make up the bulk of your arm muscles, with the biceps located on the front of the upper arm and the triceps on the back. The two muscle groups work together to handle the majority of the arm functionality. The triceps help with pushing movements, while the biceps helps with pulling movements, according to this article from the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting.

As this study by the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology discusses, the intensity and duration of biceps and triceps activity increase during uphill cycling, especially when standing in an upright riding posture. These two muscles help to support and stabilize the upper body weight and are particularly important when climbing and leaning out of the saddle. As this research paper by the Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging journal indicates, by helping to overcome high resistive loads, the muscles become stronger while cycling in this position.

2. Deltoids

These are also known as the shoulder muscles. According to this article by the Journal of Anatomy, the deltoids help to protect and stabilize your shoulders. They are particularly active and worked when riding on rough and technical terrains. In cross-country mountain bike racing, where high power outputs are required, the deltoids play essential roles in stabilizing the torso. In addition, time-trialists and triathletes riding in the aero position show increased activity of these muscles. As a result, the delts get toned and strengthened in these riding disciplines and conditions, as this study from the Journal of Sports Sciences discusses.

3. Pectorals

These are the largest muscles located in the chest area and are responsible for a wide range of movements of the arm, as this article by SatPearls Publishing explains. The pecs act as shock absorbers and help bear the weight of your upper body while cycling. They are particularly important in cross-country mountain biking on off-road trails. According to this article from the Journal of Biomechanics, the level of activation and tension in the pectorals increases in order to absorb and dampen the vibrations or shocks caused by rough terrains. The muscles also help to stabilize joint positions and maintain body equilibrium.

4. Latissimus Dorsi

According to this article By StatPearls Publishing, the lats are the largest muscles in the upper body and are responsible for various motions of the arm and rib cage. During an uphill cycle ride, they are particularly toned and strengthened when pulling on the handlebars. They help in providing postural stability by supporting the body and controlling handlebar movements, as this research paper from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine discusses. In addition, they help in transferring some of the body weight and strain to the handlebars through the arms. This allows the rider to maintain balance on the bicycle while riding on rough terrains. To learn more about handlebars, check out our article comparing mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars. Our guides on mountain bike handlebar width and mountain bike handlebar sweep will also prove helpful.

The Core

As this article by Harvard Health Publishing discusses, the core muscles take charge during biking to help keep your muscles upright and steady on the bike. Due to the instability of the mountain bike, the core is constantly fired and fully engaged to keep the rider in equilibrium while pedaling. As a result, cycling helps build your abs and strengthen your core, enhancing your balance and coordination.

Building muscle through mountain biking requires proper form to maximize the muscle-building benefits for your core. By contracting and engaging your core muscles in the forward lean or aerodynamic position, you will maintain proper posture and naturally tone your muscles. 

Here are the major core muscles that are engaged when you cycle:

1. Abdominal Muscles

The abdominals form the front wall of the body trunk and are a crucial component of your core strength. According to this article from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, there are four muscles: rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, and transversus abdominis. These muscles are responsible for the movement and support of the trunk. Together with the back muscles, they make up your core and keep the body stable and balanced.

While mountain biking, these muscles get activated and provide the foundation from which power is generated, as this study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research explains. In addition, the abdominals help you control the bike and power your turns, especially in challenging terrains. They provide a stable platform for support and smooth steering by contracting isometrically while riding. As a result, mountain biking helps to tone and strengthen the abdominal muscles.

2. Erector Spinae Muscles

These are a group of muscles that straighten, stabilize, and rotate the back and spine. As this article by the Journal of Physiology explains, the erector spinae muscles contract synergically to help extend the body to the upright position and flex the body to the aerodynamic posture. In addition, according to this article from Cycling Anatomy, these back muscles stabilize the spine and pelvis, allowing your legs to generate maximal power. As a result, the erector spinae muscles are constantly engaged while cycling.

The Lower Body

This is the most obvious area of muscle building during mountain biking. As this article from the Science of Cycling discusses, the muscles in the lower body are the main muscles at work when cycling. The glutes and leg muscles contract in a sequence that creates the pedaling action. As a result, cycling helps to tone and strengthen these areas predominantly. However, the best way to ensure your lower body muscles get worked is to have a proper bike fit. Check out our article on how to fit a mountain bike saddle for a thorough fitting guide.

Here are the major muscles in the lower body worked by mountain biking.

When mountain biking all muscle groups work but it is the lower body muscles that will build and tone the most.
The lower body muscles are the main muscles used to generate power for pedaling. Source: Pinterest.

1. Gluteals

These are a set of three muscles located in the buttocks: the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and gluteus maximus. According to this report from Physiotherapy Canada, the three muscles work together to rotate the thighs and stabilize the upper body and pelvis. These muscles get primarily activated while cycling, helping to generate power for pedaling, especially during the downward phase of the cycling pedal stroke. Additionally, the level of activity of the glutes increases during the upright or standing posture while cycling, as this review from the Physical Therapy in Sport journal. Therefore, cycling helps to lift and strengthen and tone your glutes. You can also help improve your glutes' strength and tone by riding up steep hills and climbing out of the saddle, forcing the muscles to work harder on each pedal stroke.

2. Leg Muscles

These muscles include your quads, calves, and hamstrings. According to this study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the leg muscles work in coordination to provide force for each cycle of the pedal stroke. The quads get worked on the downstroke, the hamstrings on the upstroke, and the calves during both cycles. These muscles receive both cardio and strength training while biking. By developing fluid pedal strokes, mountain bikers gain strong, lean legs from hips to ankles. Uphill rides help to build and tone the leg muscles by increasing the resistance against the muscles.

Summary of Muscles  Used While Mountain Biking 

Muscle Groups Exerted Level of Exertion What Kind of Mountain Biking Exerts Them the Most?  Research Article Citations
Biceps and Triceps High Uphill Sébastien Duc et al.Marie Clare et al.
Deltoids Moderate Cross country riding Nicolas Alain Turpin et al.
Pectorals Moderate Off-road riding Paul Macdermid et al.
Lats High Uphill Pinar Arpinar-Avsar et al.
Abdominals High Enduro racing John Abt et al.
Erector spinae Moderate Downhill Shannon Sovndal
Glutes High Uphill Raymond C.H. So et al.
Quads High Uphill, Downhill, Competitive racing K E Bijker et al.
Hamstrings Moderate Uphill, Downhill Julio Cézar Limar da Silva et al.
Calves High Uphill, Downhill Chris Rissel et al.
Shin Moderate Uphill Thomas Mohr et al.

Does Mountain Biking Build Leg Muscles?

Yes, mountain biking helps to work out and strengthen the leg muscles. The leg muscles are the primary muscles responsible for generating much of the power for mountain biking. With the legs revolving at 80 to 100 reps per minute, these muscles help to propel the bike forward.

Mountain biking builds leg muscles, including calves, quads, hamstrings, and shin muscles. 

As this article from the Journal of Environmental and Public Health discusses, cycling helps to increase leg strength, muscle endurance, balance, and other functional abilities. 

Building muscle through mountain biking is a great way to target specific muscle groups, particularly in the legs. The leg muscles help to drive the major phases of the pedal stroke. The power phase involves using the glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings to press downward on the pedal. The recovery phase uses the hamstrings and hip flexors. During the cycle, most of the power is generated between the 12 o’clock and 5 o’clock positions of the pedal, as this is when most of the primary muscles are activated.

Just as these muscles provide the force for pedaling, you also need the right pedals for maximum efficiency. Our guide on choosing the right types of bike pedals will help you find the proper fit. You can also try out pedaling accessories like pedal straps and toe clips to provide a better grip while pedaling, in which case our article comparing pedal straps vs. toe clips will undoubtedly come in handy.

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When mountain biking the bike is propelled forward by the different muscles of the legs that activate during the different stages of the rotation of the pedals.
The leg muscles help to drive the power phase and recovery phases of the pedal stroke. Source: ilovebicycling.

These are the muscle groups of the lower body that are built as a result of mountain biking:

1. Calves

The calves are usually the most prominent feature on seasoned cyclists, and for good reason. The calf muscles, gastrocnemius, and soleus play an essential role while pedaling. They help transmit the force produced in the quads and allow the leg to get over the dead spot of the pedal stroke. The muscles are activated the most when you only hit the pedals with your toes. As a result, cycling makes your calves stronger and more conditioned.

Mountain bikers that ride regularly usually have well-built and toned calf muscles.
Regular mountain biking helps to tone and strengthen your calves. Source: TrainingPeaks.

2. Quads

The quads are the major powerhouses of the pedal stroke. These four thigh muscles contract continuously to power the pedal stroke from the very top all the way to the bottom of the pedal stroke. As this study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology discusses, the quads are the primary power producers while riding, helping to contribute to your momentum. Cycling provides strength and cardio training for these muscles, especially when riding uphill and through technical trails.

Most of the power needed for the pedaling motion comes from the group of muscles at the front of the thigh called the quads.
The quads contract to produce the bulk of the power used in pedaling. Source: Training Peaks.

3. Hamstrings

While the quads generate most of the power, the hamstrings help to carry some of the load. They are most active from the 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock position of the pedal stroke, helping to bend the hip and knee for the push-down movement and pull-up of the pedal. Their function is to stabilize and bend the hips and knees while cycling. Mountain biking provides the necessary strength training to ensure muscular balance and further improve the efficiency of these muscles. 

It is easy to build hamstring muscles by mountain biking as they play an integral role in the rotation of the pedals to propel the bike forward.
The hamstrings help to assist the quads in generating power for the down stroke and pull-back phases of the pedal stroke. Source: ilovebicycling.

4. Shin Muscles

The major muscle of the shin is the tibialis anterior. This muscle is the only lower-leg muscle activated and worked during the power and recovery phase of the pedal stroke, as this study  from the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy finds. In addition, it helps in lifting the leg in the pull-back stage of the recovery phase. According to this research paper from the Scandinavian Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, cycling causes less strain on the shin muscle and so can be useful in physical therapy for patients with knee injuries.

Mountain biking helps to build muscles that support the knee area without straining the muscles such as the shin muscles.
The shin muscles help in lifting the legs in the recovery phase of the pedal stroke. Source: kajabi-storefronts-production.kajabi-cdn.com.

Why Is Mountain Biking Good Exercise for You?

If you are a regular mountain biker, you must already understand the power that it has to transform the body. Mountain biking builds muscular structure while working on cardiovascular endurance, resulting in a lean, fit body with a notable stamina increase. It helps tone and work many muscles in the body and comes with various health benefits. As a fun, easy, time-efficient, low-impact, and good muscle workout, mountain biking helps increase your strength and aerobic fitness in a way that few other sports do.

Mountain biking is a good exercise because it provides a total body workout, better sleep, improved balance, reduced stress, better heart health, and weight management. 

Mountain biking is great for building muscles which help bikers to become stronger and have more stamina for physical activities.
Mountain biking offers numerous benefits to improve strength, stamina, aerobic fitness, and overall health. Source: gobangkokbiketours.

Mountain biking is really good for you for the following reasons:

Mountain Biking Provides a Full-Body Workout

This is one of the significant benefits of mountain biking. As this article from the Better Health Channel discusses, biking helps to increase cardiovascular fitness as well as muscle strength and flexibility. What differentiates mountain biking from other sports is that it doesn’t overstress your joints as much. Although the leg muscles are the major muscles having a workout, mountain biking also helps strengthen and tone your core and upper body. Regular mountain biking will provide a full-body workout for muscles in different regions of your body.

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Consider mountain biking for a total body workout and to build and strengthen all the major muscle groups of the body.
Mountain biking helps to strengthen and condition muscles in your upper body, core, and lower body without stressing your joints. Source: DiscerningCyclist.

Mountain Biking Improves Sleep

According to this study from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Journal, decreased cardiovascular fitness can increase the risks of sleep problems. Building muscle through mountain biking, as an aerobic and anaerobic activity, can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep, thereby protecting against sleep dysfunction. To monitor your sleep patterns and other key health metrics like heart rate, consider using a smartwatch like this.

Mountain Biking Improves Balance

Another benefit to mountain biking is that it helps improve your balance, posture, and coordination, as this article from the Journal of Physical Therapy Science discusses. Mountain biking helps stimulate and activate regions in the central nervous system concerned with motor learning and balance. As you work your muscles to stabilize your body and the bike, you get to improve your overall balance and coordination and decrease your risk of injury.

Mountain biking helps to build the muscles that stabilize and help to maintain balance.
Mountain biking helps to work your muscles for improved stability, balance, and posture. Source: Unsplash.

Mountain Biking Reduces Stress

Mountain biking helps to ease feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. As many bikers can attest, mountain biking enables you to develop concentration and awareness in the present as you focus on the road or your cadence. Additionally, this study by Plos One found that biking outside enhanced cognitive function and well-being by promoting the release of endorphins. This helps you feel better while also decreasing your stress levels.

Mountain Biking Promotes Better Heart Health

According to this research by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, cycling has a positive influence on cardiorespiratory fitness, helping to improve heart health and decrease cardiovascular risk factors. It is a great way to improve cardiovascular functioning by keeping your heart healthy and strong. Keep track of your heart rate with a monitor like this

Mountain Biking Promotes Weight Loss

Regular biking, especially at a high intensity, helps to lower your body fat levels, as this study from the Journal of Education and Training Studies shows. Mountain biking increases your metabolism and builds your muscles, allowing you to burn more calories even at rest. By increasing your intensity, you can burn more calories in less time which can be measured using a smartwatch like this

What Are the Disadvantages of Mountain Biking?

Despite the wide variety of benefits of mountain biking on your overall fitness and health, there are a few drawbacks to the exercise. In this section, we take a look at these less-known downsides to biking.

There are some disadvantages to mountain biking, including a more intense workout for the lower body than the upper body, leaner and less noticeable muscles, high risks of accidents, and saddle sores. 

Be aware that mountain biking does have some disadvantages:

The Workout Can Be More Intense For The Lower Body Than The Upper Body

According to this research paper from the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, the lower body receives increased muscular activity while cycling compared to the upper body. As a result, pro mountain bikers tend to have strong legs and core with thin arms. It is usually recommended to pair biking with regular upper-body training for well-balanced strength.

The Muscles Are Leaner and Less Noticeable 

Although mountain biking helps increase muscle size and strength, as this article from Acta Physiologica explains, it cannot be compared to bulky muscles from heavy weight lifting. Mountain biking provides a host of other benefits, as we’ve discussed above, but if muscle building is your primary goal, then biking wouldn’t be your best choice.

Mountain Biking Comes With High Risks of Accidents

As this article on Accident Analysis and Prevention explores, mountain biking and cycling, in general, carry considerable risks of injury, especially when on-road with vehicles. As a result, it is best to invest in protective gear like this to protect your body, and a helmet like this to protect your head and face. Our article on how to choose your mountain bike armor kit provides a step-by-step guide to help you pick the right gear. You can also check out our article on mountain bike armor designs that explains more about protective gear.

Prolonged Pressure on The Seat Causes Saddle Sores 

As this article by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discusses, saddle sores are a prevalent issue among cyclists. The wrong saddle can create excessive pressure on the pelvic region, restrict blood flow to the genital area and negatively affect sexual functioning. As a result, getting the right saddle like this and fitting it properly is a priority for any mountain biker. You can check out our detailed guide exploring tricks for choosing a mountain bike saddle to make sure that your bike is comfortable to ride.

Riding a mountain bike with the wrong saddle can cause serious discomfort and even saddle sores.
Saddle sores are commonly experienced due to improper riding posture and incorrect saddle fit. Source: TotalTriTraining.

Is Mountain Biking Hard on Your Body?

One of the great benefits of mountain biking as a form of exercise is that it can be as mild or intense as you want it to be. And the level of intensity determines the amount of exertion that your body undergoes.

No, mountain biking is not necessarily hard on the body. The upper body, core, and lower body muscles as well as shoulder and knee joints are impacted when mountain biking. However, running, weight-lifting, climbing, and hiking can be harder on the body because they are high-impact and more intense on the joints. 

Mountain biking offers a low-impact exercise option for people who want an intense workout without stressing their joints, as this article from the Current Sports Medicine Reports. Riders extend their muscles less when biking than in other exercises, leading to less load on the joints and less flexibility, depending on the terrain being ridden on. However, if your bike isn’t set up correctly, there is a higher risk of repetitive strain injury and aches while holding the same position for an extended period of time. Our mountain bike sizing chart guide is essential for amateur and pro bikers to make sure that they get a bike that is the right size and is set up properly for their bodies and riding style.

Here we compare mountain biking with other popular types of sports:

1. Mountain Biking vs. Running

Mountain biking works out your lower body muscles, as well as your core and upper body. It is low-impact as your feet do not actually come into contact with the ground, and involves relatively fluid movements, so it is a better choice for people with injuries or arthritis, as this article from the Clinical Rehabilitation journal explains. Like cycling, running is an aerobic exercise that improves cardiovascular health. However, running is a high-impact exercise and can lead to injury and joint pain due to increased load and force on the body. Although mountain biking also works the shoulder and knee joints, it is less intense and so causes less stress on the joints. You can check out this video workout that shows some stretches to help ease any  joint aches or stress.

2. Mountain Biking vs. Weight Lifting

Mountain biking is great for health, fitness, and weight maintenance. However, it is more beneficial for cardiovascular training than for strength training. In addition, according to this article from the Zeitschrift für Orthopädie und Unfallchirurgie, bikers tend to have lower bone mineral density. Weight lifting, on the other hand, is much more intense on the muscles and bone, helping to increase muscle strength and mass as well as bone strength and joint flexibility. It is usually recommended to pair biking with strength training to boost overall fitness.

3. Mountain Biking vs. Mountain Climbing

Like mountain biking, climbing is an intense workout to test your physical strength and mental stamina, as this study from the Iranian Journal of Public Health concludes. These exercises are intensive strength and cardio workouts, which tend to work the lower body muscles more. However, while mountain biking is a primarily cardiovascular workout, climbing is mainly a strength-based workout. Climbing produces short anaerobic bursts of power, while biking produces a more steady and sustained heart rate, as this article from Science and Sports discusses.

4. Mountain Biking vs. Hiking

Mountain biking typically involves cycling uphill and downhill through rugged and challenging terrain, and this can be a great way to be physically active while spending time in nature. The same holds true for hiking. Like mountain biking, hiking helps to decrease depression and stress levels, enhance the immune system, restore focus, and increase weight loss and overall wellness, as this article from the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine explores. However, hiking is a much more strenuous activity and can quickly wear you down, leading to fatigue, muscle aches, and injuries.

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