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What Actual Muscles Does Mountain Biking Work?

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Taking your mountain bike out for a spin is a great way to build and tone your muscles.

While some days it feels like it’s working all your muscles if you overdo it, there are some primary muscle groups that do a bulk of the lifting.

We all know it’s the leg muscles that do the majority of the work getting the bike moving, but how and why are the real questions.  So let’s start with the leg muscles doing the work of pushing your mountain bike and go from there.

Before I get too far into the details of the muscles, let me just say that I’ve been out biking and enjoying the fresh air and exercise and then i catch a branch hard enough to skin a couple of knuckles and make a bloody mess.  Not the worst injury, but I always recommend to pack your essentials like a first-aid kit so you are prepared as much as possible because it’s you vs nature out there and you have to make sure you can take care of yourself.

So many people wonder just what muscles get to work mountain biking.

So in any case, here are the muscles…

Quadriceps and Gluteus Muscles

During the start of the power phase, the main muscles that use their strength to push down on pedals from the 12 o’clock position towards the 6 o’clock position are the quadriceps and gluteus muscles.

The quads are the big muscles on the front of the thigh and is the main powerhouse for getting a bike going.

The gluteus muscles, or sometimes gluteus maximus as it’s technically called, is in essence the rear-end.  Yes, it does do quite a bit more than just hold you up on the seat.

If you’re putting power to the ground, you are working these muscles groups primarily.

Hamstrings and Calf Muscles

As you are about halfway through the power phase, at around the 3 o’clock position, the hamstrings and calf muscles come into play and work to assist the quadriceps and gluteus muscles in pushing those pedals and getting the bike moving.

The Heart

Though the not first thing to come to mind, the heart is one of the muscles that is working hard the entire time.

When you’re pushing things on rough terrain on your mountain bike, your heart is working hard to pump oxygen out to all of your muscles.  As a result, your heart gets stronger and it can actually help with high blood pressure issues.


To get oxygen out to your muscles, you need to first be able to take in oxygen.  That’s where the lungs come in.

When you are working hard, your lungs have to increase capacity and effectiveness to get more oxygen into your body.  As a byproduct, even under normal conditions, you body is able to take in more oxygen than before.

Mountain bikers lungs on average are 25% more effective in taking in oxygen than the average non-exerciser.


The brain is not commonly thought when it comes to exercise, but mountain biking increase brain functionality like other forms of exercise. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why mountain biking is so good for you.

There have been many scientific studies that show that the brain is far stronger after even 30 minutes of exercise.  In one recent scientific journal, test subjects completed tests of memory, reasoning, and planning both better and quicker after 30 minutes on a stationary bike.

The main reason the brain gets stronger is because with increased oxygen in the blood and increased blood flow, the brain is being fed a high-oxygen diet and as a result is able to function at a higher capacity.

That’s really a great thing because when you’re flying over rough terrain, you need to react faster to obstacles.

Upper Body Muscles

Contrary to popular belief, the upper body is just as important as the lower body when mountain biking. The arms and shoulders are constantly being used to turn and balance the bike. This constant usage results in stronger strength and endurance of the arms and muscles. It’s a great way to burn calories and get rid of that belly fat and bring out that six-pack again.

Additionally, the core muscles of the body, chest, abs, and lower back, all are constantly moving as you peddle and steer. As long as your bike is adjusted properly and you bike with a good form, things like lower back pain and tennis elbow are far less likely.

There are many health benefits to mountain biking. The legs will largely get exercised from pushing on the pedals, but the heart and upper body get significant amounts of exercise too from steering and navigating.

Many of these upper muscles are the same ones that mountain climbers work since it is mostly upper body strength. Many muscles including the same body, chest and abs get a workout in these two sports.


Bike riding is a lot of fun and at the same time it works lots of muscle groups giving you great overall muscle tone. The glutes hamstrings and other muscles used get a great workout and you get some fresh air at the same time.

About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed