In most cases mountain biking does not dramatically build upper body strength. While it is certainly a great all body fitness exercise, involving a large number of muscle groups to some degree, it is leg strength that benefits most in terms of muscle activation.
I’ve been mountain biking for around 15 years at this point, and have also had an interest in weight training, though this has been much more sporadic an activity – and was something I was much more involved in my mid to late twenties!
These days I’ve burnt off most of my gained muscle mass, having stopped my eating of 5-6 high protein meals a day and several intense weight training sessions a week many years back – and as a result I’m back to a lean mountain biker build well and truly.
It does mean however that over the years I’ve seen firsthand just how much either of those activities contributes to my muscle strength, and indeed muscle growth – which has been really interesting.
First things first, there is no doubt about it – mountain biking is a fantastic exercise that uses all sorts of muscles to various degrees, in addition to cranking up your cardio fitness and health.
I’ve seen this even when my weight training has been minimal – my overall fitness has been really good, and some muscles have grown, certainly increasing their strength and density/definition.
What kind of mountain biking are we talking about here?
Just to set the scene, when I’m talking about mountain biking, I’m not meaning an occasional ride round a local family trail or local park.
What I’m referring to is regular, intense mountain bike rides that involve putting in serious effort, both involving some amount of climbing, and aggressively riding downhill terrain and other features.
The type of riding where you’re often drenched in sweat, you can feel all sorts of muscles have been thrashed by the experience following the ride, and the post-ride drink and meal are like the best thing ever!
What muscles does mountain biking work?
So, what muscles are actually being used when we’re mountain biking?
Naturally the legs which are powering our bike are going to be the most used, and I’ve seen consistently that the more riding I’m doing, the stronger my quads, hamstrings, and calves feel (and look for that matter).
However in terms of muscle growth, to stack on the muscle mass, it is still far more effective to work out consistently with heavy weights in my experience.
The type of muscle strength I’ve found I get from mountain biking is much more a lean and “fit” muscle strength. I’ll get quite defined calf muscles for example, and feel that I’ve got more climbing power as the season progresses if I’ve been riding often. However while they might increase in muscle mass if I’m riding much more frequently, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is in the muscle density and definition, and additional power or stamina to use while riding.
The calves just get activated so often as I’m trying to put in efficient power in my pedalling for example that they get a fantastic workout every ride – and therefore I see results.
The same is true for quads – though I’m sure I’d see much more dramatic quadricep muscle growth if I was climbing huge elevation every ride, which I don’t. So instead, I typically end up with quads that I would say are decently strong, and which I can activate when I flex them for example – but which are certainly not the giant rippling quads of an Olympic track cyclist, or a bodybuilder who is working them out very regularly with extremely heavy weight training.
Okay, but what about upper body muscle strength?
In terms of building upper body strength, this is perhaps even more determined by the type of mountain biking you’re doing.
In my case, I’m most interested in aggressive trail riding, and particularly riding downhill whenever possible.
We have a lift-assist bike park nearby, so that has resulted in many hundreds of downhill laps at the park. There’s no doubt about it, when I’m doing a big day at the bike park, charging downhill over and over again (as fast as my bravery level allows!), I use my upper body far more than I do on even a much longer ride on flatter terrain.
On the steeper trails, and when riding through rough downhill rocky terrain (or hitting drops for that matter), it’s almost like doing pushups which riding. You’re using your chest and arms constantly to push the bike back away from you as gravity is throwing your weight towards it, over and over – otherwise you’d just slam into your stem and handlebars!
During (or after) an intense downhill mountain biking session my forearms and biceps and triceps will all have been used a bunch – and will often get reasonably vascular (again, not to the degree that a bodybuilder doing sustained weight training would be usually, but still noticeable).
Likewise when we’re grabbing our post-ride feed after thrashing laps at the bike park all day, it feels fantastic to stretch. I can definitely feel that most of the muscle groups in my arms, and chest, back and shoulder muscles too, have had a decent workout.
Does mountain biking make upper body muscles bigger?
In my experience, while I definitely get a noticeable amount of all over muscle “fitness” benefit from regular intense riding – and will be able to feel that all those muscle groups have been worked out, I don’t see much in the way of visible upper body muscle growth from just riding trails.
The amount of muscle mass gained via regular heavy weight training (and accompanying high protein eating) is dramatically more noticeable. In the past when I was much more into weight training I saw very noticeable increases in muscle size across all the areas I was training, as did friends and family who commented on it at the time.
I just don’t see that type of muscle growth from regular mountain biking – and instead it really is much more about overall fitness, and an all body fitness workout in my opinion.
I do find it much more enjoyable to go riding than to throw iron around in the gym, so these days I’ve lost most of the muscle gains I had previously – but again, maintain a decent amount of overall fitness and strength through regular mountain biking.
I should also mention that it feels like I get quite a bit of core strength from mountain biking, as these core muscles seem to be involved in a wide range of mountain biking movement – as we’re battling against gravity and constantly fluid with our body position on the bike with changing forces coming at us non-stop down the trail.
So what about strength training in the gym for mountain biking?
I certainly don’t want to give the impression that mountain biking itself is all you’ll ever need to do in terms of strength training.
Look at any professional mountain biker’s training scedule and you’ll see without exception that in addition to many hours on the bike, they are also putting in ridiculous amount of strength and other training in the gym.
Mountain biking without a doubt favours some muscles over others, and for professional mountain bike racers and the like, they absolutely need to not only address those shortfalls, but also train other muscle groups more effectively for explosive power, or indeed resistance to injury on the bike, and so on.
And the same I think is true to us mere mortals, the weekend warriors, just to a slightly different degree!
When compared to the average couch dweller, most mountain bikers who are often very active out on the trails will be in great shape – but that’s not to say we can’t benefit from other more targeted (or complimentary) strength training in the gym, using weights or other equipment.
This can absolutely be beneficial in a multitude of ways – helping us as riders put down more power on the trail, ride with more agility, for longer – and like the pros, also potentially helping us avoid injury. Well, not ALL injuries, that’s always going to be a part of the sport for better or worse, but certainly it can put us in a stronger position to come out the other side of our next crash in better condition.
I hope this has been useful and thought provoking for you – now get out there and shred some trail!