Physical exercise can cause marked alterations in the structure and function of human skeletal muscle. However, little is known about the specific signaling molecules and pathways that enable exercise to modulate cellular processes in skeletal muscle. The mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascade is a major signaling system by which cells transduce extracellular signals into intracellular responses. We tested the hypothesis that a single bout of exercise activates the MAPK signaling pathway. Needle biopsies of vastus lateralis muscle were taken from nine subjects at rest and after 60 min of cycle ergometer exercise. In all subjects, exercise increased MAPK phosphorylation, and the activity of its downstream substrate, the p90 ribosomal S6 kinase 2. Furthermore, exercise increased the activities of the upstream regulators of MAPK, MAP kinase kinase, and Raf-1. When two additional subjects were studied using a one-legged exercise protocol, MAPK phosphorylation and p90 ribosomal S6 kinase 2, MAP kinase kinase 1, and Raf-1 activities were increased only in the exercising leg. These studies demonstrate that exercise activates the MAPK cascade in human skeletal muscle and that this stimulation is primarily a local, tissue-specific phenomenon, rather than a systemic response to exercise. These findings suggest that the MAPK pathway may modulate cellular processes that occur in skeletal muscle in response to exercise.