Exercise causes selective changes in gene expression leading to alterations in the structure and function of human skeletal muscle. However, little is known about the specific signaling pathways that enable exercise to modulate gene regulatory events. We determined the effects of exercise on c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (JNK) activity, a signaling molecule involved in the regulation of transcription. Biopsies of vastus lateralis muscle were taken from eight subjects at rest and after 60 min of cycle ergometer exercise. Exercise increased JNK activity in all subjects (5.9 +/- 1.8 fold above basal). JNK activation was associated with an increased expression of its downstream nuclear target c-Jun mRNA. When two additional subjects were studied using a one-legged exercise protocol, JNK activity increased only in the exercising leg, indicating that exercise-induced JNK signaling represents an intrinsic response of the contracting muscle, rather than a systemic response to exercise. These studies demonstrate that the JNK pathway may serve as a link between contractile activity and transcriptional responses in human skeletal muscle.