Whether you’re a regular gym-goer with muscle-building constantly in mind or a fitness tracker with your eyes fixed on those 10,000 daily, you’ll surely have thought, does walking build muscle? she the muscles? After all, it’s our most regular form of exercise, and for some who might find it difficult to lift weights or do intense cardio, the only form that can be undertaken.
“Walking is primarily considered a low-intensity form of cardiovascular exercise,” says Brett Starkowitz, master trainer and education manager at Ten Health & Fitness. (opens in a new tab). “It generally does not cause significant changes in muscle mass or tone.” Well that’s it then, isn’t it? Well, not quite, so don’t stop looking for the best treadmills. (opens in a new tab) just now.
“Walking falls into the category of endurance exercise, which is known to build slow-twitch muscle fibers; the fibers used mainly for periods of sustained activity. People may notice a slight increase in leg size after walking, as the legs “swell” to absorb nutrients and remove waste products, such as lactic acid. (opens in a new tab)“says Starkowitz.
That may account for those bulging calves after your usual walk in the local park, but unfortunately the volume change won’t last more than an hour afterwards. Still, keep walking regularly for extended periods and those toned calves may stay, according to a 2018 study from Nagoya University. (opens in a new tab) finding that muscle quality was improved in 31 participants after 10 weeks of regular 30-minute walking sets.
So while you’re not going to build the legs of an Olympic weightlifter by walking, there is muscle to be built. With it, we look at what muscles are working while you walk, if you can burn fat doing it, and get tips from Starkowitz to help you improve your daily walks and start building muscle faster.
What muscles are used while walking?
Walking will mainly work your lower body and mainly stimulate the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip adductors, as well as the spine and abdominal muscles, all of which have an important role in stabilizing your core as you move forward.
“Walking is one of the best full-leg workouts,” says Starkowitz, who also mentions the need to include small hand weights or Nordic poles if you’re looking to extend walking into a full-body workout.
Can you burn fat while walking?
Yes. “Cardiovascular exercise, along with a proper diet, is a great fat-burning recipe,” says Starkowitz. “The key is to watch your heart rate and work in what’s called the ‘fat burning zone.’ 7 to 12 calories per minute.
Another important aspect to consider when looking for fat burning results while walking is duration.
“Working out at this low to moderate intensity means you need to make sure your walks are long enough to see significant results,” says Starkowitz.
Also keep in mind that if you’re looking to exercise for weight loss, morning is best, with a study in the International Journal of Obesity (opens in a new tab)finding that participants undertaking a 10-month supervised exercise program experienced greater weight loss success when they exercised between 7 a.m. and 11:59 a.m.
“Regular walking helps preserve lean muscle mass,” says Starkowitz. “Muscle mass, unlike fat, is metabolically active, which means that on a daily basis you burn more calories.”
Need help taking the extra steps? Install one of the best walking treadmills (opens in a new tab) under your desk and you can stroll while working.
Maximize muscle building while walking
According to Starkowitz, there are several ways to maximize your muscle-building potential while walking.
“A popular option is to incorporate intervals by alternating between walking at a steady pace and ‘brisk walking,’ a light jog or sprint,” says Starkowitz. “This will have multiple benefits on cardiovascular endurance and strength gains by engaging fast twitch muscle fibers.
“You can also pause during your walk to add bodyweight exercises, such as lunges, squats, push-ups, or planks. Try working small 20-30 second bodyweight strength intervals into your walking to maximize the cross-training effect.Or change the direction of your walking by adding intervals of backward jogs and sidesteps to work on improving balance and stability.
Beyond these forms of cross-functional exercises, it is also possible to add weights to your walk. We’ve mentioned dumbbells and Nordic poles, but you can also consider a weighted vest or ankle weights.
“Weighted vests have the added benefit of making you engage and strengthen your back muscles to ensure you maintain good posture throughout your walk,” says Starkowitz.
Additionally, walking with weights may also increase your bone muscle density and reduce the risk of fractures according to a 2018 systematic review in BioMed Research International. (opens in a new tab).
Mix the ground
Another great way to boost your muscle development is to walk on flat ground and increase the incline.
“Walking on trails, roads, grass, sloping or uneven surfaces, or loose surfaces like sand or gravel, will tax the muscles of the leg, ankles, and feet more than on the sidewalk, and they’ll have to work harder to maintain balance and stability,” says Starkowitz. “Try to alternate the route of your walk to include a few different inclines and surfaces, and if you find a staircase along your walk, take them.”
And if the idea of off-roading completely prevents you from walking outside, walk indoors with a treadmill. “Alternate between working out at different inclines and speeds to vary the intensity and muscle recruitment of the workout,” says Starkowitz. “Finally, if you’re walking on a treadmill, let go of the handrails. You’ll increase calorie expenditure and core muscle recruitment much more.
Effects of 10 weeks of walking and walking with resistance training at home on muscle quality, muscle size, and physical functional tests in healthy older adults (opens in a new tab).
The effects of exercise session timing on weight loss and components of energy balance. (opens in a new tab)
The effectiveness of physical exercise on bone density in osteoporotic patients. (opens in a new tab)