Does Walking Build Muscle?

Walking makes leg muscles stronger, not bulkier

Two women walking on a boardwalk along a beach

Juno / Stocksy

Walking does not build big, bulky muscles, but it does build some muscle. Some people avoid using the incline on the treadmill or walking hills outdoors in fear of building leg muscles that will make their legs appear bigger.

This isn't likely, as even higher-intensity walking is still aerobic exercise. That means it may help with fat loss, but not significant muscle growth (or hypertrophy).

You need only take a look at hikers, mountain climbers, and marathon runners to see that muscle build varies widely. Runners, hikers, and other long-distance athletes don't have a singular body type. Muscle definition differs among both professional athletes and casual participants.

Slow-Twitch vs. Fast-Twitch Muscles

Endurance exercise such as walking builds slow-twitch muscle fibers which are used for sustained activity. These fibers are not the ones that bodybuilders aim to create for big, showy muscles. They use specific programs of progressive overloading, lifting heavy weights for only seconds at a time, to make their muscles grow.

They also consume extra calories and protein to help the muscles with this process. It's very hard to both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Meanwhile, aerobic exercise such as walking, running, and cycling builds slow-twitch muscle fibers and long, lean muscles overall. It also helps with fat loss.

Strengthening Leg Muscles With Walking

As a form of endurance exercise, walking improves cardiovascular fitness. But it also strengthens the muscles in the legs, and helps keep them from shrinking. This muscle loss, called sarcopenia, happens with age. But regular exercise, including walking, can help reduce its effects.

In one small study, older adults participated in a 10-week exercise program of either walking or walking plus resistance training. Both groups showed improved muscle quality in the thigh muscle. But the participants who also did resistance training showed more improvement.

Increasing Muscle and Losing Fat

If your legs are already larger than you want, it may be due to stored fat rather than muscle. Starting a walking program, or adding intensity to your current program, may help you lose fat. But bodies are different and you may lose fat in areas other than your legs. Your body might prefer to store fat on your thighs and hips rather than your abdominal area, or vice versa.

With regular exercise and a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, you will lose fat as you gain muscle. Overall, your legs can get smaller and leaner. If you lose enough fat, you begin to see the lean muscle defined.

To reduce body fat, you must burn more calories per day than you eat. It is difficult to do that with exercise alone, although that is part of the equation. Your walking workouts will build lean muscle that is necessary for health and fitness.

Cardiovascular exercise such as brisk walking, running, and cycling will result in burning stored fat. But you need to ensure you are eating fewer calories than you burn each day.

Boost Your Walking Workout

If you're just starting out with a walking program, start small with several short walks per week at a comfortable pace. Then, to strengthen your muscles, gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. There are several ways to do that.

Increase Speed

If you have been walking at 3 mph, boost the speed to 3.5 and then 4 mph. You may have to do that for only a couple of minutes at a time at first until you build your speed walking technique and capacity.

Vary Incline

Hills or treadmill incline increase the intensity of your workout. By walking or running uphill, you will challenge your muscles in new ways as well as burning more calories at the same speed.

You can measure how effective that is by noting you are breathing harder and your heart is beating faster. Aim to get from the moderate intensity zone into the vigorous intensity zone during your workout in intervals.

Let Go of the Handrails

If you've been holding onto the handrails of your treadmill, it's time to let go. Stop holding onto the treadmill so you have good walking and running form and burn more calories per minute.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Konopka AR, Harber MP. Skeletal muscle hypertrophy after aerobic exercise training. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2014;42(2):53-61. doi:10.1249/JES.0000000000000007

  2. Wilson JM, Loenneke JP, Jo E, Wilson GJ, Zourdos MC, Kim JS. The effects of endurance, strength, and power training on muscle fiber type shifting. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(6):1724-1729. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318234eb6f

  3. Hughes DC, Ellefsen S, Baar K. Adaptations to endurance and strength training. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2018;8(6):a029769. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a029769

  4. Yoshiko A, Tomita A, Ando R, et al. Effects of 10-week walking and walking with home-based resistance training on muscle quality, muscle size, and physical functional tests in healthy older individuals. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2018;15(1):13. doi:10.1186/s11556-018-0201-2

  5. McQueen MA. Exercise aspects of obesity treatmentOchsner J. 2009;9(3):140-143.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.