Does Walking Build Muscle? Here’s What Expert Doctors Say

Updated: Jul. 21, 2024

The benefits of walking are many—and if you've wondered whether toning and strengthening are among them, researchers and experts have answers.

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Among its many advantages, walking gets your blood pumping and strengthens your heart muscle. Walking tends to be gentle on the joints, while also effective at engaging multiple muscle groups including the largest muscles: Your glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Does walking build muscle, though?

These days, it’s not only body builders who desire more muscle. It’s well demonstrated that greater muscle is one of the most reliable ways to use up more calories, and recently researchers such as Dr. Gabrielle Lyon have suggested that muscle strength is one of the greatest contributors to longevity. And, for all those steps: Wouldn’t it be great if they led to some sculpting? Walking won’t typically build large, bulky muscles, but it will tone and strengthen muscles with time and consistency.

Experts say there are ways to make it happen. To start, at any stage in life, an ideal approach to exercise is to combine some resistance training with cardiovascular movement, like walking, to help balance calorie-burning and strength. Flexibility and mobility exercises can round out this regimen to open joints, stretch, and keep the body supple and supported long-term.

Ahead, experts explain whether walking builds muscle and how to optimize your walking workout to maximize its benefits.

Does walking build muscle? Here’s what research says

Walking is a cardiovascular activity that also helps maintain and develop muscles. Studies have shown that the right combination of walking intensity, frequency, and duration can encourage muscle growth.

To effectively engage your muscles, maintain a heart rate reserve—the difference between your resting and maximum heart rates—of 70% to 80% during walks lasting at least 30 minutes, four to five times a week. (The Mayo Clinic says a normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. To figure out your maximum heart rate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a simple formula to subtract your age from 220. For a 44-year-old, a maximum heart rate would be 176, and reaching 70% to 80% of this during a walk would be to hit a heart rate of 123 to 140. We have a more fleshed-out formula for these calculations below.)

You can increase muscle engagement on your walk with inclines or added resistance, such as weighted vests or ankle weights. These adjustments particularly strengthen the leg and core muscles.

In addition to muscle toning, walking briskly can also help burn calories. According to Tamanna Singh, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, a brisk 30-minute walk at speeds of at least 2.5 miles per hour can burn about 200 calories.

How to calculate heart rate reserve

To calculate heart rate reserve, first determine your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For a 50-year-old, the maximum heart rate would be 220 – 50 = 170 beats per minute (bpm). Next, find the resting heart rate, which averages about 70 bpm for most adults. The heart rate reserve is the difference between these two values: 170 – 70 = 100 bpm. To target a 70% to 80% heart rate reserve during exercise, maintain a heart rate of 70 to 80% of 100, plus your resting heart rate. This would be 70 + (70% of 100) to 70 + (80% of 100), or 140 to 150 bpm during your walks.

How far do you need to walk to build muscle?

Experts suggest mixing up your walking distance and pace to challenge your muscles continually. For enhancing muscle tone and strength, longer walks—lasting over 30 minutes—at a brisk pace are the most effective. Additionally, incorporating a variety of terrains, such as hills or uneven paths, can further benefit muscle development.

How often do you need to walk to build muscle?

Consistency is key to building muscle through walking. Aim to walk at least four to five days a week. Adding other exercises can further enhance the benefits. A 2018 study observed inactive older adults over ten weeks, comparing the effects of walking alone to a regimen that included walking and resistance training. Although all participants saw improvements in muscle quality, size, and functional fitness, those who incorporated resistance training experienced greater gains.

For those new to walking, Lee MacDonald, MD, a cardiologist at AdventHealth in Littleton, CO, advises starting with a 10-minute walk four days a week. Gradually increase the duration over six months to build confidence and prevent injuries.

If you’re already a highly active individual, you’ll need to engage in more challenging activities to help promote muscle growth, such as walking up hills or climbing stairs.

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What muscles does walking work?

1. Glutes

The gluteal muscles are engaged during walking, especially when you push off your back foot. This movement helps to tone and strengthen your buttocks.

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2. Quadriceps

Your quadriceps are primarily responsible for extending the knee and play a crucial role in walking. As you move forward, your quads work continuously, helping to lift your legs and propel you.

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3. Hamstrings

The hamstrings work opposite the quadriceps. Strengthening the hamstrings can improve balance and speed.

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4. Core muscles

Your core—comprising the abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back—stabilizes your body as you walk. Strong core muscles are fundamental for maintaining balance and ensuring efficient movement during walking.

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5. Calves

Walking activates the calves, which work to lift the heel off the ground, powering the forward motion. Over time, regular walking can lead to more defined calves.

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How to build more muscle when walking

1. Use weights

Incorporating hand or ankle weights into your walking routine can increase resistance, pushing your muscles to work harder and build more strength as you stride.

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2. Walk uphill

Tackling inclines while walking challenges your muscles more than walking on flat surfaces. The additional effort required to walk uphill strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, enhancing overall muscle tone.

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3. Increase your pace

Incorporating speed intervals into your walks can elevate your routine. These bursts of increased walking speed encourage your muscles to adapt and strengthen in response to the added challenge.

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4. Try Nordic Poles

Using Nordic poles while walking adds an upper-body element to the exercise. It engages your arms, shoulders, torso and legs, providing a full-body workout and increasing overall muscle engagement.

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5. Add variety to your routine

Alternating your walking routes, pace, and techniques keeps the body guessing and muscles adapting, which is crucial for continuous improvement.

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