Walking for fitness: can you work your muscles just by going for walks?

Posted by for Strong Women

If you want to engage your muscles, you probably pick up a resistance band or some dumbbells. But you can still get muscle activating benefits from your walk. 

There are lots of reasons to recommend walking: getting you out the house mid-lockdown, the cardiovascular benefits, the mental health boost and the anti-inflammatory effects, to name just a few. 

However, when it comes to targeting our muscles, it’s not usually our go-to training method. So why, post-hike or simply after a hectic day that culminates in 20,000 steps, do you feel stiff all over, as though you’ve just hit a strength training session

“Walking is actually a great work out for your legs,” says Sally Davies, senior physiotherapist from the musculoskeletal therapies team at Bupa Clinics, explaining that as we step, we engage the quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes and abdominal muscles. “All the muscles in the leg work together to provide stability, support and control to the body whilst walking, these movements help to strengthen and condition the leg muscles.”

When we drive the leg forwards, we are engaging our quads and hamstrings to help bend the knee as well as press off from the ground.

“Your calf muscles also work by extending the ankles, giving your stride momentum. Together with your thighs, they move as a reaction to the foot moulding to the floor beneath and the shin bone rotating internally to allow greater movement in the feet,” Sally says. 

She also adds that as glutes are one of the most powerful muscles in the body, we use them to contract and stabilise during walks. “Over time, the glutes can gradually become stronger with frequent walking,” Sally says. 

But as well as our lower half, our abdominals are engaged to help keep your balance as you shift your weight from one foot to the other.

How to walk to work more muscles

How to engage muscles during walking

Strolling along the pavement is one thing, but if you’re looking to really use walking as a key form of exercise, there are some important things to think about. 

Firstly, where are you walking? While the treadmill might be convenient in autumnal weather, the flat and smooth grounding won’t be the best way to work your muscles. “When walking outside you can work your abdominals at a higher level as they will be helping you to keep your balance as you cover unbalanced terrain,” says Sally. 

And while you know that uphill walking is tougher on your thighs, it’s all because of how much power and stability we require to push ourselves at different inclines. A study by the University of Colorado found that when walking uphill the hamstrings and glutes power the legs more so than walking on flat ground, whereas on the decline walk, the quads elicited more control over the legs. 

“Alternating your route between mixed terrain, flat terrain and hill walking, as well as your speed, is the optimum way to help you work all muscles during your walks,” says Sally. 

And then there’s the type of walking you do. Nordic walking has been famed for it’s ability to level up your usual hike. Essentially, Nordic walking involves using specially designed poles to propel you forward, and studies suggest that it increases upper body muscle activation by up to 15 times. It’s also been shown to reduce muscle activity in the erector spinae muscles that run either side of your spine and hip retractor muscles, protecting you from overuse and future back problems. 

Ultimately, if building stronger leg muscles is your goal, compound lifts and weight-bearing exercise are excellent things to focus on. But it’s important to know how activities like walking impacts your body and how you can change it up to reap even more benefits for your muscles. Now, who’s off to climb some hills?

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Images: Getty

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