What Muscles Does Running Work, Exactly?

Hint: It's more than just your legs.

All of the muscles used when running, according to fitness experts.
Getty Images/ The Good Brigade

There are countless ways to inspire yourself to go for a run. Listening to a fun playlist, wearing comfy sneakers, and finding a scenic trail could all fire you up and make it easier to keep going. But it might also help to keep in mind all the muscles used in running — along with the fitness modality’s many benefits — as you put one foot in front of the other, because it’s so much more than a leg workout.

First, a reminder of the physical perks you get from running. As you glide across a track, trail, or treadmill, you’re not only strengthening multiple muscle groups, but you’re improving your cardiovascular endurance and heart health. While you can reap these benefits from a slow jog, you can really boost your miles by turning the run into a HIIT-style routine. “This might look like an alternation between high-intensity sprints and moments of recovery, like walking or jogging,” says Steve Stonehouse, NASM, CPT, USATF, a certified run coach and director of education for STRIDE.

Another fun fact? The impact of running can make your bones stronger, too. As Stonehouse explains, “Running is weight-bearing exercise, and weight-bearing exercise, much like high-intensity exercise, promotes healthy bone mineral density and stimulates bone growth.”

You’re also getting mental health benefits as you run. For starters, running has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety to improve your mood, says Stonehouse. Not only is a meandering jog a great time to clear your head, but you’ll also get a rush of feel-good endorphins once you’re done, aka the famous runner’s high.

After all of these benefits, stronger muscles are just the icing on the cake. Read on for more intel on the muscles used when you run.

What Muscles Does Running Work?

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Here are all the muscles that light up and get stronger whenever you run, along with expert tips on how to make the most of your next jog.


The glutes play a vital role in any run, whether you’re slowly jogging up the street or sprinting down a track. According to Stonehouse, the glutes help propel you forward so you can go faster. They’re also used to maintain a stable torso and good posture, he says, which are two major components of good running form.

To really strengthen your glutes, certified personal trainer Secoy Reeves recommends sprinting for short bursts over the course of a 10 to 15-minute run. Sprints will fire up the glute muscles as you accelerate forward. You could also run up an incline on a treadmill to target the back of your body.


According to certified running coach Claire Bartholic, the three muscles in the back of the thigh that make up the hamstrings are what move the leg when the knee is bent, and also what support the leg when the hip is extending. To ensure your hammies — and all your muscles — get a good workout, she recommends running three to four days a week.

And no, you don’t have to go far: “Short, fast runs are better for muscle development than longer, slower runs,” Bartholic says. Combine this with other weight training two to three days a week, and you should start to feel a major difference in your overall strength.


Next up are the quad muscles, which are activated as you stride forward, Reeves says, especially if you’re running uphill. They also play an essential role in speed. “The stronger your quads get, the faster you will be able to run,” he says.


Your calves will also feel the burn. According to Reeves, the calf muscles help lift your heel when your leg is both straight and bent. They also prompt the push-off motion as your foot leaves the ground and affect the control of your speed while running. All the more reason to train the calves on leg day at the gym.


Did you know running engages your core? It tightens up as you run to help keep you stable and reduce shock on your back, Stonehouse says. The abs and obliques also work together to help you maintain good posture, Bartholic adds. “After all, running is just a series of hops from one foot to the other and a strong core keeps you stable,” she says.

Upper Body

Running makes the muscles of your upper body stronger too, thanks to the way your arms assist in driving you forward (think about the pumping motion of your arms as you go). It’s best to always keep your arms moving as run, Reeves says, not only to have a more efficient stride, but to get the most out of your workout.

Studies referenced:

Benedetti, M. G., Furlini, G., Zati, A., & Letizia Mauro, G. (2018). The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients. BioMed research international, 2018, 4840531.

Drum, S. (2019). Trunk and Upper Body Fatigue Adversely Affect Running Economy: A Three-Armed Randomized Controlled Crossover Pilot Trial. Sports.

Hamner, S. (2010). Muscle contributions to propulsion and support during running. J Biomech.

Hung, K-C. (2019). Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance and running economy. PLoS One.

Lee, D. C., Pate, R. R., Lavie, C. J., Sui, X., Church, T. S., & Blair, S. N. (2014). Leisure-time running reduces all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 64(5), 472–481.

Markotić V, Pokrajčić V, Babić M, Radančević D, Grle M, Miljko M, Kosović V, Jurić I, Karlović Vidaković M. The Positive Effects of Running on Mental Health. Psychiatr Danub. 2020 Sep;32(Suppl 2):233-235. PMID: 32970641.

Nunes, G. (2020). Gluteal muscle activity during running in asymptomatic people. Gait Posture.



Steve Stonehouse, NASM, CPT, USATF, a certified run coach and director of education for STRIDE

Claire Bartholic, certified running coach

Secoy Reeves, certified personal trainer