How to Build Leg Muscle for Speed

Runners preparing for race at starting blocks
Sprinters don't just run — they also strength train. (Image: FS-Stock/iStock/GettyImages)

Take a look at a sprinter, and you'll likely notice the bulge of their leg muscles — they're key to speed. When you're training to get faster, you have to do more than just run. You need strong legs to power your stride.

The quadriceps muscles on the front of your legs and hamstrings, glutes and calves on the back make up most of the muscles in your lower body. They're the main source of power during a sprint. When you're running, these muscles work overtime to help you push off of the ground and propel you forward.

So build these muscles up with strength-training exercises that hit as many muscles as possible (like the ones below).

1. Walking Lunge

Lunges use the same pulling motion as sprinting to propel you forward, making them an ideal exercise to increase speed.

HOW TO DO IT: Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Step forward with a long stride and dip your back knee down to the ground. Keep your torso tall, and avoid your front knee pushing back your front toes. Step your back foot up, so that it's next to the foot in front, and then step forward with the other foot.

2. Squat

Compound movements that involve more than one joint give you the best bang for your buck. The squat is one of these exercises. To make it a little more challenging, use a barbell on your back or hold dumbbells in each hand.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly out. Squat down, but keep your back flat and chest up. Sink as low as you feel comfortable and then stand back up.

If you're using a barbell, rest it on your back and grip the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width. To use dumbbells, either hold one in each hand by your sides or one dumbbell in a goblet position in front of your chest.

3. Step-Up

This functional exercise not only builds the muscles of your lower body to power your runs, but also helps ensure that you'll be able to climb stairs well into old age.

HOW TO DO IT: Find an elevated surface to step on that's around knee height. Place one foot up on the platform, close to the edge, and step up. Come back down on the same leg, and then step back up with the other leg. When it seems too easy, make this exercise more difficult by holding a dumbbell in each hand or finding a higher step.

4. Deadlift

The entire back of your leg is active during a deadlift, making this one of the best exercises to develop sprinting power.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with a barbell on the floor. Either put weight plates on the bar or place the ends of the bar on boxes, so that it comes up to around your mid-shin. Walk up to the center of the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.

Stick your butt back and bend forward to grip the bar. Flatten out your back, stick your chest forward and pull the bar up as you straighten out your legs. Finish by standing tall at the top and then put the barbell back down on the ground.

The Role of Nutrition

Whenever you're trying to build muscle, it's vital to take in enough calories. The extra energy helps your body lay down new muscle. Eating more protein is a good way to boost your calories.

Animal sources like chicken, beef or pork will provide your body with plenty of protein, as can plant sources, like soy or other beans. Additionally, supplement the protein with complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes and whole-grain pasta, and plenty of vegetables.

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