We sought to understand how leg muscle function determines the metabolic cost of walking. We first indirectly assessed the metabolic cost of swinging the legs and then examined the cost of generating muscular force during the stance phase. Four men and four women walked at 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, and 2.0 m/s carrying loads equal to 0, 10, 20, and 30% body mass positioned symmetrically about the waist. The net metabolic rate increased in nearly direct proportion to the external mechanical power during moderate-speed (0.5-1.5 m/s) load carrying, suggesting that the cost of swinging the legs is relatively small. The active muscle volume required to generate force on the ground and the rate of generating this force accounted for >85% of the increase in net metabolic rate across moderate speeds and most loading conditions. Although these factors explained less of the increase in metabolic rate between 1.5 and 2.0 m/s ( approximately 50%), the cost of generating force per unit volume of active muscle [i.e., the cost coefficient (k)] was similar across all conditions [k = 0.11 +/- 0.03 (SD) J/cm3]. These data indicate that, regardless of the work muscles do, the metabolic cost of walking can be largely explained by the cost of generating muscular force during the stance phase.