The aims of this study were to characterize the pattern of voluntary activity of young rats in response to resistance loading on running wheels and to determine the effects of the activity on the growth of six limb skeletal muscles. Male Sprague–Dawley rats (4 weeks old) were housed individually with a resistance running wheel (R-RUN, n= 7) or a conventional free-spinning running wheel (F-RUN, n= 6) or without a wheel, as non-running control animals (CON, n= 6). The torque required to move the wheel in the R-RUN group was progressively increased, and the activity (velocity, distance and duration of each bout) of the two running wheel groups was recorded continuously for 45 days. The R-RUN group performed many more, shorter and faster bouts of running than the F-RUN group, yet the mean daily distance was not different between the F-RUN (1.3 ± 0.2 km) and R-RUN group (1.4 ± 0.6 km). Only the R-RUN resulted in a significantly (P < 0.05) enhanced muscle wet mass, relative to the increase in body mass, of the plantaris (23%) and vastus lateralis muscle (17%), and the plantaris muscle fibre cross-sectional area, compared with CON. Both F-RUN and R-RUN led to a significantly greater wet mass relative to increase in body mass and muscle fibre cross-sectional area in the soleus muscle compared with CON. We conclude that the pattern of voluntary activity on a resistance running wheel differs from that on a free-spinning running wheel and provides a suitable model to induce physiological muscle hypertrophy in rats.