Is your idea of fun putting 50 pounds of gear on your back, carrying it up a mountain, and camping in the snow? Good, you’re on the right blog. And as you know too well, poor lower body strength can make backpacking painful, especially early in the season. So in today’s post, let’s talk about strength training for hiking. We’ll look at the best leg and lower body exercises for hikers and backpackers plus some tips for beginners.
A word on muscle balance when strength training for hiking
Muscles work in pairs. For example, your quadriceps (muscle at the front of the thigh) straightens your knee while your hamstrings (back of the thigh) bends it. This is an example of an agonist (opposing) muscle group.
This is important to keep in mind, because being relatively strong in the quads and weak in the hamstrings can throw off your gait and posture. This can increase your risk of injury, including chronic stress injury over time.
To prevent muscle group imbalances, be sure to include exercises for both the quadriceps and the hamstrings in your program. Note that it’s normal for the quadriceps to lift a bit more weight than the hamstrings. (The optimal strength ratio is about 3:2.)
It’s also important to be able to lift equal resistance on both sides of the body. If you have a weak side, use unilateral (one-sided) exercises to gradually strengthen that muscle group.
Here’s a great blog post on correcting muscle imbalances by Theo at Lift Learn Grow.
How much weight should you lift?
To build muscular endurance for backpacking, I recommend working out in three phases:
- General conditioning
- Maximize strength
- Maximize endurance
Max strength sessions tend to use heavier weights and fewer reps, while max endurance sessions will use lighter weights and fewer reps. General conditioning sessions fall in the middle.
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These exercises raise the temperature of your muscles to help prepare them for heavy lifting and reduce the risk of injury. They also activate your neuromuscular system so that you can use more muscle fibers throughout the rest of your workout.
One mistake people make during the warm-up is to use too much resistance. Keep these exercises light and relatively easy.
I like to do 10 reps of each of these leg exercises and finish with some planks (front and side) for a nice lower-body warm up. If your muscles still feel cool or tight, do additional sets
1. Banded side step (with optional bodyweight squat)
This is a very effective glute and inner thigh exercise that you can do just about anywhere with resistance bands or loops. (Here’s the resistance loop set I use for travel, which you grab fast with Amazon Prime.)
To perform the banded side step, bend your knees slightly and step from side to side with the band around your ankles.
When you’ve gotten the hang of it, add a squat to each step. Take it slow and practice good squat form — lengthening the spine and pushing up through the heels.
While I typically use this exercise as a warmup, it’s also a great strength-building exercise, especially for sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing that require some lateral movement. For more resistance, take wider steps or use a bigger band.
Banded glute bridge
I love this exercise as a warmup to activate the glutes and core before I jump into heavy lifting. It requires minimal equipment — a simple resistance loop will do the trick!
I like to hold the bridge position for a count of three. Remember, if you’re doing this as a warmup, the point is not to build strength by really feeling the burn. The goal is to wake up your muscle fibers and tell them it’s game time!
Quad dominant exercises for hiking
The following exercises target the quad, which is the group of four muscles at the front of the thigh. The quads extend (straighten) the knee.
During hiking, your quads have a big job, because they work against gravity to help you walk downhill. Do you ever have sore thighs after a big hike? It’s usually the down part that causes the pain. If this is a problem for you, a variation of the squat exercise can help. (See the description for more info.)
These exercises also strengthen the gluteal group, which helps you to climb hills. If you feel pain in your calves after hiking, it may be a sign that you need to strengthen your glutes or engage them more with each step.
Squats (barbell, goblet, Bulgarian split)
Squatting is a fantastic exercise that works all the major muscle groups in your lower body as well as your core! As a beginning squatter, it’s important to master proper form before adding resistance:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes rotated slightly outward (about 30 degrees).
- Start the movement by hinging backward at the hips.
- Keep your back neutral (in its natural position without excess rounding or arching). A great way to do this to to focus on keeping your spine long throughout the movement. If you look in the mirror, you should see the natural curve of your spine, but no excess bending.
- Center your weight over your feet. Don’t lean forward on your toes or back on your heels.
- Watch your knees to make sure they don’t collapse inward. They should move forward and slightly outward in the direction of your toes.
- Note that it’s normal for your knees to extend a bit in front of your toes in the down position, especially if you’re tall.
- To promote proper form, squat in a flat bottom shoe, not a sneaker. (This is why so many people where Converse to the gym!)
The squat has many variations, as you can see in the videos below.
One way to prevent sore quads after hiking is to work on the eccentric (lowering) phase of your movement movements, and the squat is one of the best exercises for this.
First, spend a few weeks building your leg strength with moderate weights and reps. (Performing eccentric work with weak leg muscles can lead to soreness.)
Then, during your squat, lower your body slowly, taking 3–5 seconds to get down to the lowest position.
Reverse (back) lunge
Lunges are another exercise that works most of the major muscles in your lower body. They’re also good for power, because they force you to “explode” a little off the lower leg to return to the starting position.
There are several variations of the lunge, and the reverse lunge is the one that is easiest on your knees.
When performing this exercise, focus on keeping most of the weight on your front leg and stepping back so that your back leg supports your body and spine.
You can perform the reverse lunch with body weight or while holding dumbbells or weights.
I love step-ups, because they’re probably the most sport-specific exercises a hiker can do! If you are very short on training time, I’d still make sure to do a few sets of step-ups balanced with a hamstring-dominant exercise like the one-leg deadlift.
For extra specificity, perform your step-ups while wearing a loaded backpack. This will engage the same muscles you will use when stepping uphill and onto obstacles on trail.
Hamstring dominant exercises for hiking
Ball leg curl
Don’t have a gym with a leg curl machine? No problem. You can perform the same exercise using a stability ball.
This exercise takes a bit of practice and some basic core strength. So take your time, and decrease your reps if needed while you’re getting the hang of it.
Be sure to keep your hips raised throughout, and move the ball in a slow, controlled motion.
For additional resistance, raise one leg and make this a unilateral (one-sided) exercise.
The Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise for engaging both your hamstrings and your glutes. It also gives your hamstrings a nice dynamic stretch, which is great for people who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.
The Romanian deadlift is a very versatile exercise that can be performed with body weight, hand weights, or traditional dumbbells and barbells. During the lowering phase, only go down until you start to feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to pop back up as shown in the video.
Throughout the exercise, be sure to focus on keeping your back neutral (not rounded forward). Be sure to master the movement and form before adding resistance.
This unilateral variation of the deadlift is great for working muscle imbalances. It’s also a good choice if you want to add some big resistance, but don’t have a barbell or big dumbbells handy. In addition to building strength, this the single leg deadlift also works on dynamic balance.
This can be a tough exercise to master due to the balance aspect. Start with bodyweight alone and focus on keeping your back neutral, balancing, and pushing up through your hamstrings and glutes.
Once you’ve mastered the movement, add resistance in the form of dumbbells or hand weights.
Other valuable strength training exercises for hiking
If you get sore calves after a hike, first focus on engaging your glutes while walking uphill. A lot of us have “lazy glutes” that like to relax while other, smaller muscles do the work! But wake them up and push with that butt.
That being said, your calves will still do plenty of work — even when you are hiking with proper form. This is especially true for mountaineers and ice climbers, who must kick steps.
Here are some exercises to get those calves in top shape.
Standing calf raise
The standing calf raise strengthens the gastrocnemius, which is the upper muscle of the calf.
If you are a beginner, start your standing calf raises with body weight alone. To add a bit of resistance, you can perform this exercise on one leg at a time and hold weights or dumbbells.
A lot of people have quite strong calves, even if they haven’t actively been training these muscles. That’s because the relatively small gastrocnemius does a lot of work, even during your everyday activities! So you may eventually need to use a calf-raise machine to really give your calves a hard strength workout.
Seated calf raise
This exercise targets the soleus, which is the second major muscle in your calf.
A lot of hikers make the mistake of training only the gastrocnemius. But ignoring the soleus can reduce the muscular endurance of your calves, leaving you sore after hard hikes.
The best way to perform the seated calf raise is with a machine, but not all gyms have the right equipment. The video below shows you one way to do seated calf raises with free weights. You can also use weight plates or even a barbell to add resistance.
If you use very heavy weights for this exercise, be very careful not to hurt your back when lifting them into your lap! It’s best to stand and use a deadlift motion to lift the weights from the floor, than sit down.
It also helps to place some padding (towel, yoga mat) between your thighs and the weights during the seated calf raise.
Don’t forget your core and upper body
While it’s totally fine for hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers to prioritize the lower body during training, don’t neglect the larger muscles of your upper body and especially your core!
Having a strong core helps you maneuver your body while wearing a heavy pack and reduces fatigue when carrying big loads. Your core also transmits the force you generate with your trekking poles throughout your body, helping you hike faster.
And there you have ’em. My top tips on strength training for hiking, including the 11 best leg exercises.
Got a favorite leg exercise for hiking? Comment below to share!
Originally published March 28, 2019.