Can hiking build muscle? Of course, mostly in the legs and back. While it won’t make you the biggest guy or gal on the block, it’s a great workout, especially for cardio.
Before I was more into the gym, hiking was my primary activity that I did. It was really clear to me that my legs had grown a lot stronger over the months of completing trails. That was all the inspiration I needed to find out if hiking builds muscle or if I was just imagining things.
Knowing that hiking is great exercise also provided some relief from the gym environment. While they aren’t quite the same, I’m more into a holistic approach to my health and much prefer the outdoors to a building with tons of people and music.
Let’s hop into the specifics and how you can build some muscle from your time on the trail!
How hiking aids in muscle growth
Muscles grow stronger by tearing the muscle fibers down a bit, then are repaired by your body when you’re resting. This is a basic way of explaining hypertrophy.
Now for your body to repair those muscle tissues efficiently, you need to have adequate resources for it to do so, namely protein. You don’t have to eat a ton of it, and a balanced diet goes a long way to providing the other nutrients you’ll need.
Catch up on rest to grow
Rest is also an understated part of growing muscle. After you do that damage to your muscles, they need to get a break from the workout and repair themselves. This happens in your downtime and while you sleep. So when you’re working out, you’re not building up the muscle on the spot!
When you first start hiking, you may even put on a little bit of muscle without trying. However, once you get past a basic level, you’ll want to keep in mind how many calories you’re eating too. Hiking can burn a lot of calories, and if you’re not in a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you burn) that will affect muscle growth.
There’s a reason that people tend to lose a lot of weight on long thru-hikes! They are usually in a caloric deficit and not getting enough rest for their bodies to properly repair and maintain muscle/fat.
The importance of stretching
Stretching keeps your muscles full of blood and loose. This can help prevent injuries and discomfort after a long hiking session. At the very least, I feel like it takes off the edge of a long trip compared to if I had not stretched at all.
I look at stretching as the supplement to any fitness plan, whether it involves hiking or is just regular gym work.
Which muscles are used for hiking?
Your calf muscles will get a lot of work supporting your ankles, ascending, and descending terrain. Even the flattest paths have some points of elevation!
Leading up from those muscles, your hamstrings and quadriceps will help with the same things. However, they’ll acting as support for your knees. A great example of these muscles in use is when you’re carrying some weight in a backpack.
Lastly, to answer the age old question of “does hiking build glutes?” Actually, yes! The glutes will act as stabilizers and further support for ascending / descending hills.
For all the details, the anatomy shown on the right includes all the little muscles within these groups. It’s more than I had intended to show, but it was the best image for this article.
When it comes to hiking muscles vs cycling muscles, they really hit a lot of similar groups, albeit with different amounts of force. Cycling really engages the calves and quads a lot more than hiking does I would say.
While hiking may engage your core a bit (abs, back) – it’s less likely to see as much muscle change here.
Is it worth training for hiking?
Absolutely! I’ve written about training for hiking, but to sum it up: you will definitely benefit from any kind of preparation you do. Whether that’s in the gym, at home doing yoga, or just jogging. While hiking will hit the lower body muscles the most, it’s still a full body exercise.
I can tell a noticeable difference in my hiking performance just from regular calisthenics work that I do. Not only does it make ascending difficult trails easier, it helps with my endurance. If you’re interested in hiking for fitness, make sure you choose trails that seem easier than necessary to begin. You won’t enjoy starting something new that is punishing.
I’ve underestimated trail difficulty in the past and it’s not the most enjoyable time! Even regular walking can make hiking season more enjoyable.
Now you know the answer to can hiking build muscle?
It is clear that hiking does build muscle and can help you build legs of steel. However, there’s way more to the health benefits of hiking than just muscle growth. The boosts to your mental health and cardio are enormous!
Hiking is one of the best exercises out there, even if it’s not really meant for building muscle all over. There’s always alternatives for that though.
By taking a holistic approach to training, you can take your hiking to new levels!
Common questions about hiking and building muscle at the same time
If I am trying to maintain muscle on a hike, how can I do that?
The only way to do it is to increase your total caloric intake. That way your body won’t need to use your muscle for fuel. Granted, this applies more to longer trips.
A day or two of less food will not make you shrivel up like Spongebob lacking water.
Does hiking build core muscles?
Absolutely. Since hiking engages your whole body for movement and stabilizing, your abs will definitely feel the burn. Add on a backpack and you will definitely build up some strength over time.
You aren’t going to see real change unless you are consistent with your hiking, much like going to the gym.