If you’ve ever been on a trail with some elevation (or switchbacks), you know how tough they can be.
Training your legs with the right exercises can make conquering them much easier though!
Let’s get into the best exercises to prepare for uphill hiking.
Exercises to strengthen muscles used for uphill hiking
By this point, I’m assuming you’re working with a level of fitness that you’re comfortable training specific muscles. These exercises work best when they’re used in a routine, not just working out your leg muscles exclusively. No one wants to go T-rex mode.
Lunges are a very difficult exercise to do with proper form, but one of the most effective to strengthen your hamstrings. First:
- Start without holding any dumbbells to get comfortable.
- Step out with one of your legs, and lower your rear leg.
- Once your knee is touching the ground, hold briefly and return to the standing position.
- Repeat, this time lowering your other leg as the rear one.
During this exercise, push from your heel when you’re returning to the standing position. This helps you engage more muscle than using the ball of your foot. You can do this exercise as three sets of ten repetitions (one rep, in this case, means lunging with both legs.) And even experiment with doing fewer repetitions, with higher weight.
I much prefer these to lunges, as they’re easier on the knees. However, they take less coordination since they’re machine-based. To do a hamstring curl:
- Adjust where the pad rests on the back of your feet. Do a repetition or two to find the right place to engage your hamstrings more than any other muscle group.
- Pull up and squeeze with your hamstrings.
- Lower the weight back down in a controlled manner.
These are really fun and a great way to isolate the hamstrings. I also recommend starting with three sets of ten repetitions here, but feel free to experiment.
These aren’t all that different from hamstring curls, except they target your quads. The same general rules apply:
- Adjust where the pad rests on the front of your feet. Do a repetition or two to find the right place to engage your quads.
- Pull up and squeeze with your quads. Do not fully extend your knees.
- Lower the weight back down in a controlled manner.
Another great exercise for beginners to start strengthening their legs. A similar rep range as previously mentioned works here too.
Once you’re comfortable with your strength level, it’s fine to move away from some of the machines. Squats are an excellent compound exercise (uses multiple muscles at the same time.) However, they also have the most potential for injury if done incorrectly.
If you’re going to squat, take your time to learn the movement. Three sets of ten repetitions is a great starting point
Here are the basics of how a squat is performed:
- Take one small step back, then position your feet shoulder-width (or a bit more) apart.
- Begin the squat motion until your legs are parallel with the ground. Once you’re more comfortable, you can go deeper.
- Drive from your heels to use your leg muscles, and exhale. Don’t hold your breath while you squat.
Here’s a video breaking down the mechanics of a bodyweight squat:
Bodyweight squats are a great introduction to the exercise. They’re fantastic for your glutes, hamstrings, and quads all in one.
Farmer walks are one of the most simple, effective exercises for building core strength. All you have to do is pick up some moderate weights and walk. Kettlebells are great for this, but dumbbells work fine too. Here’s how to get the most out of them:
- Use your legs, not your back to lift them off the ground.
- Walk slowly with an upright posture – speed doesn’t mean anything here.
- Keep your arms straight, not engaging your arm muscles.
This exercise is great because being able to comfortably carry heavy things is very useful. Two sets carrying moderate weights for 20 steps is a good start with these.
Stair climbing machines
While a stair climber won’t necessarily build your muscle up, it will be an excellent way to get in shape for tough hikes.
These are always deceptively challenging and will actually help strengthen your connective tissues too.
Getting the most out of these exercises
There’s no “one size fits all” approach or shortcuts for working out. It’s extremely important to take your time with these exercises and build your strength gradually. I used to push way harder than I needed to in the gym and it led to a couple of injuries that were unnecessary. If you were wondering “can hiking build muscle“, definitely.
A workout should never be punishing – you should exert just enough effort that it isn’t easy, but far from hard. You’ll see the most results when you combine this with eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of rest. Rest is where our bodies actually get stronger, repairing from the light tissue damage from exercise.
Additionally, when you aren’t pushing yourself too hard with exercises it’s much easier to go for a hike. Trust me, a hike after a brutal leg day is nothing short of torture. Exercise should enhance the other things we do in life, not just be for max effort in the gym.
If you ever feel like you’re not ready for the next session, listen to your body and rest. Or work out at a much lower intensity. There’s always next week.
Conditioning your body for strenuous hikes
In how to train for hiking, I covered how you can physically prepare for hiking. You can’t expect a few exercises to change the game if your cardio isn’t up to the task. I recommend at least doing low-intensity cardio three times a week if you’re a complete beginner.
This means doing things like walking on a treadmill for thirty minutes, then gradually upping your time to an hour, and then even raising the incline on it. However, you can go about this your own way, riding a bike or jogging are also viable options.
The point of this is to build up a base level of fitness so you can endure challenging hikes without pushing yourself physically. Just take your time and enjoy it! It’s a journey, not a hard requirement to enjoy hiking.
As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions I’d be more than happy to answer them in the comments.