Hikers need strength and endurance. Prepare to hit the trails by incorporating these simple, effective exercises into your fitness routine.
A listener named Tess who lives in the Southern Hemisphere called the Get-Fit Guy hotline and asked:
Tess is right on the mark. Getting a bit of leg strength is a great place to start. But I would also encourage her to work on her leg stability, balance, core strength, and overall stamina if she really wants to become a powerful hiker who can go anywhere with ease and confidence.
You need strength, stamina, agility, and balance to tackle those wilderness trails.
The truth is, hiking is not just a walk in the woods. You really do need strength, stamina, agility, and balance to tackle those wilderness trails.
Unless you're among the most active of people in the world, you won't enjoy yourself if you simply stand up from your couch or desk, slip on your hiking shoes, and hit the trail. You'll most likely need to prepare for your hike.
Trails are the opposite of the flat, smooth surfaces we're used to walking on. They're uneven, tend to include some amount of elevation gain, and may have obstacles that you'll need to navigate. The good news is that preparing for these challenges isn't as hard as you think and won't cost you hours and hours in the gym.
Movements to build into your daily life
Here are a few things you can start doing as a part of your normal routine without even calling them a workout.
Start spending more time walking on uneven or unstable surfaces. Navigating uneven terrain can go a long way toward building strong and pain-free feet. Find some gravel, sand, or dirt and walk on it. Whenever possible, get off the safe and smooth pavement and walk on a surface that challenges your proprioception (sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium). Doing this builds the neural connections and muscles that will protect your hips, knees, ankles, and feet when you're on a long and challenging hike.
Increase your range of motion by moving more of your body, more often, in more different ways. Do things like squatting to unload the dishwasher instead of bending from the waist, or reaching up for items on the highest shelf instead of getting something to stand on. (Within reason, of course. Stay safe).
Build your balance and stability by doing things like standing on an unstable, rolled-up towel while you wash the dishes. Or stand on one foot—with your eyes closed, if possible—while you brush your teeth. Activities like these can be a great way to build balance and develop the small stabilizer muscles around your hips, ankles, and knees.
Include these exercises to prepare for hiking
Here are a few exercises that you can start adding to your workouts. Remember, you don't have to—and likely shouldn't—do all of these exercises during every workout. I suggest trying each one to identify where your deficiencies are. If you are already a pro at doing Monster Walks but have trouble with Step-Ups, well, then you know where to focus your time. In other words, turn your fitness weaknesses into fitness strengths.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This one does a great job targeting your quadriceps while also working on your balance and coordination. If you are new to split squats, I suggest doing this exercise for a few workouts without the dumbbells until you have the movement perfected.
Place your front foot about three feet in front of a bench or chair. Then place the top of your rear foot on the top of the bench or chair. Adjust the distance of your front foot to ensure that your shin is vertical when you are at the bottom of the squat. Slowly bend your front knee and lower your nicely upright body until the back knee lightly touches the floor. Pause for a second and then stand back up again. Make sure you keep your front knee over your foot. Do not let your knee collapse inward or bow outward.
This exercise provides a great hamstring stretch while also targeting the glutes and quads. It can be challenging and requires focus. To avoid injury, make sure you start with a lower or shorter box, stair, bench, or platform. As you increase the height of your step, you'll rely more and more on the stabilizer muscles to work together to keep you balanced.
Place one foot on a platform that's slightly higher than your knee. Step up onto the platform and drive your body forward, pressing down through your heel to lift your leg. Then step back down slowly, making sure to control the descent. Don't let your body weight plop back down—land gently.
Weighted Glute Bridge (with or without a bench)
This exercise strengthens your glutes and hamstrings, which are the two muscles that put the power into your hiking. If you don’t have a barbell at your disposal, you can use any heavy object that easily rests on your lap without causing pain or discomfort (a friend of mine uses a big bag of flour).
Start the movement from a seated position on the ground with the weight over your legs, directly above your hips. Then lie down flat on the floor. Drive your hips up off the ground, extending your hips vertically through the bar. At the top of the movement, your weight should be supported by your upper back and your feet. Extend as far as possible, pause, and then reverse the motion to lower yourself back to the starting position.
Hanging Knee Raises
This exercise focuses on strengthening your core. Core strength is important. A strong core will allow you to support your heavy backpack while you nimbly navigate all the random trail obstacles, big and small.
Use a pull-up bar or something else you can safely hang from (like monkey bars at your local park). Hang from it with your arms fully extended. Your legs should be straight down with the pelvis rolled slightly backward. Then raise your legs until they're at a 90-degree angle from your torso. Exhale as you perform this movement and hold the contraction for a second or so, making sure to roll your pelvis up at the top of the movement. Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
Monster or Band Walks
This exercise is great for activating your poor underused glutes and hamstrings. I am looking at you, office workers.
Place an elastic resistance band around both ankles. The band should be tight enough that there is some tension when you're standing with your feet hip-width apart. To begin, take short steps, side to side, alternating your left and right foot. After several steps, do just the opposite and walk in the other direction.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High-intensity interval training is particularly beneficial because it prepares your body for the spontaneous bursts of strength and speed you may need, depending on the difficulty of your hike.
Simply add a short period of all-out, strenuous exertion into your daily routine. For example, during a regular 45-minute brisk walk, sprint for 20 to 30 seconds every 5 minutes. Make sure you check out my article 3 Problems with High-Intensity Interval Training so you can make the most of this workout.
Develop cardio to improve your hiking stamina
You aren't going to have a great day of hiking if you're huffing and puffing the entire time. You'll want to get yourself into decent cardiovascular shape. Doing that can be as easy as going for regular walks. You can also ride a bike, go for a swim, take a dance class, or do anything that gets your heart rate up. Raising your heart rate is important. It helps you build your lung capacity and gives you the endurance that will let you stay on the trail all day.
Walking and jogging is the most functional way to perform your cardio. (By functional, I mean that it's the exercise that most mimics the movement you're training for.) But here are two exercises I would also include under the category of cardio.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and leap out to the side with your left foot. Cross your right leg back and behind your left leg and touch your toes to the ground. Swing your arm so your right hand reaches across your body toward your left foot. Change directions and repeat this movement on the opposite side—leap out with your right foot and cross your left leg behind while reaching your left arm across your body. You got it. Just like a speed skater but without the ice, skates, or full-body spandex jumpsuit.
I'm usually not a fan of using the Stairmaster or Stairclimber exercise machines because an endless staircase to nowhere really is my idea of hell. But when it comes to preparing for a hike, it's actually a great training tool. It builds the essential uphill hiking muscles while also building aerobic capacity. Stairwells work well too. If you can find a tall building (more than three stories will do) you can do a workout that not only helps you build your climbing muscles but your descending ones as well.
Final Pro Tips
- When you work out, make sure you wear the same shoes that you plan to wear on your hike. This is a great way to test your shoes out so you can avoid getting day-ruining blisters from new, unworn shoes.
- If you can, also carry a backpack during your workouts. Adding even a small bit of weight to it will be useful. This is a great way to ensure that your backpack is comfortable enough to take on a hike and that you're strong enough to heft your gear.
Be active to prepare for activity
The most important part of being an active individual is to make sure that activity is a consistent part of your life. Even if you don't hit the gym regularly, make sure you go for a walk two or three times a week. And also make sure that you get your heart rate up—and then keep it up, for at least 30 minutes— a few times per week while doing something you enjoy. Not only will it help you get ready for your hike, but it will also put you in the rare company of people who fulfill the Department of Health and Human Services exercise guidelines. They recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
I know you can do it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. Stay in the fitness loop! Listen and subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy show on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.