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Best Exercises for Hiking to Build Muscle and Endurance

Reading Time: 4 minutes 12 seconds


Date: 2021-06-08T00:00:00-04:00

Cardiovascular endurance is a crucial part of being able to endure a hiking trip. Whether it be uphill hiking or not, hiking training is still important to build cardio. Does a hiking workout need to mimic a cardio workout only? The short answer is no.

It may not be enough for clients to just practice hiking to get better. Every hiking trail varies in elevation and level of difficulty. This is based on numerous factors including,

  • Elevation

  • Trail length

  • Number of inclines or hills

  • Steps or stairs

  • Terrain (uneven, slippery, rocks, roots, etc.)

A strenuous hike will require cardio and will increase heart rate levels tremendously. Also, don't underestimate the use of both the lower and upper body muscle groups. Consider using a combination of strength training and cardio-based workouts to create the most effective hiking exercise program. Let's take a closer look at how to determine the best exercises for hiking.

Muscle Groups Used During Hiking

Leg strength is a critical component of hiking, but it's not the only important aspect. Some of the major muscles used during hike include the following:

  • Core muscles

  • Hamstring muscles

  • Hip flexor muscles

  • Glute muscles

Consider implementing functional exercises into your client's exercise program that will hit these key areas. Functional exercise movements should mimic the natural walking movements found in hiking.

Strength training plays its part in building stability throughout the leg, along with core strength. This is essential for elevation gain during hiking. Building leg muscle helps clients prevent foot and knee injuries, decrease knee pain, and maintain a low resting heart rate.

Hiking is considered an endurance sport, but to truly be conditioned you must perform effective strength exercises in parallel to your endurance and cardio training. Learn how to perform cardio and strength training without one taking away from the other.

Training for Hiking

Start slow, especially if it's your client's first time beginning a hiking routine. First walk on flat terrain. Work up to doing more intense walks that include uphill or downhill walking. Gradually increase the intensity of the trail and eventually the total time they hike for. Incorporate hill workouts and weighted vests or backpacks to continue improving endurance levels.

Just because hiking does not involve more than a backpack doesn't mean you should avoid weight training. Combining cardio and endurance training with strength training is the most effective way to become a better hiker. As a hiker, you don't only use your heart and lungs. Your body relies heavily on the core, legs, hips, shoulders, and feet as well. This is where the strength training comes into play. Focus on building a better backside (the posterior chain) to increase overall hike performance.

Best Exercises for Hiking

Various exercises help build stability, strength, and endurance. When choosing the best hiking exercises consider both of these factors:

  • Metabolic demand

  • Muscle strength

These are both demands of hiking and must be trained through a series of exercises to improve your client's performance.

Bosu Ball Squats

Squats in general are an effective lower body exercise. They require the use of multiple large muscle groups. This makes it a compound lift that builds muscle strength and mass. Squats demand a lot of muscle conditioning as well, which elevates heart rate. Therefore, not only do you build strength with squats, but also cardio. When you stand on a Bosu ball and increase the number of reps performed, the body is forced to focus on balance and conditioning.


This exercise builds mass and endurance in the lower body. Prescribing a walking lunge incorporates the conditioning aspect. It increases heart rate and requires muscle endurance to lunge for a certain distance.

Rather than just performing stationary lunges, you can increase the benefits of hiking by adding weight and walking. Lunges uphill or downhill are an advanced hiking exercise.

While you're not lunging as you hike, lunges do mimic the linear motion that increases the difficulty more than standard walking. This makes walking uphill or downhill much easier on a hike.

Mountain Climbers

Not only are the legs important, but so is the core. Mountain climbers incorporate more of the cardio aspect, through repetitive knee drives. Though they mainly target and strengthen the core and hip flexors. The hip flexors play an important role in hiking, especially on strenuous terrain. The hip flexors become more active when walking or hiking uphill, as they balance the pelvic musculature.


During hikes, you might encounter different terrains, elevations, hills, lengths, and more. One condition to prepare for is stairs or steps. Step-ups are a great exercise for leg strength, especially glute strength. This unilateral exercise helps improve symmetry and balance, preparing athletes for varying terrains.

Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Incorporate single-leg glute bridges to isolate the glutes more. The glutes are crucial for supporting the body in hiking. They stabilize the body when just walking, uphill especially. If hikers choose to carry a backpack, the glutes activate more to protect the lower back. In addition, they support the legs and prevent knee injury.

Single-Arm Rows

The upper body is just as important as the lower body. It may be used in different ways or amounts, but it supports all motion throughout the body. Rowing exercises help strengthen the arms and lats. If clients use trekking poles, upper body training is more prevalent. Though they still help the body during all hikes.

Calf Raises

To walk and even climb hills, the calf muscle is working the entire time. Calf raises are an essential muscle for hikers and easy to execute. In conjunction with all other leg muscles, the calves provide stability and balance in the lower leg and ankle. Hiking in various terrains requires ankle stability and strength to prevent injury. Ensuring that a client's calf muscles are not only conditioned but strong will make their hikes more efficient.

Are you looking to take your fitness knowledge to the next level? Invest in yourself and pursue the ISSA's Certified Personal Trainer course. Get up to date on the latest research in exercise science and health and fitness. With this course, you will gain the resources to ensure you apply the right principles of exercises to all clients.

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