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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Best Exercises for Hiking to Build Muscle and Endurance

Best Exercises for Hiking to Build Muscle and Endurance

Reading Time: 4 minutes 12 seconds


DATE: 2024-05-30

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:

  1. Metabolic demand

  2. 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.

Hiking Workout for Strength and Endurance

Building endurance and strength for hiking is crucial. A well-rounded hiking workout should focus on the lower body, core stability, and balance. Many exercises can help prepare muscles for the challenges of hiking. Expect uneven terrain and extended uphill walking.

To improve hiking performance, it's important to incorporate exercises that simulate the movements of hiking. Aim to target key muscle groups. Here's a hiking-focused workout routine.


Tip: Begin with a warm-up to activate the muscle groups that will be used during a hike. Warming up increases your heart rate to prepare the body for strenuous activity.

High Knees: Pump your knees up high to your chest, alternating quickly. This mimics the high steps often used during hikes.

2 sets x 10-15 reps each leg

Side Steps: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step to the side with your right leg, and follow with your left leg in a continuous motion. This warms up the abductor and adductor muscles. Feel free to use a resistance band for added resistance.

2 sets x 10 reps each direction

Ankle Rolls: Balance on one foot and roll the opposite ankle in circular motions to prepare your ankles.

3 sets x 15 rotations each ankle

Arm Circles: While hiking, you may use trekking poles or need to balance. Warm up your shoulders with forward and backward arm circles.

3 sets x 15 reps each direction

Strength Workout for Hikers

Tip: Select 5-8 exercises that mimic hiking motions. Perform 3-6 sets per exercise, aiming for 6-12 reps each set. You can use progressive overload by increasing weight with each set.

Mountain Climbers (Compound)

Tip: Mountain climbers mimic the upward motion of hiking and engage the core, hip flexors, and shoulders.

Start in a high plank position. Quickly alternate bringing each knee towards your chest, keeping the core tight.

Set 1 x 30 seconds

Set 2 x 45 seconds

Set 3 x 60 seconds

Rest for 30-60 seconds between sets.

Step-Ups (Compound)

Tip: Step-ups replicate the action of climbing up steps or rocks, targeting your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

Find a bench or step that's knee height. Step up with your right leg, pressing through the heel to lift your body up. Step down and repeat with the left leg.

Set 1 x 10 reps each leg

Set 2 x 10 reps each leg

Set 3 x 8 reps each leg

Rest for 1 minute between sets.

Glute Bridges (Accessory)

Tip: Glute bridges strengthen the glutes and hamstrings. These muscles are heavily used in uphill hiking.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips towards the ceiling, squeezing your glutes at the top. Lower back down.

Set 1 x 12 reps

Set 2 x 10 reps

Set 3 x 8 reps

Rest for 1 minute between sets.

Calf Raises (Accessory)

Tip: Strong calves are essential for hiking, especially on uneven surfaces.

Stand with feet hip-width apart. Push through the balls of your feet to raise your heels off the ground. Lower back down with control.

3 sets x 12 reps

Rest for 30 seconds between sets.

Bosu Ball Squats (Balance)

Tip: Using a Bosu ball introduces instability. This can help improve balance and mimic uneven terrain of hiking.

Stand on the round side of a Bosu ball with feet hip-width apart. Keep your core engaged and lower into a squat. Then push through your heels to stand back up. Focus on maintaining balance throughout the movement.

Set 1 x 8 reps

Set 2 x 8 reps

Set 3 x 8 reps

Rest for 1 minute between sets.

Plank (Core Stability)

Tip: A strong core will help maintain stability and balance on uneven hiking trails.

Get into a forearm plank position with your elbows under your shoulders. Keep your body in a straight line from head to heels. Engage your core and hold this position.

Set 1 x 30 seconds

Set 2 x 45 seconds

Set 3 x 60 seconds

Rest for 30-60 seconds between sets.

Cooldown Stretch

Tip: Finish off the workout with a cooldown stretch to prevent injury and promote recovery. This is important after any workout.

Standing Calf Stretch: Find a wall and place the balls of your foot against it. Keep your heel on the ground. Lean forward slightly until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle.

2 sets x 20 seconds each leg

Hip Flexor Stretch: Kneel on one knee with the other foot in front. Push your hips forward and feel the stretch in the front of your hip.

2 sets x 20 seconds each side

Hamstring Stretch: In a standing position bend at your hips keeping your legs straight. Reach for your toes and stretch your posterior chain. Avoid locking out your knees. 

3 sets x 20 seconds

Remember that for hiking, it's also important to incorporate cardiovascular training. You can simply implement walking on an incline, running, or cycling. It's equally important to spend time on actual trails to get your body accustomed to hiking-specific movements.

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