Hiking is an amazing workout that works for several muscles groups. You probably already have a decent idea of what muscles are used based on where you’re sore after a tough day on the trail, but the number of muscles you use when hiking may surprise you.
Since so much of hiking can vary, and due to the changes in elevation, terrain, and more, you use more muscle groups than most activities. The muscles activated can also vary depending on what type of hike you’re doing, and what you are carrying with you.
Uphill vs downhill movements will be harder on different parts of your body, for example. If you want to have a better understanding of what muscles are used when hiking, you’re in the right place!
Hiking primarily uses your quadriceps (Quads), hamstrings, hips, calves, abdominal muscles, oblique muscles, glutes, and various parts of your lumbar area. Other groups may be engaged depending on the intensity of a hike, what gear you are using, and so on. A great example of this is that you may use your trapezius muscles when carrying a ruck on a backpacking trip. I’ll go into more detail throughout this article.
What is the benefits of hiking as exercise?
- Cardiovascular health improvement
- Strengthening of legs, hips, and abdominals
- Exposure to vitamin D from the sun (Hopefully)
- Potential improvements of balance from scrambling
- Improvements to blood pressure and blood sugar
- Increases in bone density, especially if carrying weight
- Potential improvements to mental health
Does it only your lower body used in hiking?
While the majority of muscles used on most of your hikes are in the legs and trunk, you use other groups as well. It’s similar to running in that most of your strain is in your legs and hips, but you still may begin to feel other muscles like your back or abs after a long run, due to their use in stabilizing your body.
All of the muscles in your legs and hips will be engaged, and if you’re scrambling or on a long trek you may notice some soreness or activation in your core. If you carry a heavy pack, you will include more upper body groups in your back, shoulders, and trapezius muscles (Traps). Trekking poles or a staff will recruit more upper body muscle groups as well.
What lower body muscles are used in hiking?
In your lower body, you will be utilizing your hamstrings, glutes, quads, hip, and calf muscles. While some of those are just general terms, to truly list all the small muscles used would take a significant amount of time and is not necessary to know for most people.
Your quadriceps, or quads, are the large muscle on the front of your thighs. The hamstrings are the muscle on the back of your thigh. Your glutes are the muscles that make up your trunk area, and the hip and calf muscles are self-explanatory.
Like any running or walking-based exercise, these are the primary things carrying you, step after step on the trail. If you seek to strengthen your body for hiking, these muscles are most likely going to be a focus of your program. Most cardiovascular exercises like running will train these muscle groups in a way that’s relevant to hiking.
What upper body muscles are used?
The upper body muscles used will vary depending on what type of hiking you do, and what you are using on your trek. If you are backpacking, you will feel more active in your trapezius muscles, or traps, and your upper back as a whole.
You will also likely engage your core to a higher degree (Including your abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles. I have included these as an upper-body because they stabilize your frame while hiking).
It’s also possible to engage your shoulders more if using a heavy pack. If you use trekking poles or a staff your arms and shoulders will be much more engaged than they would otherwise, though not as much as the other portions of your body.
Rucking as a whole is very hard on your upper body and core, but a hike without weight does not mean your upper body isn’t being used.
What exercises to prepare for hiking
To prepare and strengthen the muscles used in hiking, a massive amount of exercise can be used. Cardiovascular conditioning is one of the biggest things that will help you on the trail. Running, stair masters, mountain climbers, and related exercises are great examples of ways to improve your performance.
Cardiovascular exercise should be your focus when improving your performance for hiking. Another simple fact is that hiking more often, and for longer periods, is the best way to improve. One of the best ways to get better at any activity is by doing it more often.
Another great area to focus on are movements like lunges, stair climbers, and squats. These will strengthen the muscle groups used for uphill movement when hiking. To address specific muscle groups and gain overall strength, weight lifting exercises can be used to target certain muscle groups.
Compound lifts are an excellent choice for any fitness program, as they address multiple muscle groups and stabilize muscles at the same time. I’m also including isolation exercises to target certain muscles.
Below is a list of exercises that address muscle groups used when hiking,
But keep in mind I’m only making a shortlist of what you can do.
- Barbell or goblet squats
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Back extensions (Use a roman chair)
- Barbell or dumbbell shrugs
- Lunges and weighted lunges
- Alternating jump lunges
- Box jumps
- Quad extensions
- Hamstring curls
- Leg press
- Leg raises
- Dumbbell or barbell rows
- Dead hangs
A regular exercise program that is all-encompassing is the best thing to do to improve your overall strength, which will correlate to your hiking. You should perform further research into specific programs and exercises that help the specific hiking or type of trail work you do.
A backpacking program will look different compared to a trail runner's program. You also need to base your exercise routine on how many days you are working out during the week since you can’t only do exercises for some of your body and not the rest.
This will lead to imbalances and eventual injuries. Another thing to remember, if you are only interested in hiking, then one of the best things to do is just hike. The ideal way you can improve at a particular activity is to do it often. For example, if you are a rock climber, hangboarding and exercise helps, but the only real way to become a better climber is to climb more, gain experience, and keep it consistent.
How can I prevent injuries when hiking?
One of the biggest things you can do to avoid injury in hiking, and any exercise, is to have a regular program of stretching and warming up. For a warm-up, if the trail you are on is mellow to start, then it is less of a priority.
Any dynamic warm-up is ideal if you are facing intensity quickly on the trail. Stretching after your hike or exercise is imperative. You will improve flexibility, help your muscles recover, and reduce the potential for future injury.
Research stretches that fit your sport or activity, and spend time on areas that are in pain, or you face injuries often. Performing a full-body routine and giving extra focus to stretching your problem areas is not guaranteed to prevent injury, but will help reduce the likelihood of future problems.
You also need to keep a well-rounded diet program to encourage healing and strength gains. A healthy, balanced diet that supplies your body with the required nutrients and fuel will help you heal for your future adventures.
Intaking enough protein and nutrients to help your muscles rebuild is the only way to improve. Fruits and vegetables also recommend listening to your body. If you feel especially poor after a hard workout, or you feel pain, not soreness, it may be good to take a day off.
You will eventually learn to listen to your body over time, and understand what different feelings mean.
Do I have to train for hiking?
With all of this discussion on exercises and muscle groups related to hiking, you may be wondering if you need to train for your trails days. It’s important to keep in mind that hiking doesn’t have to be an activity you train for, or even one to plan deeply for.
Hikes can be a nice walk on a nature trail. Every hike, even easier, short walks, are still beneficial to your mental and physical health. Longer distances may burn some more calories, or feel more rewarding, but there’s nothing wrong with some casual days in nature.
Plan your hikes to be the adventure you want. Your hiking day may be a last-minute adventure with friends to bond on the trail, it may be a nice walk along to take in some beautiful views, or it may be a hardcore adventure that will be challenging. You really only need to train if you aren’t satisfied with your performance.
Hiking is an amazing exercise on its own. I provided training information for those who may want to push the pace. Since hiking can be such a varied adventure, you can make it as hard or as easy as it needs to be.
If you want a tough day outdoors, take some long treks on rough terrain, scramble around outdoors, and push your pace to challenge yourself. The opposite goes if you want a mellow experience.
Do a nice hike that goes a short distance, without too many elevation changes. Staying on well-manicured trails can also make your hike a bit easier on you.
Hiking is a full-body workout, and despite the fact, your lower body may take most of the beating, you’ll still feel tired everywhere after a tough day on the trail!
When your body is moving over rugged terrain that is changing often, you use so much of your body that it’s easier to wonder what muscles you won’t be using. I focused on the major muscle groups used on hikes in this article, but remember that everything will be used, even if it’s a minor movement you may not notice.
Since hiking uses your whole body, it’s an amazing way to stay healthy and keep yourself fit. With plenty of room for progression, you can always get better and have a good day outdoors. Making sure to stretch and eat well are key to recovery, and keeping your muscles ready for rough treks.
Hike often and hard, and you’ll see amazing results!
For more detailed guides and references, read my other posts: