CAMPING & HIKING

Why is Hiking such a Complete Lower Body Workout: 3 Reasons Hiking is Your Best Exercise

Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

A lot of people might hate going to the gym or exercising in an old-fashioned way. And that’s really understandable, considering that exercising can get really tedious. But consider that you can get fit and do something you love, outdoors, like hiking.

You may be wondering why is hiking such a complete lower body workout, and that’s what we’ll discuss in this article. We’ll tell you all about the main muscle groups and bones needed, as well as how hiking is good at targeting them, making you stronger by the day.

It engages a lot of muscles

One of the first reasons why hiking is considered a comprehensive workout is because it employs all of your lower body muscles. Of course, some have just a supportive role, while others are used more predominantly, but we’ll talk about all of these below.

Glutes

Your gluteal muscles are located in your buttocks area, and these are pretty important when hiking because they help support the weight of your backpack. But apart from working with your lower back, they also have to contract with every step you take, particularly when it comes to walking uphill.

Gear

That’s because you’re bending your knees like you were doing a single leg squat. The same squatting position is frequently adopted when you’re bending down to avoid branches that are really close to the ground. And we all know squats are excellent for glute toning, so navigating through brush is great for that.

If you want to tone your glutes more with every hike, consider keeping them as tense as possible. That will ensure a higher caloric burn too, just like climbing uphill.

Quadriceps

These muscles are located in the front part of your thighs, and they have to be really strong to support your bodyweight plus a backpack when you’re hiking. While their job is relatively easy on a flat surface and with a smaller, lighter backpack, it gets considerably harder at an incline and/ or with a heavier backpack.

hiker with strong Quadriceps

When you’re climbing up, your quadriceps are basically doing the same effort as they would for a lunge. And it’s not just a bodyweight lunge if you add the weight of your backpack. Plus, if the terrain is rocky or uneven, your balance is challenged so your quads have to work overtime.

Hamstrings

Your hamstrings are located at the back of your thighs, and they have a double role. Firstly, they need to be really strong if you want to carry a heavier baggage. That’s because they support the glutes, which in turn support the lower back for weight carrying.

Secondly, they’re really involved with the actual hike. Their purpose is to give your legs momentum and to get the front legs moving forward. If your hamstrings aren’t well exercised and flexible, you might pull a muscle and that would destabilize you.

hamstring pain

When you’re climbing up and doing that lunge we’ve talked about, the hamstring is an assisting muscle of the bent leg when you’re pushing. The hamstring of the straight leg also has to do its share of work for balance. When you’re going downhill, you’ll lean back slightly. That means your hamstrings should be sturdy enough to support you so you don’t fall down.

Calves

With each step you take, you’re basically rolling the soles of your feet on the ground, and pushing through your tip toes at the end. When you get on your tip toes, your calves are engagedthe most.

hiking on tip toes

So the logical deduction is the more time you spend on your tip-toes, the more work your calves will have to do. That happens particularly when you’re climbing uphill. Most of the time when hiking up, you need to stop for a few seconds and plan your next step. At this point, your calves are working overtime in order to support your whole bodyweight.

And if you’re backpack is heavier, your calves will have to work with more than your body weight. So although these are pretty strong muscles that can withstand a bigger weight, you should be careful not to strain them.

Lower Back

This is another muscle that’s well exercised by hiking. The reason is the lower back, along with your front core have to keep your balance on the trail, so it will have to stain tense so you can sit up straight.

keeping balance

The lower back is also more engaged by a heavier backpack, seeing as much of its weight is supported that way. It also has to work more when you’re hiking up, seeing as balance is more fragile when you’re climbing. And the same goes for going down.

And since your lower back can get stronger with every hike you take, it will assist your frontal abdominals and obliques, even more, when it comes to your daily activities. That includes a desk job that requires sitting down in a proper position, without slouching.

Inner Thigs

Your inner thighs are supportive muscles, that aren’t directly targeted through hiking. But since it’s impossible to walk without using your entire thigh muscles, your inner thighs will get toned too.

inner thighs

Plus, there are certain trails where you’re not moving up or down, but doing lateral movements with your legs. That happens when you’re trying to avoid an obstacle or where you have little leg room. At this point, your inner thighs will have to work to keep you stable, but they’ll also be more exercised by the sliding movement.

Outer Thigs

Just like for the inner thighs, the outer thighs have a secondary role. They play a significant part in supporting the glutes, the hip flexors, and your quads, but they aren’t targeted primarily through hiking.

hikers

They can get stronger though as they will stay engaged with an increase in the overall weight you’re carrying. You will gain more muscle on your outer thighs if you’re hiking at an accelerated pace, or if you’re climbing uphill. And if you have to slide laterally through various obstacles like thebrush, you likely depend more on your outer thighs rather than quads.

Hip flexors

Your hip flexors are the front muscles of your hips, which are engaged with every step of your hike. When you’re moving your leg forward, your hip flexors are strengthened and toned.

Just like for the other muscles we’ve discussed so far, your hip flexors will get bigger if you’re carrying more weight, or if you’re going up or downhill.

two hikers with hiking backpacks

Sometimes, these muscles are neglected in a classic strength training or cardio routine, by they’re targeted really well by hiking.

It strengthens your bones

Your lower body doesn’t just mean muscles. You have to think about your bones too because these support your muscles. And a healthy skeletal system means you’re less at risk for various bone injuries too.

And since other more brutal forms of cardio or strength training have been shown to negatively affect your bones, hiking is great for them. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have been counting on walking vast distances in search of food and shelter. So walking/ hiking can only be beneficial for our bones and muscles.

Shins

Your shins will have to do a lot of work when hiking. Think of it this way, the lower a bone or muscle is on your body, it has to support a bigger proportion of your bodyweight. The weight of your backpack will add to their work too.

shins

When you’re going uphill, and you’re bending forward, your shins take much more of that weight. Conversely, when you’re going downhill and pressing through your heels, your shins will have to work harder too.

But even if you’re hiking on level ground your shins will become engaged. The faster you walk, the more steps you take, and therefore the stronger your shins get.

Ankle Complex

The ankles shouldn’t be neglected when you’re picking out a workout routine. If you’re doing plyometrics or HIIT with lots of jumping, your ankles have to absorb the impact of your body mass hitting the ground. And if you’re not careful, that will increase your risk of injuries.

hiker sprained his ankle

But a good hike will be much gentler on your ankles. Granted, they do have to stretch front and back with every step, and they still have to support your bodyweight. But the movements they execute when hiking are much closer to their evolutionary purpose.

Of course, a bigger weight and an inclined or rolling terrain will make the ankles work harder. Some of these factors can even prove dangerous for your ankles, but that problem can easily be solved if you’re wearing proper, supportive shoes. So no hiking in flip-flops, consider wearing at least ankle-high boots even if it’s warm out.

Knee Complex

Your knees take up to seven times your body weight when you’re walking. So consider how much more pressure they have to withstand when you’re hiking, because now you’re carrying a backpack and because the ground isn’t always level.

exhausted hiker

You have to be really careful not to damage your knees, particularly when you’re going up or down. When climbing uphill, many people will tend to use their hands and push on their knees to gain momentum. That can be really dangerous, so we’d advise you to use your core for balance, or get a hiking pole/ walking stick that pushes through the ground.

Again, more inexperienced hikers will be glad when they have to go downhill. They’ll exaggerate their movements, striking their heels on the ground, maybe even run. But that can also damage your knees, so it’s best to use a walking stick here too.

Hip joints

Since walking involves a hip rotation that gives momentum to your legs, your hip joints will be strengthened by helping with this movement. But moving your leg front and back means more pressure on your hip joints, which have to become stronger in order to support the weight they need to carry.

girl hiker on the trails

In that regard, they will become better at moving your legs and gain flexibility if your hikes involve a lot of uphill or downhill climbing. But even if you’re going on alevel ground, your hip joints won’t mind. They still have a considerable job to do, and their effort is even bigger if you’re going at a faster pace.

It involves various sorts of training

Hiking is a comprehensive workout not just because it targets most of your lower body muscles, engaging your bone structure. But hiking will mean different styles of exercise, all combined into one. And let’s be honest, when you’re going to the gym, you fall back on choosing the same workout style.

gym workout

But here your body will have to work in various ways, adapting to the terrain, and your brain will have to stay alert to new circumstances too. That will prevent you slacking off and disconnecting, like you would on a treadmill, for example. So you’ll work harder and burn more calories because your brain is forced to pay attention.

Strength training

Your muscles will get most of the benefits of strength training when you’re hiking, especially when you’re carrying a backpack. It’s like doing functional training with a weighted vest, but better.

You’ll be combining various movements that resemble strength training exercises too. You’ll be doing countless squats, lunges, calf raises and so forth. And even if you’re not going uphill or carrying a backpack, your legs will still have to support your bodyweight, so you’ll get some toning benefits.

Cardio

If you’re hiking on level ground, your tendency will be to keep your same walking pace, or even go faster to meet a certain time. That’s bound to get your heart pumping so you can enjoy cardio benefits.

Girl running with dog

If you’re going uphill, even at a slower pace, your heart rate will increase drastically. That’s because you’re doing a lot of effort pushing to go up, maybe carrying a heavier backpack than your usual work bag.

Even when going downhill you might still get some cardio benefits. Though your heart rate stays in the normal range, the fresh air will do marvels to your lungs. They’ll transport more air to your heart, which will become stronger and healthier.

Balance and agility

Remember how we’ve said before that there are various situations in which you need to stop for a few seconds and plan your next move? These situations relate to a balance and agility sort of training.

workout-schedules

You have to tense your muscles and use your core when you’re stopping, which has toning advantages. Plus, creating a stronger core is beneficial for other types of training.

Flexibility

If you need to take wider steps, for instance, that will make your hamstrings more flexible. But the truth is that every step you take when hiking works your muscles, which implies an increase in flexibility.

Warm-up and cool down

If we’ve proven that hiking is indeed a true workout, don’t forget to add in a quick warm-up and cool down before and after your hike.

The warm-up

The warm-up should depend on how much effort you’re planning to do and how long your hike will be. If you’re going on a backcountry hike that only lasts a couple of hours on thelevel ground, your warm-up can be incorporated in the actual hike. So you can start walking at a slower pace, and increase your effort as you go.

runner-stretching-leg

But if you’re going on a more strenuous hike, your warm-up should include more exercises that raise your heart rate progressively. Your muscles will also have to be prepared in an incremental manner, so these are the exercises we’d recommend for a quick warm-up:

  • 30 seconds walking in place.
  • 30 seconds of high knee
  • 20 squats.
  • 20 lunges.
  • 20 calf raises.
  • 20 leg raises.
  • 30 seconds butt-kickers.
  • 30 seconds jumping jacks.

The cool down

Don’t forget that your muscles did a lot of work, so it’s wise to get a cool down before stopping altogether. The reason is that without a cool down, you can pull a muscle, strain it, or even get an injury doing your daily chores.

Hiker cooling down

Again, the cool down depends on the intensity of your hike. If you just did some low-intensity walking, you can walk slower and slower until you feel more comfortable. Otherwise, a more demanding hike requires a more comprehensive cool down, for which we recommend these exercises:

  • Boxer shuffle.
  • Walking in place with arm swings.
  • Wide-legged forward bend.
  • Quad stretches.
  • Hamstring stretch.
  • Calf stretch.
  • Inner thigh stretch.
  • Pidgeon Pose for your hip flexors.
  • Butterfly Pose.
  • Downward Dog.
  • Cobra Pose.
  • Child’s Pose.

childs pose

Each of these stretches should last roughly 30 seconds. But if you don’t have that much time, it’s wise to do them for at least 15 seconds. Of course, you can feel free to add more stretches of your own.

Hike to success

We’ve failed to mention in this article how much calories hiking burns. And it’s a lot, the more with a bigger inclination or more weight carried. But we feel that hiking shouldn’t be about that.

Hiking is about seeing new things and breathing in new sceneries. Hiking is about new experiences and meeting new people. The getting fit part is a secondary perk, but it’s such a great thing you can achieve that outdoors, in a pleasant environment and with little to no expenses.

So have we convinced you yet to go hiking? Where are you going next? The comments are right below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

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