5 Exercises To Prepare Your Body For Hiking

by | Feb 1, 2024 | Blog

Hiking is one of my personal favorite ways to get some physical activity in. It’s a great form of exercise, which entails all the usual exercise benefits, and it also gets you outside- a double whammy for goodness for your body. It also happens to be a favorite activity for many people, including many of my clients.

It’s often a goal for people I work with to get back to. They are usually unable to hike or hike the amount they would like to due to an injury or nagging pain that is holding them back. In this blog, I’ll share some of my favorite exercises I add to their programming in later stages of rehab or as soon as they are able.

Why Should You Prepare For Hiking In Advance?

Because hiking is such a physical endeavor, it requires a bit of physical preparedness. It is definitely challenging for your heart & lungs, but also for your feet and ankles, hips, knees, and spines. Depending on the length and intensity of your hike (essentially how much elevation you’re climbing), this can place a lot of stress on those areas of your body.

This isn’t a problem if they are prepared for it and have a baseline foundation of strength and fitness. Without preparation, it’s not uncommon to experience things like knee pain, low back pain, hip pain, foot pain, or ankle rolling that can limit your ability to hike.

One of the key injury principles in rehab is understanding that injuries happen when the loads the tissues in your body are experiencing are greater than those tissues’s capacity. The way we can experience less injuries is to gradually make those tissues stronger, which happens when we slowly challenge them through strength exercises with progressively increasing weights.

A hike is a lot of walking, but also stepping up to climb higher, and stepping down to descend, which places additional loads through all of your lower body, loads that accumulate due to the repetitive nature of long hikes. If you haven’t prepared your body for these loads, you’re more likely to get injured and these things will feel much more challenging and less fun.

When Should You Begin Training?

I usually recommend training more pointedly for hiking at least 3-4 months in advance if you are wanting to get back into it after some time off.

How Should You Train?

Your training should include training for both your cardiorespiratory fitness as well as strength training. This blog is covering strength training recommendations only. Like most strength training, the key in making these effective is in making sure the exercises are challenging enough, generally each exercise should be ~7-8/10 for RPE (rate of perceived exertion), and making sure some variation of progressive overload is being incorporated into the program. (You can learn more about strength training and these principles in this podcast episode.)

My Top 5 Exercises to Train For Hiking:

1.) Squats

Why: Squats are one of the best exercises to build strong legs capable of ascending and descending elevation on hikes. They should be a staple in most programs, but especially for hiking.

Variations: Front squat, back squat, goblet squats or split squats if loading traditional squats don’t feel great for your body

Tips: Work up to heavy sets of 5 or less reps to really prepare your legs. Towards 6-8 weeks out from your hike(s), consider switching to metabolic-focused squats such as a 10 squats EMOM (every minute on the minute) for 10 minutes. They will burn, but help combine strength & conditioning in preparation for hiking.

2.) Single Leg Deadlifts

Why: Most of your time walking/hiking is spent on one leg (60% of your gait cycle), so your training should reflect that. Loading single leg deadlifts will help build closed chain hip strength similar to what you need for hiking, and it will also challenge your balance and your foot strength, which are also super important for hiking.

Variations: Single Leg RDL with a single heavy dumbbell or a barbell is my favorite

Tips: Do these without shoes or with shoes that have the least amount of cushion so you can really train your feet; use something for balance as you need so you can go heavier and maximize your strength more

3.) Step Ups

Why: These are particularly important for any hikes that have elevation as they will directly carry over to your ability to generate force to travel vertically and these are important for preparing the tissues in your hips, knees, and ankles for these types of movements and loads.

Variations: Front rack step up, high step up (can use trx or strap for assistance), lateral step up

Tips: Each of the variations find their way into my clients’ programs at some point because they each have value; make sure you use your back leg as little as possible for pushing off; do these without shoes or with shoes that have minimal cushion

4.) Single Leg Heel Raise

Why: Strong ankles will roll less and will feel more stable overall during your hikes. Plus this exposes your ankles and feet to loads similar to hiking, which means less pain and aches.

Variations: Single leg heel raise, added range of motion calf raise off box

Tips: Make sure you stay upright (no swaying your body forward) and lock your ankle out fully at the top with each rep; work up to sets 20-25 at bodyweight first; start with 2 leg variations if needed

5.) Weighted Carries

Why: These are another way to gradually expose your body to loads similar to hiking so you can build strength and endurance in your feet, ankles, hips, and spine (core).

Variations: Suitcase carry, farmer’s carry, front rack carry or front rack march

Tips: Choose a challenging weight; stack your ribs and pelvis (more on that here); perform multiple sets of 30-60 sec

Final Tips:

If you’re unfamiliar with strength training and the principles of strength training, please check out the podcast episode linked above, where I break it all down. It’s important to understand these principles to ensure you’re getting the most out of your training especially if your goals are to use these exercises to prevent (mitigate) injuries.

To learn more about setting a mobility-focused goal, check out my free masterclass called Kickstart Your Mobility Training!

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A photo of Dr. Jen Hosler standing with a barbell instructing the deadlift.

Hi, I'm Dr. Jen Hosler.

I’m a bookworm, science nerd, and coach of all things movement (physical therapist and strength & mobility coach). You can catch me sleeping in & having a slow morning, doing CARs & lifting heavy things, or sipping a glass of wine on my time off.

Through a blend of strength & mobility training, I’ll help you master your movement & build a more resilient body that won’t hold you back from all the activities you love doing.

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