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Backpacker Magazine – November 2011

Build Backpacking Muscles

Strengthen three key areas - shoulders, ankles, and core - this winter so you can tackle tougher trails next spring.

by: Joseph Leff

Illustrations by Supercorn
Illustrations by Supercorn

Muscle power is not just about hefting a heavy pack. “It gives you wiggle room for making mistakes and reduces your chance of getting hurt on-trail,” says weightlifting champion Dan John, whose workouts include hiking. “If you stumble under a pack on tricky terrain, strength improves your ability to react and recover.” Aim for at least three strengthening sessions a week.

A. Farmer’s Walk 
>> Payoff Build sprain-resistant ankles and condition your bones, joints, and leg muscles for heavy loads.
>> Do it Find yourself a clear, 100-foot path (a long hallway or indoor track work well) and grip equal 10- to 50-pound weights in each hand. Start with weights that are a challenge to carry the entire distance. Keeping your back and arms straight, squat to lift the weights off the ground using your leg muscles, then straighten to a fully upright position, keeping the weights at your sides. Walk forward at a normal pace for 100 feet; stop and lower the weights. Work up to as many as 20 carries per workout.

B. Overhead Squat
>> Payoff Strengthen shoulders, hips, and hamstrings—the muscles you need to protect against injury under a weighted pack.
>> Do it Firmly grip a barbell and raise your arms above your head, angled 45 degrees from your body (like you’re making a “Y” shape). Position your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, with your toes pointed a bit outward. Keeping your arms up and back slightly arched, control your movement as you bend your knees as far as you can. “Drive your knees out and keep them pointed in the same direction as your feet as you drop your butt to your heels,” says John. Lift up by straightening your legs. Start with three sets of eight reps four times a week and drop to twice a week as you perfect form and increase weight. Start with a broomstick and move up to an unweighted barbell, then continue adding weight in 10-pound increments as you gain strength.

C. Bear Crawl
>> Payoff This cardio move builds the shoulders, core, and hip flexors and is great prep for scrambling or traversing tough terrain.
>> Do it Start by bending at the waist and reaching hands forward, keeping them flat on the ground (bend arms and legs). Evenly distribute your weight between your hands and feet. Move forward, “walking” on your palms and toes as quickly as possible. Rest for 45 seconds between sets. Start with five 10-yard crawls, and work up to 10 sets at 25 yards.

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Apr 02, 2012

We have started hiking 2.5 miles every other day with a 30 lb. pack. It is amazing how light my daypack feels now.

Michael G
Mar 26, 2012

I have a better idea. Strap on the backpack and go up Iron Mtn, Cowels, Noble cyn, etc. Go to places where you can practice scrambling with a pack on. Start with short trips and build up from there.

Uncle Tom
Mar 24, 2012

For exercise #1 we farmers use a wheelbarrow filled with rocks, gravel, or firewood and do some creak work at the same time

Mar 24, 2012

Bearcrawls were a killer during football double sessions in HS! For even more of a challenge, set up a series of cones and walk through/around laterally

Mar 24, 2012

I agree, also make sure knees stay aligned with ankles!

Jim Davis
Mar 23, 2012

I started taking my morning walks of 2.5 miles with a 35 pound backpack. It has really helped to make the pack feel more natural. You would be surprised how much you learn about packing the contents just right and how to adjust the straps. It will tell you a lot about the backpack itself.

Mar 23, 2012

It's best not to squat past the point where your legs are parallel to the ground. You will waste energy for a minimal gain and be at a much greater risk for injury.


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