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Backpacker Magazine – March 2010

Spring Training: Exercises for Strong Knees and Hamstrings

Want strong knees when hiking season starts? Work your hamstrings now.

by: Kelly Bastone, Illustrations by Supercorn

Sure, you could hike yourself into shape come spring—but you could hike yourself right into an injury in the process. A too-sedentary off-season can shorten and weaken your hamstrings, and that means feeble knees. “The hamstrings keep the knees safely aligned as you hike,” explains Suzie Snyder, an adventure racer and strength-and-conditioning coach based in Wallingford, Connecticut. Strong hams support your pack’s weight and help ligaments stabilize the knee over uneven terrain, especially when you’re descending with a pack. “Work those muscles, and you’ll hike downhill faster and reduce the risk of knee injuries,” Snyder says. Strengthen your hamstrings with these three exercises; for maximum benefit, do them three times per week, starting six to eight weeks before your first big trip.

Alternating lunges

>> How Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, take a large step forward, shifting your weight to your front leg while bending the rear knee and dropping the hips toward the ground. Keep your front shin vertical and your thigh parallel to the floor. Pause briefly, then step back to a standing position without dragging the front foot. Alternate with the other leg for 20 lunges total. Work up to three sets of 20 reps per leg. After two weeks, drop to three sets of 10 reps while wearing a 10-pound backpack. Add five pounds to the pack per workout until you reach 30 to 40 pounds.

>> Why Lunges work the hamstrings and glutes, which “apply the brakes as you hike downhill,” Snyder says. Wearing a loaded pack raises your center of gravity and challenges your balance, which trains your hamstrings to steady the knees over loose rock or uneven ground. 

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Apr 25, 2012

Seriously, the stairmaster has been great for preparing me for tough backpacking trips. Especially for those with lots of steep climbs.

Apr 24, 2012

Could you explain to me why the stairmaster is bad? Negative motor patterns? What do you mean by that? Last year I used the stairmaster faithfullly with my 20 lb pack--without holding on most of the time, and felt that it helped my core and leg strength and cardiovascular system without any injury. Did the Tour du Mont Blanc with no pain or fatigue.

Apr 24, 2012

It's not perfect nothing is only being out there is..but, before I bought a programable Treadmill of my own, in Winter I would go to the 24 hour gym and hike my favorite Sierra hike in my mind, sometimes I would bring my Photo album of the hikes I took and peruse them like a rabbit chasing a carrot...I would tread with my hiking boots on and my loaded pack on, using one of their treadmills. I asked the Manager 1st before I did it. And met a couple of girls who I went hiking with in the Spring as enjoyable bonus but I am not the marrying kind so those were short lived. Sadly their Marketing people made the membership to expensive to justify not buying my own, so I did and still hike my hike on my Treadmill at home. It really works out my quads and butt for those hill climbs. One tip, never use a treadmill fully flat always adjust it to about a 2 - 5% incline. I did notice a difference in just exercising when in the Spring I had fewer aches and pains and no muscle sprains and few twitches after reaching the top of the switchbacks..

Apr 23, 2012

RE: Stability ball leg curls

I do this exercise 3X/week but with 2 legs only. The risks far outweigh the benefits doing them 1-legged. Frankly, most people in the gym couldn't do them properly using one leg anyway. Plus, it can put a lot of unnecessary strain on the back of the knee and hips.

Apr 23, 2012

Hey Steve & Macky,
With 35+ years training athletes from recreational, professional and Olympic Level, I agree with Macky's comment. For you Steve, do not get on a stair climber. It develops negative motor patterns. They look pretty all in a row in the gym, however, nearly every piece of fancy equipment in gyms drastically affects movement effeciency by not following the natural strength curve and the natural anatomical structure of joint, bone and muscle alignment. There isn't any crossover to sports performance.

Apr 23, 2012

Hey Macky,
Descending hills isnt the issue with me. When ascending hills there's a certain level of incline that kicks in some muscle group that really increases the cardio demands for oxygen and blood flow. I'm guessing this is the front of the thigh. What's the best exercise to really push movement and build up my uphill endurance?
Stair climber or something similar?

Apr 23, 2012

Since this has turned into a P90X infomercial, anyone here tried the INSANITY program? It looks pretty awesome, no equipment, no gyms needed.

simon park
Apr 23, 2012

before you look for new subscriber,
take care paid customer

Apr 22, 2012

I have been a physical therapist for 35 years and this is the first time I have ever heard that the hamstrings keep the knees "aligned" as you hike. Yes they are important for stability, but the quads working "eccentrically" are the workhorses in descending hills.

Apr 22, 2012

for all you p90X spammers, get the F off our website. This is not for people making a sales pitch but for comments on the posted article and that exercise routine described.

Apr 22, 2012

Wow, is this a p90x commercial or something?

Jul 23, 2010

P90X has really strengthened not only my legs but my entire core area. It really works.

May 13, 2010

great workout i did one set of 20 and im so sore its great!

May 13, 2010

For an excellent (and extremely tough) training workout try Insanity. It's made by the same people as p90x!

Apr 19, 2010

ok the p90x is amazing, difficult but will shape every muscle you own!! or didnt know u did! great for knees

Apr 15, 2010

You know...I've wondered about that P90X, and well...I think it's awesome if it's working for ya.

Terri Crowe
Apr 13, 2010

I agree with John about the P90X. I hiked all winter but also added the P90X. I feel great and strong this spring even with bad knees. Good enough that I am going to train for a sprint Tri in Sept!

Mar 26, 2010

I've also found that 2 months of P90X has drastically improved my backpacking stamina and overall performance.

John Conville
Mar 16, 2010

To those of you who participating in the Hiking Merit Badge, this may be of interest.


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