It’s a tall order. Backpackers want legs that hike farther, go faster, climb higher, descend more confidently, wobble less, and won’t scream with pain in the morning. Oh, and we wouldn’t mind if they looked chiseled, too. So to learn a few new tricks, we asked exercise experts and pro athletes how they build and maintain legs that perform well and look great. To start, “your best bet is to get to the gym to challenge and overload your muscles,” says Jeffrey Potteiger, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. Which muscles should you challenge? Those that strengthen your primary trail weakness, recommends Potteiger. If hill climbing kills you, focus on your quads and glutes. If balance is a problem, work on your calves.
After a couple weeks, you’ll notice that building leg strength has pleasant side effects. Strong muscles protect your joints from injury, says Rudy Dressendorfer, an exercise physiologist and American College of Sports Medicine spokesperson. And powerful legs mean less strain on your cardiovascular system, allowing you to tackle killer hikes without huffing and puffing.
With those perks in mind, we offer the best tricks and tips from our leg experts. Pick the exercises that address your needs, and incorporate them into your workout routine 2 or 3 days a week. Where weights are involved, start with an amount you can easily lift 8 to 10 times, then gradually add weight in 5-pound increments until you find an amount you can lift only 10 times without resting.
Problem: Bad balance on dicey trails
Solution: Step-ups and step-downs
Just a couple hours of high stepping, talus walking, or boulder hopping on the trail is enough to make any hiker’s legs shake. Experts agree that one of the best ways to beef up your calves and sharpen your balance is with step-ups and step-downs. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand in front of an 8-to 16-inch-high box or step. Take a step up onto the box and come back down, landing on the ball of your foot. Work up to three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each leg.
Problem: Legs sag under a heavy pack
Solution: Step with weights
To improve load carrying, wrap a sandbag or 10-pound laundry bag around your shoulders while doing your step-ups and step-downs, suggests U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Weichert, who runs a military fitness class for civilians in San Francisco. “This will force you to work on your agility since the additional weight causes your body weight to shift,” says Weichert. “Nothing prepares you better for hauling a heavy pack than hoisting a load onto your back while you train.”