4 Exercises to Strengthen Your Core for Backpacking

Build up your abs for better balance and all-day comfort on the trail.

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No offense to your legs, but it’s your abs and lower back that matter most when it comes to managing pack weight—and not just those superficial six-pack muscles, either. Ditch the workaday crunches for these whole-system exercises to target the deeper back and abdominal muscles that protect and stabilize your spine. Do them three times a week, starting at least four weeks before your next big trip.

Uneven Farmer’s Carry

core exercises uneven farmer's carry
Kendall Candioglos

What Walk with uneven weight to challenge your balance.
Why Boost stability under a heavy load.

Sets 5 Reps 1 (each side) Rest 30 seconds

Find a weighted object, like a kettlebell or pack, for each hand. They should total 40 percent of your body weight, and one should be 10 pounds heavier than the other. To start, squat to pick up the weight (keep your back straight, and push up through your heels).

With chin tucked and shoulders back, engage your core to remain upright.

Walk slowly for 30 yards, taking 12-inch strides. Walk back with the heavier weight on the opposite side

Make it harder Add 5 pounds every other week to work up to a 20-pound difference (totaling 50 percent of body weight, max).

Hanging Leg Raises

core exercises hanging leg raises
Kendall Candioglos

What Simultaneously strengthen a whole muscle system.
Why Promote synergy between glutes, hamstrings, and deep core.

Sets 3 Reps 5 Rest 30 seconds

Hang from a bar with feet flexed, arms straight, and shoulders engaged (draw shoulder blades down away from your ears and pull them together slightly).

With a braced core, lift your knees to your chest for a count of two, pause and lower for two counts, keeping abs and glutes engaged. Repeat.

Make it harder Raise straight legs until they’re parallel to the ground. Still too easy? Touch your toes to the bar above your head.

Bosu Bicycle Crunch

core exercises bosu bicycle crunch
Kendall Candioglos

What Incorporate an unstable surface into your workout.
Why Train your core to make quick adjustments in uneven terrain.

Sets 3 Reps 8 (each side) Rest 20 seconds

Lie with your back on the Bosu and get into a sit-up position.

Bring your elbow to your opposite knee for a count of two.

Release and lie back for a count of two, then repeat on the opposite side.

Make it harder Keep your arms and legs extended so your body is stretched out parallel to the floor (heels can touch the floor; arms can’t). Instead of tapping elbow to opposite knee, reach straight upward and touch hand to opposite foot.

Modified Side Planks

Side Plank core exercises
Kendall Candioglos

What Reach over and under for a full trunk rotation.
Why Strengthen load-bearing muscles in your sides and lower back.

Sets 3 Reps 10 (each side) Rest 20 seconds

Start in side plank position, keeping head, shoulders, hips, and knees aligned.

Tighten your core, and extend your upper arm straight out from your shoulder socket toward the ceiling.

Twist as if moving into a one-armed plank position and curl your arm under your opposite hip.

Uncurl, keeping core tight as you reach your arm back up toward the ceiling. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.

Make it harder Hold a weight with your upper hand.

You’re Doing It Wrong: Sagging Your Core

The most common mistake Fog-Wiltse sees in ab workouts is an improperly engaged core. Do that and you expose yourself to an injury like a thrown disc or tweaked back muscle, she says. To get a feel for the right form, put one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Suck in the biggest breath you can. Your stomach should push out while your ribs stay put. Exhale fully—you’ll feel a deep contraction in your lower abs. Hold on to that contraction, squeeze your glutes, and tip your pelvis toward your belly button, breathing into your chest. Stay there for a few seconds to remember the feeling. Got it? When an exercise tells you to engage your core, replicate that lower-ab tightening to maximize benefit and minimize risk.

The Expert

Robyn Fog is a personal trainer and the owner of Hypermobility Exercise Solutions in Golden, Colorado.

From 2022