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Backpacking Fitness

This Hiking Workout is a Spring Tune-Up for Your Body

Fend off aches and pains with these hiker-specific exercises.

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Hiking season is here, and it’s time to dust off the cobwebs. Maybe you didn’t stop heading outside in the colder months, but snowy trails or chilly temps kept you from heading out as often as you wanted. While you could just hit the trail, a little training will provide you with a massive boost in confidence by removing negative self-talk around being out of shape. To build a trail-ready body and add variety to your training sessions, try changing the direction of your workout with these exercises that prioritize lateral and backward movement.

Reverse Lunges

Love them or hate them, lunges are perfect at preparing your legs for hiking. However, many hikers experience knee pain with forward lunges. With a simple change in direction, the pressure through the knee is reduced, yet all the fantastic lunge benefits remain.

Reverse lunges strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. They are also great for working in foot strength, core strength, and balance, making them a valuable addition to any hiker’s program.

To perform a reverse lunge, keep your core tight and take a big step backward, lowering your hips to bring your back knee toward the floor. Keep your back knee directly below the hip in the bottom position of the lunge. Make sure your front knee stays stacked over your ankle during the lunge (not forward).

Return to standing by squeezing your glute on the front leg while pressing through the front foot. Avoid leaning forward as you return to standing; keep your torso upright and core engaged.

Start with three sets of 15 repetitions for each leg. As you get stronger, add resistance by holding hand weights or wearing a loaded backpack.

Lateral Step-ups

Most hikers have done forward step-ups, but the lateral version adds another dimension to your hike preparation. Lateral step-ups offer hip, glute, and quad strengthening, and they target the core. This variation will work the glute muscles on the side of the hip, helping prevent knee and IT band issues. 

Stand with a stair or box to your right side. Step up, leading with the right foot, then bring the left foot up beside it. Step down, leading with the left foot. As with any step-up variation, emphasize pressing through the leading foot to maximize the working muscles’ effort. It might feel easier to boost yourself up with the foot on the ground, but that will reduce the benefit of this exercise. If you catch yourself pushing up with the foot on the floor, try raising your toes to eliminate pushing off the ground. Alternatively, try lowering the step height.

Start with a step height between 6 and 8 inches, aiming to maintain control for three sets of 15 before adding any resistance or increasing step height. If you find maintaining control challenging, you may need a lower step.

Goblet Squats

Goblet squats are friendly for beginners and advanced gym-goers alike, and they offer benefits for both, including  strengthening muscles in the torso and improving posture.

The goblet squat offers a slight variation on the traditional squat. For this exercise, grab a weight and hold it close to your chest. With an engaged core, unlock your knees and bring your butt toward the floor. Maintaining an upright torso and engaged core, squeeze your glutes to return to standing. Avoid letting the knees move inward during the squat. By keeping the weight close to your chest, you engage more muscles in the mid-back and core, which will help with carrying a loaded backpack.

Begin with three sets of 15 using a weight that allows you to complete the reps with good control.

Wall Rows 

Hikers need upper body strength to shoulder fully-loaded backpacks, climb over downed trees, and navigate rough terrain. Push-ups and overhead presses are great, but they can be uncomfortable for people with shoulder problems. Pull-ups are another great option, but many of us struggle to do them.

Enter the wall row. Rowing or pulling motions are often more friendly on achy and painful shoulders. The wall row targets the large muscles in the back and shoulder muscles, which help support a backpack’s weight.

Stand at an open doorway, facing the doorjamb, with your feet together and toes against the bottom of the doorjamb. With your elbow bent at 90 degrees, grasp the wall or door frame with your right arm. Slowly lower yourself into a sitting position until your arm is straight. Using your back, shoulder, and arm muscles, pull yourself back up to the standing start position.

Aim for three sets of 10 per arm. If these are difficult at first, use your legs to help return to the start position.

Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and has trekked through the Dolomites in Italy. He can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.