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Eight peaks, 32 miles, and 18,000 feet of vertical. Those are the punishing stats we gave six outdoors trainers when we asked them to name the best lower-body exercises for relentless uphill-downhill days. The clear winners: squats and lunges. But not any old squats and lunges–the experts gave us hiking-specific variations that will get you ready for everything from a one-day traverse of the Adirondacks’ Great Range to a week on Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Incorporate these exercises into your workout regimen 10 weeks before your trip.
SQUAT: Single Leg
“This exercise will save your knees,” promises Tina Vindum, owner of Outdoor Action Fitness in Northern California. “It strengthens the quadriceps, which helps your kneecap track better, reducing your risk of injury when hiking downhill.” From a standing position, lift one foot off the ground out in front of you. Slowly sink down into a squat for a count of 3, then come up in a 3-count. Do 12 repetitions on each leg; build to 20.
SQUAT: Barbell Back
This variation builds extra strength and power in the glutes and lower back, which is important for climbing with a load, says Courtenay Schurman, creator of the video Train to Climb Mt. Rainier. Stand with feet wider than your shoulders, a barbell resting across your shoulders. Slowly sit back. Start with 2 sets at a weight that lets you do 12 reps; build to 3 sets with an 8-rep weight.
“This exercise combines cardio, balance, and strength, just like backpacking uphill,” explains Vindum. From a standing position, take a big step forward, landing with both knees at about 90 degrees. Push off with the back foot and swing it through to take another big step. Continue for 1 minute, rest, repeat; build to 3 minutes. Variation 1: Add dumbbells or a pack loaded to half your trip weight. Variation 2: Do this exercise up hills or stairs (take smaller steps).
LUNGE: Scissor Hop
“This plyometric (jumping) lunge gives you explosive power for hiking uphill, but it also helps your quads prepare for descents,” says Brad Cerutti, a trainer for OutFIT, a Bay Area company specializing in fitness programs for outdoors sports. From a lunge position (above), shoot straight up, switch legs in the air, and land in a lunge. Do 2 sets of 4 hops; build to 3 sets of 10.