Backpacking Fitness

Strengthen Your Knees for Hiking

Creaky knees? Strengthen your joints with supine leg lifts to prevent pain and buckling during long descents with heavy loads. Bonus: Your ankles and hips will benefit, too. Perform this circuit with 3- to 5-pound ankle weights.

The Circuit

Sets: 2-3 (parts 1 through 4 on each leg is a set)

Reps: 10 (each leg); complete 10 of each exercise on the left leg without stopping. Then do the right leg. That’s one set.

Rest: 0 to 90 seconds between sets (decrease as you gain strength)

Part 1: Straight Leg Lift

Strengthen the hip flexors—which help lift your upper leg —while stabilizing deep core muscles to prevent the patella from rotating and causing pain when hiking.

1. Lie on your back and bend your right knee, keeping your right foot on the ground. Extend your left leg on the ground with toes flexed up.

2. Engage your abs and lift your left leg until your knees are in line.

3. Lower your left leg, careful to keep your belly button in toward the spine, then proceed to part 2.


Part 2: Internal Leg Lift

This turned-out leg lift targets the inside adductor muscles, which stabilize the knee laterally to prevent buckling.

1. While still lying down, turn onto your left side, propping yourself up with your left forearm. Bend your right leg so that the right foot is planted flat on the ground behind your left knee.

2. Flex your left foot so your toes point to your face.

3. Lift your left leg about 6 inches, leading with the heel. Your right foot remains firmly on the ground. Lower it slowly and repeat, then move to part 3.


Part 3: Side Leg Lift

This outer leg raise stabilizes the knee and strengthens the gluteus medius, an essential muscle for balance on the trail.

1. Flip onto your right side, propping yourself up with your right forearm. Bend your right leg on the floor underneath your straightened left leg. Flex your left foot toward your face.

2. Keeping your abs engaged and your hips stacked, lift your left leg until it is a few inches higher than your hip. Lower and repeat, then proceed to part 4.


Part 4: Forearm Plank with Heel Lifts

These leg pulses strengthen your glutes, core, and hamstrings for all-around support.

1. Move into a forearm plank, keeping your abdominals engaged and your hips level.

2. Lift your left foot (keep your ankle flexed) a few inches, and pulse it up and down for 10 counts.

3. Lower the left foot then return to part 1 to repeat the entire circuit on your right leg. 

The Expert

Exercise physiologist Robyn Fog-Wiltse is a former professional obstacle course racer and runs Sasquatch Training in Golden, Colorado.