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.”
Problem: Dead legs after a day of hiking
Solution: Squats and lunges
Eco-Challenge adventure racer Jodi Zwicky, a woman who knows plenty about long days, swears by squats. “Most of my races aren’t on flat terrain, so I have to make sure my quads and hamstrings are strong,” she says. “Squats are the best overall leg strengthening exercise, especially for a lot of climbing.”
To squat like a pro: Stand with a barbell resting across your shoulders and slowly bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Slowly straighten your legs. Try to do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions. When you can do 12 reps easily, add more weight.
Lunges also work a little of everything, and you can do them anywhere. “I do lunge walks, where I take long strides and do an actual lunge-dipping down and really working my glutes, quads, and hamstrings,” says professional soccer player Christina Bell. “By the end, my legs get a completely grueling workout.” Bell credits lunges with giving her the strength to run around the field for hours.
To feel the burn, take an exaggerated step forward and bend both knees to about 90 degrees. Push off the front foot and return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite leg. Try 10 to 12 reps, and eventually increase to three sets with small hand weights.
Problem: Need more power for big steps
“I do a lot of plyometrics to build explosiveness in my legs,” says Sarah Uhl, a short-track sprint cyclist for Team Saturn. “My event lasts only 35 seconds. I need to go from inactive to active in the snap of a finger.”
Get a big boost on the trail by incorporating plyometrics, or exercises that put your body through jumping or bouncing motions. Uhl recommends box jumps, where you leap like a frog onto and off of a box 15 times. Start with a box that’s a foot high, and add height to keep your workouts rigorous. An alternative is the one-leg jump, which builds strength and improves balance for leaping across creeks or other trail obstacles. Stand on one foot and jump straight up 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
Problem: Sore quads
Solution: Eccentrical exercises
“Often, people assume they’re sore after a hike from all the climbing,” says Dressendorfer. “Little do they know that they’re hurting because they’re not used to working the muscles on the way down.”
Hiking uphill uses muscles concentrically, meaning the fibers shorten. With an eccentric movement, your muscles actually stretch as they contract. It’s this kind of eccentric strength that keeps you from tumbling down a steep hill. You can develop this kind of strength easily, once you master the ability to exercise in reverse. “Most people do strengthening exercises only concentrically, leaving their eccentric ability weaker and less able to handle stress,” explains Laura Keller, a physical therapist for elite athletes at San Francisco’s Stone Clinic.
You can work the muscles both ways by performing any of the previous exercises in the opposite motion slowly to the count of 10, says Keller. “When doing a squat, rather than focusing on raising your body, slowly lower it to the count of 10, then rise up out of the squat at a normal pace.”
Problem: Bonking on steep climbs
Solution: Pedal uphill
Your quads are crucial in helping you scale hills. And there’s no better way to build unstoppable climbing quads than to pedal a bike uphill multiple times. Just ask mountain biking World Champion Alison Dunlap. “Ten hill repeats on a road or mountain bike are incredibly painful,” she says. “But it’s really the best workout for those who don’t have much time and want to get the most out of a ride.” Once your quads are used to taking a beating on a bike, the big steps you’ll take on the trail will be easier to endure.
Problem: Can’t keep up
Eco-Challenge veteran Martin Rydlo knows how to pick up the pace. In training, he runs 30-second sprint intervals to keep his legs light and quick. “These really work on my power and strength,” says Rydlo. “The first 15 seconds, it’s go, go, go. In the last 15 seconds, the lactic acid builds up and your legs get heavy. It’s a real killer, but doing intervals will help legs feel far more nimble during a hike.”