The wonderful world of hiking is full of people of all different shapes, sizes, weights and height. No two people are the same, and therefore how you get yourself into shape for hiking is going to vary according to your body type.
The best example I can possibly give you is a comparison with myself – well-over-six-foot and 220-pounds – and one of my friends, who is often mistaken for my son because of our size difference.
He can go for a run and still be running quite comfortably five hours later. He finds it a useful tool to get fit for hiking. Me, well, I would require knee replacement surgery after the first hour.
So, there are different exercises for everyone. I have looked at a huge range of them, many I do myself, others I leave for the more agile among us. Either way, here are my hints, tricks and tips on how to get in shape for hiking.
This might sound a little too obvious, and that is because it is. If you are planning a week-long hiking adventure and you are hopelessly out of shape, then you will probably need to start your exercise regime with a bit of walking anyway.
Start with an hour and increase the length of your walks, adding your pack and weight as you get stronger. When you are accustomed to this, head out for the whole day. Load your pack up, pick a destination that should see you arrive a little before lunchtime. Have a bite to eat and then spend the afternoon wandering home, or back to your car.
This will not only improve your fitness, but it will give you all kinds of confidence knowing that you can spend a full day on the trail without too much difficulty. If you can do one day, you can do another six!
This is an excellent way to build activity-specific muscles, and to add to your overall stamina.
If you are like my friend above, then I am happy for you. Go for a run. You are going to need a good bit of cardio training before you head off on your hike. Your lungs will be screaming for air on those steeper inclines unless your body is accustomed to sucking in the deep ones.
I am a big unit, so any kind of repetitive strain on my knee joints is nothing short of folly, so I exchange long-distance running for short, explosive, high intensity workouts that I can complete in a 7 to 10-minute cycle, involving a combination of burpees (squat thrusts), push ups and short sprints.
Weights or body-weight?
I have always found my own body weight to be sufficient for building leg strength. If squats become too easy, go to one-legged squats. If you can lunge walk all the way to Mexico, there are ways to make that harder too.
However, if you are the kind of person that has to anchor themselves to something every time the wind blows, then you may need to add some extra weight to your workouts.
Before we begin though, just a quick word of warning. If anything hurts, please stop doing it and go see someone about it. That is your body telling you you’re about to do an injury.
And lastly, if your body becomes too fatigued for you to complete one repetition of an exercise properly (i.e. your form is compromised due to fatigue), then you must recover enough before you can continue. If you sacrifice form, you will get hurt.
You are reading this because you want to get in shape for hiking (or because you’re hopelessly bored), so that means you are going to need to work your muscles out. The funny thing about muscles is that they both love and hate this at the same time.
You will need a good amount of stretching to keep your muscles flexible, strong and knot-free, and yoga is the perfect way to achieve this balance. If you think yoga is just for hippies and new-age women, then you can think again, because yoga is for everybody. I begin every single morning with a few basic asanas that are aimed at re-lubricating my joints that have stiffened up during the night.
I back this up with a session before my evening meal to stretch out the muscles I have been fatiguing all day, whether I am hiking or not. This religious stretching prevents your muscles from shortening and becoming tight, therefore firmly decreasing your likelihood of getting hurt.
You can spot the person a mile away that has just emerged from the gym after ‘leg day’ – the one day of the week dedicated to shredding the largest muscles in the body. They tend to look like someone has just shoved a… actually let’s not go there. Let’s just say that they will be walking a little bit funny.
And they will probably look exhausted too, because they have just worked out their largest muscle group. And this is what you ought to be doing once a week as well, preparing your legs for those mammoth ascents under the weight of your pack.
Please just don’t overdo it. Relatively new science indicates that the optimal amount of time to work out a muscle in one week is 1.5 times. Now that might not make a lot of sense to some. You are probably wondering how you work out a muscle half a time.
You are going to use your legs every single day of your life, whether you get out of bed or not. So, go to the gym once a week to work out your legs, and count your normal activity for the rest of the week as your half workout/ recovery session.
I have chosen a range of exercises that I do, which will require nothing more than two dumbbells. So, with that in mind, let’s have a look at some of these exercises.
If you tell me you do not know what a squat is, then I say I do not believe you. You just don’t want to know! And that is probably because they are quite hard to do, and involve most of the major muscles in your body, which is why it is the first of the exercises to appear in the leg group. It is important to begin your workout with the most strenuous exercise.
If you are new to this game, then stand with feet hip-width apart, feet flat on the floor, bending the knees and keeping a straight back until the tension is firmly felt in your quads. Repeat this 10 – 12 times. Those are your reps. Now rest for one minute, then do 2 more sets of those 10-12 reps.
Make it harder:
- Start using a weight lifting bar across your shoulders
- Add weights to that bar
- Squat down, and then explosively jump into the air, landing gently.
- Sumo Squat – Complete the squat with a wider stance, engaging the inner thigh muscles more, as well as your glutes
- Goblet squat – A personal favorite of mine. You will need two dumbbells or preferably a kettle bell. Start with light weights. Hold the weights, lock your arms at a 90-degree angle. Put your arms out horizontally in front of you in line with your chest (arms still locked at 90 degrees), holding the weights. Bring the weights together and squat, focusing all your attention on your core muscles. This is ideal with a kettle bell as the handle naturally keeps your hands together. Go easy on your first session. This is a killer abdominal workout and you may struggle to get out of bed the next morning if you overdo it!
Hold a dumbbell in either hand and go for a walk. It is that simple. If it is too easy, pick up some bigger dumbbells. This exercise activates nearly every muscle group in the body. You are replicating hiking by walking with a mass heavier than your own, while strengthening your core as you attempt to stay upright. Other awesome benefits include the conditioning of the muscles in your forearms and improved strength in the wrists, which is amazing for wielding those trekking poles when the terrain becomes difficult.
Put your feet together in a standing position. Bend your knees, keeping your arms locked at 90 degrees, as if you are holding some skiing poles. Jump to your right, landing softly and using your core to drag you legs across with you. Then bend your knees and jump back to the left. This is great for building explosive power in your quads and core.
Make it harder:
- If this is you, then you are fitter than I am! Move to one-legged jumps.
- After jumping to the side, jump back before heading back the other way again, finishing with a large jump-with-accuracy forward into the starting position. You have just completed a big square. Now do it again, going the other way.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Stride forward with one leg, putting most of your weight onto the front leg. Hold for a second and then push back to return to your normal position, before doing the other leg. Another 3 sets of 10-12 reps is a good place for beginners to be aiming for.
Make it harder:
- Hold dumbbells in either hand and use gravity to hang them by your sides.
- Put one leg at a 90-degree angle behind you on a chair, and lunge forward onto the leg on the ground. You will immediately notice the extra weight that kicks your quads into action.
- Front/ side weighted lunge – Another personal favorite as it engages the legs and your core. Hold one dumbbell in your right hand. Lunge forward with your left leg, bring the dumbbell forward to you toes. Hold for 2 seconds and then return to the original position. Now lunge to the left side 90 degrees, again bringing the dumbbell to your feet. Return to the start position. This is one rep on your left side. Now do your reps and sets for both legs. It is very important to use your core strength to hold that dumbbell out in front of you. If you are relying on your back muscles, you are doing it wrong and need to lower the weight.
- Lunge walk – Find yourself a nice open space and then go for a lunging walk, this time continuously lunging forward instead of returning to the starting position. Add weights to make it harder.
What makes this exercise so great is that you can do it anywhere; on your stairs at home, the root of a tree, a flat rock, or even a specifically designed calf-raising platform. Now, your calves are made of two muscles that join at the base, and they can take a severe amount of punishment before they throw in the towel. My advice would be to run these muscles ragged on your leg day
Stand with feet a couple of inches apart. Slowly back yourself towards a small ledge, keeping the front balls of your feet just on the ground, with the rest of your feet and heels dangling over the edge. Slowly lower yourself down until you feel a stretch in your calf muscles, before explosively pushing yourself up with your toes past the horizontal mark and as high as you can go.
Make it harder:
- Do it one leg at a time. You may need to gently lean on something to accomplish this without falling over. Or you have better balance than I do. One of the two.
- I prefer to keep both feet on the ground and add weight to this exercise. ‘Smith Machines’ are perfect for this workout as it enables you to lock a bar in the horizontal position, so you do not need to worry about losing your balance and dropping the equivalent of a fridge on top of your head.
If you are wondering how an upper body exercise will help a predominately leg-based activity, then I guess you have not carried a 50-pound pack for a week before. This exercise builds strength in your chest, shoulders, triceps, back and core (yep, the whole shebang!) which you will find invaluable on the trail. Your pack is going to feel lighter and you are going to feel stronger.
The other thing with push ups, is that if you do them fast enough with the right amount of muscle engagement, you will feel your heart beating strongly in your chest. You are actually building explosive cardio power. Combine your push ups with burpees and running or jogging drills in your recovery time to increase endurance.
Make it harder:
- Raise your feet on a platform which transfers more weight to your shoulders and upper pectorals.
- Put your hands further apart, placing a greater emphasis on your chest.
- Put your hands together to better workout your triceps and inner chest.
- Bench press in the gym with weights.
Disclaimer: All exercises in this article have been recommended by the writer, a person that has been hiking for over 20 years. He is not a general practitioner, physiotherapist or personal trainer, but uses these well-documented exercises to gain personal fitness for the trail. If you undertake any of these exercises, you are doing so at your own risk, and trailandsummit.com will not be liable for any injuries that occur. We recommend that you warm up and stretch properly before exercise. We also recommend that if anything hurts, even in the slightest, then you should stop and seek medical attention to prevent further injury.
As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.