Building your hiking strength

by Ryan Wagner

Last week, I discussed some of my favorite mobility exercises to help loosen your hips from a long winter. My intention with that post was primarily to help build the case that a freely moving pair of hips is key to putting on some serious miles this summer in the mountains. The other half of the story is strength. I’ve created a short list of excellent exercises to help you build some serious hiking strength this summer. Practical, functional, holistic, whatever your adjective of choice, these movements qualify in a big way.

The Yin and Yang of hiking

Strong hikers are usually leaner than you may expect. They’re closer to the size of a distance runner than a powerlifter. And it makes sense, right? Hiking gets easier the less you carry with you – including you! Big bulky muscle can slow you down on a long hike the same way it can if you run a 10k. But on the other hand, you do need to have some measure of real strength. Carrying a heavy pack or even a lighter day-pack over a period of 8 hours is going to become a serious workout unless you have the muscle to accommodate the load.

Also, you are going to need a good level of hip mobility to help you reach your leg up high and over those big steps and rocks. This is what I call the Yin/Yang relationship of mobility versus strength. There has to be balance. In some cases, pounding the squat rack three times a week will not improve your fast hike time if your hips aren’t able to move freely in the first place.

Goblet squats

Nice and simple. That’s why it works so well. Grab a kettlebell by the horns or a dumbbell by the bell and hold at chest height. With a nice comfortable stance, squat down to the point just before your back begins to round and thrust right back up. If you’re a strong guy, don’t be afraid to grab yourself a heavy kettlebell. If you’ve been working the mobility exercises I outlined last week, over time, you’ll see an improvement in your squat depth. This is important because the deeper you squat the more you’re asking of your muscles.

Bulgarian Split Squats

If you follow this blog regularly then you probably saw this coming!

Hiking is locomotion and with human locomotion we temporarily shift our weight to one leg. Therefore, you should at least be spending some time training unilaterally. I recommend the Bulgarian Split Squat. It’s a great single leg builder and you can really load up the legs because you’re only training one at a time, but with less spinal loading.


Whether you opt for a dumbbell/kettlebell in each hand or a loaded barbell, focus on keeping your weight stable. Don’t let yourself fall over to one side or the other. Keep a long tall spine and as you descend, and as you come back up, power through it!


Pick a carry, any carry. Maybe you like the ol’ standard farmer carry with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. Or, a suitcase carry, in other words, pick up something heavy with one hand and walk with it. Regardless, the idea here is to train your core as it works to stabilize your body’s movement.

You see, with each step you take, you are shifting your weight to one side and as your hips work to accommodate this shift, everything North of your hips must also react. This is a fundamental human movement and one that requires a great deal of coordination. In fact, when you start to get creative like Erwan Le Corre in the video segment below, you see that by combining a farmer carry with a high degree of balance, you are really training your body to be adaptive. And as you can imagine, that is rather important when hiking. And even more important in those times when you need to catch yourself in the face of a potential injury.

Heavy step-ups

Step-ups are underrated. No, seriously, they are. And yes, I am actually talking about that very, very simple exercise where you literally just step up onto something and then back down. But here’s where things get interesting, what if you are stepping up with some serious weight? Quite similar to lugging a heavy pack around, right? And if you train heavy enough that pack won’t feel so bad after all when you’re on the trail.

David Dellanave wrote a blog post that convinced me the step up was worth considering.

Here he is in action with a pretty ridiculous amount of weight,

In this list exhaustive?

Of course not. However, it is a list of exercises that have helped me and that I encourage you to safely experiment with as you work towards building your hiking strength. Some you may be very familiar with, such as the goblet squats, and others like the heavy step-ups may be brand new.

The big takeaway is that to get yourself back in hiking shape and have some fun this summer, you need to balance the Yin and Yang of mobility and strength. Too much of one or the other and you’re setting yourself up for a potentially very sore post hike.

So, there you have it! Did I miss some exercises? Something in particular that you feel helps spring you over those boulders? Let me know and I’ll cover it in another post.

Happy hiking everyone.

By Ryan Wagner


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