What Muscles Does Hiking Work? (and How To Train)

What muscles does hiking work?  Hiking is an awesome activity because it works all major lower-body muscles, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, hip muscles, and core and upper-body muscles. 

This full-body workout is also much lower-impact than many other aerobic activities like running, another fantastic reason to invest in this lifelong sport. 

As an avid hiker, I can tell you from personal experience which muscle groups will be worked the most, as well as how things like terrain type will affect how much strain will be put on these different muscle groups. 

I’ll also run through the best way to strengthen your leg muscles for the trail, and how to lessen the load on your lower body muscles as you hike. 

Does Hiking Build Muscle? – An Overview of Muscles Used in Hiking

Apart from the mental health benefits of exercising outdoors, and the great excuse it gives Kendall and me to go on hiking dates, hiking is such an awesome activity because it truly works your entire body.  Hiking works more muscle groups than walking or biking for the following reasons:

hiker with a black hat and black backpack
Hiking is a fantastic low-impact lower-body workout
  • Varied inclines: This works more muscles, and works these muscles more than, say, walking on flat terrain. 
  • Uphill climbs: Ascending steep trails, in particular, works a ton of lower-body muscles, like the quadriceps, glutes, and calves.
  • Balance and stability: Because hiking trails are often rocky and uneven, hiking works some of the smaller muscles that help with side-to-side adjustments and balance (like the abductors/adductors).
  • Using your arms: Especially if you use trekking poles, hiking is a fantastic tricep and forearm workout. 
  • Carrying a backpack engages your back: Hiking with a heavy pack will build muscle strength in your upper back and trapezius muscles.  Just make sure to use good form to prevent injury and to wear a good quality hiking shirt to prevent chafing.
hiker with a backpack on a dirt trail demonstrating what muscles does hiking work
Carrying a backpack helps strengthen your back and core while hiking

Does Hiking Build Leg Muscle?  Lower Body Muscles Worked During Hiking

Hiking is such a fantastic lower-body workout because it works so many muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and hip flexors. 

Hiking involves ascending or descending steep trails and navigating uneven terrain, which works more of the small lower body muscles (when compared to walking).

Lower Body Muscles Worked While Hiking Diagram

diagram of anatomy of lower body muscles
  • Quadriceps: These muscles are located at the front of your thighs and are responsible for extending the knee and providing power during uphill climbs.
  • Hamstrings: Found at the back of the thighs, the hamstrings help to flex the knee and extend the hip.
  • Gluteus Maximus: The glute maximus is used while hiking by extending the hip and providing power during each step, especially on uphill trails. 
  • Gluteus Medius: The glute medius helps when hiking by stabilizing the pelvis and preventing it from dropping when the opposite leg is raised.
  • Calves: The two large muscles in the calves (the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles) help to extend the ankle (pushing-off motion) and support the ankle on uneven terrain. 
  • Hip Flexors: The hip flexor muscles, including the iliopsoas and rectus femoris, help with lifting the legs and keeping you balanced while walking on uneven hiking surfaces.  
  • Adductors and Abductors: These are the muscles on the inner and outer thighs and help with minor side-to-side adjustments of the leg while hiking. 

Upper Body Muscles Worked During Hiking

While hiking is more of a lower-body workout, you’ll also get a good workout for your arms and back if you use trekking poles or carry a backpack. 

Upper Body Muscles Worked While Hiking Diagram

diagram of anatomy of upper body muscles
  • Trapezius: Helps with stabilizing and moving the shoulders, especially when carrying a backpack or using trekking poles.
  • Deltoids: This is your biggest shoulder muscle, and helps with lifting and swinging your arms while hiking.
  • Triceps: You’ll be working your triceps a lot if you use trekking poles.  This is the main muscle used to push downwards through your arms. 
  • Forearm Muscles: Used when gripping your trekking poles. 

Core Muscles Worked During Hiking

Believe it or not, you’ll also work your core muscles while hiking.  Especially if you’re walking on uneven trails, your core muscles make minor adjustments to help you keep your balance.  Here’s a list of the core muscles you’ll be working out on the trail: 

  • Rectus Abdominis: This is your biggest ‘six-pack’ set of abdominal muscles, and helps stabilize your posture, especially on uphill climbs.
  • Obliques: These muscles run crossways underneath your Rectus Abdominis and help with rotating your torso.
  • Transverse Abdominis: This is basically a natural corset and gives internal support and stability to the spine and pelvis during any hiking or walking.
  • Erector Spinae: Supports the back and helps maintain an upright posture, especially when carrying a heavy backpack or hiking on uneven surfaces.
hiker in a grey t-shirt with a black backpack
Hiking with good posture strengthens your core muscles

Benefits of Working These Muscles

One of the things I love most about hiking is that strengthening your ‘hiking muscles’ is so good for you in general.  Building muscle strength in your lower body muscles helps improve your balance and endurance with all kinds of day-to-day activities (walking, lugging around groceries, etc). 

And hiking is a fantastic cardiovascular workout, which increases your stamina for everything else in your life.   

Here’s a list of each major muscle group, and how strengthening each will help you with day-to-day activities. 

Quadriceps:

Improvements: Strengthening the quadriceps through hiking can help with better knee stability.  I have issues with loose connective tissue, and the biggest recommendation for keeping my knees pain-free is to strengthen the surrounding muscles.   

Hamstrings:

Improvements: Strong hamstrings from hiking increase your ability to bend and lift your legs.  This improves your balance and reduces your risk of straining a muscle during activities like bending down to pick up items or lifting heavy things off the floor. 

Glutes:

Improvements: Strong glute muscles make a big difference in posture and stability when you are doing activities like standing up from a seated position or lifting heavy objects.

close-up photo of anterior knee

Calves:

Improvements: Strong calves can improve ankle stability.  I’ve also had issues with my Achilles tendon, and apart from wearing the best shoes for Achilles tendinopathy, I’ve found that keeping my calves strong is one of the best ways to prevent Achilles and ankle injury.

Tips for Maximizing the Muscle Benefits of Hiking

If you’re like me and are looking to maximize your muscle growth during your hiking workouts, here are a few suggestions.  I use these strategies all the time and have noticed a huge improvement in my hiking endurance. 

  1. Uphill Hiking Intervals:
    • Find a steep incline and hike uphill at a faster pace for a set period.  Start with just a few minutes and work your way up from there.  This interval training has helped me increase the total number of miles I can hike in a day, and is a great way to get my heart rate up. 
  2. Use a Weighted Backpack:
    • Add some weight to your backpack to increase the challenge.  Some people use a weighted vest, but I’ve found that adding an extra water bottle or two to the backpack that I’m already using is a great way to make my hike a little more challenging (and I always have plenty of water). 
  3. Do Hikes with Stairs:
    • Stair-stepping is an awesome workout for your entire posterior chain (hamstrings, calves, and glutes).  Some of our favorite hikes, like our 4-day trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions, have involved a LOT of stairs.
  4. Use Trekking Poles:
  • Use trekking poles with the correct form and really push down through your arms while you hike.  This is not only a great exercise for your triceps but also takes stress off your knees and ankles. 
hiker holding a trekking pole
using trekking poles is a great tricep workout

Best Exercises to Target Hiking Muscles

Here are some of my favorite exercises to target your hiking muscles and build muscle mass.  Strength training is super important when trying to increase your hiking stamina, and I recommend incorporating these 2-3 times weekly between your hiking days.

  1. Weighted Walking Lunges:
    • Instructions: Take a big step forward, lower your body until both knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, then push back up to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite leg.
    • Tip: Focus on keeping your torso straight and engaging your abdominal muscles.  
  2. Weighted Step-Ups:
    • Instructions: Step onto a raised platform or sturdy bench with dumbbells in your hands, then step back down and repeat with the other leg. Make sure you keep your knee aligned with your ankle.
    • This is one of the best ways to train for long hikes with stairs.
  3. Single-Leg Deadlifts:
    • Instructions: Stand on one leg and hinge at the hips to lower your upper body while extending the other leg straight back. Return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.  
    • This is my favorite weight-bearing exercise for targeting my quadriceps and glute muscles. 
  4. Calf Raises:
    • Instructions: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and rise onto the balls of your feet, then lower back down. Go for 30+ repetitions and really focus on feeling the burn in your calf muscles. 
    • Variation: You can also do single-leg calf raises to target each calf individually.  This also really helps with ankle stability.
woman with two dumbbells completing walking lunges exercise
walking lunges
woman with a dumbbell completing single-leg deadlift exercise
single-leg deadlifts
close-up image of person completing calf-raises exercise
calf raises

Incorporating these exercises into your workout routine can help target the primary muscles used in hiking, and will help you keep upping your mileage!

Conclusion

Hiking is such an awesome way to get outdoors while also getting a great workout.  Hiking works so many different muscles and is comparatively low-impact, making it a great lifelong sport that is fantastic for your overall health. 

So, lace up your hiking boots, hit the trails, and start clocking those miles!

image of a dirt trail through a green mountain scenery

What Muscles Does Hiking Work FAQ:

Can You Build Muscle by Hiking?

Yes, hiking can help build muscle, especially in the legs, glutes, and core, while also improving overall cardiovascular fitness.

Can You Get Toned from Hiking?

Yes, hiking can help you get toned by engaging and strengthening different muscle groups, especially in the lower body.

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