Fitness and Performance

Five strengthening exercises for hikers using free weights 

Dec 10 2018

Hiking is a fantastic way to keep fit and strong, as well as enjoy the UK’s beautiful countryside. Did you know that there are some very effective strengthening exercises that you can perform to improve your hiking? As well as perfecting your technique, an overall strengthening programme is the best way to improve your walking distance, mileage and be injury-free.

Today Omkar, Physiotherapist at Bodyset, is here to share his favourite free weight exercises for targeting specific muscles and improving your experience when you’re out in the countryside.

What muscles are needed for hiking?

If you enjoy walking around in the soft and muddy regions of the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Lincolnshire, strong ankle muscles are essential. For those who love the predominantly rocky terrain of the Lakes, Snowdonia and North Wales, working on the strength of your hip and knee muscles is most important. For long-distance hikers and wild campers who carry big rucksacks, core and back strength is crucial.


What kind of exercise benefits hikers most?

Hikers benefit most from using submaximal weights and performing eight to fifteen safe and precise reps. A submaximal weight refers to a weight that is less than the maximum of which you are capable of lifting. Explosive strength training, high weight, low reps and plyometric training have minimal benefits for long-distance hikers or mountain climbers. However, explosive high step-ups can be a very useful exercise to incorporate if you are adventurous on your climbs and love a bit of rock climbing alongside mountain hiking.

Free weights or machines?

You can plan your weight strengthening programme using both free weights and gym machines. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Free weights replicate normal movements and the body’s kinetic chain more effectively. They are also convenient to use at home and you only need a few basic weights to get started. Exercising with free weights also recruits your deep stabiliser muscles and helps you strengthen the kinetic chain better compared to machines. However, if used improperly or you go ‘too hard too soon’ you can expose yourself to serious injury.

Free weight exercises for hikers

Try the following exercises to target specific muscles needed for hiking:

Weighted goblet squats

Weighted goblet squats are a fantastic building block to work up to practising back and front squats using a barbell. Squats strengthen glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as working on the core muscles which stabilize your back. Choose a dumbbell or a kettlebell of a submaximal weight for best results.

How to do it:

  • Stand holding the kettlebell in both hands just in front of your chest with your legs shoulder-width apart.
  • Squat down with the weight until the back of your thighs touch your calves.
  • Push through your heels to return to your starting position.
  • Begin with 8 repetitions and work up to 12.

Dead lifts

Dead lifts are a great exercise for targeting your core, glutes, abs, hamstrings and quads. You can perform them with either a kettlebell or barbell.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart.
  • With your shoulders pulled backwards, hold the kettlebell in both of your hands.
  • Keeping your back straight and core engaged, bend at your hips and knees and lower the kettlebell between your ankles.
  • Push through your heels to return to your starting position, keeping your back straight.

Single leg dead lifts

This exercise also targets core, glutes, abs, hams and quads, working from a single-leg starting point. Single leg work is essential for mountain hikers to build strength and stamina for long-distance hikes.

How to do it:

  • Stand on your right leg and hold the kettlebell in your right hand.
  • Keeping your knee slightly bent, hinge forward from your hip and lower the kettlebell to the ground whilst extending your other leg behind you for balance.
  • Continue lowering the weight until your upper body is parallel to the ground.
  • Slowly hinge back to return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 8-12 repetitions.
  • Repeat on your left leg.

Bulgarian split squats

Bulgarian split squats are another variation of single-leg strengthening. Their main benefit is to efficiently strengthen the posterior chain.

How to do it:

  • Set yourself up in a forward lunge position with your back foot resting on a bench and your front leg straight.
  • Hold weights in each hand.
  • Engage your core and slowly bend your front leg your thigh is almost horizontal.
  • Keeping your knee in line with your foot.
  • Drive up through your front heel to return to the start position.
  • Repeat 8 to 12 times.
  • Swap to your other leg.

Weighted step heel raises

Heel raises are an excellent exercise for ankle strength; essential for mountain hikers and injury prevention.

How to do it:

  • Stand on a step with both feet, with just your forefeet on the step and your heels off the back.
  • Hold weights in each hand.
  • Push through your feet to rise on to your toes.
  • Slowly, with control, lower back down.
  • Repeat 8 to 12 times.
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