Does Hiking Build Muscle? Yes, Here’s How!

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Does hiking build muscle? This is a question that has interested fitness enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers alike. While hiking is primarily known for its cardiovascular benefits and the opportunity to connect with nature, its impact on muscle development remains more of an often-overlooked subject. 

Hiking involves traversing diverse terrains, inclines, and uneven surfaces, demanding significant effort from the body’s musculoskeletal system. As a result, muscles in the legs, hips, and core are regularly engaged, which means that hiking could indeed contribute to muscle building. 

In this article we will delve into the various factors that come into play during hiking and the potential muscle groups affected. In addition to whether hiking can serve as a viable means of building and strengthening muscles. Furthermore, we will cover the best way to strengthen your muscles on the trail.

How Does Hiking Build Muscle?

Science of Muscle Growth

When you engage in physical activities like hiking, your muscles undergo microscopic damage due to the resistance from variable terrain that involves inclines and declines. This process signals your body to repair and rebuild the damaged muscle fibers, making them stronger and denser. 

The science behind muscle growth involves a complex blend of hormonal responses, cellular signaling, and protein synthesis. As you consistently challenge and stress your muscles during hiking, they adapt to these demands by growing and strengthening.

Muscle Activation

Hiking can build muscle as it activates multiple muscle groups in your body, particularly those in your legs and core. The uphill ascent targets your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, while the downhill descent activates your hip stabilizers and works on your balance. 

The uneven terrain of hiking trails and carrying a backpack also engages your core and back muscles, as they are responsible for stabilizing your body and maintaining your posture throughout the activity.

Here are some key muscles that are activated during a hike:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Hip stabilizers
  • Core (abdominals, obliques, lower back)


Hypertrophy refers to the increase in the size and density of muscle fibers as a result of consistent physical stress. Hiking, particularly when engaging in uphill climbs or carrying a weighted backpack, can lead to muscle hypertrophy. While hiking may not provide the same level of hypertrophy as weightlifting or bodybuilding, it can effectively strengthen and tone your muscles over time.

For optimal muscle growth while hiking, consider the following tips:

  • Progressive overload: Progressively increase the difficulty of your hikes by choosing steeper inclines or longer distances.
  • Incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT): Perform HIIT during your hikes by alternating between fast-paced climbs and slower recovery periods.
  • Implement strength training: start strength training to target specific muscle groups on your non-hiking days to further promote muscle growth and development.
At top of Governor’s Rock

Muscles Targeted by Hiking

Hiking is a great way to engage your muscles and improve your overall fitness. In this section, we will discuss the primary muscle groups that are targeted during a hike: leg muscles, core muscles, and back and shoulder muscles.

Leg Muscles

When you go hiking, your leg muscles play a significant role in propelling you forward and keeping you stable on uneven terrain. Some of the most important leg muscles targeted during a hike are:

  • Quadriceps: These muscles in the front of your thighs help extend your knees and provide stability as you walk.
  • Hamstrings: Located in the back of your thighs, hamstrings help you bend your knees and assist in propelling you uphill.
  • Calves: Your calf muscles, including the gastrocnemius and soleus, are responsible for pushing you forward and maintaining balance as you navigate uneven terrain.
  • Glutes: Your gluteal muscles help support your hips and contribute to stability while walking.

Core Muscles

Your core muscles are essential for maintaining stability and balance while hiking. They work together with your leg muscles to keep your body upright and protect your spine from the strain of carrying a backpack. Key core muscles targeted during a hike include:

  • Abdominals: Your abdominal muscles act as stabilizers, helping you maintain balance and support your spine as you navigate uneven terrain.
  • Obliques: These muscles on the sides of your torso assist in twisting and side-to-side motions, which can be helpful when navigating obstacles on the trail.

Back and Shoulder Muscles

While they may not seem as obvious as leg and core muscles, your back and shoulder muscles also get a workout during a hike. Carrying a backpack or simply maintaining an upright posture engages these muscle groups:

  • Erector Spinae: These long muscles run along your spine and help maintain posture while hiking.
  • Trapezius: This large muscle in the upper back helps support the weight of your backpack and stabilizes your shoulders as you walk.
  • Deltoids: Your shoulder muscles provide stability and support, especially when carrying a backpack or aiding in uphill climbs.

By understanding how hiking engages various muscle groups, you can better appreciate the benefits this outdoor activity has on your overall fitness and strength.

How to Build Muscle Hiking

Incline and Decline Hiking

When hiking, constantly challenge yourself by tackling trails with steep inclines and declines. Incline hiking focuses on your calf muscles, quadriceps, and glutes, while decline hiking targets your hamstrings. Maintain a steady speed and make sure to keep your posture upright as you ascend and descend slopes. Also, to increase resistance try wearing ankle weights or even better carry a weight pack or vest to increase the tension on your muscles. 

Uneven Terrain and Balance Training

Navigating uneven terrain requires stability and engages a variety of muscle groups. By hiking on uneven trails, you strengthen your core muscles and improve balance. This helps you develop stability in your entire body and promotes better muscle growth. Avoid sticking to flat surfaces, as it limits the number of muscles engaged during your hike. Remember to practice proper hiking techniques and ensure that you’re wearing appropriate footwear for the terrain.

Using Trekking Poles

Trekking poles offer numerous benefits while hiking. They not only provide balance and stability on uneven terrain but also involve upper body muscles like your triceps, biceps, and shoulders. By incorporating trekking poles into your hike, you distribute some of the workload from your lower body to the upper body, leading to more full body muscle engagement. Additionally, trekking poles can help you maintain a brisk pace and will work the upper body, further contributing to muscle development.

Using Trekking Poles at Mount Rainier

Hiking Versus Gym Workouts

Cardiovascular Benefits

Hiking provides excellent cardiovascular benefits to your body. When you hike, especially uphill, the intensity increases, and it gets your heart pumping, which improves your cardiovascular endurance. Walking on challenging terrains also promotes better blood circulation and helps to support a healthy heart.

In the gym, you can also achieve cardiovascular benefits through exercises like running on the treadmill, using an elliptical machine, or engaging in the stair master. However, hiking offers the added benefit of being outdoors, which often creates a more enjoyable and motivating experience. 

Weightlifting Comparison

When it comes to building muscle, gym workouts are generally more effective in targeting specific muscle groups and increasing muscle size. Weightlifting and resistance training are excellent for building muscle mass and strength, particularly in your upper body, which is harder to target while hiking.

With hiking, you primarily focus on your lower body and core muscles, such as your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. Hiking helps to build endurance and muscle strength in these areas, but it may not lead to significant increases in muscle size compared to lifting weights in a gym.

That being said, hiking is still an excellent option for building muscle in a more functional and natural way. You’ll be engaging multiple muscle groups at once, increasing balance and stability, and achieving both cardiovascular and resistance benefits.

To sum it up, hiking offers a more diverse set of benefits, particularly for your lower body, cardiovascular health, balance, and overall endurance. Meanwhile, gym workouts, specifically weightlifting, can be more effective for focused muscle building, muscle mass, and targeting your upper body. Combining both activities can provide an optimal and well-rounded approach to fitness and will give you the best of both worlds. 

Benefits of Hiking for the Mind

Mental Health Benefits

Hiking is not only a great physical activity for building and conditioning your muscles but also has numerous benefits for your mental health. Engaging in regular physical activity like hiking can help reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. It provides an opportunity to unplug from daily stressors and immerse yourself in nature, ultimately promoting a sense of well-being.

Hiking can impact various aspects of your mental health such as memory improvement and stress reduction. It has been shown that physical activity and particularly, being in nature can help your brain release endorphins, which are known to improve mood and relieve stress. By hiking regularly, you can maintain a healthy mindset and effectively manage the challenges of everyday life.

Additionally, research has found that spending time outdoors can lower blood pressure and decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety. When you combine the benefits of hiking, such as improved cardiovascular health and blood flow to the brain, you may experience enhanced cognitive function and better focus.

To reap the mental health benefits of hiking:

  • Incorporate hiking into your fitness routine regularly to maintain a consistent level of physical activity.
  • Choose trails that provide varying levels of difficulty to challenge different muscle groups and minimize the risk of injuries.
  • Consider wearing a weighted vest to create extra resistance for your upper body muscles and back muscles while hiking.
  • Maintain proper posture and stability while hiking to prevent any unnecessary strain on your body.
  • Stay well-hydrated and bring healthy snacks to ensure optimal energy levels throughout your hike.

In conclusion, hiking is an excellent way to improve both your physical strength and mental well-being. By incorporating hiking into your fitness routine, you can work toward better mental health while also enjoying the numerous physical benefits.

Protein oats, bars, and jerky help with muscle building

Nutrition, Rest, and Recovery

Proper Diet for Muscle Building

A well-balanced diet is essential for building muscle, especially after engaging in activities like hiking. To maximize your gains, focus on consuming adequate protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.

  • Protein: Aim for 20 to 40 grams of protein per meal, or roughly 0.8 g/kg of body weight to support muscle growth (study). High-quality protein sources include lean meats, fish, beans, and dairy products.
  • Healthy fats: Include healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts, which provide essential fatty acids and support hormone production for muscle growth.
  • Complex carbohydrates: Choose whole grains and starchy vegetables to fuel your workouts and replenish glycogen stores in your muscles.

Remember to stay hydrated, as dehydration can hinder the muscle-building process.

Importance of Rest and Repair

Allowing time for your body to rest and recover is crucial for muscle growth and overall well-being. During rest, your body repairs the micro-tears formed during exercise, a process that ultimately leads to muscle growth.

  • Rest days: Aim to have at least one rest day per week. Taking a break gives your body a chance to heal, reducing the risk of injuries and improving muscle performance during your next workout.
  • Sleep: Prioritize a good night’s sleep, as this is when most muscle repair and growth occur. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal recovery (study).
  • Stress management: High stress levels can negatively impact your body’s ability to recover and grow muscle. Practice stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or engaging in relaxing activities.

Keep in mind that muscle recovery time varies for each individual and depends on factors such as workout intensity, age, and overall fitness level. Generally, it takes 24-48 hours for the body to recover, but this time can be shorter or longer depending on your unique circumstances..

In summary, proper nutrition, sufficient rest, and effective stress management are essential components for building muscle, especially after activities like hiking. By incorporating these practices into your routine, you can optimize your muscle growth and overall fitness.

Supplementing Hiking with Other Exercises

Squats and Lunges

In addition to hiking, you can also perform exercises like squats and lunges to target your thigh muscles, lower leg, and gluteal muscles. These exercises are great for muscle activation and will help you strengthen the muscles needed for uphill and downhill hiking. Incorporate these exercises into your routine, with hills and uneven terrain in mind, to increase your overall leg strength and improve your hiking experience.

For more strengthening exercises for your legs read my article about how to strengthen legs for hiking. 

Upper Body and Core Workouts

While hiking primarily targets the lower body, it’s essential to pay attention to your upper body and core muscles as well. Strengthening your biceps, abdominal muscles, and lower back will help maintain a stable posture and carry your equipment while hiking. To supplement your aerobic exercise, incorporate upper body and core workouts into your weekly routine.

For example, consider adding exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, and rows for your biceps, triceps, chest, back, and shoulders. To target your abdominal muscles and lower back, perform planks, side planks, and bird dogs.

For more exercises related to core training read my article about the best core exercises for hiking.

By combining your passion for hiking with additional exercises, you can create a well-rounded fitness regimen that benefits both your hikes in nature and overall physical health. Remember to use proper form and equipment when performing these supplementary exercises to avoid injury and maximize their positive effects on your hiking abilities.

Scaling up a trail with a rope

How Much Hiking Should I do? 

In general, I recommend walking/hiking about 150 minutes a week. This is based on the American Heart Association (AHA). If you can do more than 150 minutes that is even better as about 300 minutes will provide more benefits. The great thing about hiking is that it is fairly low impact so you do not have to worry too much about interference with weightlifting which I would recommend at least twice a week, one upper and one lower body workout a week in combo with walking/hiking. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Will I build muscle from hiking? Yes, hiking can contribute to muscle development, especially in the legs, glutes, and core. The uneven terrain and uphill climbs engage various muscle groups, leading to strength and endurance improvements. However, significant muscle gains may require additional resistance training and proper nutrition.

What does hiking do to your body shape? Hiking can have a positive impact on your body shape. Regular hiking can help tone and strengthen muscles, especially in the legs, glutes, and core. It can also aid in weight management, improve cardiovascular health, and promote overall fitness, leading to a more balanced and healthier body shape.

What does hiking do to your muscles? Hiking engages various muscle groups, including the legs, glutes, core, and even the upper body if using trekking poles. It promotes muscle endurance and strength development due to the constant effort required to traverse uneven terrain and inclines, leading to toned and more resilient muscles.

What muscles are developed by hiking? Hiking primarily builds the muscles in the legs, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. The core muscles, such as the abdominals and obliques, are also engaged to stabilize the body during uneven terrain. Additionally, using trekking poles can involve the muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper back.

Final Thoughts 

Hiking does build muscle, especially when combined with the right terrain and intensity. While it may not be as targeted or rapid as traditional strength training exercises, hiking engages various muscle groups throughout the body, including the legs, glutes, core, and even the upper body during more challenging ascents. The uneven terrain and constant elevation changes demand increased stabilization and force production, contributing to muscle development over time. 

Moreover, hiking offers numerous other health benefits, such as cardiovascular improvement, stress reduction, and enhanced mental well-being. Therefore, incorporating hiking into a fitness routine can be a rewarding and enjoyable way to build muscle and maintain overall physical fitness. 

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