How to Strengthen Legs for Hiking

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The legs are pretty dang important if you plan to go hiking. We demand a lot from them. They are used in every step taken, often carrying extra pounds of weight mile after mile. In this guide I’m going to teach and show you how to strengthen your legs for hiking. 

What Makes me Qualified?

As an occupational therapist I specialize in helping people get back to being able to do meaningful daily activities. I do this through multiple ways, but one way is through therapeutic strengthening.

Also, being an avid trail athlete for the last two decades I have definitely had my fair share of injuries. As a result, I have had to strengthen and learn to prevent further injuries. 

I look forward to guiding you through these exercises and helping you get stronger for your next outdoor journey. So, without further ado here we go. 

How to Strengthen Legs for Hiking 

When creating a program or performing a workout, the first thing to do is look at function. In addition, to what muscles and joints are used during the activity you’re training for.

When designing a workout for hikers it must focus on the hips, knees, and ankles since these are going to be the prime movers. 

The Hips 

The muscles around our hips play a big role in hiking. They help to support the weight of the body and provide stability with activities like walking, running, and stepping up hilly terrain. 

The muscles that surround the hip joint are very strong and powerful. The big three muscles I usually focus on are the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps muscles. 

Hip Exercises

While there are many exercises to choose from. I prefer to focus on two types of exercises: hip hinging also known as hip extension and squatting movements. These two types have great carry over for functional movements and simply will have the most bang for your buck. 

Squats are a fantastic foundation exercise for hiking

Squat Focus

Squat focus exercises will focus on mostly quadricep and glutes. Secondary emphasis on calves and hamstrings. In addition, to other smaller accessory muscles. 

The following exercises are a few exercises I often go to because they work so well. This list is ranked from easy to most difficult: 

  • Bodyweight Squats 
  • Dumbbell Squat 
  • Front kettlebell Squat
  • Barbell Back Squat 
  • Barbell Front Squat 

Tips for Squat Focus Exercises: When doing Squat Focus exercises start with placing the legs about shoulder width. When squatting back, start with bringing the hips back into the squat before the knees bend. Go to full range of motion pause and go all the way back up. Then rinse and repeat. 

Hiking is “all in the hips”.

Hip Hinge (Hip Extension) 

Hip hinge exercises will focus on mostly hamstrings and glutes. In addition to other accessories. The following exercises are listed from easy to most difficult:

  • 45- degree hyperextension 
  • Cable pull through 
  • Hip thrust (any variation) 
  • Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 
  • Barbell Romanian deadlifts

Tips for Hip Hinge Exercises: The biggest tip for hip hinging movements is really focusing on technique over the weight. With these movements you want to tighten your core, gradually hinge back with the hips while keeping the back neutral position. Then Hinge the weight back up focusing on driving your hips back upward. 

Single leg exercises are great for knee strengthening for hikers

The Knees 

The Knees are often what give most hikers problems. Knees take a lot of force going downhill and do a lot of working helping to stabilize going uphill. 

My favorite way to train the knee is with single leg or unilateral leg exercises. Because hiking requires tremendous balance these exercises work well. 

The following exercises are ranked from easier to more difficult:  

Unilateral or Single Leg 

  • Single Leg – Leg Press 
  • Step ups
  • Lunges 
  • Bulgarian Split Squat 

Tips for Single Leg Exercises: The tips for all single legs exercises is to focus on form versus weight. For is highly important, most people will have trouble keeping their knees straight with a tendency to drift inward when performing these exercises. 

Do the calf raise to strengthen your push up the hills

The Ankles 

The calves and smaller muscles surrounding the ankles are super important. Having strong calves will help you push up those hills during your hikes. These are some of the best exercises for the ankles and calves in no specific order


  • Single leg Calf Raise 
  • Calf Raise 
  • Smith Machine Calf Raise 
  • Single Leg Balance 
  • 4 way band’s 

Tips for calf and ankle exercises: Calves and ankles respond well to slow and controlled movements with full motion. Make sure enough are controlling the eccentric or lowering portions of the movement. The pause at the top of the movement. 

Workout for Hikers

Complete this sample workout to get stronger legs for your next hike. You should start noticing improvements in strength in 3-4 weeks. Always focus on good form overweight. 

Once you are able to complete the prescribed number of repetitions for all of the sets then add about 5-10 pounds. Repeat until you are able to complete the new weight for the number of sets and reps then add another 5- 10lbs 

  • Bodyweight squat: 3 sets of 8-10 reps 
  • Db Romanian deadlift: 3 sets of 10-12 reps 
  • Lunges: 3 sets of 10-12 reps, per leg 
  • Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets of 12 – 15 reps 
  • Single Leg Balance: 3 sets 30 – 60 sec, per leg 

As always, be sure to talk to your doctor before engaging in any type of exercise program. 

FAQ: How to Strengthen Legs for Hiking

Which exercise helps prepare for uphill hiking?

The best exercise for uphill hiking will be the step up with a slow controlled lowering portion. However, there are many other useful exercises for strengthening the legs for uphill hiking.

All of which are going to be single leg based since when we step up or climb uphill, we are heavily dependent on a single leg to drive force. 

How do I shape my legs for hiking?

Good thing is the sample leg workout provided above will help you shape your legs. Focus on getting stronger on the exercises above and that will help shape your legs for hiking. 

How do you train for a hilly hike?

The squat, Romanian deadlift, and lunge are all great for strengthening for a hilly hike. These aren’t the only exercises that could be used. There are many others that will also help strengthen as well.

How do you train your knees for hiking?

The best way to strengthen your knees is to perform a hip hinging movement, squat movement, and a single leg exercise. In combination those exercises will hit all the large muscle groups of your legs and add strength around the knees. 

Final Thoughts 

Overall, having a set of strong legs will help you during any hike. Follow this guide and the sample workout for how to strengthen your legs for hiking. This way you’re ready for your next outdoor journey and you’ll be sure to have a more enjoyable time. 

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