Badass hikers aren’t born, you have to train to become one. In addition to learning advanced hiking and backpacking skills, you need to train your butt and legs. Here are 10 functional exercises that work the big muscles and smaller stabilizers in your legs to help you become a badass hiker. They’re called functional exercises because they mimic natural movement, getting all of your muscles working together synergistically like they do when you hike. The exercises also incorporate various degrees of instability to help you develop better balance for walking on rough trails and terrain.
1. Weighted Glute Bridge on a Bench
The weighted glute bridge strengthens your butt and hamstrings, the two big leg muscles that put power into a hiker’s stride. If you don’t have a barbell you can get the same benefit using a medicine ball or a bag of flour as long as you hold it in the same position at the top of your legs. Keep your feet flat on the floor throughout this exercise and squeeze your buttocks at the top of the motion, holding for a few seconds before you lower your butt between reps. Keep the weight light and focus on having an explosive hip thrust on the way up, the squeeze in the middle, and then an easy release. Do 10-15 reps per set.
2. Goblet Squat
The Goblet squat is a safe squat that targets all of the big muscles in your legs, the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Grasp a kettle bell or dumbbell between your arms and slowly squat, keeping your thighs level with the floor without bouncing your knees at the bottom of the movement. To lift, power through your heels, squeezing your glutes together while keeping your head upright and the weight close to your chest. Do 10-15 reps per set.
3. Stability Ball Glute Bridge
The stability ball glute bridge is a body weight version of the glute bridge that uses the rolling, bouncy instability of a “stability” ball to help further activate your stabilizer muscles. This exercise is also a fantastic hamstring conditioner and one that will have you screaming. Take it slow and build up your endurance. Keep your hips off the floor between reps and squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement like before. Do 10-15 reps per set.
4. Split Dumbbell Lunge
Also known as the Bulgarian Split Squat, the split dumbbell lunge targets your quadriceps, the big muscles in the front of your thighs. The hardest part of learning this exercise is balance, since one of your legs is on top of the bench behind you. If it helps, skip the dumbbells to start: one less thing to worry about. Place what will be your front foot about 3 foot-lengths in front of the bench, and place the top of your rear foot on the top—this is your starting position. Adjust the distance of your front foot from the bench as needed to make sure the front shin is about vertical in the bottom of the squat. With a controlled speed, bend at the front knee to lower yourself with an upright trunk until the rear knee lightly contacts the floor, then stand again pushing more through the front heel and the balls of the foot. Maintain the position of the front knee over the foot—don’t let it collapse inward or push it excessively outward. Do 5 reps on each side.
5. Bosu Squat
I love the Bosu since it’s easy to use for adding instability to just about any gym exercise. In the Bosu Squat, you do a standard front squat on the round side of the Bosu, working the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and core muscles. Keep your head up and position your hands in front of you to maintain good form, keeping your thighs parallel to the floor. Keep the movement slow and don’t bounce your knees at the bottom of the squat. Do 10 reps.
6. Reverse Lunge on a Bosu Ball
The reverse lunge on the Bosu requires core strength and targets the butt, thighs and hips. It’s a great alternative to the forward lunge for those who are worried about knee injury, as it does not allow your knees to extend beyond your toes. Put your front foot on top of the bosu ball, while taking a big step backward with your other leg. Lower your hips to the floor until your front (right) knee forms a 90-degree angle. Push yourself up by straightening your front leg. Most of the strength should come from your front foot. Return your back foot to the starting position. Really focus on pressing the heel of your front foot into the bosu ball as you lift up in order to engage your glutes to their full potential. Do 10 reps per side.
7. Single Leg Dumbbell Press on a Bosu
The Single Leg Dumbbell Press is targets the hamstrings and the hip flexors while providing proprioceptive stimulus to the muscles of the ankle. If you’re having trouble integrating all the movements when you start, you can do this exercise without the bosu ball until you want to ramp up the challenge.
8. High Box Step Up
The High Box Step Up is a challenging exercise that targets the hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Extra instability is introduced when you increase the height of the step, forcing the stabilizer muscles to work together to keep you balanced. This exercise also provides a great ham string stretch. Place one foot on a platform slightly higher than your knee and drive forward pressing down through your heel to lift your other leg. Then reverse the motion, controlling the descent to avoid jarring the leg on the way down. It’s harder than it looks. Do 10 reps for each leg.
9. Kettlebell Deadlift
The Kettlebell Deadlift provides a very safe way to perform the deadlift exercise. Grasp a kettle bell with both hands and squat down while keeping your thighs parallel to the floor and your head up. Drive down through your heels while straightening your legs and squeezing your glutes together at the top of the movement. Don’t bounce your knees on the descent. Do 10-15 reps.
10.Walk Out Hip Stretch
If you’ve ever done Yoga, you’ve probably done this exercise before, which is sometimes called the half pigeon. It’s a stretch for opening your hips and stretching your glutes, best done after a leg workout when your leg muscles are warm and loose. The key is not to force it, but to let gravity slowly loosen your muscles and drop your body to the floor. This may take weeks to accomplish, so use your arms to hold yourself up and modify the pose until you can full stretch into it. Rather than keeping your knee open at a right angle, it can also help to close the knee to make the pose easier. Try holding it for 3 minutes on each side.
Recommended Warm Ups
Before you do any of these exercises, you’re going to want to warm up your leg muscles. I recommend doing 30 minutes of a leg intensive cardio including running, a stair master or stair mill, or a rowing machine.
Frequency and Repetition
The 10 exercises listed here are challenging and it will take you a while to be able to do them all in one gym workout. Start out by learning the movements and gradually built up the number of exercises you do from this list when you visit the gym. There’s really no need to go heavy with weights and I’d focus more on increasing the number of sets and repetitions you do per workout instead. Legs recover fairly quickly from a functional workouts like this and you can build up to two workouts per week. Remember, focus on the movements, balance, and stabilization and you’ll see a big payoff in terms of hiking endurance and coordination next spring.
Written 2015. Updated 2018.
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