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Unstable and Imbalanced – A Hiker’s Workout

A lot of us wish we could go hiking everyday, but we have other responsibilities that require us to stick around like family and work. I’m lucky that I get to go on 3-4 day hikes a month and a half dozen or so short backpacking trips a year. But when I can’t enjoy the wilderness, my strategy is to bring it into my daily gym workouts by simulating natural conditions as much as possible.

Hiking, especially with a backpack, is a full body exercise that requires a lot of strength, endurance, coordination and agility. As you walk or climb, each of your legs takes the full load of your body and pack. As you scramble up a slope, your torso rotates, your core muscles tighten, your hips take more of the load, and your shoulder and arm extend forward to grab a handhold and pull you up. Hiking requires a remarkable degree of synchronization between different muscles groups in your body.

Many gym workouts isolate specific muscle groups using machines that lock you into a rigid pose and eliminate assistance from other muscle groups. However, what they fail to do is to train the coordination of all of your parts and stimulate the neuro-muscular pathways that help us learn and adapt the complex choreography of movements required for locomotion.

To counter this, I do a lot of compound exercises that combine movements from multiple muscle groups at the same time, or in sequence. This leads to a much more efficient workout time-wise, and provides a cardio benefit as well because it keeps my heart rate up. In addition, I also add in props like the Bosu Ball, stability ball, medicine balls, and spongy surfaces to add more instability to my routine. I also do a lot of exercises while standing on one leg to improve my balance while carrying a load.

Here are a few of the exercises I use in my gym workouts. When you watch these videos notice how all of the muscles in the body are tensing to facilitate the exercise. Adding instablity to your workout forces all of the muscles in your body to work together at once, just like carrying a pack. If all of the exercises you perform in the gym add an element of instability or imbalance, you’ll quickly start to feel much stronger in your lower back, butt, and abdominals because you’ll be constantly working them indirectly.

There are millions of possible variations.

Before you start this kind of routine: Warm up for 10-20 minutes doing some form of cardio until you break a sweat. Then perform each of these exercises for 8-12 reps, and pre-stage the necessary props to ensure that you can move form one exercise to the next without rest. Break the exercises into groups of three that focus on different primary muscle groups (for example: glutes, followed by abs, followed by shoulders) and work your way up to three sets for each group, shooting for a total of 20 sets per workout.

(written 2009, updated 2013)


  1. Great article! I need to move to more dynamic workouts.

  2. Three items that greatly improved my ability to hike:

    Foam roller and stretches to loosen my ITB

    Walking for 60 minutes at lunch time – need to great back to this; At one point I was walking 3 miles with my fully load pack every workday

    Stretching and strengthening my hamstrings to balance my quads

  3. My ITB has been acting up lately. I need to work yoga back into my daily workout. As you get older, you can't take you eye off the ball for a moment! Foam rollers also help – but boy do they hurt when you start.

    • ITB rolling in side laying with your weight on the roller works great, but I think of it as an intermediate to advanced stretch. As you mention, very painful starting out. Other options include manual rolling in a sitting position if you are very tight or a simple standing stretch. Here is a good example from the mayo clinic.

      • My ITB was completely cured by a postural change. It was a simple as switching to pacerpole trekking poles.

        • Is this the result of a more upright posture with the Pacerpoles? How does it effect the ITB?

        • It’s a subtle thing with huge consequences. The handgrips are shaped so you don’t reach forward with them. Instead you plant your pole tips by the side of your legs not in front. This shifts the upper body back so it’s it line with your waist and not your quads, keeping the ITB stretched out. I’ve talked at length about the effect with the founder of Pacerpole who is a physiotherapist in the UK. I wil never use any other hiking poles.

        • Thankfully, I don’t have ITB, however, I have severe arthritis in my wrists and hands, carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, nerve damage in both, and currently I’m dealing with tendinitis in both wrists and have to wear braces on both hands for the next couple months until the tendinitis eases. The only time my hands don’t hurt is when they are in those wonderful Pacerpole grips. Those poles are well thought out and designed and I too, will never use any others.

  4. I walk everywhere, occasionally ride my bike (though I need to log more miles on it), and practice ashtanga yoga (again, not as much as I need to). This seems to keep me pretty active.. no car for this fella.

  5. ..forgot to mention slacklineing helps with leg muscles and overall focus and balance.

  6. My last teacher taught Hatha, but with some Iyengar thrown it to make us aware of good form. I literally started my practice in this style again today. I have a big hill to climb, but it will be so worth it. Not sure, I'm up for slacklining though!

  7. The bosu ball was invented in hell. But it makes for good exercises.

  8. I'm with Patrick on the yoga – it helps with general fitness and prevention of injuries on the trail (increases flexibility).

    I recently ran across another in-depth article on this topic at – "Physical Preparations for Long-Distance Hiking":

  9. I think I read that article a ways back when I spent more time on Whiteblaze – which is an excellent board. I just reread it and I like the way he weaves in different people's opinions. Thanks for posting the link.

  10. The lovely Bosu…I became a semi-master of it this year. I love it though, it really helped me with my balance on logs this summer. We even have one for home. Our trainer would often have me do my free weights while doing squats on it. Yowza…..

  11. Not sure if it is clear that many of the above exercises are quite advanced, and that there are similar exercises that one could do to work up to them. IMHO, one should probably do the above first without the Bosu or the medicine ball–a fair amount of strength and coordination is still required–and then it makes sense to raise the level of challenge by adding more instability to the mix. Starting straightaway with the advanced exercises is likely to delay one’s progress toward mastery.

  12. great post and informative videos!

  13. instead of doing all these different light exercises, you could train more effectively with a barbell doing squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press. squats and deadlifts train core (abs and back) better than any bosu ball.

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