Seven Exercises to Build Strength and Stability for Hiking

Injuries account for about 30% of the reasons long-distance hikers don’t complete a thru-hike. Many of these injuries are due to repetitive stress and others are caused when the hiker is thrown off balance and must react quickly.

We often think about training our larger muscles but neglect to develop good posture and alignment.  This series of exercises was developed by Dan Pulsifer, a certified fitness trainer, to help build strength and stability so that your body can move more efficiently with less risk of injury.

As an added bonus, all of these exercises can be practiced in the comfort of your own home, using your backpack as weight. Start practicing these exercises slowly with less weight in your pack. As your muscles strengthen you can add more weight and move quicker.


1) Good Morning

Why: We often focus on the front leg muscles that we can see. In order to maintain balance in the body we also need to focus on the posterior chain, glutes and hamstrings, which help drive you forward. Holding a weighted bag to your chest also engages the lower and upper back and shoulders.

How: Hold your backpack high on your chest, palms facing toward you. Pull your shoulders back as though you’re trying to rip your bag in two. Stand up tall, finding a strong spine from your head to your tail. Engage your core muscles and with soft knees, push your hips back and hinge forward at the leg creases. Keep your chin slightly tucked and lower your upper body until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Squeeze your glutes and return to standing tall.

2) Squat

Why: A common habit when climbing hills is to curl the spine and shoulders forward. This has the negative impact of cutting off your upper body from your natural gait. These squats will help develop strong quads while also maintaining good posture.

How: Place your pack upright on the floor. Find the strong line of your spine from your head to your tailbone. Squat down so that your knees are wider than the pack, with your toes pointed slightly outward. Bear hug your pack. Pull it tight to your body keeping your chest open and your shoulders back and down. Keep your chest up and your gaze straight ahead. Drive through your heels to stand up tall. Squeeze your glutes in the upper part of the movement. Descend under control, as though sitting back in a chair. Go as low as you comfortably can while keeping your back flat, and your feet flat on the ground. Don’t allow your back to round.

3) Overhead Press

Why: Thru-hikers tend to focus a lot on their lower body. Having a strong upper body can help in overall muscular balance and efficiency of movement. Plus, strengthening your upper back and shoulder muscles will help you execute better bear hangs.

How: Start with a light pack. Raise your bag to chest height, holding it at the top and bottom. Stand straight and keep your stomach tight as though bracing for a punch. Keeping your core tight and braced will keep you from arching your back and causing injury. Push your pack up and overhead. Keep your gaze forward. Using your shoulders, slowly lower the pack back to your chest.

Pro Tip – Combine the squat and overhead press into one smooth movement. Doing this at a quicker pace can be a great cardio exercise too.

4) Bent-Over Row

Why: As we tire, we often round our shoulders forward, making our overall movements less efficient. This exercise engages the muscles of the upper back and shoulders to help maintain better posture and alignment.

How: Hold your pack loosely from each end. Stand up tall with your feet about hip width apart. Find the strong line of your spine from your head to your tailbone. With soft knees, push your butt back hinging at the hips. Let the bag hang in front of your knees. Keep your chin slightly tucked with your gaze lowered to maintain a straight spine through your neck. Pull your elbows up and back keeping them close to your sides. Keep wrists in line with forearms. Slowly lower the bag back to knee level. Remain in bend over position and repeat row.


5) Star Lunge

Why: We often practice moving forward, but most injuries occur when we’re forced to move in a different direction. With the star lunge we practice moving in multiple directions under control. This will strengthen legs, hips, and core.

How: To execute a correct series of lunges, always keep your toes pointing forward. Try to keep your bend knee in line over the ankle, never extending it past your toes or behind the ankle. Start the star lunge by standing tall with feet hip width apart. Anchor your left foot and take a normal step forward. Bend the right knee over the ankle, settling into a lunge. Push back on the front foot and return to standing. Step your right foot out at a 45 degree ankle, keeping your toes pointed straight ahead. Bend the right knee, settling into a lunge. Push back on the right foot and return to standing. Step out to the right side. Bend the right knee, sitting your hips back and over the outer knee. Keep the knee in line with the ankle. Step back at a 45 degree ankle, keeping your toes straight ahead. Bend the front knee to do a reverse lunge. Step straight back, bending the front knee for a reverse lunge.

To increase the difficulty of this exercise, you can hold your pack at chest level or put it on your back. For an additional challenge, hold your pack on one shoulder. This will further challenge your stability and core strength.

6) Rainbow Lateral Lift

Why: Similar to star lunge, this is a movement that is taking us out of the forward plane. In this exercise you will lift, twist and move sideways under control.

How: Start with feet shoulder width apart, toes pointing straight ahead or with a slight turnout. Put your pack to the outside of your left foot. Engage your core. Push your hips back and bend your knees as though you were sitting back in a chair. Drive your feet into the ground and lift your pack up one side of your body. Arc the pack up and over your head and gently set it down just outside the toes on your right foot. Repeat in other direction.

7) Step Downs

Why: We often focus on building strength in order to climb hills, but rarely think of the challenge of long descents. Most injuries happen when you’re trying to slow the body down. With this exercise, we practice decelerating the body with a stable foot platform.

How: Find a step or platform no higher than mid-shin. Start with both feet on the elevated surface. Using a normal stride, step forward and down with one leg. Ground the toe and heel and maintain a strong ankle. Bend the back knee into an upright high lunge. Take care to keep the knee over the ankle, not tracking in or out. Push through the lower foot and return to stand on the elevated surface. Repeat with other foot.

Once you feel you’ve mastered this step, hold your slightly weighted pack in front of you at waist height, arms slack. As you step down, rotate the pack to the outside hip of the forward leg. Keep your chest open and torso upright. This is harder than it sounds!

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Comments 7

  • Kelly McDonald : Feb 13th

    Thanks for this, good information as I trail for my Great Divide Thru-Hike this summer

  • Vanessa Wilkes : Feb 20th

    Great advice! I’m training for my upcoming AT thru hike and am a physical therapist assistant, so I’ve been using my field experience to create a stretching routine; have been mulling over core strengthening and all of these are great!! Definitely will use them:)

  • FM : Feb 22nd

    If you are hiking the AT, you will probably find your trail legs in about 30 days (about the VA border-460 miles) with no pre-hike exercise, but I don’t recommend hitting the trail like that.

    Prep work is usually done by most as merely minimizing pack weight. If you initially have a max ‘loaded’ pack weight of 35lbs, You can get it below 25 with the right equipment and travel plan and still have 7 day resupplies–which only amounts to about 10 lbs of savings. If you are 150 lbs, and carry a 35lb pack, a 10 lb reduction takes a 5.4% load off, meaning you can go 5.4% faster or feel the trail 5.4% easier. I like easier. He’s my friend.

    Best AT prep plan for most couch potatoes is to get your body weight 10% lean. That means only 15 lbs of fat on a ~6 feet 150 lb frame. If you are 6 feet and 220lbs, there’s obviously much more ground to be gained focusing on the beer keg than the pack (but don’t neglect the pack). Plan by cutting diet not more than 10% and increase daily exercise (3500 calories per lb of fat) to reduce 5 lbs a month. For 220lbs on a 150 lb lean frame, that means planning and working 14 months ahead of hike. A zealous plan tends to bring back weight quickly. Gradual loss is more permanent.

    Always start an exercise session out slow for first 4-5 minutes (a little above a fast walk only–light jog). You will hit a discomfort wall around 1:30 if you are moving too fast. That kills motivation. I remember hitting the trail with a heavy pack decades ago and in the first two minutes asking myself “why the heck am I doing this?” It’s the same with an exercise session. Start slow, get your body primed for faster energy production, then you can take off.

    I usually run 4 miles a session at 165 cal per mile and alternate a day of work with a day of rest. Walking for me is about 100 cal/mile. There are calorie calculators at that I use. If your training goal is to build muscle, adding 25g (1oz) a day of protein to a 55g diet is usually enough after each session. Get a tall glass (2 cups) of sweet chocolate milk within 30 minutes of a training session to turn off muscle decomposition, replace lost muscle sugar, and drive protein/amino acids into cells for repair. Many people say the chocolate helps recovery mood and strength. If soreness persists, that’s a clue to back off on your training or injury can result.

    Diet is important. You need vitamin C and protein to repair joints and tendons from pounding. Magnesium is used to make energy currency in cells. Most people lack C and magnesium from poor diets.

    Heavy breathing isn’t so much demanded by oxygen for fuel as it is for neutralizing lactic acid in the blood created by heavy exertion by blowing out carbonic acid as carbon dioxide. About 1-2 months of my training schedule is all I need to make breathing easier while exerting myself on the trail. The liver gets used to converting lactate into energy for the muscles to use, so that takes up the load of breathing. Lactic acid dissolves muscle and leads to fatigue. Less of it you accumulate while exerting yourself, the more comfortable you will be on the trail. But it doesn’t stick around long. Most lactate is gone within 30 minutes of rest. Any remaining soreness is muscle needing repair.

    As far as lactate training and mitochondrial content are concerned, you can lose most of your cardio fitness in 3-6 weeks. I try not to go longer than 3 days between sessions and try to get at least three 40 minute moderate heart rate sessions per week (70-75% HRmax).

    Disclaimer: This poster is not a doctor. Even if he were, he can’t diagnose anyone he doesn’t know exists. It’s a good idea to consult a real doctor before heading out on a great undertaking like the AT. This advice, however, has worked well for him.

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