Does Hiking Build Muscles? + 8 Muscle Groups Worked While Hiking

There are many excellent physical and mental health benefits of hiking.

Plus, you get to connect with nature and see some of the most beautiful natural vistas and scenic forests, whether in your own backyard or on a hiking adventure somewhere else in the world.

But is hiking a good workout? What muscles does hiking work? Does hiking build muscles?

In this article, we will focus on hiking muscles, aiming to answer the questions: Does hiking build muscles, and what muscles does hiking work?

We will cover the following: 

  • Is Hiking a Good Workout?
  • Does Hiking Build Muscles?
  • What Muscles Does Hiking Work?

Let’s jump in!

People hiking with backpacks on.

Is Hiking a Good Workout?

Although hiking is certainly enjoyable, it’s also good to know whether you are getting in a good cardio workout at the same time.

Knowing whether hiking is good exercise and counts as cardio can provide that extra motivation to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails or, conversely, will help you see hiking as a hobby that needs to be supplemented with other types of exercise.

The good news is that hiking is a great workout.

As with any type of physical activity, how “good“ a hiking workout is, depends on numerous factors such as how long or far you hike, the intensity or hiking pace, whether you are carrying a hiking pack, and the terrain that you are hiking on.

The more miles you hike, the faster your hiking pace or, the higher the intensity of the hike (uphill hiking), and carrying a heavy hiking pack will all make hiking an even better cardio and strengthening workout than a short, leisurely stroll through the trails.

You could gauge the intensity of your hiking workouts by wearing a heart rate monitor and comparing your average heart rate while hiking to your age-predicted maximum heart rate.

A person hiking uphill.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two zones of cardio exercise: moderate-intensity cardio exercise and vigorous-intensity cardio exercise.

Based on these CDC cardio zones, any exercise that increases your heart rate to 50-70% of your maximum heart rate is considered “moderate-intensity cardio exercise,” while a workout that elevates your heart rate to 70-85% of your maximum heart rate is classified as “vigorous cardio exercise.”

For example, hiking at 80% of your max heart rate would qualify as vigorous-intensity exercise.

In general, hiking is an even better workout than walking because there is more of an element of incline walking and decline walking when you ascend and descend hills or mountains while hiking. 

This helps utilize different muscle groups, and incline hiking helps increase your heart rate and burn more calories.

Additionally, many people carry a weighted pack when they hike. This external load further boosts the cardiovascular, metabolic, and muscular demands of hiking vs. walking.

Finally, even though hiking may not be as high-intensity as exercises like running, it is still a lower-impact activity than running in the way that walking is. 

This can make hiking better than running for people with joint pain or low bone density who otherwise run a risk of injury with high-impact exercise.

A person hiking on a trail.

Does Hiking Build Muscles?

Hiking has the ability to be a great form of exercise for building muscle. 

Especially if you are hiking uphill, climbing mountains, and wearing a weighted hiking pack, you will provide more of a muscle-building stimulus to your muscles as you hike. 

Incline hiking and wearing a hiking pack both increase the resistance that your muscles have to work against as you fight gravity. 

Much like strength training, this external load can overload your muscles in a way that stimulates the process of muscle protein synthesis, which underlies hypertrophy or muscle growth.

To build muscle by hiking, focus on using a weighted hiking pack and climbing uphill and downhill on your hiking trails. 

Make sure that you are fueling your muscles with plenty of protein during and after your hikes to support muscle growth.

Additionally, if you really want to build muscle for hiking, it helps to perform strength training workouts to supplement your hikes. 

Although hiking does work most of the major muscles in your body, the emphasis is greatest on the muscles of the lower body, so hikers are best suited by adding upper body strength training and core workouts to their hiking routines to build muscle for hiking.

A group of people hiking uphill.

What Muscles Does Hiking Work?

Like walking and running, hiking primarily works the major muscles in the lower body, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, and shins. 

Because hiking generally involves walking on uneven terrain, there is also more activation of smaller stabilizing muscles in the hips and ankles than when running or walking on a treadmill or even ground.

Here are the primary hiking muscles:

Glutes

The glutes are the muscles in your butt. There are three primary glute muscles: The gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Hiking works all of the major muscles in the glutes.

The gluteus maximus muscle is a powerful hip extensor. You use it when you are hiking to bring your leg behind you as you advance to the next leg.

The glutes are also worked, especially during uphill hiking, where the workload shifts to the posterior chain muscles.

The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus help control hip abduction and rotation. 

These muscles are particularly useful when you are hiking on uneven trails or needing to take steps that fall to the outside of a straight line in front of your body, such as navigating around rocks or roots.

Two people enjoying the view on a hike.

Hamstrings

Like the glutes, the hamstrings, which are the muscles in the back of your upper thigh, are responsible for hip extension. But the hamstrings are biarticular muscles because they also function at the knee joint to flex the knee. 

Therefore, every time you lift your leg and move from the weight-bearing stance phase to the swing phase, the hamstrings help bend your knee to advance the leg forward.

Quads

The quads are the muscles on the front of your thigh. They help flex the leg at the hip and extend the knee.

Hip flexion occurs every time you lift your leg for the next step.

The quads are heavily involved in hiking up and down hills. When you are walking downhill, the quads contract eccentrically, which means that they lengthen under the load of your body to help prevent your knee from buckling under the weight.

If you’ve ever taken a big hike up and down a steep mountain, you will likely remember feeling like your quads were sore the next day. 

This is largely due to the fact that eccentric exercise tends to result in greater muscle soreness but also a greater stimulus for muscle growth.

A person enjoying a scenic view on her hike.

Hip Flexors

The hip flexors are a group of muscles at the very front of your hip at the top of your thigh. The rectus femoris is one of the quad muscles that also functions as a hip flexor muscle, but the primary hip flexor is the iliopsoas.

When you are hiking on level ground and uphill, your hip flexors have to work hard to lift your leg to avoid catching your toes on rocks and roots or other obstacles in the trail.

Calves

The calves are the muscles at the back of your lower leg.

When you push off at toe-off when you are hiking, the calves help plantar flex your ankle to propel you into the next stride.

Hiking up mountains and uphills also works the calves more because they will be loaded under tension as they stretch.

People hiking rock terrain with backpacks.

Muscles of the Shin and Ankle

The anterior tibialis muscle is the primary muscle on the front of your shin that helps dorsiflex your ankle. This is the motion of drawing your toes up toward the sky. 

Hiking works the muscles of the shin to help prevent tripping or dragging your feet on roots and rocks on the trail. All of the smaller stabilizing muscles of the ankles are also engaged when you hike on uneven terrain.

Core Muscles

In addition to the lower body muscles, hiking works your core muscles because you have to stabilize your body and brace your core, especially on uneven terrain.

Upper Body Muscles

Particularly if you are using hiking poles, you will engage most of your upper body muscles, including your traps, rhomboids, upper lats, and posterior deltoids in your upper back, along with the muscles in your shoulders, chest, and arms.

Firmly planting your hiking pole into the ground and then pulling your body towards it will help further engage the muscles of your upper body as you hike.

If you would like to supplement your hiking workouts with some upper-body strength training exercises, check out our upper-body workout guide here.

People lifting a kettlebell in a gym class.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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