The Science of Hiking: How Trail Walking Can Help Build Muscle
Does hiking build muscle? Absolutely, and that’s not all it does either. Hiking helps reduce the risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and depression. It’s a fantastic activity for both your physical and mental health. And while not all of us aspire to have enormous muscles, lean muscle growth is critical to your overall health at nearly every stage of life.
As we get older, muscle degeneration occurs. It’s more common in folks above 50. Muscle loss means less physical ability and in turn, less freedom to manage your own affairs. Hiking helps slow and even reverse that trend.
In this article, we'll explore the reasons why and talk about some great tips and strategies to kickstart your new active lifestyle.
Will Hiking Help You Build Muscle?
Yes! Hiking over variable terrain with ups and downs will help build muscles in your legs, back, core and shoulders.
The Science Behind Building Muscle With Hiking
Based on years of observations and replicable scientific studies, we know that hiking is great for our overall physical and mental health. In fact, the importance of hiking has been elevated recently due to the combination of a rapidly aging population in many countries and sedentary lifestyles.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), more than 60% of U.S. adults do not engage in the recommended amount of physical activity. That’s over 125 million people. The highly respected NIH (National Institute of Health) takes it a step further, considering more than 43% of the total U.S. population “sedentary.”
A sedentary lifestyle is one where the defining features revolve around periods of inactivity. Examples include sitting for long periods, watching T.V., playing video games, or sitting in cars. We know sedentary lifestyles are bad for us because of the health issues associated with them. Some examples include obesity, heart disease, higher cholesterol levels, and type 2 diabetes.
Bringing it back to the states, if 43% of the total US population is sedentary that’s nearly 143 million people. It is the largest percentage of sedentary humans in any country in the world. Yikes.
The reasons why this disturbing trend hasn’t gone away are numerous and have been covered extensively in other studies. But hiking can be the silver lining, especially if you are someone who has been thinking about doing more cardio exercise and building or toning muscle. So, let’s find out how hiking builds muscles and how that can impact our overall health.
How Does Hiking Build Muscle?
Hiking is an activity that involves both uphill and downhill movements. Compared to level walking, this variation is critical to muscle growth. Walking uses around 200 different muscles from all over your body, making it a very comprehensive workout.
Muscle building while hiking is similar to muscle building at the gym, and the process looks almost identical. Muscle growth occurs when physical activity actually tears your muscles. Your body reacts by repairing and reinforcing the affected muscles, which leads to more resilience.
Given the focus of hiking on our lower bodies, we can expect that our leg muscles will grow most dramatically. However, a fascinating study on Nordic walking (walking with poles, which are commonly used in hiking) led researchers to note several positive benefits on our upper body muscles as well.
Which Muscles Are Built From Hiking?
Taking a closer look at the Nordic walking study gives a more complete answer to this question.
Compared to the control group (a group that did no walking), and a group that only walked on level terrain without poles, nordic walkers built muscle faster and in more places. Of course, any kind of hiking builds our leg muscles, most dramatically in our thighs and calves.
Introducing poles into the mix resulted in added muscle growth in the upper body. Researchers noted changes from the forearm to the biceps and even the wrists (increasing grip strength). Walking with a pack on will also grow shoulder muscles.
So, depending on how you hike and what you bring with you, muscle growth can occur all over your body. Here are some of the major muscle groups that are activated by walking:
- Calf Muscles
- Hip Abductors
- Gluteus Maximus
- Abdominal Muscles
How Much Muscle Does Hiking Build?
Even after hiking for three decades, this is still a tough question to answer. If you expect hiking to give you tree-trunk legs and insane biceps, you may be disappointed. At its core, hiking is an aerobic exercise, so the building is often accompanied by muscle toning. In short, you won’t bulk up with hiking, but your muscles will get stronger and more defined.
Consistent hiking also reduces fat. As you lose fat, your muscles become more defined and visible, which is always gratifying. How much muscle you build will ultimately depend on how often you hike, whether or not you take appropriate rest days to let your body recover, and how much nutrition you consume.
The Best Way To Build Muscle For Hiking
Different grades (i.e., steepness), speed, and terrain all have an effect on what muscles are built while hiking.
Incline or Decline - Which Builds More Muscle?
If we look at another fascinating study on the effects of speed and grade (incline/decline) on muscle activation (Franz and Kram, 2012), we get a clearer picture of what’s going on. In summary, uphill and downhill hiking requires the activation of different muscles. The muscles that get attention are working harder and will therefore tear faster and (with proper rest) rebuild stronger.
On the downhill, the knee extensor muscles are activated. As we get older, knee issues tend to plague a larger proportion of the population. In that case, downhill portions are when you want trekking poles or knee braces to help distribute pressure.
The incline works the knees as well, but it also activates your hip and ankle extensors. This distribution doesn’t make an incline easier, but it takes some of the focus off of your knees.
In short, the incline builds more muscle because it activates different regions of the legs. However, adding trekking poles to the scenario (especially on the downhill) can reduce pressure on our knees and activate muscles in our upper body, like arms and shoulders.
In all scenarios, too much pressure on one area of the body can lead to repetitive use injuries, so spreading out muscle activation across parts of our body is preferable.
Do You Need Muscle To Start Hiking?
First of all, everyone has muscles, but hiking is a lot easier if you do a bit of training beforehand. Leg presses, calf raises, wall-sits, squats, and shoulder presses all help to prepare you for muscle growth on the trail.
Does Hiking Burn or Build Muscle?
Trick question; it does both! If you want to use hiking (in combination with healthy eating and sleeping) to lose weight, hiking can help burn fat and tone muscle. If you want to use hiking to promote an active lifestyle (which we highly encourage!), make sure to eat appropriately before hiking and after to lock in the workout and rebuild those muscles.
Hiking won’t turn you into a buff person, though. It’s a cardiovascular activity, and while many outdoor recreationists are in shape, they often have a wiry build. With proper nutrition and water, you can tone and even build muscle, but your muscles won’t balloon in size.
6 Tips for Building Muscles When Hiking
Incremental progress is key. Just like lifting weights, you don’t want to start with something so intense it hurts you. Here are six tips to help you on your quest.
1. Go on a short hike
First, go on a short hike. How short will depend on the last time you were physically active. If it’s been a while, start with a mile over relatively flat terrain.
After you finish it, think about how you felt on any uphill or downhill section. Check in with your muscles. Soreness is ok, but lingering pain is worth noting and addressing. If your knees are bothering you, introduce poles and use knee braces.
2. Build a plan
Running, hiking, and other cardiovascular exercises are great if they’re done in moderation. Remember, if you’re just starting out, no one expects you to trail run half marathons in a few weeks. That’s ridiculous. What you should do is gradually increase effort and distance.
A great way to build upon your hiking ability is to track your fitness. This can be done through a number of fitness trackers or GPS watches. Take a look at our article on hiking watches that can track your progress and help you stick to your plan.
3. Take Rest Days
As you start hiking to the beat of your own drum, remember to take rest days. If you’re constantly working, your muscles have no time to rebuild. Rest days are critical; that’s when the previous tears heal and build back better.
4. Incremental Progress
You’re not going to hit all of your exercise or health goals at once. Incremental progres is the best way to move forward. Create realistic milestones to hit so you feel like you're building yourself up.
If you haven’t been physically active in a while, set your fitness watch goals for 5,000 steps a day. From there, increase your steps by roughly 10% per week.
If you’re distance or elevation focused, start with hikes that are 1-5 miles long with a cumulative elevation gain/loss of no more than 500 feet. Increase by quarter miles and/or add 100-200 feet of elevation gain every week.
5. Stick to the Plan
One great way to accomplish this is by starting a fitness journal. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you should include hiking time, distance, pace, and perhaps elevation gain or loss. Then, make sure to leave space for notes. If something frustrated you or went really well, write it down.
You can also have friends and family check your journal to see your progress. The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65% likely to meet a goal after committing to another person. Their chances of success increase to 95% when they build ongoing meetings with partners to check in on their progress.
One of the best ways to utilize a plan or journal is to revisit it. Take a moment every couple of weeks to go over what you wrote down. Revisiting past successes and struggles can tell you a lot about your progress and how to fine tune your plan. As your confidence increases, consider posting exercise results to group chats or social media.
6. Embrace Healthy Competition or Tune out the noise
Once you’ve got a plan that you can handle, stick to it and tune out the noise. Not a lot of people talk about this, but the barriers to entry in outdoor recreation are substantial. Chances are, there's already someone who can hike better than you. Great! That just means the pressure’s off; you don’t have to compete with them.
When we compare ourselves to the best hikers, sometimes we feel inspired, and other times we’re left depressed about our own ability and resentful of others. How you react is unique to you. So, if comparisons inspire you, use them. If they don’t, tune out the noise.
For those of us that feel inspired by comparisons, embrace healthy competition. Post your hiking stats on social media. Convince others to hike with you. Follow accounts that promote active lifestyles, and push yourself to build out your abilities.
Building muscle is one of the dozens of positive ripple effects that come from hiking. Paired with moderation, progression, good nutrition, and rest, you'll start noticing changes in your appearance within months. But remember, this isn’t an instant process; it'll take time. Hiking is not always frolicking through fields like in the Sound of Music. You’ll be working.
If you want to use hiking to get in shape and build muscle, keep the following things in mind.
- Hiking does not bulk you up
- Muscle growth will happen, but defined muscles come from consistent work and because you’re burning through fat
- Adding trekking poles can help you work your forearms, wrists, and shoulders
- Inclines and declines work different muscles
- The biggest benefit of hiking is that it promotes an active lifestyle. And active lifestyles cut health risks down substantially
So, go forth and enjoy the trail!
National Parks Service - Benefits of hiking
CDC - Physical activity and health: A report of the surgeon general
American journal of lifestyle medicine - Hiking: A low-cost, accessible intervention to promote health benefits
MedlinePlus - Health risks of an inactive lifestyle
Asian Nursing Research - Effects of nordic walking on body composition, muscle strength, and lipid profile in elderly women
Healthline - Leg muscles anatomy, function & diagram
Research Gate - The effects of grade and speed on leg muscle activations during walking
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.