Does Hiking Build Muscle? YES — Here's How

8 min read

Looking To Build Muscle With Hiking?

If you’re just getting into hiking or looking to improve your fitness, you probably have the same question I had when I started: does hiking build muscle?

Of course, I only asked this question after some very specific events occurred. And, after putting my feet on the trails for four days a week, every week for months, I figured out the answer and noticed some significant changes. It wasn’t very clear-cut at first, though. It took a lot of careful observation and a bit of obsession to find out if hiking builds muscle.

If you're looking to carve a new image and improve your overall health, don't worry—you don't need to be surrounded by the sweaty, grunting, and techno-blasting environment of your local gym. Going for a long trek through nature is a great alternative.

Luckily, my questions and self-experimentation brought me to write this guide to help you find out, once and for all: does hiking build muscle? Let’s get into it.

Hiking Muscle Building: Ditch The Gym — Hit The Trail

hiking on an incline

Perhaps you've recently considered shaping up but don't want to be engulfed in the noise and humid air in the gym.

You can’t be blamed for wanting a quiet, outdoor experience to get in shape over a weight room. Luckily, you don’t always need to sit in the noisy gym to reap great health benefits.

There are several obvious benefits to hiking. One, however, is often overlooked: muscle building. Maybe it’s because most don’t associate a slow-paced hike with the likes of a strenuous deadlift and squat session.

Hitting the trails is a great way to build a solid foundation for core and lower-body strength—It's just you and the fresh air of the open world. Best of all, it doesn't cost a monthly fee. Seriously, how can you beat that? What's more, there are several muscles worked from hiking, which means you'll have no problem getting in a full-body workout with a good, solid hike.

Let's stay on track here (no pun intended) and figure this out.

Hiking and Muscle Building: The Connection

First thing first, we’ve gotta know, can hiking build muscle? It may be an obvious answer to some but it’s an important question for those starting. It’s understandable: we want to make sure the time investment in our activities is worth the return. Spoiler alert: there’s some good news ahead.

Building muscle is nothing more than a physical process followed by a biological process. That’s it. Sounds simple enough but many people struggle to get it right. Let’s explore, for a moment, how exactly muscle is built.

How is Muscle Built?

First, it’s important to note the differences between building muscle mass and building strength. Muscle mass refers to the volume/size of your muscles, whereas muscle strength is the overall denseness and load capacity of the muscle groups.

Hiking involves a slower pace on varying grades of terrain for long periods. This helps increase your strength. You will see a slight difference in muscle volume but don’t expect to get ripped, enormous tree-trunk-sized legs from slower hikes.

The good news is, just because you don’t see a massive physical difference in your muscles doesn’t mean they aren’t being built. Your muscles will become dense, fortifying your overall muscle strength.

To better understand how muscle is built, let’s look at the following:

Micro Tears

It's important to understand the process. This is the golden rule with any exercise routine. During a workout or exercise, a load of stress is put on your muscles. This stress causes tears in the muscle fibers. You know, that good 'ole stiff soreness after a strenuous workout.


Pictured: how you should sleep after a good hike.

What’s better than a good snooze? After a workout and during rest, your body will repair or replace the damaged fibers. This is done through a cellular process where muscle fibers fuse to form new protein strands (myofibrils). 

The new protein strands increase in size and quantity, thus creating hypertrophy (muscle growth). Simply put, muscles grow when muscle protein synthesis rates are greater than muscle protein breakdown rates. This occurs during rest, not during the actual exercise itself.

Proper Nutrition

The bodybuilder guys would kill me if I left this out, and for good reason: proper nutrition is needed for optimal muscle growth. Even though we don’t always associate a hike with protein shakes and macronutrients, it’s essential for good health and muscle growth.

If you’re hoping to build muscle, don't overlook a great nutrition plan. Coming home from a day on the open trail, only to eat chips and dip can be an absolute waste and leave too much on the table.

Can Hiking Build Muscle?

Let’s think about this for a moment: if putting stress on the muscles causes fiber tears, and hiking puts stress on certain muscle groups, it’s pretty easy to see that it can indeed build muscle. Though it is a great way to build muscle is a great way to strengthen your legs, don’t expect to gain a huge amount of muscle mass from a standard hiking routine. On the flip side, you will notice greater strength and endurance in your legs and core.

How Does Hiking Build Muscle?

Now that we know the connection between hiking and muscle building, let’s take a look at exactly how it builds muscle and what muscle groups are worked.

What Muscles Are Built From Hiking?

Hiking involves several different muscle groups, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, core, lower back, and calves, and even affects other muscles like shoulders and upper back.

If you're navigating a trail with a steep incline, the gravity of the angle changes what muscles are engaged, thus introducing more stress on those muscle groups. Pacing up a steep hill for a prolonged period can leave your legs feeling like spaghetti made of Jell-O! (is that a thing?)

To get down to brass tacks: hiking involves the same muscle breakdown process that most exercises do. This is why hikers are often known for their chiseled legs and very strong core.

Will Hiking on an Incline or Decline Build Muscle?

hiking down a decline

Using different degrees of an incline or decline will engage your different muscle groups. 

Putting your footing down on an incline will build muscles in the ankles, calves, and upper and lower thighs & glutes. When navigating an inclined trail, always keep your spine in a neutral position. You should feel all of the work in your lower body and not your lower back.

Likewise, heading downhill builds muscles in the glutes and hamstrings, while assisting your quad strength. Downhill hiking is a great way to strengthen your knees for hiking, too. When working on a decline/downhill, be sure to keep a good posture. As with uphill hiking, you want to feel the muscles in your legs being worked, not your lower back. 

Does Hiking Build Core Muscles?

Hiking will naturally engage your core muscles. Your legs will be doing most of the work, while your abdominals and pelvis will be used for balance. Building core muscles helps with backpacking and hauling camping gear on a hike.

Is Building Muscle For Hiking Important?

Having improved muscle strength is great for those who wish to go on longer, more challenging hikes. Building muscle also helps improve your balance, which is great for those hikes that require a backpack or additional gear.

Increased muscle mass helps burn more calories. This means that carrying around a few pounds of new muscle will not only help you burn calories at a greater rate, but it leads to improved fat loss, too.

The Conclusion: Does Hiking Build Muscle?

Yes, hiking builds muscle. It engages several muscle groups and puts them under stress for a long period. When you eat and sleep properly, your muscle is repaired and replaced with new muscle fibers, reinforcing strength.

Building Muscle With Hiking—The Undercover Ultimate Muscle-Builder

Many people wouldn’t think hiking would build muscle and drastically improve strength. After all, it feels a lot different than blasting through weight sessions at the gym. Although, after an entire day of hiking you might wish you would have just opted for the leg press.

Hiking is typically a long-duration activity. Even at a slower pace, using resistance against your legs for a day is a smart and insanely-efficient way to build muscle and functional strength in your legs and core. So have at it. Hit the nearest trail with determination in your mind and build those muscles! Remember, though, results come from consistency. One hike won't do much in the long term. Stick to it and you'll get better and stronger.