Hiking Muscles Worked — What Muscles Does Hiking Work?

10 min read

Hiking Muscle Engagement

Hiking is a great way to stay active and enjoy the outdoors, but it's not just a leisurely stroll. Hiking can be a challenging activity that engages multiple muscle groups throughout your body.

When you hike, you use a combination of lower body muscles, upper body muscles, and core muscles to move up and down hills, navigate uneven terrain, and maintain balance.

Although you likely know the answer to the old question, "Does hiking build muscle?", you might want to take a bit of a dive into what muscles hiking works.

There are some great reasons to know what muscles are worked from hiking. Whether you want to prevent injury or simply want to know what muscles to target during a workout to improve your hike, there are always benefits to knowing what's going on with your body during hiking.

Regardless of your reasoning, you'll definitely benefit from this in-depth write-up on the muscles worked from hiking. You'll be surprised at just how effective hiking can be as an exercise.

What Muscles Does Hiking Work?

What muscles does hiking work?

You'd figure that hiking only works your leg muscles. However, you'd be wrong. In fact, anyone who has taken up some serious hiking in their life can tell you just how demanding some hikes can be on your entire body.

Simply put, the muscles you use when hiking include the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core.

As you power up a hill, your quads (quadriceps) engage in getting you up the incline. Think of any time you've trekked uphill for a long period of time. You've most likely gotten a serious burn in your quads.

On the flip side, hiking downhill will put your hamstrings into overdrive. The hamstrings are working extra hard to control the rate at which you descend while keeping you balanced.

So, that's it, right? Using your legs to get uphill and downhill obviously works out your legs. Case closed... right? Nope. Not even close.

Hiking can be a very deceptive form of exercise. A lot of people regularly take it up as a way to get in shape and immediately bite off more than they can chew because they assume it's all leg work. Soon enough, they find themselves completely exhausted and craving a mid-day nap.

Believe it or not, your entire body is working during a hike. Let's take an in-depth look into what muscles are worked during hiking.

Hiking Muscles Worked in the Lower Body

hiking muscles worked lower body

As mentioned earlier, hiking engages your lower body muscles, which are responsible for generating the power and force needed to move up and down hills and navigate uneven terrain.

The key hiking muscles worked in your lower body is the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves.

The glutes, which are the muscles in your buttocks, play an important role in propelling your body forward and maintaining balance on uneven terrain. Think of any time you've hiked on a rocky trail. You were likely using your glutes to keep yourself balanced as you navigate around the rocks and nooks of the trail.

The hamstrings, which are located in the back of your thighs, work with your quads (quadriceps) to get up hills and provide balance when going down hills. In fact, hiking downhill can actually be harder on your hamstrings than your quads.

If you're after a killer hamstring workout, take up some steep but safe decline hiking. It will give you a new meaning to "it's all downhill from here".

The quadriceps, often simplified as "quads", are located on the front of your thighs, and are responsible for extending your knees and helping to lift your legs. Needless to say, when you're hiking uphill, your quads take on a majority of the burden and work overtime to get you up the incline.

Your quads are likely the muscles you have felt the most during a hike. Especially if you were taking on a long incline.

Finally, the calves are responsible for providing the push-off power you need to move uphill and control your descent on downhill sections.

If you've ever met a seasoned hiker (or runner, for that matter) you've likely noticed that they have pretty chiseled calves that look like they're carved from stone.

The lower body muscles worked from hiking are pretty straightforward. But what about the upper body? Let's have a look.

Hiking Muscles Worked in the Upper Body

Hiking Muscles Worked Upper Body

"Wait," you say. "Does hiking work upper body muscles, too?".

I know it sounds contradictory, but the answer is yes — hiking actually works your upper body muscles as well.

While your lower body muscles do the heavy lifting when you're hiking, your upper body muscles also play an important role in maintaining balance and stability. The back muscles, chest muscles, shoulder muscles, and arm muscles are all involved in various aspects of hiking.

Your upper body muscles are important for helping you maintain your balance and keeping your core stable during a hike. If you've ever taken a hike up a steep incline (assuming you're practicing good uphill hiking form) you've more than likely felt the muscles in your back getting a little tense.

Back muscles help to maintain an upright posture and provide support for your spine. Whether you're going uphill or downhill, you can thank your back muscles for helping to keep your core steady and sturdy.

Your chest muscles are also worked when hiking. Although they're not worked as intensely as some of your other muscle groups on a hike, your chest muscles actually help to keep your arms and shoulders steady while you walk.

The shoulder muscles help to maintain balance and control the movement of your arms, obviously. However, taking a backpack with some weight on a hike will have your shoulders and chest both burning up before long.

Finally, the arm muscles, including the biceps and triceps, help to power your arm movements and maintain balance.

Core Muscles Used in Hiking

Hiking Muscles Worked - Core

One of the most overlooked muscle groups when hiking is your core. While taking on a hike won't have you feeling like you just did Muhammed Ali amounts of situps, it is still an important group of muscles especially when hiking.

While hiking won't get you rock-solid abs, it's definitely a great way to improve your balance and overall core strength.

Your core muscles are the muscles in your abdomen, obliques, and lower back. These muscles play a critical role in maintaining balance and stability when you hike.

What's more, your core muscles also help to transfer power from your lower body to your upper body and vice versa.

The abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis and the obliques, help to stabilize your spine and maintain an upright posture when you hike. If you've ever equipped a backpack when hiking, you've likely felt your core engaging like crazy during more strenuous parts of your hike.

Your abs are also important for controlling your breathing while you hike. They help to keep your lungs open and give you the power to take in deep breaths when you need to.

The lower back muscles, including the erector spinae, help to support your spine and maintain an upright posture as well. If you've ever had a completely obliterated lower back after a hike, it's likely because your lower back was overcompensating due to your posture.

It's important to always maintain good hiking form, whether uphill or downhill. Treat your back muscles well, you'll need them. Once they're shot, life gets uncomfortable very quickly.

Benefits of Strengthening Hiking Muscles

Now that you know the muscles worked from hiking, you may want to know how you can use this information to your benefit. Well, here's some good news: you can work on strengthening those specific muscle groups to improve your hikes and overall health.

Whether you want to improve your hiking endurance or simply want to get in shape, building the strength of your hiking muscles has several key benefits.

Strengthening your hiking muscles can help you prevent injury and muscle strain when taking on a hike. This is especially important for those who are prone to knee and back injuries. Practicing and being aware of proper hiking form will help you have more enjoyable hikes without taxing your lower back or knees.

Additionally, strengthening hiking muscles can also improve your endurance and allow you to hike longer distances without feeling fatigued or straight-up worn out.

Finally, strengthening these muscles can also improve your overall fitness level and make you feel stronger and more confident when you're out on the trail.

Exercises to Strengthen Hiking Muscles

So, what can you do exactly to strengthen your hiking muscles? The most obvious answer is to keep hiking and get better at it over time.

But if you're like me and want to add in some additional exercises to fast-track your progress, there are a number of exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles you use when you hike.

Exercises like squats, lunges, calf raises, push-ups, planks, and sit-ups are all great options for improving and conditioning the muscles worked from hiking.

Squats and lunges help to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, while calf raises target your calf muscles. These are simple yet effective exercises for building up the lower body muscles worked when hiking. They're especially important if you want to improve uphill hiking.

The great thing about squats and lunges is that a little goes a long way. You don't need to hit the gym and start throwing plate upon plate on the barbell — a simple ten-minute routine of squats and lunges can greatly benefit your muscles and overall health.

Push-ups and planks are great for strengthening your chest, shoulder, and arm muscles, while sit-ups and other core exercises can help to strengthen your abdominal muscles and lower back muscles.

Although these exercises can help you improve your hikes, most people are probably best to just stick to good old-fashioned hiking as a way to build those muscles up.

Adding in additional exercises is great for those who want to push themselves and take on bigger challenges or just improve their overall health, but they're not necessary and can be overkill in some instances.

If you're unsure of where to start with building up your hiking muscles, here's a good starting point: just hike!

Stretch Your Hiking Muscles

Stretching is just as important for hiking as it is for other forms of exercise. Even if you're taking on an easy trek, you want to ensure that you're nice and limber first.

Proper stretching before hiking can help you prevent cramps, injuries, and fatigue when you're out on the trail. Speaking from experience: you don't want to be in the middle of nowhere with a gnarly cramp or injury and have to worry about getting back to your exit point.

Some good hiking stretches include calf stretches, quadriceps, hamstring stretches, glute stretches, and arm circles.

Proper stretching before a hike will ensure your muscles worked from hiking perform better, prevent your other muscles from overcompensating, and can even help reduce the chances of post-hike soreness.


So now you know that the hiking muscles worked aren't as straightforward as "legs, back", you can take the steps needed to improve your hiking and overall health.

To sum it all up, there are several muscles worked when hiking, including:

  • glutes
  • hamstrings
  • quadriceps
  • calves
  • chest
  • shoulders
  • core (abs, obliques, lower back)

If you take it a step further and add in some supplemental exercises that target these muscle groups, you'll be as good as gold on your next hike.