How To Strengthen Knees For Hiking (Without The Gym)
Build You Knee Strength For Hiking
You probably read our post on hiking with knee pain. If you're new, it may have startled you, begging the question "how do I strengthen my knees for hiking?".
Fear not. We created a guide to help you build knee strength, endurance, and muscle. This article should be used as a guide and not as a "ten commandments" for building knee strength.
Always make sure you're physically capable of doing these exercises. Be smart; don't risk injury if you don't have to.
NOTE: This article should NOT be viewed as medical advice — it's meant to be used as a guide to help fellow hikers. Always speak to a doctor if you are suffering from or worried about suffering from physical injuries.
Exercises For Hiking Knee Strength
The exercises in this guide will help build your overall leg and core muscles but they put special emphasis on articulation, fluidity, and functional muscle. After all, there's nothing worse than being on a hike with stiff quads or tight hamstrings. We want to be able to move freely yet still feel solidified in our activity.
Keep in mind: we want to build knee strength and endurance. This doesn't mean putting extra stress on the knees like you would with muscle-based exercises. The knee is supported by several muscles in your leg. We'll work the muscles around the knee that help with support.
Straight Leg Raises
Straight leg raises are a great, easy way to strengthen your legs, knees, and improve fluidity in your joints. This exercise helps build strength in your quadriceps and put very little stress on your knees. The exercise is fairly simple to accomplish:
- Lie down on your back
- Bend your non-operative leg so your foot is flat on the surface for support
- Keeping your operative knee straight, tighten your thigh muscle
- Slowly raise your leg up off the surface working toward a height that is in line with your non-operative leg
- Hold for five seconds then slowly lower your leg back to the surface then relax
- Don't hold your breath while doing this exercise
Prone Straight Leg Raises
Prone straight leg raises help build strength in the gluteus medius muscles of your hip—an often overlooked and very prominent muscle. From personal experience, gluteus medius pain is no joke and it tends to linger for way longer than desired (I dealt with it for months!). However, this exercise also helps strengthen the supporting knee muscles.
- Lie on your stomach with your legs straight
- Tighten the muscles in your bottom and the hamstring of one leg
- Lift toward the ceiling
- Hold 3-5 seconds
- Lower, and repeat.
It's recommended to do 10-15 lifts and switch sides.
What better way to build knee strength for stepping and hiking than, well, stepping! Step-ups are a very simple exercise that uses your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes—all-important muscles that support your knees. The great thing about step-ups is you don't need step-up-specific gear like the piece shown in the video. You can do it with a stool, or the steps in your house.
- Place one foot on the platform (step, box, stool, etc.)
- Keep your pelvis level
- Bend your knee and slowly lower the opposite foot to the floor
- Touch your toe to the floor, then rise back up.
- Repeat 10-15 times, then switch legs
If you desire more intensity for this exercise, feel free to add a higher step or some weights into the mix.
Similar to step-ups, wall squats work the same muscle groups with extra emphasis on the knees and help strengthen knees for hiking. The great thing about wall squats is they don't require you to lug a barbell over your shoulder. They can be done at home with no equipment (unless you, for some reason, don't have walls). Using the wall as a brace helps keep your spine straight and isolate the proper muscles needed for the exercise.
- Stand with your back against a wall
- Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart
- Slowly bend your knees
- keep your back and pelvis against the wall
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
- Don’t bend too deeply
If you feel serious pressure in your knees, lighten up the exercise a little bit and ease into it.
Standing Hamstring Curls
This is another go-to exercise for simulating the motions of hiking. Hamstring curls are similar to the other exercises, but use more of your hamstrings for the effort. They're simple to do and can be utilized anywhere you have a support structure like a chair, desk, dresser, etc.
- Stand straight up and hold onto your support surface
- Slowly bring your heels as close to your butt as you can
- Hold position
There's nothing to it! If the exercise is too easy, you can always add ankle weights, though be mindful of the weight as it can cause extra stress on the joints.
Lunges are a classic exercise that gets deep in your quads and hamstrings. They also put a little pressure on the knee, but it shouldn't be enough to warrant injury. If you're experiencing severe knee stress, lighten up on the depth of the lunge a bit. We want to keep your knees strong, not broken.
- Stand straight up with your feet together
- Take a large step forward
- Keep your feet pointing forward
- Lower your body until your rear knee touches (or Nearly touches) the ground
- Push back up
You can do lunges two ways:
- Work each leg X amount of times, then switch
- Switch legs between each rep X amount of times
Lunges can be intensified with dumbbells or kettlebells. This is a great way to strengthen knees for hiking, though if you're just getting into them it's best to start with no weight as they can be pretty strenuous.
What Is The Best Exercise To Strengthen Knees For Hiking?
All the exercises in this guide are great for building knee strength, no doubt about it. At the end of the day, the absolute best exercise to increase knee strength and leg strength for hiking is ... hiking!
Take it slow if you have to, but consistent hiking is the sure-fire way to build the strength needed in your knees and legs. It's the same principle of "farmer strength"—using the motions of the work to build the muscles needed for the work.
The Most Important Thing To Remember When Building Knee Strength For Hiking
All the exercises listed above are great for building knee strength for hiking. However, there is one golden-rule when building strength and muscle: rest.
If your goal is to build supporting knee muscles and gaining strength for a hike, don't overdo it—allow proper rest and do the exercises when you're fully recovered. If you're more advanced, you can step up the frequency and weight of these workouts.
TL;DR — How To Strengthen Knees For Hiking?
- Perform the above exercises
- Simulate the movements of hiking in a controlled manner
- Don't overdo it; always give appropriate time for rest