Many of us looking to add some new flavor to our workout plans have considered hiking as an option. It’s less monotonous than the gym, you get to spend time in nature (maybe with your dog!), and you’ll get a nice tan. You might still wonder, though, can hiking build muscle?
The short answer is yes, hiking does build muscle–just maybe not in the way you’re thinking.
The long answer is that hiking puts stress on several muscle groups in the lower, middle (aka core), and even upper body.
Any time the body is put through an excessive challenge, like climbing through increasing elevation over uneven terrain, muscle fibers break down and then rebuild stronger. This requires both challenging our muscles and then resting them adequately.
Tearing our muscles down and allowing them to rest and rebuild is the process by which anyone gains muscle. Muscle gains come in two different types, though.
Muscle Mass vs Muscle Density
We can build muscle mass and muscle density.
Building muscle mass means creating size in muscle groups. Building muscle density means creating strength within those muscle groups.
While you can create muscle mass and strengthen your muscles at the same time, gains in muscle density are where you’ll see the biggest difference in your strength.
Hiking primarily builds muscle density, so you can expect to see increased strength. You might also notice yourself leaning out due to burning excess body fat and maybe even some increase in the size of your muscles, but it’s nothing compared to the change in your strength and endurance.
What Muscles Does Hiking Work?
When exercising during a hike, you are challenging your lower body and core the most. You’ll also be getting a great cardiovascular workout, hitting muscles in your back and shoulders, increasing your lung capacity, and building overall stamina.
Your lower body is doing the most work, though, so that’s where you’ll see the biggest change in your fitness levels. Traveling up and down elevation gains on the trail will work your quadriceps, calves, hips, hamstrings, glutes, and more.
This is especially true if you’re carrying a pack that can weigh an extra 20 or 30 pounds. (I like to wear weighted backpacks even on short day hikes for an added challenge.)
Fun fact: Taking one step utilizes over 200 different muscles!
You’ll be working all of those muscles over and over again on your hike.
Important things to remember when you are new to hiking are to maintain your posture and to take rest days. If you maintain good posture while walking the trail, you’ll minimize the risk of injury and also work your core more effectively.
When resting, you’re allowing your body to rebuild muscle fibers that you break down during the exercise. Hiking is a workout, and you need to give your body time to recover from it.
If you are a beginner hiker, you may notice that your legs feel shaky and a little bit “like jelly” after a hike. Over time, the muscles in your legs build strength and stamina. And your legs start to look pretty great, too.
Hiking Body Transformation
Will hiking make your legs bigger? Does hiking give you a bigger butt? Can hiking make you ripped?
No amount of any workout can truly guarantee the same result for every single individual, but hiking is a full-body workout. You can absolutely expect to see physical results from doing this activity.
Will your legs get as big as if you are upping your reps on very heavy weights at the gym every week?
You will most definitely see muscle definition and growth over time, though. If you’re also following a healthy diet, you’ll shed fat as well. Few exercises will help you shed weight and develop a lean physique like hiking.
Your quadriceps and calves will become more defined and stronger from climbing up and down hills, but don’t expect to get the tree trunk legs you see on lifters who love the squat rack.
Similarly, if you’re challenging yourself with trails that have high elevation gains, your glutes will get stronger, more defined, and present a more muscular shape. While hiking might not make your butt much bigger it can absolutely make it better.
Is Hiking Better Than the Gym?
That’s for you to decide. For many hikers, like Jen for example, hiking is much better than the gym. Personally, I love the gym, but hiking is an entirely different experience.
If you go for a hike instead of going to the gym, you get to spend your workout outdoors, enjoying nature, and breathing in the fresh air. The best part is, that it’s still a workout!
If you are looking to train specific muscle groups with gym equipment, hiking might not be ideal.
For those of us who want to challenge ourselves in a different way, this can be a fantastic option, though. Hiking can also be a really great way to jump-start healthy habits if going to the gym seems like a much more daunting task.
For individuals looking for a physical activity to aid with weight loss, hiking can be a much more gentle and low-impact exercise, than say, running.
Unlike going on a treadmill for cardio workouts, or lifting weights for building more muscle definition, hiking has an incredibly low impact on your joints and overall body. This makes it a great choice for people that are recovering from injuries or have some chronic pain.
Whether it’s solo, with friends or even with your dog, hiking can be a more cost-effective and enjoyable alternative to fitness classes or hitting the gym. Getting some daily vitamin D and oxygen can not only be great for your physical health but also your mental and emotional well-being!
Personally, I’ll take the views from the mountain ridges over the views from the squat rack any day.