Can Hiking Build Muscle? Experience From a Hiker/Weightlifter

Aug 18, 2021 | Hikers' Ed

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Hiking is a great form of exercise. Just like weightlifting I’ve been doing it for years, and can personally attest to its amazing physical benefits. 

 

Hiking can help most people build leg muscle. If you’re an advanced weightlifter or athlete, hiking won’t increase muscle hypertrophy, but you can still improve your endurance and cardiovascular system.  

 

Allow me to explain in further detail whether hiking can help you build leg muscle or possibly have the complete opposite effect. 

 

Will Hiking Help You Build Muscle? 

If hiking is your only form of exercise, you best believe you’re going to see some leg gains. When you haven’t performed any type of consistent exercise in months or years, your leg muscle fibers will easily tear and repair, which means more muscle hypertrophy. (Hypertrophy is just a fancy term for increased muscle size). 

 

Just keep in mind that even if you hike multiple times a week your legs will NOT grow significantly. They’re not going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legs when he was training for Mr. Olympia. Think about the muscle growth being more like toning your legs rather than having two massive slabs of meat. 

 

Unfortunately, if you’re an athlete or have been weightlifting for roughly 6-12 months or more you will more than likely not see any difference in your muscles. This is due to the fact that your training regimen, either on a field or in the gym, is going to be much more intense than most hikes. 

 

Therefore, you will not tear as much muscle or tear it as easily as a person who has just begun to exercise. If you’ve been weight training for years and have pushed your body to the point where you’ve built a significant amount of muscle, you can actually cannibalize your muscle gains if you’re not careful. 

 

Hiking forces you to burn a lot of calories. If you’re not careful, and you push your body on a long and difficult hike without providing your muscles with an adequate amount of calories, your body will start to use your muscle fibers and the glycogen stored within them to sustain you with enough energy. 

 

It sounds a bit like an exaggeration to lose muscle on one hike alone, but trust me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on a brutal hike only to find out I couldn’t lift as much weight in the gym the following days. 

 

How Does Hiking Build Muscle? 

The process of building muscle while hiking is fundamentally the same as building muscle in weightlifting or any type of exercise for that matter. The step-by-step process goes something like this. 

  1. You perform a physical action that is at minimum slightly more intense than your day-to-day activities. 
  2. The activity you performed causes your muscle fibers to tear. 
  3. Once you are RESTING, your body uses the protein you feed it to repair the muscles you “ripped” while working out.
  4. Your muscle grows bigger after it’s been fully repaired. 
  5. The cycle repeats again when you work out. 

 

Building muscle is a painfully slow process. Pun very intended. But as we all know, the payoffs are always extremely rewarding. When you hike you tear all the muscles in your legs and possibly some in your upper body as well. 

 

The pain comes from the lactic acid building up in your legs while you’re on the hike. In a nutshell, that’s how muscle mass is increased. 

Which Muscles Are Built From Hiking

 

Hiking targets primarily the legs in your muscles. Specifically your quadriceps (the front of your thighs), your hamstrings (the back of your thighs), your glutes, and your soleus and gastrocnemius (your two calf muscles). 

 

Depending on whether you’re ascending or descending the mountain, hiking will target different muscles. Let’s start with ascending. 

 

Ascending

When you’re heading up the mountain you’re going to feel more of the burn in your hamstrings, glutes, and calves. That’s because you’re targeting all 3 more than your quads. That being said, ladies please don’t expect your glutes to grow a whole lot by hiking. 

 

The only way to add on significant size to your legs and butt is to train with resistance, in other words, weight lifting. 

 

Descending 

When you’re heading down the mountain you’re going to be significantly engaging your quads to fight against gravity. Be prepared to feel that burn! 

 

Whenever you’re training in any type of exercise you’re actually engaging a wide variety of muscles throughout the entire body. Hiking is no exception. It’s very possible to feel soreness in your abs, back, or your trapezoids the following day even though you didn’t feel like you used those muscles.  

What Types of Hikes Build the Most Muscle

The hard ones. Okay but seriously, just like with any workout, the most rewarding is usually the toughest. If you want to tear the most muscle while you’re hiking, I’d focus on the hikes with a high elevation gain to a low mileage ratio. 

 

The steeper the hike the more it forces your body to walk at an angle similar to a lunge, and we all know how fun those are. If you feel like that’s still not difficult enough, take bigger steps. This will lower your body closer to the ground and increase the intensity.

 

If you’re on a short hike and you don’t need to carry a backpack, you can invest in a weighted vest. It’ll distribute the weight more evenly throughout your upper body, and feel much more comfortable than filling up your backpack with random weight. 

 

Post Hike Muscle Recovery

After you complete your hike you should focus on three factors to allow your muscles to fully recover and rebuild. 

 

  1. Eat correctly. You need to feed your muscles high-quality protein. Remember, in order to build muscle your body needs protein. Foods such as chicken, fish, protein powders, and eggs are all excellent sources of protein. Don’t neglect carbs and fats. You need all three macronutrients for muscle growth but focus mostly on protein. 

 

2. Sleep. If you’re the type of person who’s always sleep-deprived you’re probably going to have a very difficult time building muscle. Your muscles need an adequate amount of sleep in order to fully repair. I recommend at least 7 hours (preferably 8) if you want to maximize your hiking gains. 

 

Even though I’m used to being sore almost every single day because of my training regimen at the gym, I’m quite aware many people hate the feeling. To decrease the soreness in your muscles you can massage them or use ice to reduce the inflammation. 

 

Some people find that CBD helps. I’ve found it to be okay. Kratom is also good for muscle soreness as it reduces pain. 

 

If you really can’t stand the soreness, you can use over-the-counter meds such as Ibuprofen or Advil, but always consult your doctor first. I am not a doctor or licensed practitioner in any way shape or form. 

 

Hiking vs Weightlifting 

Hiking and weight lifting are both amazing forms of exercise and are superb for burning calories. I like to incorporate both because they offer different types of health benefits. I hit the gym four times a week and hike at least once to maintain a healthy body. 

 

Let’s wrap it up by looking at what each has to offer. 

 

Weightlifting

I started weight lifting when I was in high school, which adds up to a total of 12 years at the time of writing. It’s helped me add on a significant amount of muscle and boost my self-esteem, which to me is priceless, and it can do the same for you. 

 

Training with weights also increases bone density and helps maintain a healthy weight. The discipline you learn from being consistent at the gym will spill over to different areas of your life, I promise you that. 

 

Hiking 

Hiking is an amazing workout that will increase your stamina by improving your cardiovascular system in a way that weight training can’t. If you’ve ever felt like your heart was about to burst out of your chest right before you bagged that peak you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

 

Not to mention, there’s something extremely therapeutic about hiking. Stanford researchers concluded in a study that simply being out in nature is one of the best prescriptions for your mental health. I would add spiritual well-being to that study as well.

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We’re Monica and Phillip. Just like you, we share a passion for the outdoors and our beautiful state of California. After many years of exploring amazing and hidden places, we thought we’d share them with you! We hope this blog shows you tons of new CA adventures!