Hiking Guides

What Muscles Does Hiking Work? A Comprehensive Guide


Hiking is an excellent form of exercise that provides numerous health benefits. It is a low-impact activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and fitness levels. Hiking is a great way to get outside, enjoy nature, and get some exercise at the same time.

When it comes to the muscles that hiking works, it is important to note that it is a full-body workout. Hiking requires the use of many different muscles, including the legs, glutes, core, and arms. The uphill and downhill terrain of hiking makes it an excellent cardio workout, as well as a strength-training workout for the lower body.

Hiking also works the muscles in the upper body, including the arms, shoulders, and back. Carrying a backpack while hiking can add an extra challenge and provide additional resistance for the upper body muscles.

What Muscles Does Hiking Work?

Understanding Hiking and Muscle Engagement

Hiking is a popular outdoor activity that provides many health benefits, including improved cardiovascular fitness, increased endurance, and reduced stress levels. It also engages a variety of muscles throughout the body. Understanding which muscles are used during hiking can help hikers prepare for the activity and prevent injury.

Lower Body Muscles

Hiking primarily engages the lower body muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. These muscles work together to propel the body forward and upward during the ascent and provide stability and control during the descent.

The quadriceps, located in the front of the thigh, are responsible for extending the knee and lifting the leg during each step. The hamstrings, located in the back of the thigh, work to bend the knee and control the leg during each step. The glutes, located in the buttocks, provide power and stability during the ascent and help control the descent. The calves, located in the lower leg, provide additional power and stability during the ascent and help control the descent.

Core Muscles

Hiking also engages the core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles. These muscles provide stability and balance during the hike and help maintain good posture.

The abdominals, located in the front of the abdomen, work to stabilize the torso and prevent excessive forward lean. The obliques, located on the sides of the abdomen, help with twisting and turning movements during the hike. The lower back muscles, located in the lower back, work to stabilize the spine and prevent excessive rounding.

Upper Body Muscles

While hiking primarily engages the lower body and core muscles, the upper body muscles can also come into play during more challenging hikes. The arms and shoulders may be used to help with balance and stability during steep ascents and descents.

Leg Muscles Worked During Hiking

Hiking is a great way to exercise, burn calories and enjoy the outdoors. It is a low-impact activity that can be done by people of all ages and fitness levels. Hiking works many different muscles in the body, especially the leg muscles.


The quadriceps, consisting of four distinct muscles—rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius—are critically engaged during hiking activities. 

When ascending, these muscles undergo concentric contractions to extend the knee and propel the body upward against gravity, effectively acting as the primary drivers for uphill movement. 

During descents, the quadriceps engage in controlled eccentric contractions to decelerate knee flexion, providing stability and reducing impact on knee joints. 

These dynamic contractions also offer resistance training, which can contribute to muscle hypertrophy and increased strength over time. Thus, the quadriceps serve essential roles in both ascent and descent during hiking.


The hamstrings, comprising the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, serve multiple essential functions during hiking. 

On ascents, they engage in concentric contractions to facilitate knee flexion and hip extension, assisting the glutes in propelling the body upward.

During descents, they undergo eccentric contractions to control the rate of knee extension, aiding in stability and reducing the risk of falling or overstressing the knee joint. 

The hamstrings also work synergistically with the quadriceps to maintain knee alignment and balance, especially on uneven terrain. Their coordinated activation is vital for effective load distribution, stability, and reduced risk of injury while hiking.


The calf muscles, mainly the gastrocnemius and soleus, are heavily engaged in various phases of hiking. 

When ascending steep inclines or stepping over obstacles, the calf muscles undergo concentric contractions, aiding in plantar flexion to push the body upward. 

During descents, they engage in eccentric contractions to control the rate of dorsiflexion, stabilizing the ankle and reducing impact on the lower extremities. 

The repetitive and sustained activation of these muscles, especially under the added load of a backpack, offers significant resistance training. As a result, consistent hiking can lead to muscle hypertrophy in the calves, contributing to increased size and definition over time.


The gluteal muscles, primarily the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, are fundamental to hiking activities. 

When ascending, the glutes undergo concentric contractions to perform hip extension and external rotation, acting as the powerhouse that propels the body upward. 

During descents, they engage in eccentric contractions to control hip flexion, contributing to stability and balance while reducing impact on the spine and knees. 

Working in harmony with other lower body muscles, the glutes also help maintain pelvic alignment, crucial for effective energy transfer and reducing strain. The significant demands placed on these muscles during hiking contribute to their hypertrophy and strength, enhancing overall performance and endurance.

Core Muscles Worked During Hiking

Your core muscles play a crucial role in hiking, often working subtly but consistently in the background to maintain balance and stability. 

Comprised mainly of the abdominals and lower back muscles, the core acts as a stabilizing center that links the upper and lower body. When navigating through uneven terrains or carrying a backpack, a strong core is essential for efficient movement and reduced risk of injury.


The abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis, are actively engaged during hiking to provide core stabilization and postural support. 

These muscles contract isometrically to maintain spinal alignment, especially crucial when carrying a backpack that shifts your center of gravity. When climbing uphill, they work in conjunction with the lower body muscles to generate a strong, stable core, facilitating more efficient energy transfer and reducing the load on the spine. 

During downhill segments, the abdominals engage in eccentric contractions to control the forward tilt of the pelvis, contributing to balance and reducing strain on the lower back.

Lower Back Muscles

The lower back muscles, primarily the erector spinae, play a pivotal role in maintaining an upright posture and providing spinal stability during hiking. These muscles contract isometrically to counter the gravitational pull, especially when carrying a backpack or navigating uphill, to prevent the lumbar spine from excessive flexion or rounding. 

When descending, the erector spinae engage in an eccentric contraction to control the rate of spinal flexion, allowing for a controlled and safe descent. Furthermore, these muscles work synergistically with the abdominals to stabilize the core, aiding in balance and reducing the risk of injuries like strains or sprains.

Upper Body Muscles Worked During Hiking

Hiking is an excellent form of exercise that engages various muscle groups in the body. While most people think of hiking as a lower-body workout, it also provides significant benefits to the upper body. 

In this section, we will discuss the upper body muscles worked during hiking.


The shoulders are one of the primary muscle groups engaged during hiking. As you carry a backpack and walk uphill, the shoulder muscles have to work hard to keep the backpack stable and prevent it from bouncing around. 

The following shoulder muscles are worked during hiking:

  • Deltoids: The deltoid muscles in the shoulders are engaged during hiking, particularly when carrying a backpack or using trekking poles. These muscles work isometrically to stabilize the shoulder joint, helping to evenly distribute the load of the backpack across the upper body. The use of trekking poles also activates the deltoids, as they assist in propelling you forward and maintaining balance, especially during uphill or downhill segments.
  • Trapezius: The trapezius muscles are engaged during hiking to support the weight of a backpack and maintain an upright posture. They contract isometrically to stabilize the shoulder blades and assist in load distribution, reducing the strain on the spinal column. When using trekking poles, the trapezius also contributes to the scapular movements required for effective pole use.


The arms are also engaged during hiking, especially when you are using trekking poles. Trekking poles help to distribute the weight of the backpack evenly and reduce the strain on the legs. The following muscles are worked during hiking:

  • Biceps: The biceps brachii aren’t just for show when you’re out hiking; they have a functional role too. If you’re gripping trekking poles, your biceps engage to flex the elbow and assist in the push-pull dynamic, especially during uphill climbs. Even without poles, the act of stabilizing a backpack or simply balancing yourself on uneven terrain can subtly work these muscles. So while hiking may not replace your bicep curls, it does give these front-arm muscles a different kind of workout.
  • Triceps: While hiking, your triceps serve as the unsung heroes of upper-body engagement. If you’re using trekking poles, these muscles kick in during the extension phase, pushing the poles back to propel you forward. Even without poles, the triceps are at work, helping to stabilize your arms as they swing in sync with your stride, contributing to your overall balance and momentum. So, the next time you’re hiking, remember that it’s not just a leg day; your triceps are also clocking in some miles!

Overall, hiking is an excellent full-body workout that engages various muscle groups, including the upper body. By working the shoulders and arms, hiking helps to improve upper body strength and endurance.

Foot and Ankle Muscles Worked During Hiking

Hiking is a great way to exercise the muscles in the lower legs, including the foot and ankle muscles. These muscles are important for stability and balance during hiking, as well as for absorbing shock and propelling the body forward.

The following foot and ankle muscles are worked during hiking:

1. Tibialis Anterior

The tibialis anterior is a muscle located on the front of the lower leg. It is responsible for dorsiflexion, or lifting the foot and toes upward. During hiking, the tibialis anterior is worked as the foot is lifted and placed on uneven terrain.

2. Gastrocnemius and Soleus

The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are located in the calf and are responsible for plantarflexion, or pointing the foot downward. These muscles are worked during hiking as the foot is pushed off the ground to propel the body forward.

3. Peroneals

The peroneals are a group of muscles located on the outside of the lower leg. They are responsible for eversion, or turning the foot outward. These muscles are worked during hiking as the foot is placed on uneven terrain and must adjust to maintain balance.

4. Flexor Hallucis Longus

The flexor hallucis longus is a muscle located on the back of the lower leg. It is responsible for flexing the big toe downward. During hiking, this muscle is worked as the foot is lifted and placed on uneven terrain.

In conclusion, hiking is an excellent way to exercise the foot and ankle muscles. By working these muscles, hikers can improve their stability, balance, and overall performance on the trail.

The Impact of Hiking on Cardiovascular Fitness

Ah, the heart—a tireless drummer setting the rhythm for your body’s grand orchestra. When you hike, you’re not just giving your muscles a run for their money; you’re taking your cardiovascular system on a roller coaster ride of peaks and valleys—literally! As you ascend those mountainous terrains, your heart rate climbs too, entering the zone of aerobic exercise. Your heart pumps faster, your arteries widen, and your blood carries more oxygen, almost like a series of mini “sprints” for your circulatory system.

And here’s the science-y bit: Hiking elevates your heart rate, training your heart to pump blood more efficiently. This can lead to improved cardiovascular health, reducing risks like hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Plus, the variation in incline challenges your heart to switch gears quickly, which can enhance its adaptability over time.

So, whether you’re strolling through a forest or conquering mountainous terrain, remember—every step is a beat in the symphony of your cardiovascular wellness.

Benefits of Hiking for Muscle Strength

Hiking is a fantastic way to improve overall fitness and muscle strength. It is a low-impact exercise that can be done almost anywhere, making it an accessible activity for people of all ages and fitness levels.

Here are some of the benefits of hiking for muscle strength:

Works Multiple Muscle Groups

Hiking is a full-body workout that engages multiple muscle groups. It works the muscles in your legs, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, as you climb up hills and walk on uneven terrain. Hiking also works your glutes, which helps to improve your posture and balance. 

Additionally, hiking requires the use of your core muscles to stabilize your body as you move, which helps to strengthen your abs and back muscles.

Builds Endurance

Hiking is an endurance activity that requires you to sustain a moderate level of physical activity for an extended period. This helps to build your cardiovascular endurance and improve your overall fitness level. As you build endurance, you will be able to hike longer distances and tackle more challenging terrain, which will further improve your muscle strength.

Low-Impact Exercise

Unlike running or other high-impact exercises, hiking is a low-impact activity that puts less stress on your joints. This makes it an ideal exercise for people with joint pain or injuries. Hiking can also help to improve joint mobility and flexibility, which can help to prevent future injuries.

Improves Balance and Coordination

Hiking on uneven terrain requires you to use your balance and coordination skills to stay upright and avoid tripping. This helps to improve your balance and coordination, which can translate to better performance in other activities and reduce the risk of falls and injuries.

In conclusion, hiking is an excellent way to improve muscle strength, endurance, balance, and coordination. It is a low-impact exercise that is accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. Incorporating hiking into your fitness routine can help you achieve your fitness goals and improve your overall health and well-being.

Final Thoughts

Hiking is an excellent way to work out multiple muscle groups in the body. It engages the legs, core, and upper body, providing a full-body workout. Hiking also offers a low-impact exercise option that is gentle on the joints, making it an ideal choice for people of all ages and fitness levels.

Hikers can maximize their workout by choosing trails with varying terrain, inclines, and declines, which will challenge different muscle groups. Additionally, carrying a backpack or hiking poles can add resistance and increase the intensity of the workout.

Overall, hiking is a great way to improve cardiovascular health, build strength, and increase endurance. It is an enjoyable and accessible form of exercise that allows individuals to connect with nature while reaping the benefits of physical activity.

Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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