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5 Single-Leg Exercises You Need for Hiking

Are you missing an important component of hiking training? 

Hiking, after all, is essentially just standing on one leg and then the other for hours at a time, taking you to places that take your breath away. 

And yet, many training programs miss out on single-leg training. 

I'm going to give you my top five single-leg exercises today, and how to do those exercises so that you have less soreness after hiking. 

Exercise One: P Step Down 

The p step down is training the exact movement as hiking down a slope, while also targeting your vastus medialis oblique (VMO).

How to do it:

  1. Get on a step or something similar. 

  2. Balance on one leg and elevate the heel. I like to use a rolled-up cloth or a sweater.

  3. The other leg should be slightly lifted and forward (as if you were walking downhill).

  4. In this elevated position, dip down a little bit below the step and then come up. 

Exercise Two: Lateral Step Up 

Lateral step-ups have about the same amount of glute engagement as a forward step-up, but they give you the extra benefit of training your plantar flexors.

How to do it:

  1. Starting on the side of a step, place one foot on the step and one on the floor. 

  2. And step up! Focus on keeping the top heel down as you go through the movement.

More weight can be added to this exercise, either with dumbbells or with a barbell. Whether I'm adding weight or not, I'm using my top leg to do the stepping for this particular exercise. 

To make this move higher, harder, and work through a greater range of motion, drop the back leg down so that you are leaning on the front leg and then stand up nice and slow. 

One common correction I make with clients for step-ups is you want to make sure that your shoulders and hips are rising at the same time. Often I'll see people step up with their hips first then raise their shoulders to stand up straight. And although that's still building strength in some muscles, it's not as relevant to hiking up a mountain. 

Exercise Three: Lunge

Lunges are amazing because you can modify them in so many different ways. You can progress both the weight and distance of the movement as you get stronger. 

You can have your feet wide apart or really close together. Your feet can basically be in line or a curtsy lunge where they're crisscrossed, or you can move the front leg far over to the side, similar to a lizard lunge in yoga.

How to do it:

  1. If you're just starting out, I would take the lunge to half-depth. 

  2. Start with your feet kind of three steps apart. 

  3. Sink to half depth and come up nice and strong. 

If you've got knee pain when you lunge, you might be too far back. Try and let your knee come over your front foot and then come up all the way. 

Exercise Four: Carry 

Any kind of carry is going to be amazing for your hiking strength. With each step, carries are going to help with your hip stabilization. 

If you try them at home, start with the same weight in either hand and film yourself. 

When you're looking back at your carry videos, make sure that your hips are staying level and not dropping to the side. If you are getting a hip dip or drop as you walk, it’ll show up in the recording. You want to make sure that you're not training that movement pattern. 

Exercise Five: Calf Raises

Calf raises might seem simple, but if you think about it, this group of muscles is working during our entire hike on the way up and the way down. 

I love calf raises because you can change up what fibers of your calf muscles you're hitting by changing your foot position. 

Often people will do the same foot position over and over and over again. Be aware of what you're currently doing and actively try to change it. Often we choose the easiest version of an exercise to do bio-mechanically when we're left to our own. 

Try adding in reps with your toes together and heels apart. You could try an equal distance, which often people have trouble with. I also love to do a rotating calf raise because it's going to hit different parts of the muscle that are also activated when you're walking.

How to do it:

  1. Start with two feet on your box or on any kind of drop-down step. 

  2. Lift and lower your heels. Try to not hold onto anything unless you're just using it for balance. Once you get strong enough, progress to a single-sided calf raise and the different variations. 

I've got a separate video on different calf raises you can do. You basically could do an entire workout just with calf raise variations! 

But how do you prevent hiking soreness?

The secret to reducing soreness is to focus on tempo during these exercises. 

Tempo is the speed at which you're doing a particular movement. We want to pay attention to the downward or eccentric portion of each movement. 

We want to do them slowly, even taking as much as 5 seconds to get into that bottom position. 

What do you do if you're substantially stronger on one side than the other? 

When my clients ask me about this, I'll often customize the advice I give them based on their goals. But a great place to start is to know that up to 10% of variance left or right is considered clinically normal and okay. 

If you have larger differences than that, generally I would recommend adding an extra set of whatever exercise it is to your weaker side. We want to get ourselves within 10% before we increase the amount of weight we're lifting on both sides. 

If you're just getting started training for hikes, we have a free 30-day program called the Couch to Summit Program. You can do it on your own time, in your own home to get ready to experience the trails in your area. 

And if you're looking for even more help and advice, join our eight week hike ready program! You can always reach out to me if you're training for a huge goal and you want some customized one-on-one support.

I hope you have a WILDR week! 


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