Does Hiking Build Muscle? (Muscles Guide for Hikers)


If you’re an outdoorsy sort of person, you might have asked yourself: does hiking build muscle? If so, you’ll be glad to know that, yes, it does. But it might not be the perfect solution if looking like a bodybuilder is your goal.

Have you ever looked around your gym and thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the place for you? Maybe you wanted a little more peace and some time away from the grunting lunks and blaring music.

Many people are scared away from the gym because of the pressuring environment it sets up. Being surrounded by people who have achieved the image you want to achieve so badly can be intimidating. Others simply prefer the scenery in a national park to the sight of Big Jim’s squatting glutes. 

Hiking works several primary muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core, low back, and heart, and can increase muscle mass over time. However, because of its aerobic nature, hiking generally results in less added muscle compared to much more intense activities such as weightlifting.

But how does it work? And what muscle groups are you exercising when you climb up to your favorite overlook? 

What Muscles Are Worked When Hiking?

Because hiking is such a comprehensive activity, it actually works many different muscle groups.

The primary muscles involved include your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, low back, core, and last but certainly not least – your heart!

Here’s a quick anatomy refresher for each of these:

  • Calves – Muscles on the back of your lower leg
  • Quadriceps – Muscles on the front of your upper leg
  • Hamstrings – Muscles on the back of your upper leg
  • Low back – Section of your back between your lowest rib and upper part of the buttocks
  • Gutes – Group of three muscles that makes up the buttocks
  • Heart – Organ inside your chest that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body
  • Core – The core is a complex of muscles responsible for stabilizing your midsection. While many people think the abdominals are the only muscle here, there are several!

Note: For visual examples of each of these muscle groups, make sure to take a look at my dedicated article on what muscles does hiking work.

Keep in mind that these are just the primary muscles used in hiking! You’ll also see your arms, shoulders, and even back muscles at times as well, just to a lesser degree.

If you’ve ever seen a stair-stepper at your local gym, you’ve seen proof that hiking can build up muscle. Just as with lifting weights, using a stair-stepper or going hiking results in tiny tears in the muscle that the body repairs and rebuilds back stronger than before.

More exercise creates more tears, which means more muscle fibers and bigger muscles. This will naturally occur since you’re working your muscles constantly on the trail!

Now keep in mind that it’s unlikely that you’ll look like a bodybuilder just from hiking, but you’re definitely going to be in better shape as a result!

While many people associate the heart as only being involved in cardio, it’s also a muscle. It acts to supply blood to all of the other muscles used during hiking and it will get a great workout of its own in the process.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the other muscle-related questions that are also asked about hiking.

Does Hiking Build Abs?

Since hiking involves supporting your upper body and maintaining balance, your lower back and abdomen muscles will be built up. This means that you’ll see an increase in the muscle mass in your abdominal area. 

One of the biggest target groups when working out is the abs. The abdomen is the area from the chest to the pelvis, and it contains your abdominal muscles. Together with the muscles in your back, these make up your core muscles.

Additionally, when we ask if ‘hiking’ does anything we should remember that hiking means many things to many people. If by hiking you mean a short jaunt down an uphill trail, then you’ll naturally see some muscular buildup over time. 

However, if by hiking you mean cross-country backpacking trips, you’re pretty much subjecting yourself to weights similar to what you would see on a crunch machine or a deadlift. Forty pounds of supplies on your back is bound to build strength.

Does Hiking Build Glutes?

Hiking typically involves elevation gain and loss, which means you’ll need to propel your body up and forward. This leg raising and driving action is a great activator of the gluteus muscles, i.e., your butt!

Think of your steps in hiking up a hill as being similar to step-up boxes in the gym. Essentially what’s going on here is you’re lifting the weight of your body, which works your glutes and makes them stronger.

While the shape of any muscle certainly involves one’s personal genetics, you may have noticed that many avid hikers have well-developed glutes.

That’s because all of the miles that they’ve spent on the trail going up and down have gotten their glutes into great shape!

Not only do the glutes act to drive you up a trail, but they also work as a balancing and braking factor during descents. Put simply – hiking is a great way to literally get your butt in shape 😉

Does Hiking Make Your Legs Bigger? 

If you are coming from an untrained state, then it’s very likely that hiking will result in an increased amount of leg muscle. The amount and appearance of muscle added will vary person by person, but at a minimum, your legs will appear more toned.

Keep in mind that unless you are taking on some very serious hikes with high frequency, i.e., those bordering on mountaineering, then you’ll not likely develop large amounts of muscle akin to that of a bodybuilder.

If you are concerned that hiking will make your legs unattractive, then you have nothing to worry about!

Hiking is a sustained, endurance-based activity that tends to work slow-twitch fibers. These are aerobic muscles that get worked when you engage in a sustained, light activity like jogging or hiking. 

These can be compared to fast-twitch fibers, the muscles that get worked when you swing a kettlebell or sprint. 

When you engage in weightlifting, you work muscles for only moments at a time and give yourself a while to cool down. This builds up the fast-twitch fibers, giving bodybuilders their big, showy physiques. 

On the other hand, Hiking engages the slow-twitch fibers through sustained aerobic activity, which doesn’t show as well as fast-twitch exercise.

However, aerobic activity uses a lot of energy over a long period, and certain processes are engaged to burn fat and produce the energy you need to keep working.

So, even though you’re building less noticeable muscles, they’ll still start to pop out more as you burn more fat. 

Does Hiking Tone Your Body?

Yes, hiking will tone the body. 

When people say they want a ‘toned’ body, they often mean that they want leanness. This means they want a low amount of fat compared to muscle.  

Hiking is an aerobic activity, which means that it is a sustained activity done continuously over long periods.

To sustain this activity, your body has to create energy. To do this, it dips into its stores of energy- one of these being fats. 

As fat is burned to create energy, your fat-to-muscle ratio goes down.

As slow-twitch fibers are built up, the muscles they are associated with will become slightly bigger and more defined.

Clearing the fat out of the way allows this definition and size to come through better and be more visible.  

Is Hiking a Good Training Program for Muscles?

Like with any judgment of value, the answer is relative. It depends on what you want. 

What are your goals for physical activity? What do you want to work out, and what sorts of results do you want to see from your workouts? 

If you want to become a muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger type, you might be better off hitting the gym. As said before, hiking is a sustained, aerobic activity that builds more lean muscle than massive bulk. 

However, hiking is a great workout if you just want a more chiseled, strong physique!

It builds smaller muscle fibers and burns fat to give them visibility. Additionally, it increases overall strength by building up more muscle fibers.

So if you’re looking for a more practical but still aesthetically pleasing physique, hiking is the workout for you.

You might want to look elsewhere if you want to look like a hunk of raw power!

Is Hiking A Good Way to Lose Weight? 

If you want the short answer: yes. Hiking expends energy and requires a source of that energy. In addition to whatever you’ve eaten, a lot of that energy will come from fat stored in the body.

The more frequently that your body uses its local fat store as a source of energy, the lower your overall fat levels will be.

To answer this question more precisely we have to look back at what we mean by aerobic exercise.

Aerobic means ‘with air.’ So, Aerobic exercises require the presence of oxygen in the muscles. 

When you do a low-intensity workout such as hiking or jogging, you can feed more oxygen into your body for the amount of work you are doing, and your body puts that oxygen to work. In doing so, it uses materials from fats and sometimes muscles to create energy. 

If you want to lose weight while hiking, a long hike on an empty stomach (think hiking for breakfast) will do that best.

When your body has no food to create energy, it starts to use stored energy from food- fat. So, as you hike your body expends energy, which burns fat. 

Hiking and other aerobic activities are great fat burners.

How Does Hiking Compare to Running?

Hiking and running are both forms of aerobic exercise but differ in various aspects:

#1 Impact on Joints

Running involves repetitive impact on the joints due to the constant pounding on hard surfaces, which can increase the risk of joint-related injuries.

On the other hand, hiking typically involves walking on varied terrain, which tends to be less jarring on the joints and may be a more joint-friendly option.

#2 Muscles Engaged

Running primarily engages muscles in the lower body, such as the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, while also providing some core activation.

Hiking engages similar lower body muscles but also activates additional muscles like the hip flexors, stabilizer muscles, and muscles in the upper body due to the use of trekking poles or carrying a backpack.

#3 Intensity and Caloric Burn

Running generally involves a higher intensity and greater caloric burn compared to hiking, as it requires a faster pace and higher impact.

However, the intensity and caloric expenditure in hiking can vary based on factors like speed, terrain difficulty, and elevation changes.

#4 Impact on Cardiovascular Fitness

Both hiking and running can improve cardiovascular fitness.

Running, with its higher intensity, tends to provide a more intense cardiovascular workout, promoting greater improvements in aerobic capacity.

While typically less intense, Hiking offers cardiovascular benefits and can be tailored to increase the intensity by choosing more challenging trails or increasing speed.

Ultimately, the choice between hiking and running depends on personal preferences, fitness goals, and considerations for joint health.

Both activities offer unique benefits, and individuals can incorporate both into their fitness routine for variety and to target different muscle groups.

The Deal With Hiking and Building Muscle

To conclude, hiking is a great way to work multiple muscles and build up a toned, lean body.

This is because hiking engages aerobic systems in the body. However, hiking isn’t like high-intensity training such as weightlifting, and you won’t see the same results. 

If you’re looking for a stronger, more chiseled body without the massive bulk, hiking might be just the workout for you. As opposed to the gym, hiking provides scenery and challenging new activities, as well as the thrill of discovery when exploring a new place. 

If you want the Arnold Schwarzenegger look, on the other hand, you might want to stick with the presses. High-intensity training like weightlifting engages fast-twitch fibers, which are the fibers muscle builders are building up when they look for more bulk. 

All in all, If it’s a toned body you want, but you don’t like the cramped and noisy atmosphere of the gym, hiking can fill in the gaps. Feel free to get out there and see the sights and trust that you will see noticeable improvements in your health and well-being.

Hi, I'm Zach Reed and I'm a Colorado-based outdoor lover! For more information about me, take a look at my dedicated about me page.

Leave a Comment