If you’re new to hiking and looking to improve your overall health and fitness, and you’re wondering how core strength relates to hiking, then you might be interested in these observations that I’ve made over the better part of a decade of working with hikers to improve their core strength and overall ability to go further and faster into the mountains.
Whilst it is true that hiking will engage a great deal of postural muscles, core strength is more a requirement of hiking than it is an outcome of hiking.
Getting out in the mountains with a backpack is an excellent activity for improving almost every facet of your health and fitness, but unfortunately, just going for a hike on the weekends is not going to make dramatic improvements in your core strength.
So if you’re looking to start hiking as your primary method of building core strength – then honestly, it’s probably not the most effective way you could improve.
However, given that I am probably the world’s most enthusiastic proponent of hiking, I can’t pass up the opportunity to tell you that hiking is an excellent way to utilise your core strength once you’ve begun to develop it!
So how do you build solid core strength that improves hiking performance, makes carrying a pack easier and generally makes hiking and mountaineering more enjoyable?
My recommendation is to start with this core routine that is safe for beginners and still challenging for those with good core strength already. It only takes 5-10 minutes, and it’s designed to be done 3-4 times a week, at home, on the floor with absolutely no equipment.
These exercises might sound a little strange – but when is conventional ever good?
You can begin by just performing one round of the exercises below, and as you improve repeat again for a total of 10 minutes. That’s all you need to start getting stronger.
Perform this for 2 rounds 3-4 days a week.
Dead bug – move slowly for 45-60 seconds
Hollow – hold for 30-45 seconds
Bird Dog – move slowly for 45-60 seconds
Gymnastic Plank – hold for 30-45 seconds
Heel Taps – move fast for 45-60 seconds
My recommendation is to rest just for 15-30 seconds between exercises do you can 2 rounds done in only 10 minutes or so.
Consistency throughout the week is the most important aspect of this routine – make it a habit and you’ll feel the benefits very quickly.
OK, let’s take a look at these exercises in more detail. Photos and descriptions can only contain so much information, so be sure to watch the videos and follow my cues carefully.
I love the Dead Bug because it trains you control your core, whilst moving your limbs asymmetrically, in the same way you walk, hike and climb. Imagine that you’re carrying a heavy pack, the core muscles will need to support your spine in distributing that pack weight right? They’ll need to activate a little as the weight of your pack shifts side to side as you walk, and they’ll need to assist with stability as you move over difficult terrain. The deadbug activates a lot of these muscle groups in a similar way. For that reason it’s really the ultimate core exercise for hikers. Get on the floor and play dead!
The hollow really is the king of core exercises, because it is as doable for beginners as it is challenging for experts, thanks to the multitude of progressions and variations available. As you get stronger, you can advance this movement with the progression as shown. This is really the secret to building core strength – having a clear line of progression. The only downside is that this movement requires a bit of learning – you’ll need to understand terms like posterior pelvic tilt and thoracic flexion – but that’s what I’m here for! What the video and start learning your body!
The Bird Dog is similar to the Deadbug in that it demands core control whilst simultaneously moving your limbs. The main difference being that it is performed in a prone position (body facing the floor) as opposed to the Deadbug where you’re lying on your back. With the combination of these two movement-focused core exercises, you will quickly be on your way to building hiking specific core strength that you need to enjoy the mountains.
I need to preface this by saying that as far as core exercises go, I think the plank is incredibly overrated. It serves its purpose as a testing protocol, or as the go to exercise for lazy boot camp trainers.
I can still hear them shouting it…
“the person who holds the plank the longest has the strongest core”
Why am I hating on the plank so much? Because it’s entirely possible to hold a plank without engaging the majority of your greater core infrastructure like glutes, lats, rhomboids and serratus anterior. In fact, you can hold a plank without even engaging your abs – you’ll know this already if you’ve performed a plank for a minute but felt nothing but pain in your lower back for the final 30 seconds.
So how is this gymnastic plank different?
Because the gymnastic plank demands activation of the whole torso due to its unconventional positioning, using a combination of PPT (posterior pelvic tilt) and protracted shoulder blades. It’s much harder to perform, but the good thing is you’ll only be able to hold it for 30 seconds or so (and that’s all you need!). It’s also much more relevant to hikers and mountaineers because it strengthens some key muscles used when you carry a backpack: most notably the lats, rhomboids and serratus anterior.
Pike Leg Lift
This movement trains flexion of the hip, which is exactly what happens when you lift your knee up to step onto a rock or step when going uphill. Whilst moves like leg raises are useful, they tend to rely too much on overused and tight muscles like the psoas and the hip flexors. Instead – this pike leg lift requires a great deal of quadriceps engagement, but not in the same way that traditional lower body movements like lunges do. I’ve been telling my clients for years that core starts at the shoulders and goes all the way to your quads, and whilst you might not feel a lot of core engagement in this move, it’s definitely going to improve your overall ability to go up hill!
So it is these 5 exercises make up my beginner core strength routine for hikers and mountaineers.
They are designed to build not only core strength in the traditional abdominal sense, but they also build foundations of the greater core infrastructure that includes hundreds of other muscles that contribute to your total body strength and stability. When you train these movements regularly, you’ll find that not only hiking but pretty much any type of sport or movement comes easier to you.
So, 5 movements in 5 minutes.
3-4 times a week.
No equipment needed and every reason to get started. Hit me up if you have further questions!
Is this your first visit to Base Camp?
Allow myself to introduce … myself:
My name’s Chase, I’ve been a strength coach and PT working exclusively with hikers and mountaineers since 2012 when I started Base Camp Adventure Fitness. Hiking and mountaineering has been a major part of my life now for almost a decade. I’ve dedicated my life to this because I believe the world would be a much better place if people spent more time outside appreciating nature. You can learn more about my story and the history of Base Camp here.