Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle?
Cardio exercises such as Walking, Running, and Jogging deliver tremendous benefits to your health. They increase your heart rate, improve your blood flow, and maintain the functioning of your muscle groups. However, not everyone has the amount of available time, stamina, and even the mindset to go for these types of exercises in order to stay in shape. A simple solution for those people would be going for a hill walk whenever possible. Besides boosting your heart function, walking uphill also works out the large and crucial muscles of your lower body, including the calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
We’ve often been asked “Does walking uphill build muscle”? The precise and short answer is Yes, hill walking is a better muscle building exercise than walking on a flat road or an exercise machine. Let’s find out exactly how this occurs.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – Muscles Used Walking Uphill compared to Downhill
When you are hiking uphill, the muscle groups that are being used the most are situated in the posterior chain of your body. These include specifically the glutes, the hamstrings, and the calves. Therefore, hiking uphill is a great way to develop speed and power and muscle tone, as you are forcing the majority of your body weight on to the forefoot, you generate more power from these large chain muscles in the rear. Walking and hiking uphill puts extra stress on, and requires more effort from your body, and as a result, you burn off more calories, you activate more of your larger muscles, and you push your body to higher limits than when walking or hiking downhill.
When you go downhill, you put greater force on the front muscles of your body, particularly the lateral hip stabilizers and quads. Due to the effects of gravity, you pick up speed and let go of your body and coast down the hill. Therefore, while walking downhill, your primary focus becomes stricter control and good form rather than power and effort. Plus, downhill walking where you are speeding up with relaxed muscles is also known to help to remove blood sugar and improve glucose tolerance.
Even if you are in good shape, walking uphill on reasonably steep inclines is a tough enough workout for most of us. People often assume that walking uphill is harder than walking downhill, but in reality, both parts of the hike have their ups and downs (Get it, LOL).
As you are walk or hiking uphill, you use the muscle fibres that require more of your calories and energy to be expended. While walking uphill, you power through, fighting against the pull of gravity, but while walking downhill, you are using your muscles to control your balance and momentum utilising more passive strength and energy.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – Muscle Building by Walking and Hiking Uphill
When you walk on a flat road, you use only around 20% of your lower body’s muscle tissue. However, when you walk uphill, you use far more of the muscle capacity available in your legs, and probably without realising it, you also use more of the upper part of your body too. The main muscles used while walking uphill include the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, secondary muscles, and lower leg muscles. Let’s have a quick look at them in detail.
- Quadriceps are the big muscles in the upper leg that extend your legs from above the knees. This is a group of four muscles that together make the biggest muscle of your body. Working on these muscles helps in burning maximum fat and calories.
- Another large muscle group situated at your legs’ back part is the hamstrings.
- Glutes are the butt muscles that get good exercise when you walk at a steep incline. The steeper you walk, the more glutes and hamstrings will be built and worked.
- Lower leg muscles, like calves, receive a harder workout on an inclined plane than on a flat surface.
- Secondary muscles include your back muscles, shoulders, and abs, as they get exercised when you move your arms to drive your body upwards. The steeper the incline, the more workout will these secondary muscles get.
An added bonus of Hill Walking and Hiking is that your legs and body in general will get well toned. Next time you’re out on the hills, check out the muscle tone of some of your fellow Hikers. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Try not to make it too obvious though.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – Muscle Building by Walking Downhill
If you’ve been hitting a serious uphill stretch for a while, and the sweat is flowing freely, it’s always a welcome relief when you reach a nice downhill stretch. Most people will feel that downhill walking is easy, but the reality is sometimes the downhill stretch that places higher demands on some of your body muscles. If performed regularly, walking downhill can be a great help in keeping tone, improving balance and building muscle too.
Walking downhill utilises several of the smaller muscles of your lower body, including calf muscles, hip rotators, hip flexors, and abdominal muscles. You utilise your quadriceps while extending your legs and stretching out your knees or bending your hips. The Hamstrings are also used when you extend your hips, thereby placing a higher demand on your hip extensors and knees.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – Types of Muscle Contractions used while Walking Uphill
Muscles tend to contract in one of two ways: concentric contraction and eccentric contraction. Concentric contraction is the type in which your muscles shorten, while eccentric contraction is the one in which your muscles stretch and lengthen.
As you hike back down a hill, you try to counteract the momentum that you are picking up. With this effort, your hip extensors and knee muscles contract eccentrically to reduce your walking speed and slow down the effects on your legs.
These eccentric muscle contractions help in building strength through the whole range of motion of these muscles. You could argue that more energy is required to walk downhill than walking uphill, if you were putting a great deal of effort into cushioning your downward momentum and keeping strict control over your balance and movement. You need a lot of energy to stimulate the braking action of accelerating downhill. If these braking contractions do not occur, you will gain too much speed and start running rather than hiking down the hill.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – A Word of Caution
Even though hill walking effectively helps to build muscle and increase strength, it has some risk involved too. The risk of muscle soreness is often higher with eccentric contractions than concentric. You often feel the pain after finishing a tough hike. You can find more info here, in this interesting read from Hike Heaven. Often, on a tough hike you don’t even realise that you are overdoing it. Hill walking also can also stress your ankle, hip, and knee joints. If you already have issues in these parts, like me, avoid pushing yourself too hard until you have more experience of how your body is going to react afterwards, just to be safe.
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – What are the Best Tips for Safe Hill Walking?
You should be able to get the most out of hill walking and hiking and stay safe by following a few simple guidelines:
Warm Up: Hill walking can give you an intense workout of your muscles and lift your spirits too. Warming up before heading into the hills is always a good idea. Warming up ensures that your muscles are prepared for the exertions ahead and your blood is pumping. By warming up you shouldn’t pull or tear a muscle.
Shorten your Steps: Taking shorter steps will make it easier to keep your body under control, especially while going uphill and carrying weight.
Avoiding Leaning Too Much: While you are going uphill, you tend to lean into the hill naturally. But you must ensure that the lean comes from the ankles, not from the waist. Too much leaning can make you lose your balance. Try to keep your upper body over your hips, as too much bending in either direction can put excessive strain on your lower back.
Monitor your Level of Exertion: Hill walking increases your breathing, and heart rate, as more muscles are involved in walking up and down hills than walking on a flat surface. A good way to monitor your exertion is to ensure that you can still speak to your hiking partner while walking without gasping out words.
Use Hiking Poles: Using hiking poles while walking on a hill can be a good way to give support to your upper body while going uphill and stabilizing your torso while going downhill. I have tried them myself and found them very useful, especially after my knee replacement.
Once you have built up the strength and put some stamina into your leg muscles, you could even embarrass climbers like this Buddhist Monk that went viral walking up a super steep slope past climbers who were using ropes!
Does Walking Uphill Build Muscle? – Conclusion
Hill walking is an ideal way to build muscle and shed body fat, especially when done the right way and safely. It is an aerobic exercise that will increase your heart rate and improve blood circulation throughout your body. Muscle building is targeted towards the leg muscles when you are hill walking, but it is a great way to give a strenuous workout that will include your upper body as well.
If of course you are recovering from injury, just starting out again after a layoff, or just want an easy walking workout without much effort and equipment, then hill walking can also be the perfect workout for you too. Add it to your regular fitness routine and gain some positive health benefits along with great muscle tone and fast recovery.