When hiking for a long distance, my legs and lower body get used wonderfully. They become really strong, lean, and exactly what I want with my lower body in general.

But one burns a lot of calories when long-distance hiking, and if the upper body is not used enough, it will lose important muscle mass and introduce many disadvantages to everyday tasks and aspects of even safety and survival etc!

Further to this, I wonder how people in civilisations past - who walked almost everywhere they went - dealt with this too.

My first instinct is that as close an exercise type to what the lower body's getting - aerobic - is best for the upper body, for optimum balance. Thus, I assume swimming (especially freestyle with relaxed kicks letting the muscles above the hips do most of the work) is one of the best you can do.

But one is not always near bodies of water on a regular basis when hiking. And I'm assuming strength training (push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups) are a second best due to not being aerobic - but maybe that's all I'd have access to if I'm wanting to significantly balance out muscle strength distribution throughout my body while hiking.

So what things can you do in general to keep an upper / lower body muscle mass balance when extensively walking?

  • 1
    Do you use poles when you hike?
    – Grohlier
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 19:09
  • I'm starting to get into them, I haven't before!
    – user2189
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 0:41
  • 2
    Haul all your water, haul firewood, build some pyramids, become a slave laborer: old school ways of a yoked upper body. I'll pick a modern strength training program any day of the week. Safer, smarter, more effective.
    – Eric Kaufman
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 4:43
  • 2
    Few tasks were so exclusively walking that the rest of the body didn't get a workout, and in the time frame you are most likely concerned about (days, weeks hiking) the degradation in upper body strength is relatively minor. However backpacking rough terrain gives me far more than just a leg workout. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 16:44

2 Answers 2


You have outlined a couple of assumptions in your question which there is no evidence for.

Back in prehistory, people did what they needed to do to survive, and that often wasn't very long. One thing they didn't do, as far as the evidence suggests, is any extra exercise - there was no need for fitness clubs, as they were spending most of there time surviving.

So while you suggest that there was a lot of walking (true for some civilisations, not so much for others) this is almost irrelevant to what the upper body was used for. Erik's comment around hauling firewood, building pyramids etc is spot on here.

That has nothing to do with what is best for you. We have moved on genetically, we have the luxury of spare time, and we live much longer.

Simply put, walking, even long distance walking, is not that much trouble for a human. We have evolved to cope with keeping up a constant pace for far further than any prey we typically hunt. All you need to do is avoid major impact, and feed with a lot of calories.

For your upper body, focus on what you need to do. Are you carrying a heavy pack? If so, carrying a heavy pack is a good way to keep this fitness. If you are more of a daysack kind of person, then carry a light pack.

Muscle distribution happens because of what you do, so decide what you will need, and just do that.

This is really much simpler than I think you realise.

  • "Muscle distribution happens because of what you do, so decide what you will need, and just do that." Well put. Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 16:00

Four possible ways to work upper body muscles harder

Pack heavily

Walking, even a casual stroll, is work for core torso muscles. More weight and more strenuous walking will make these muscles work harder.

When in doubt, pack it. Carry extra water, extra food, extra clothes. Instead of energy bars, pack a a can of soup and a stove. You can enjoy a hot lunch and work your torso.

Find difficult terrain

Look for terrain or trails where you will need to use your upper body. Scrambling is a lot of fun and uses your arm muscles.

Go off trail

Trackless woods have plenty of obstacles. You could even turn it into a sort of woodland parkour. (caution: Downed trees are in some state of decay, so approach them with caution)

Do trail maintenance

Fallen trees and limbs have to get cleared from trails and that work is typically done by volunteers. If you carry a folding saw, next time you encounter a large tree limb blocking a trail you can clear it out instead of going around. If this turns out to be something you really enjoy, some local trail council would be happy to have your assistance.

  • +1 for "do trail maintenance"! To scramble difficult terrain where you really need your arm muscles (which most likely isn't necessary) with a heavy backpack for a novice might not be such a good suggestion.
    – Wills
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 1:11

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