Strength training routine to make hiking season easier

One of the greatest joys in life is learning something new, especially when it means improving something you love.  For me, this meant getting serious in the gym, relearning everything, to make packing weight up the trail exponentially easier and more enjoyable. It takes effort to reach high places. 

I am no stranger to the gym. Way back when, I was a national and world powerlifting champion, and for many years lifting heavy things – such as the rocks I used to build my 200+ raised bed gardens – was very useful. But with my focus changing, so did my workouts, particularly since I felt like I was physically falling apart with daily aches and pains. For nearly a year, my shoulder hurt to the point where I could barely grate a carrot. I thought surgery was unavoidable until I went to my chiropractor/miracle worker, Dr. Mark Stoebe of Great Falls Chiropractic Clinic. He said it was a mild impingement, and after a couple of treatments, sent me on my merry way with the instructions on exercises I needed to avoid. This meant no more overhead barbell presses, push-ups, bench presses, and other exercises that involved both arms moving the weight simultaneously, especially with a barbell.  The next issue is the diastasis recti I have due to multiple abdominal surgeries, so basically my goal is to keep muscles from separating any worse than they are.  It’s such hot mess that many traditional ab exercises are off the table.

So I turned to fantastic fellow homeschool mom and exceptional personal trainer Tamara Podry of Anchor Fitness. Tamara and her husband, Zach, started this very unique (at least for Great Falls) gym where personal instruction and focused fitness go hand in hand. It’s not a club open at all hours; instead they have a growing number of classes, along with invaluable one-on-one time helping people reach their health goals. I explained my new focus to Tamara, listed my limitations, and she took it from there.

After consulting with Dr. Stoebe, she understood what I couldn’t do as far as the shoulder goes, but came up with exercises to strengthen the joint – since imbalances or weakness are a significant cause of injuries – and we learned what core strengthening routines worked without feeling like my abs were tearing apart. She developed strengthening exercises for my legs, focusing a lot on my glutes and hamstrings since she said many of us are disproportionately strong in our quads. Plus, she included exercises for the lower back because, as any hiker knows, one of the first things we often do when we take off our packs is give a nice forward fold stretch. Hopefully, by strengthening this area I’ll need less of that even if I’m hiking 30 miles over a few days with 30 pounds on my back.

Here is one of the strength routines she put together, including the reasoning behind the moves:

Squat with one-arm dumb bell press – This is a dynamic move that incorporates the lower body, as well as excellent stabilizing and strengthening  of the biceps, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. It’s hitting a little bit of everything. I admit, I was concerned when she brought up this one because of the shoulder situation, but the dumb bells make all of the difference allowing a more natural angle. It’s been fine. 

Bent over rows – While the majority of hiking involves the legs, Tamara reminded me that we definitely use our back and upper body when we’re backpacking.  Whether it’s hoisting a fully loaded backpack up in the sky on a bear pole, having to use arms for a scramble, as well as simply using trekking poles for general hikes, it’s a full-body activity. The bent over rows (once again, with dumb bells) effectively works the upper back. After more of these, I believe they will even improve my rowing abilities in the raft.

Bent over row

Sumo deadlift – Although I always used the conventional form instead of the sumo, deadlifts were always my baby in competition. But the sumo deadlift, which is one with a wide stance and feet pointed farther out to the sides (not completely parallel), engages more of the gluteus medius that runs underneath the gluteus maximus and is important for single-leg weight bearing exercises, such as hiking. The trick, as least for me, is to focus on hinging at the hips and not overly relying on the quads, which is a natural thing to do. Tamara recommended using some sort of platform on each foot to allow for a greater range, then she gave a wicked little laugh, so I think that means a fair amount of pain. 

Good mornings – This is another lower back exercise that every hiker should do to make carrying a heavy pack that much easier.  Many times a barbell is used, but dumb bells are equally effective. Settle the weight on your upper back, or shoulders with the dumb bells, and hinge at the hips leaning forward to reaching roughly parallel from the floor. This is a good one to focus on reps and not necessarily heavy weight, and will really make a difference. 

Assisted pull-up – With the super-band, you don’t dare get the giggles or you might be shot up and over the rack. This incredibly strong rubber band helps  people, even if he or she couldn’t do a single pull up on their own, receive the full benefit of the exercise. Tamara showed me the dos and don’ts of stepping into the band, and helped me not kill myself, so I was able to complete pull-ups with my chin above the bar. I could really feel it in my lats (Latissimus dorsi) while performing it, and today I noticed how much my biceps responded to it. 

Bosu ball – I’ve long been intrigues by Bosu ball, but never attempted any of the routines myself since I wasn’t aiming to be on Funniest Home Videos. In reality, the Bosu is an excellent tool to work on balance and stability, especially in those smaller muscle groups that are often neglected. Tamara had me concentrate my weight on the stationary leg on the Bosu while tapping to the side with the other one, the bringing it up high in the front. That’s easier said than done, let me tell you! While my form wasn’t perfect, it will improve, and I can see how it’s going to help my ankles and supporting muscles. 

Plank with spiderman and twist – Despite my messed up abs, I can do planks. Tamara stepped up the effort by adding a spiderman, where one leg is brought up parallel and towards your upper body, followed by a twist. I can’t say that my form was textbook, but it really helps to keep the entire core stabilized. 

Side plank with leg raise – This is another one that helps stabilize the core. Last fall, I could only do them on my knees, but have progressed to full extension. Now Tamara recommended adding a leg raise as the best way to go to reap more benefits. At first she had me do 10 reps. No problem. The remaining 2 sets, she brought out the stop watch for 30 seconds each side with leg raises. I was dying. She wants my goal to be a minute. 

Stomping bear – This one looks easy until you try it. Starting on all fours, bring your knees just an inch or two above the floor, then alternate lifting your hands back and forth, just like a bear who is irritated might do. This hits a lot of muscles, including the core, legs, and arms. By the time we reached this final exercise on the last set, I was dripping with sweat. 

For this full-body strengthening circuit, which she recommends doing at least 2 times per week, we did 3 sets of 10-15 reps with minimal rest in between exercises. This bumped up my heart rate into the cardio level, which is an added bonus for the overall program.  The cardio work I’m adding to the program- a foreign world for me – will be addressed in my next installment of  since it is every bit as important as the strength aspect, and Tamara has done a lot helping me to understand the best way to go about it.

As challenging as it is, I am loving my strength program, and always look forward to learning something new. There’s nothing like having someone watch your form to ensure you’re utilizing the muscles the best way possible.  Numerous times throughout our training, Tamara corrects what I’m doing since I’m primarily focusing on breathing and generally not dying. There’s no point in cheating because it’s only cheating yourself in the end.  I would rather be sore now than have pain or extreme difficulty take away from the experience on the trail.