Kettlebell Training For Hikers And Backpackers
Updated: May 12
Hiking is just walking in the woods, right? How hard can it be?
If you live in the midwest where everything is flat then you might not need to train much for hiking beyond regular walks but if you carry a heavy backpack for multi-day hikes or deal with rugged terrain then you better use your time between hikes to get in shape.
Not only does being in better shape let you enjoy your hike more because you aren't exhausted, but it also reduces the chance of injuries due to overuse or instability. Everything in life is better when you are fitter.
One of the best ways to train for hiking is with kettlebells and bodyweight exercises. You might not know the name but you have probably seen the odd-shaped implement that looks like a cannonball with a handle.
Why Train With Kettlebells?
Due to their unusual shape and balance, kettlebells offer a lot of fitness options in a small package. The offset nature of the weight forces your body to work harder than it would with the same weight dumbbell.
Combining kettlebell movements with bodyweight exercises will build strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and mobility all in one workout.
Read our article on 9 Reasons Why Kettlebell Training Is Optimal For The Outdoor Athlete
A well-designed kettlebell program will improve all aspects of your fitness for hiking without the need for hours of training per day or access to a gym.
We do all of our workouts at home but since they don't take up much room we throw a few kettlebells in the trunk when we go on a road trip as well.
When the weather is good you can also train outside which adds to the fun and opens up other options such as load carries for distance.
Fundamentals Of Human Movement
Just about all human movement breaks down into simple primary functions. As long as you do some variation of each regularly you will be training the whole body. Since many of the kettlebell movements combine these movement patterns you get a lot of bang for your training buck.
Hip Hinge - These are movements that have predominantly movement around the hip with minimal knee flexion. Hip hinge movements load the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back to straighten the body from a bent position. This is how to best pick things up from the floor.
Squat - Squatting is a combination of knee and hip flexion. Think of getting up from the toilet.
Lunge - Lunging in single-leg dominant movements. The carry-over to hiking is great as every step is one leg at a time.
Push - This is pushing with the upper body. Examples are push-ups or pressing a bag overhead to put it in the overhead compartment in a plane.
Pull - This is pulling a weight towards you or pulling yourself toward something. Pullups and any climbing are examples of pulling.
Carry - This is just moving while carrying weight. Most exercises are static but in the real world, we need to carry things. Whether it is a heavy backpack or doing the grocery run in one trip, loaded carries are part of life.
Kettlebell And Bodyweight Exercises
Kettlebell training is broken up into ballistic and grinding exercises. Ballistic movements are fast and explosive while the grinding movements are slow. Both should be done with control but there are unique differences that yield different training effects. Most bodyweight exercises would fit into the grinding category unless you are adding in some form of jumping or bounding.
Ballistic Kettlebell Exercises:
Swing - This is the basic kettlebell ballistic movement using a powerful hip hinge to swing the kettlebell up and out. The repetitions are done in an uninterrupted rhythm. There are a number of variations but all have the same key elements. The kettlebell will swing up in an arc to roughly shoulder height and then gravity will bring it back down without you resisting. As the kettlebell moves towards your crotch you will hinge at the hip, allowing it to move back between your legs. As it comes to a stop you immediately explode driving your hips forward elevating the kettlebell again. Repeat for the required number of reps.
Tips for the swing:
Hinge at the hips
Load the hamstrings
Shins stay close to vertical with butt back
Don't squat your swings
The forearm stays in contact with the inner thigh to drive the weight
Drive the kettlebell forward and up with a powerful hip extension
squeeze the gluts at the top
Your arms are a rope
Finish in a fully extended standing plank position
Clean - The clean is using hip drive but redirecting the kettlebell to catch it in the rack position at roughly shoulder height. This can be used as an exercise on its own or as a way to get the kettlebell up for exercises like the press or windmill.
Snatch - The snatch is the most advanced of the ballistic exercises using a powerful hip extension to drive the kettlebell to a fully locked out overhead position in what seems like one motion. It actually breaks down into three stages: swing, redirect with a high pull, and finally punch your hand through the handle to lock it out.
Grinding Kettlebell Exercises:
Turkish GetUp - The short description of this is to start on your back with a kettlebell pressed to lockout like a bench press. Keeping your arm locked out you go from laying on your back to standing. This is great for core, mobility, and building stabilization in the shoulders. Being able to get up is a basic skill everyone should have but it rarely gets practiced so we have Turkish Get-Ups in our warmup every workout.
Press - With the kettlebell in the rack position at shoulder height you press it overhead to lock out. Lower under control and repeat. Once you know how to clean you can add a clean between each press for a great full-body workout.
Deadlift- Deadlifts are a hip hinge that has you lifting the weight off the floor and standing up to full lockout with knees and hips straight. We use this as a practice exercise to learn the motion of the swing.
Goblet Squat - This is a deep squat while holding the kettlebell in front of your chest. It can be held by the handle or by the body in the palms.
Lunge - Lunges are long steps with a deep bend in the forward knee. They can be done in a front-back plane, side to side, or on angles. The walking lunge is great training for hiking as it is an exaggerated variation of the actual activity. Lunges can be done with just bodyweight or loaded with a kettlebell held in either the goblet position or rack position.
Row - In a bent position you pull the kettlebell from your straight arm to your midsection. Rows work the upper back, shoulders, biceps, and forearms. Plus when you do them one arm at a time you engage the core to keep the body from rotating.
Weighted Carries - This is walking with weight. We use the waiters walk, rack walk, and suitcase walk. Waiters walk is carrying the kettlebell locked out overhead. The rack walk is carrying the kettlebell held at chest height. The suitcase walk is carrying the kettlebell in your hand at your side like carrying a suitcase.
With all of these loaded carries, they are done one side at a time to create an offset load which increases the demand on the core to keep your posture straight. If you have two kettlebells you can also do the farmers carry which is just the suitcase walk with weight in each hand for a more demanding conditioning workout because the total load is higher.
Body Weight Exercises:
Pushups - This is the basic bodyweight pushing movement that will train your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Additionally, the plank position you are holding will offer a lot of core work.
We all know pushups but most people don't know a lot of the techniques for proper form.
Don't flare out your elbows to the side
Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down
Tuck your elbows
Lower until your elbows are bent at least 90 degrees
Engage the abs and glutes
Your body should be a straight line with no sagging in the middle
Body Rows - Also referred to as inverted rows, this exercise has you pulling your body up while your feet are still on the ground. They can be done of anything solid enough to support your weight. We use gymnastic rings attached to a pullup bar but you can also use a TRX suspension trainer. When we train outside we will often attach the straps of the gymnastic rings to the top bar of a swing set or over the soccer goalposts.
These are great for strengthening your upper back and can help you get strong enough to do pullups. Even when you progress to doing pullups, keep a horizontal row like this your program help train the postural muscles in the upper back.
Pull-ups - Pull-ups are one of the most effective upper body exercises as they work the pulling muscles of the back, your biceps, your core, and forearms. FYI. Pull-ups are done with palms facing away and chin-ups are with palms facing you. They can also be done on a towel thrown over a bar which makes for a great variation that is great training for grip strength and rope climbing.
Most people can't do pull-ups to start but there are progressions that will get you there. Even if you can't do a pull-up yet, just hanging from a bar is a great therapy for shoulder and postural health. Plus it will help build grip strength.
Crawling - Humans are one of the few animals that move predominantly on two legs. Various crawls such as the bear and lizard crawls will build fitness and mobility over the whole body without needing any equipment. It also helps coordinate our hands and feet moving together.
When you look around the internet you will find discussion of individual exercises and there are a lot of stand-alone workouts but there seems to be a lack of actual kettlebell programs with progressions. The best discussion I have seen about building a program over time is by Mark Wildman on his YouTube channel. His thinking mirrors my own in the idea of systematic building over time and learning to master a weight before you move up. It is long-term versus short-term thinking.
I want you to pursue a fitness program that you can follow injury-free for years. Get fit quickly isn't a recipe for building sustainable habits or learning new skills. While some in the kettlebell community prefer to refer to sessions as a practice rather than working out, I'm fine with the latter but we need to reframe the idea of work.
If you think about it in the context of manual labor you don't dig ditches with an all out effort because you need to do it again tomorrow. You do a lot of "work" and over time the amount of work you can get done in a day increases both in load and volume. While you will feel fatigued over the course of a training session, I like people to leave a workout feeling better than they came in. Ditch the idea of every set being pushed to failure or the point that you can't do another rep. It may happen occasionally but max effort work isn't the goal. We want every rep to be high quality.
What is Intensity?
The intensity of an exercise is the load you are using not how hard you are training. This can be thought of as a percentage of your 1 rep max weight but for kettlebells, we don't generally do this since you can't micro load like a barbell. To simplify I like to think of heavy, medium, and light.
What is Effort?
This is how taxing an exercise feels. If you push a set close to muscular failure, the point you can't get another rep, it will feet hard even if it is with a relatively lightweight. Lower body or full-body exercises, higher reps, and anything that requires core bracing the whole time like front squats will all feel like harder work.
What is Volume?
The volume of a workout is the total work done. You can calculate this in poundages. With kettlebell training, we maximize volume with weight before moving up to the next heaviest bell. The increasing volume will help with strength, muscle growth, and building work capacity.
Increase volume slowly over time. Decrease volume and start building it back up when you increase the weight.
You can increase volume by doing more reps, more sets, more frequent workouts, or do the same amount of work with a heavier weight.
In most situations, I would suggest not going more than 10 sets of an exercise in a session. Once up to this level of sets I would either increase reps or weight to limit the length of the workouts.
The math is pretty simple.
Reps X Sets X Weight = Total Volume
Example of 10 sets of 10 reps of kettlebell swings done with a 24 Kg weight.
10 X10 X 24 Kg = 2400 Kg total work done
What is Density?
Density is how much work you get done in a certain time period. This can be used a few ways such as EMOM (every minute on the minute) workouts or just trying to get as much quality work done in a set time as you can.
For example, we set a timer for 10 minutes and in that time you try to get as many high-quality sets of 5 kettlebell clean and press per arm. Let's say you get 10 sets. If the next time you do this workout you get 11 sets you have increased the density of work.
What is an EMOM?
Every Minute On the Minute. Set a timer to beep every minute. When it beeps you will do your prescribed set. Whatever time is left in the minute is your recovery.
When done with low reps you get a great strength workout, while higher reps will take longer so the rest period is shorter leading to a better conditioning effect.
These can be done in straight sets fashion where you do all the sets of a certain exercise in a row before moving on to the next exercise or in a circuit style where you do a different exercise each minute.
When it comes to warming up there are three goals: Activate the muscles, raise your core body temperature, and prime the movement patterns you are going to do.
We do a simple program of the following:
5 Goblet Squats (go deep and open the hips at the bottom)
5 Kettlebell Halos in each direction
10 Glute Bridges
1 Turkish Get-up per side
I will then do a couple of light sets of the main movements I'm going to do for the day.
That's it. Simple and effective. It gets the body warmed up and primed for action.
Always Cool Down
After a workout, it is a good idea to restore mobility to the muscles. Training makes the muscles tighter so right after while you are still warm is the best time to stretch. You can do some yoga for 10 minutes or just a series of stretches to get loose again.
I focus on the hips, shoulders, forearms, and calves as these tend to be tight after a workout.
What Weight Kettlebells Should I Start With?
Bear in mind any weight recommendations are just general guidelines as I don't know your training history. If you are totally new to exercise then starting lower isn't a bad idea.
Women: 8 Kg and 16 Kg
Men: 16 and 24 Kg
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If you are new to structured training you will make great gains in fitness by training 3 days a week plus go on a couple of walks. Since kettlebell training tends to be full body movements we will use the body weight to fill in the gaps.
You will be doing one exercise for each primary movement pattern. This will cover the whole body and you will build skills in the movements. You need to practice a movement and get proficient at it before you start adding complexity.
For instance if you don't have good hip hinge mechanics than you will want to spend time working on your kettlebell deadlift or goat bag swings before doing to the two handed swing. Learn a movement pattern in a slow version before trying to do an explosive version.
What You Need
1 Kettlebell (Women 8-12 Kg, Men 16-20 Kg
EMOM Straight Sets
Do all of your sets of swings before moving on to the next exercise.
10 Two-hand Kettlebell Swings or Kettlebell Deadlift
8 Goblet Squats
5 Kettlebell Rows
15 Step Suitcase Marches Per side
Start with 4 rounds of each exercise and add 1 round per week until you are up to 8 rounds. This will give you a 5 week plan.
Train 3 days a week on non-consecutive days (Example: Mon-Wed-Fri)
Notes: Suitcase march is holding one kettle bell at your side like a suitcase while marching in place with high knees. Keep your body straight. Once you have done your steps for one side then using deadlift form, lower the bell to the floor and repeat for the other side. If you have the space or can train outside then you can do your suitcase carries walking rather than marching in place.
What You Need
2 Kettlebells - one you should be able to press overhead at least 5 times and the other should be a heavier weight for swings and goblet squats. (Women 12 and 16-20 Kg, Men 20 and 24-32 Kg)
Pull-up bar, suspension trainer or doorway pull-up handles
Resistance band (13-15 mm width)
Do a set of swings the first minute, pull-ups the second etc. until you have done all the exercises. Repeat the cycle for the number of rounds indicated.
This program has 3 strength training days and 1 conditioning day. Do the strength days on non-consecutive days and fit in the conditioning day where ever you like. Just do it.
There are two strength workouts. Alternate them. For example, on Monday do workout "A", Wednesday do workout "B" and Friday do workout "A" again. Reverse this order the following week.
Do the prescribed warmup before each workout.
Start with 6 rounds and add on round per week until you are doing 10 rounds per exercise. This will be a 5 week program. Expect to be fatigued by the end of the 5th week and plan a deload. This will mean in the sixth week you will do the same workouts but only half the sets you did week 5.
Set your timer and do a set every minute rotating through the exercises repeating until you have done the required number of rounds. If you take the number of exercises and times by the number of rounds you are aiming to do you will come up with how long the workout will be. To start with the workouts will be 30 minutes long and build to 50 minutes long on week 5.
3-5 clean and press per arm (use your lighter kettlebell)
5 Goblet Squat/ Rear stepping lunges (1 squat and 1 lunge per leg is 1 rep)
3-5 Pullups (do 8-10 reps if you have to do body rows)
20 Two-handed Kettlebell Swings
3-5 Ab rollouts
20 Kettlebell Swings
10 Push-ups with resistance band.
6 Rear Stepping Lunges Per Leg ( Hold kettlebell in Goblet position)
25 Step Suitcase Carry
Humane Burpee - The Humane Burpee is a deconstructed burpee invented by strength coach Dan John. They are done with load which makes it much more metabolically demanding while at the same time reducing the stress on the lower back and knees that a lot of people feel from standard burpees.
You do swings, then goblet squats and then pushups. This is repeated without rest for 5 sets with the reps for squats and pushups desending from 5 to 1. Once you have done all the rounds then you get to take a break for 2 minutes before repeating for the prescribed number of rounds.
Use your light kettlebell to start but if you want an extra hard workout do it with your heavier kettlebell.
Humane Burpee Breakdown:
Do all of the below with as little rest between exercises as possible while maintaining good form.
One round takes about 4 minutes and will be 75 swings, 15 goblet squats and 15 pushups.
In Week 1, do 1 round of the following:
15 Two-handed Swings
5 Goblet Squats
15 Two-handed Swings
4 Goblet Squats
15 Two-handed Swings
3 Goblet Squats
15 Two-handed Swings
2 Goblet Squats
15 Two-handed Swings
1 Goblet Squats
In Weeks 2 and 3, do 2 rounds of the humane burpee.
In Weeks 4 and 5, do 3 rounds of the humane burpee.
Rest 2-3 minutes between rounds. One round takes me about 4 minutes to do so three rounds would take about 16 minutes.
When you are looking for a challenge that will increase your endurance, whole posterior chain development and lean you out then a variation of Dan John's 10,000 swing challenge is a great way to accomplish this. The idea is that you do 10,000 kettlebell swings in 20 workouts. The target is to get those workouts done in 4 weeks.
The programming is pretty simple, you do 500 swings per workout plus 6 sets of another exercise, usually one for the upper body. There are many ways to structure the workouts but in sticking with my love of EMOM workouts for time efficiency this is my version that I created for my partner to boost her fitness going into spring.
What You Need
The weights listed will seem heavy but remember that this is an advanced program so I'm assuming you have been training for at least 3 years consistently and use these weights for swings regularly.
3 Kettlebells (For women 16, 20, and 24 Kg, For men 24, 28, and 32 Kg)
Gymnastic Rings (hung from your pull-up bar)
There are 3 workouts.
Two-Hand Kettlebell Swings
Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
Gymnastic Rings Pushups or Dips
Two Hand Swings
Ab Wheel Rollouts
If you are doing 5 days a week, you will alternate workouts "A" and "B" twice a week with workout "C" done every fifth session.
Monday - Workout "A"
Tuesday - Workout "B"
Wednesday - Workout "A"
Thursday - Rest
Friday - Workout "B"
Saturday - Workout "C"
Sunday - Rest
Each workout is 31 minutes. Set an interval timer to beep every minute. You do a set at the start of each minute and how ever much time left in that minute is your recovery time.
There will be 6 rounds of the cycle each session.
Min 1 - 20 Swings
Min 2 - 20 Swings
Min 3 - 20 Swings
Min 4 - 20 Swings
Min 5 - 5-10 Pull-ups, ring push-ups or ab rollouts (Pick a load that is work but don't hit failure on these)
Repeat 6 rounds.
To hit 500 swings there will be one final set of swings when you are done the last set of your alternate exercise. That is minute 31.
When you are done cool down and stretch, especially the hamstrings.
Week 1 - Start with your lightest weight for all of your swings
Week 2 - Do every fourth set of swings with your medium weight
Week 3 - Do every second and fourth set with your medium weight
Week 4 - Do every second set with your heaviest weight and every fourth with your medium weight
If you only have one weight of kettlebell this will still be a great workout as long as it an adequate load. If you only have a lighter kettlebell then do one-handed swings, making sure to do the same number of reps for each arm.
Once you have completed all 20 workouts I suggest switching back to a more all-round program taking advantage of your new-found fitness and all over badassness.
The Wrap Up
For the hiker who wants their hikes and backpacking trips to be more enjoyable or you want to be fit enough to cover more miles, then training in between your trips with kettlebells and bodyweight will be one of the simplest and more effective approaches. These workouts are very efficient as you build strength and endurance in workouts that are well under an hour.