Strength Training 101
By Sopia Denison-Johnston 10/5/2021
Hi everyone, my name is Sophia and I am a certified personal trainer, body worker, athlete, and enthusiastic tandem passenger. After spending time around paragliders and training a few of them in the gym, here are some tools for you to get after your own strength gains so you can hike faster and longer, while avoiding common injuries and discomforts.
Adding a strength and resistance training regimen to your flying and hiking training is a great way to ensure that your body can handle many miles of long days and keep you injury free… plus you’ll get faster! It’s a win win win. You don’t need lots of fancy gym equipment to have significant improvement, and you don’t even need to take large amounts of time out of your day!
Before I dive into the exercises themselves, there are tons and tons of resources that will show you different ways to strength train. This is NOT the only way! And strength training is SUPPLEMENTARY to other forms of training, like hiking, running, hill sprints, cross training, etc… This is just a a simplified way that I have found yields strength gains that translate to results on the trail. This post is intended to simplify the insanely vast amount of information floating around and make it easy and cheap to get started. I also hope to show you the power of thoughtful program planning and why I chose the movements I chose. Of course, if you want more in-depth support, hire a trainer or coach (such as Ben Abruzzo: firstname.lastname@example.org) to help you come up with a plan based on your personal physiology.
So what are we trying to do here? Our bodies are incredibly adaptive and resilient. Anything that we do a lot of is going to change how our body builds itself. Therefore, the best way to get better at hike and fly? Hike! And Fly! Often! But outside of that, the goal of strength training is to:
1. Ensure that our stabilizing muscles are strong enough to keep our joints, bones, organs, and internal tissues in structurally sound positions, and can keep this up throughout a strenuous workload over a very long period of time.
2. Make our primary movers STRONG so we can get to launch quicker.
3. Build strong bones that can sustain impact (training that involves an added load helps build more robust and resilient bones!). This can reduce the risk of overuse or stress fractures, especially when you ease into it. Oftentimes beginners experience overuse injuries like shin splints because their bones are not yet strong enough to handle the volume of hiking or running they are doing! If you’re not a beginner and you’re experiencing shin splints, you’re probably overdoing it with the impact, and under doing it with recovery and strength.
4. Address potential muscular imbalances to prevent misalignment, impingement, and discomfort. Balance is key!
Here are some common questions I get regarding building a workout plan:
Q: How often should I strength train?
A: 2-3 times per week is a sufficient amount to get you started. If you’re going to start with the low intensity version of planks and superman’s, consider 10 minutes per day, and add in longer strength sessions when you’re ready.
Q: How long should my workouts take?
A: Strength can range from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, but try not to exceed 2 hrs. Consider calling up your hike n fly buddies and scheduling weekly workouts if you think it will help you stay more consistent. At the bare minimum, simply doing the body weight exercises I outline for Goal 1 in this post will make you significantly less injury prone, and can be done in under 30 minutes. You don’t have to do every exercise every day, just try and hit them all over the course of the week.
Q: How should I warm up?
A: 5-7 minutes of cardio to get the heart rate up and the body warm (you should be sweating!), followed by some joint articulation is a great start. To “articulate” your joints rotate or move each of your limbs around their full range of motion. Notice where you are limited, and stretch in that direction before starting your workout. For more intense workouts, it’s a good idea to do a couple reps of whatever movement you’ll be performing with lighter weight before going into your working set.
Q: I am really sore after my workout… how long should I wait to do the next one?
A: Being sore doesn’t mean you can’t work out! Hold yourself accountable to being consistent, no matter if you feel fatigued or sore, and check back in with how you feel after you warm up. You might surprise yourself with what you are capable of! If you’re still feeling awful, you might be sick or you might be overworked, in which case, take care of yourself!
Q: I’m not feeling sore anymore after doing these exercises. Does that mean the workout isn’t effective?
A: Feeling sore doesn’t accurately correspond with how effective a workout is! Soreness comes from your muscles being shocked by the stressor you put on them. Anything you do that is out of the ordinary or is a new movement will probably lead to some soreness. Embrace it, and know that if you’re not feeling sore anymore, it means you’re adapting :) It’s working!
Now lets get started with Goal 1: Stability and Endurance
No equipment is necessary for these 15 body-weight exercises (except things you probably already own: a sock, tea towel/rag/small towel, chair, and a step or even the curb). Our goal is to stabilize our trunk and the muscles that support injury prone joints: spine, hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders. We are looking for volume more so than intensity, so try to get a minimum of 2 minutes in each exercise (you can break up those minutes however you’d like).
While the exercises in this first section are basic and a great place to start for beginners, even very experienced and fit hikers should be doing these! Don’t loose touch with fundamentals when you’re looking for strength! If you are an experienced lifter or hiker, these exercises can be used in a warmup to prime your body for good alignment during your workout, or at the end of a workout to make sure that you are maintaining good posture and fundamentals even when you’re fatigued.
My main focus is on leg and core exercises in this post, because not only are you hiking up a mountain, but you are also CARRYING A PACK. You need strong legs, but your upper body, generally dainty in comparison to your legs, needs to be robust enough to sustain long exertion. Be sure not to neglect the few upper body exercises! Carrying a pack all day and then spending hours with your hands over your head is some serious stress on your back and shoulders! Take care of them :)
1. Plank. If you only do one exercise, make it this one. Or maybe these first 3. Modifications include elevating the feet, going up to your hands, parallel forearms, forearms forming a tripod, etc... Each modification does something a little different, they are all great. Switch it up! This exercise works the deep core muscles, along with legs and shoulders.
2. Side plank (modifications such as dipping your hips down and up or lifting the top or bottom leg are great variations to spice this up once you have the basic side plank down.) This exercise works your deep core and transverse abdominous and obliques, along with your abductors, and shoulders. Bend your bottom leg and lift it off the ground to add in some adductor work.
3. Superman. This one is especially great because it opens the whole front side of the body, and brings tone to the shoulders, back, glutes, and hamstrings which are often not properly activated given how much time the average person spends sitting. Even sitting in the paragliding harness for long periods of time can stretch out those posterior muscles. Activating them with a Superman hold is a good way to make sure that your rear still has proper tone ;) Hold out your hands in front, to the side, or in a “W” shape. The farther away you place your hands from your body, the harder it will be. Feel the difference between keeping your feet together or splaying them far apart.
4. Deadbug. Keep your low back glued to the floor as you alternate lowering opposite arms and legs. Your trunk should be engaged all around with no space between your spine and the floor— think of your core muscles as a tortoise shell protecting your organs and making your torso a super strong cylinder. These deep core muscles match the muscle pattern you have while hiking with trekking poles, ensuring that you will have good spinal posture during your long treks.
5. Quadrupeds (aka “bird dogs”). In a table top position elevate your opposite arms and legs without allowing your trunk, hips, or shoulders to move. If you find this easy, try lifting your knees off the ground so they hover just an inch. Same reasoning as deadbug, just balancing it out on the other side.
6. Clock sliders. If you have wood floors grab some socks, if you have carpet grab one of those plastic things you put under the foot of your furniture so that it doesn’t f*** up your carpet. To perform a clock slider, shift your weight onto one foot. Slide your other foot as far forward as you can and then back to neutral. Then to the same to the side, backwards, and the back corner (imagine you just took a turn in bowling). The name comes from your sliding leg pointing to 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 8:00 when sliding with your right leg. When sliding with your left leg, aim for 12:00, 9:00, 6:00, and 4:00. This exercise is geared towards building strength and stability on your standing leg and hip, while also getting some good range of motion on the sliding hip.
7. Step downs. Stand on a slightly elevated surface and practice that end range step down, dropping your heel down in front of you and allowing your knee to go over your toes. Tap the ground with your heel and then come directly back up to standing. This exercise aims to help strengthen your knees, keeping them safe on long downhills when you’re wearing a pack.
8. Kickbacks. Get in your quadruped position and lift one leg at a time, keeping your knee at 90 degrees so the bottom of your foot faces the ceiling. This works the Gluteus Maximus, which is important for stepping uphill and maintaining balanced musculature in your hip joint.
9. Fire Hydrant. Still in your quadruped position lift one leg to the side, like you’re a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Straighten your leg if you want an added challenge! This works your Abductors, which stabilize your hips and keep your knees from knocking in towards each other when you hike.
10. Good mornings. Stand with your hands behind your head and feet shoulder width apart. With a slight bend in the knee, hinge at the hip to let your torso drop towards the floor, while sending your butt back towards the wall behind you. You should feel a tug in your hamstrings. Clench your butt and pull with your hamstrings to come back up to standing. This works your hamstrings, which are important for hiking up something steep, deceleration when landing, balanced musculature, and protecting your lower back.
11. Bodyweight squats. Pay attention to your alignment (do feet and knees point in the same direction during your squat?) and make sure to get full depth! Bodyweight squats can be done with a variety of stances, narrow, shoulder-width, sumo (extra wide), and can even be done on a declined surface. This exercise targets the quads and glutes, but also challenges ankle and hip mobility, along with strengthening your back and core.
12. Toe raises. Leaning against a wall, place your feet 6in-1ft away from the wall, and lift your toes and the ball of your foot off the ground. To make it harder, move your feet further away from the wall, or do more volume! These two exercises help gain range of motion in your ankle, while working the tibialis muscle, which is important for preventing shin splints.
13. Calf raises. Standing on an elevated surface, let your feet flex so that you feel a stretch in your Achilles. Then press up onto your tiptoes as high as you can. Anyone who's hiked uphill remembers that you use your calves for this.
14. Towel scrunch. sitting on a bench or chair, lay out a tea towel on the floor. Keeping your heel on the ground, use your toes to scrunch the towel towards you. You may need to re-adjust as the towel bunches under your foot. Strong feet make a strong foundation. All your other joints will thank you!
15. Cactus arms. You can do this sitting, standing, kneeling, however. While it may feel more like a stretch then an exercise, it also does a good job activating the mid traps and rhomboids, which are important muscles for maintaining good posture (essential for deep breathing— you need all the lung capacity you can get!). Simply reach up and then draw your elbows back and down, like a cactus, opening your chest as much as you can. Again, the goal of this exercise is to engage the back and open the chest, working to keep your upper body in a strong position while wearing your pack.
Once you’ve been doing some of these and you’re feeling more stable, try to throw in some creative instability. Do you planks with your elbows or feet on a Swiss ball or other elevated surface, or when your single leg exercises stand on something squishy (like a folded up blanket or towel).
An example of how to make this into a structured workout would to simply do these exercises in a circuit, doing 1 minute of each exercise, and then going through the circuit twice. Without rest, that would be a 30 minute workout, and with rest could be closer to an hour (you should be trying to minimize rest for these particular exercises, but don’t sacrifice form!). Have less time? Or are you not ready for a full minute at each exercise? Pick 5 exercises and do 30-45 seconds at each, running through the 5-exercise circuit as many times as needed to get up to 2 min per exercise. Then pick a different 5 the next day! If you’re not ready for a full minute, a good way to break up the circuit is to use whatever time is remaining in your minute as the rest. That way it’s easier to keep track of time.
Now that you’re stable, lets go for Goal 2: MORE POWER!
To get faster, let’s make those prime movers strong!
Hands down THE best thing you can do to hike stronger is some sort of weighted squat. Squats work quads, gluteus, hamstrings, along with all of the trunk muscles to support the weight, which is generally positioned over the center of mass. Split squats add in a lengthening of the hip flexors by extending one leg backward, which is great for pilots, who spend most of their time with their hips in a flexed position. There are many variations for squats, so pick one that feels good on your body. Adding load to these exercises is best, but if you don’t have access to weights, simply increasing the volume and using your body weight. This will still make you far stronger than doing nothing. You can also add weight by carrying objects you find lying around— rocks, heavy books, jugs of water, put your pack on, etc. Resistance bands are also a great option, since they are cheap, easy to buy online, and really easy to travel with. If you do decide to do these exercises with added weight, make sure to start with something that feels easy, and work your way up to higher weights. When you get started, do each exercise in the 10-15 rep range for 3-4 sets. As you get stronger, decrease the number of reps and increase the load!
A short list of variations for squats:
KB Goblet Squats
Double (or Single arm) KB Front squats
Sumo with KB
Here is a toolbox of other fantastic exercises that you can use to improve your hiking! There are tons of videos all over YouTube explaining step by step how to do these movements. Check them out if an exercise you see here looks unfamiliar.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Trap Bar Deadlift
Single Leg RDL
Nordic Hamstring Lowers
Cable pulls (various kinds!)
lateral ball throws
Hanging leg lifts / toes to bar
Goals 3 and 4 are both integrated into the exercises I’ve already described! You build stronger bones simply by virtue of doing resistance training at all, and I’ve included exercises in both the body weight version and weighted version that address potential imbalances.
Here you can find a sample workout I wrote for a paragliding client. This person had already been working with me for several months, so this is not a beginner workout, but it does show you one way to format a workout program. You can see how I grouped exercises, progressed over several weeks, and left blank spaces for my client to fill in their weights/results. Feel free to use this structure as a template for coming up with your own workouts, or find your own way!
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let us know!