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Are you ready for hiking season?

Tips and advice from an orthopedic surgeon and fitness coaches

For many of us in the Flathead Valley we look forward to seasons changing, but summer is a particularly welcome change after the darkness and cold of winter. Chores consist of moving skis into storage and getting out the tent and hiking boots.

With the seasons, our sports and activities also change. Our muscles cringe as they remember what it’s like to go for a trail run or carry a loaded backpack. With a renewed vigor fueled by warmer temperatures, it’s not uncommon for many to “hike back into shape” as a spring fitness program. As a result, much of the focus is on our legs. This is inconsistent in terms of a routine training program and probably isn’t the most comprehensive way to get fit before summer arrives.

We’ve asked orthopedic providers and fitness coaches at Kalispell Regional Healthcare to offer some advice about what exercises we can do to prepare for our summer adventures.

“Our bodies are a network of muscles and movement,” explains Dr. Karen Perser, orthopedic surgeon at Northwest Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. “Even if you were active during the winter, it’s likely that your spring and summer recreation will require use of different muscles in different ways. The optimal approach to prepare for summer activities is to work the entire body – the legs, upper body, core and joints – before hiking season to avoid injury.”

If you have big plans for hiking and backpacking this summer, it’s key to prepare your glute muscles and legs. You’ve got to involve both the big muscle groups and the smaller stabilizing muscles because they work in tandem.

Below are ten suggested exercises curated by certified fitness trainers at The Summit Medical Fitness Center that mimic the body’s natural movement and engage the muscles you’re likely to use out on the trail. Like with any new exercise program, if you have any health concerns, be sure to consult a medical professional before going full throttle with a new program. There’s nothing like going too big too fast and missing out on summer fun due to a pre-season injury.

If you’d like to learn more about small group or personal fitness training to help prepare for your summer, call (406) 751-3096 or go to krh.org/summit. If you are in need of an orthopedic or sports medicine provider in the area, please check out Kalispell Regional Healthcare services at krh.org/ortho.


Top ten tips to prepare for summer hiking

Hitting the gym to build up and strengthen your lower body and core will likely set you up for a more active, adventurous and injury-free hiking season. You’re on your own with the grizzly bears, however.

THE GOBLET SQUAT - Targets your quads, glutes and hamstrings.

  • The Setup: Hold a kettlebell by the handle with both hands at chin height, like you would hold a large goblet if you were on Game of Thrones. Pay extra attention to the set up before any movements to ensure proper form. Stand with your feet a bit wider than your shoulders. Hold the weight against your chest with your elbows tucked in. If you’re using a dumbbell, hold it vertically. If it’s a kettlebell, grab the “loop” on the outside – the side of its handle. If you have neither, get something heavy you can hold against your chest like a free weight or repurposed milk container filled with water or sand.
  • The Movement: As you squat, keep your elbows inside the line of your knees, and the heels of your feet flat on the ground. Go as low as you can in this position, then come back up, pushing through your mid-foot. Be sure movements are controlled and your core is braced as you move.
  • The Numbers: If you’re starting out, aim for eight to ten reps in three sets, three a week. For added challenge, increase the weight by holding two kettlebells, and increase the sets. You can slowly increase the weight as you become stronger. For optimal hiking strength, try higher weights and lower reps.

THE DEADLIFT - Targets the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, but it also works the quads, abdominals, upper back, arms, forearms and shoulders.

  • The Setup: Stand with your heels hip width apart and toes pointed out at about 15 degrees. Before starting, while your knees are unlocked, your shins should be one inch from the bar. From there press your shins into the bar to gauge how much your knees should bend. The bar is to be touching part of your legs through the entire motion. Grasp the bar with a double overhand grip. Without moving the bar, press your chest forward while looking about 5 feet in front. From there the bar can then be lifted straight up, and straight back down.
  • The Movement: As you reach down for the weight, bend your knees and at the hips (with a straight back), drop your butt, tighten your core and root your toes and heels in the ground. Set your grip, check your hand placement and engage your quads. Act like you are trying to push the floor down versus pulling the bar up with your arms. As you stand, keep the bar close to your shins. Arrive to a standing position by straightening your knees and shifting your hips slightly forward, making sure to contract those booty muscles. Activate your abs by taking a deep breath into the bottom of your lungs and bracing throughout the deadlift to protect your lower back. Unlock your knees and hip hinge the weight back to the floor. Be sure your moves are deliberate, controlled and not too quick.
  • The Numbers: If you’re coming off the couch, consider easing into things with light weights (55-75 lbs) with 5 reps, 3 sets, 3x a week. As a general approach, light weights and more reps will result in toned muscles and some growth. Heavier weights, less reps, and more sets will build strength.

PROWLER PUSHES - Targets feet and lower legs, quads, hamstrings, glutes and core. 

  • The Setup: The prowler is heavy sled-like tool that is you may have seen on football training fields or in gyms with athletes pushing it around on the ground. The same exercise could be done with a tire or other similar “sledding” equipment. To an unfamiliar eye, it may look as though you just grab and push, but the toughest part is getting the sled to move. It requires good stability, consistent power and engaged muscles to keep it moving, especially when loaded with weight. Also, because of the slower, more deliberate movements, it’s a great way to safeguard against injury which usually happens with quicker and jumpier movements. Find a good grip, set your feet up in a similar width as your running stance, keep your body in proper alignment from the head to feet. The spine (from the lumbar to cervical region) should remain in neutral alignment, your joints in your upper body should remain stacked, your torso and pelvis should face ahead and your knees should remain in line with your feet the entire time.
  • The Movement: Before you take your first step and push, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core and drive hard with your legs. Keep your core engaged the full time for optimal stability which will allow you to generate more force with your lower body.
  • The Numbers: For newbies, start with a light load to get the feel and body alignment down. After 5-6 warm-up pushes, load more weight. Start with approximately 60-80% of your maximum weight to the sled (maximum weight means you cannot push the prowler at all). Execute a 10-yard push. Your goal is to push this weight as explosively as possible. Rest for 3-5 minutes between each lap (there/back). Perform 6-10 rounds. As you gain strength, increase the weight and reps to achieve your desired outcome.

KETTLEBELL SWINGS - Full-body exercise, but targets the hip hinge, which primarily engages the glutes and hamstrings. 

  • The Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a kettlebell about a foot in front of you on the ground. Bend at the waist and knees and grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands. Your palms should be facing your body, and your torso should be nearly parallel to the ground. Keep the heels of your feet flat on the ground, arms fully extended and back straight. You should be bending at the hip and knees only. Be careful not to roll your shoulders forward.
  • The Movement: Be mindful of proper form and back/neck alignment for the entire set, especially as you tire. Bend at the hip hinge – this is where the primary bending action should happen, your knees are just part of the motion, but not a dominant player for this move. Lift the kettlebell off the ground and allow it to swing between your legs. Your knees should bend slightly, but your hips and buttocks should be sustaining the weight more than your knees. Keep your back flat and neck aligned on the same plane – like you are balancing a rod vertically on your back as you bend forward. Take a deep breath from your diaphragm (not just your chest) as the kettlebell lowers, and exhale fully during the swing. Forcefully drive your hips forward to propel the kettlebell into the air. Don't use your arms to pull the kettlebell up, but engage your arms for a controlled swing. The kettlebell should remain below your shoulders at its highest point. Allow the kettlebell to swing down and back through your legs. It’s important to control the descent by keeping your core engaged – as though you are setting a delicate package down on the ground. As the kettlebell lowers, keep your hips bent, abs tight, back straight, elbows extended. Head smoothly into the next swing and repeat.
  • The Numbers: If you are new to kettlebells, start light and focus on technique. Once you perfect your form, gradually increase the weight so you feel challenged. For a beginner, find a weight that feels right for you and try out 3 consecutive swings (a set) and do 10 sets. Increase weight and/or reps dependent on your desired outcome – tone, strength, muscle building or conditioning.

Exercises at home or outside with minimal equipment

A mountaintop workout or some quick strength exercises on your trail run is an appealing way to add a little flare to routine. After all, you can’t find a hi-tech gym with machines and gear in the middle of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Here’s the next best thing without

SQUAT TO PRESS (WITH BAND) - Targets quads, hamstrings and shoulders (primary), but also abs, calves, glutes and hip flexors. 

  • The Setup: Begin the movement by stepping on to the middle section of a resistance band with your feet at shoulder-width, toes pointed slightly out. Grip the handles or band with your palms facing away from your body. Bring your hands to your shoulders, keeping the handles of the band behind your shoulders and your elbows tucked in – not winged out. Engage your core, keep your chest up, and look ahead.
  • The Movement: Bend first at the knees, then hip hinge. Lower your butt into a squat position until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Keep your heels planted. With your core engaged, push up with your legs first – driving through your legs and heels. As you arrive to a standing position, push the resistance bands overhead, keeping your arms parallel to one another (not angled out) to reach a full body standing position with your legs and arms fully extended. Slowly lower your hands in a controlled manner, paying special attention to deliberate movements and a tight core. Return to a squat position and fluidly enter into the extended press again.
  • The Numbers: As a new exercise in your program, be sure to start with a band that is long enough for full extension, but one that also provides resistance. Form and proper technique is key to avoid injury.

GOOD MORNING (WITH BAND) - Targets hamstrings, lower back and glutes. 

  • The Setup: Using looped band, stand on the band with both feet and check that the band is centered vertically under your shoe soles. Loop the loose end of the band over your head and behind your neck. If you find the band is pulling on your skin during the exercise, try a hooded sweatshirt or towel under the band. Spread your feet shoulder-width apart and lightly hold the band at hip height with your hands. Keep your back tight, shoulder blades pinched together and your knees slightly bent. This is the starting position.
  • The Movement: You essentially are moving into and out of an L-shape – with your hips as the bend or hinge. Bend downward at the hips with knees straight (but not locked) and with hips and buttocks back. Your upper body should bend to the point of being parallel with the ground. Raise out of the bend with straight legs, extend your push through the hips and arrive to a standing position. Keep your back and neck spine in proper alignment to one another. Stay tight in the core, straight in the back and repeat movement. Ensure that you do not round your back as you go down back to the starting position.
  • The Numbers: There is a good chance you’ll feel sore from this exercise until your body grows more accustomed to the movements, so don’t go too crazy out of the gates. As you get stronger, increase band resistance, reps and sets to gradually add more challenge your workout. Three to five sets of 15 to 20 reps twice a week is a good place to be for a weekly routine.

STEP-UPS - Targets your quads, hamstrings and glutes. 

  • The Setup: A step-up is simply performing the movement of stepping up onto a box or platform. Step-ups are simple movements that are deceivingly effective to strengthen the lower-body. If you are new to step-ups, try a 12- to 16-inch tall box, step or bench that is sturdy and stable. Your body is a recommended “weight” to start until you gain flexibility and strength. Your focus for this exercise should be an emphasis on good form and technique during motion to avoid rolled ankles or injured knees.
  • The Movement: An ideal and safe step-up includes 90-degree angles at the hips, knees and ankles during exercise. Start with one foot stepping up on the box. With your hands at your sides, feet pointed straight ahead about hip distance apart, simply “step-up” onto the box with the right foot. As you step up, be sure to place your weight on the mid-foot to heel of your support leg, bend at the hip without tilting too far left or right and focus on maintaining your knee directly over your ankle/foot. Keep the right foot solidly planted on the platform. Lift your body up onto the platform without too much flailing by engaging your glutes and your core muscles. Push off the left foot and place the left foot next to the right foot on the box. Keep your posture vertical during the movement. Step down with the right foot and follow with the left back to the starting position with the same form in mind. Avoid plopping or dropping down. Your glutes engage with calculated and controlled steps. Take 3 to 5 seconds to step up and lower back to starting position (one rep = complete up and down). If you’re doing this correctly, you’ll feel the most active muscle use in your glutes.
  • The Numbers: Perform fifteen steps with the right foot leading each up and down step. Repeat the action with the left foot as the lead. One set equals fifteen reps on right leg and fifteen reps on left leg. Try three sets for your workout and add reps, sets, weight (barbells in hand) and height to increase difficulty and strength.

BASIC LUNGES -  Targets glutes, hamstrings and quads, but also calves, abs and back. 

  • The Setup: As you move into and out of a lunge, your body weight becomes the force you're pressing against. Proper technique ensures that your muscles benefit while reducing risk of injury. There are several variations of the basic lunge that can help increase the challenge of your workouts and provide you with better results including a rear lunge, walking lunges and side lunges.
  • The Movement: Start by standing with feet together and your weight on your RIGHT leg. Step forward with your LEFT foot, shifting your weight on to your front heel and keeping your back foot in place. Bend the front knee until the thigh is parallel to the floor and bend the back knee towards the floor, but not touching the ground. Both of your knee joints should be about 90 degrees, keep your core tight and torso upright. Powering through your front heel, press backwards using your glutes and hamstrings and return to your starting position. Complete your desired reps stepping the LEFT foot forward, and then switch sides.
  • The Numbers: Try starting with 15-20 reps on each leg (one set completed after both legs are worked), with three sets, twice a week. Progress difficulty when you can easily perform this workout with good form. Add a new style of lunge in addition to the basic lunge, increase reps and sets, or add small weights in each hand when physically ready. Contrary to some thoughts, lunges don’t harm your knees when performed properly and can actually improve your knee strength when done correctly.

Mobility Tests & Tips

Your ankles and hips can be weak links for uneven and off-trail travel when hiking, backpacking and trail-running. Check your mobility to be sure you’re ready for a big trek this summer and garner some tips to improve your situation if you need to strengthen these important body joints.

ANKLE – You may be able to get along with weak and immobile ankles in mundane, everyday life without injury. However, our ankles and feet help form a stable foundation for stronger, pain-free movement throughout your entire body. Make sure they are in top form to avoid back pain, rolled ankles or bad technique in your workouts. 

  • The Test: Start in a ½ kneeling position where the knee that is up, those toes rest 5 inches from a wall (usually about a thumb and a fist). From there, we will test ankle mobility by pressing the knee forward in an attempt to touch the wall without having the heel come off the ground. If it does significantly raise upon this test, the first step is to identify the location of the tightness, is it in the back of the ankle, or the front?
  • The Solution: If the ankle is tight in the back, then a hiker could benefit from some classic calf stretches or soleus stretches (same as calf stretch but with a bent knee). If the ankle is tight in the front, then a low squat stretch is advised. While the heel remains on the ground, get into a catcher like position with weight placed on one knee. Then press that knee forward until a stretch is felt. Hold for 3 sets of 20 seconds each to start.

HIPS - Much of the force and stability that your body generates comes from your hips. Many people have reduced hip mobility and aren’t aware of it. As a result, unnecessary strain, imbalance and risk of injury is placed on other muscles and joints when they are forced to pick up the unnatural slack. 

  • The Test: This test assesses the range of motion of the anterior (front) hip and the range of motion of the hip flexors: Lie on your back on a raised surface like a weight bench or a bed, with your legs hanging off of the end of the surface. Bring one knee into your chest and hold your leg there by placing your hands on the back of your thigh. Let the other leg hang freely. Note the angle of the back of the free hanging leg in relationship to the surface you are lying on. The back of the thigh angle should drop lower than the surface you are lying on. If your hip flexors are tight, your thigh will remain higher than the surface level.
  • The Solution: Kneel on a mat and take a step forward with your left foot. Keep your left knee directly over your ankle. Engage your right glutes and tuck your tailbone under into a posterior pelvic tilt. Keep your chest up, your hips facing forward and keep your left knee behind your toes. Make sure your abdominals are engaged. If you do not feel a stretch in your right hip flexor, then push your hips forward a bit and increase the engagement of the glute. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat on the other side.