5 of the Best Leg Exercises for Hunting Season
Big biceps might look cool, but they don’t count for much when you’re packing out meat. Leg muscles do the bulk of the work when you’re hunting, and you need to make sure they’re ready for whatever lies ahead. This isn't a blanket endorsement of all leg exercises though. You need to pick movements that mimic what you'll be doing in the backcountry; it's more functional power instead of focusing on looks.
Before you disassemble the leg press machine and take it to the junkyard, know that this isn't a ban on non-functional equipment or exercises. We're simply sharing that some exercises won't help you prepare for a hunt in the same way others will. Before we jump into 5 of the best leg exercises for hunting season, we're going to take a small step back and walk through the muscles you need for backcountry hunting.
Muscles Used in Backcountry Hunting
The legs are the most important muscle group for hunting. And it's not just to get you up the mountain; you'll also need to haul your prize back down. You'll hopefully have a heavier pack, trophy, meat, and all. You'll need every fiber of every leg muscle in your body for that.
Here's the abridged 101 of how your leg muscles power you through the backcountry:
- Quadriceps: Your quadriceps (muscles in the front of your thigh) are responsible for extending the knee. If you think stepping onto tall objects or controlling your speed going downhill is important, then you'll appreciate the quads.
- Hamstrings: On the opposite side of your thigh are the hamstrings, which propel you forward when running or walking.
- Gluteus Maximus: This is the powerful muscle that extends your hip and helps the external rotation of your thigh at the hip. It often works in tandem with your hamstrings. When your body goes from a bent forward position (such as leaning in to maintain balance ascending a hill) to a standing position, the hamstring and glutes duo are behind the movement.
- Core: Your core muscles add stability and rotation to your body's movements. The impact of a strong core is felt everywhere, from keeping your balance on treacherous terrain to drawing a bow, and many other areas.
All that sounds great right? If so, the 5 exercises below will work all of these muscles and show you the meaning of functional fitness for hunting.
Top 5 Leg Exercises to Get You Ready for Hunting Season
What makes an exercise useful isn’t the amount of weight you can lift, but rather how specific it is to your chosen activity. As you go into hunting season, shift your training from exercises that focus on building muscle to movements that mimic what you’ll be doing during the hunt.
Just like our MTNTOUGH programs, we've added tiered modifications based on hunting fitness. To find them for any exercise below, just scroll down to the section titled "Modifications". This is useful if you're a beginner looking for ways to access an exercise or an elite athlete looking for hell week bundled up as a leg exercise. There's something in each of these for any athlete at any level.
1. Weighted Bulgarian Squat - Utility Player
Few exercises will prepare you for a tough trek as well as the Bulgarian split squat. It trains your legs for heavy lifting, strengthens your grip, and builds core strength.
- Step 1: Stand in front of a box or bench with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand
- Step 2: Lift one foot and place it on the box or bench behind you. You can keep your toes tucked or place the top of your foot flat on the surface
- Step 3: Lean forward slightly and hold that position with your upper body throughout the movement
- Step 4: Bend both knees, dropping your back knee towards the ground
- Step 5: Press back up to the top of the movement. Both knees will still be slightly bent at the top
- Step 6: If you feel like your feet were too close together or too far at the bottom, adjust your front foot accordingly - at the bottom position your knee should be over your big toe on your front foot.
- Step 7: Repeat for the desired number of reps, then switch legs
The Bulgarian split squat uses the quadriceps and glutes to control your descent and power your body back up to the top. The hamstrings play less of a role.
Your forearms will work to grip the weights, which becomes challenging if you’re using something heavy. Plus, your shoulders back and trapezius muscles will have to prevent your shoulders from being rounded or pulled forward.
The core muscles, including your lower back and abdominals in the front, work to stabilize your trunk. Together they prevent the weight from pulling you too far forwards.
You’ll find this exercise challenging enough without weight, but there are some creative ways to make it more difficult if you need to increase the intensity, or ways to tone it down so you can focus on form.
- Beginner: The movement is tricky for beginners because it can throw you off balance, but once you get more comfortable, you can make it very challenging. If you feel wobbly, it can be helpful to use some form of assistance to build your balance. Place a foam roller next to you or hold onto a TRX as you move through the movement to stabilize yourself. Once you feel more comfortable, let go of the assistance and get used to the movement without using weight.
- Intermediate: Once you’ve got the movement down and are using a significant amount of weight, consider holding the weight in a different position. Try resting the dumbbells or kettlebells on your shoulders. This subtle change forces you to use your core muscles more and can increase the intensity of the movement without changing the weight.
- Elite: If you’re breezing through the intermediate variation and feel like you could use an extra challenge, try elevating your front foot. Looks and sounds simple, but this minor adjustment increases the distance your rear knee has to travel to reach the ground and increases the difficulty. This extra range of motion also builds your flexibility.
2. Lateral Lunges - Hip Mobility
Most exercises in the gym involve some sort of forward and backward movement. Very rarely does an exercise require you to move sideways. Hunting doesn't fit neatly into the forward and backward boxes. Hell, your movement can go any direction just to not fall. And moving sideways with strength is key.
That’s why lateral lunges belong in your program. They force your hips to strengthen in a side-to-side direction, creating a movement you'll absolutely need during the hunting season.
- Step 1: Start standing, holding a kettlebell in front of your chest, gripping it with one hand on each side of the handle
- Step 2: Take a big step to the side with one of your feet. Your legs should be a few feet apart
- Step 3: Bend the knee of the leg you stepped out with and squat to that side. The other knee should remain straight
- Step 4: Squat as low as you can to that side, then explosively step back up, pressing off of the same foot, and returning to the standing position
- Step 5: Repeat for the desired number of reps, stepping to the same side each time, before switching legs
This movement works the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, similar to the split squats above. However, special attention is paid to the hip abductor muscles, such as the gluteus medius.
Your arms will also work to hold the kettlebell up in front of your body. The biceps and shoulder muscles in particular will make sure that the kettlebell stays around chest height.
Lateral lunges are a unique exercise, which is a nice way of saying they'll feel awkward on the first few attempts. So if that's your experience the first time doing them, don’t worry. That’s natural. You can try a few variations to see what works best for your body. Or you can turn up the heat with some intensifying modifications. Both options can be found below.
- Beginner: You can do this exercise without moving your feet. Try starting the movement with your feet about one foot wider than shoulder-width apart, and squat to each side. When moving to one side, bend that knee but straighten the other.
- Intermediate: Try holding your weight in one hand, the same side as the back leg. So, if you’re stepping to the left, hold it in your right hand. As you squat to one side, reach the weight towards that foot. Incorporating this reaching motion can help cement the side-to-side feel of the lateral lunge.
- Elite: You might notice that this movement is similar to ice skating or rollerblading. You can mimic the sliding motion by using a slider, as long as you have access to turf or something with less friction than rubber flooring. To do a sliding lateral lunge, place the slider under one foot and slide it out to the side with your knee straight. As you do, squat down on the non-sliding leg. You can also try adding a band, step toward the anchor point and then explode back toward starting position.
3. Reverse Deficit Lunges - Hiking Inclines
The deficit reverse lunge is similar to a step-up, but it’s even more relevant to hiking up steep inclines or over rocky terrain. That’s because it forces you to pull your body forwards and up at the same time. We're big fans of this exercise, so we have a lot to say about reverse deficit lunges. Click here for more of our thoughts on why this exercise must be in every mountain athlete's routine.
- Step 1: Start standing on an elevated surface, anywhere from ankle to mid-shin height. Hold a weight in each hand
- Step 2: Step back off of the elevated surface with one foot and plant that foot on the ground, keeping your heel in the air
- Step 3: Bend both knees, leaning slightly forwards over your front leg, until you feel like your front hip can’t bend anymore or your back knee touches the ground
- Step 4: Lean forwards and drive through your front leg, pressing off the ground with your back leg, and step your back foot up onto the elevated surface
- Step 5: Stand tall at the top of the movement, then repeat on the same leg until you’ve done the desired number of reps. Then, switch legs
You’ll use the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes in this movement. The glutes are used in this lunge exercise more so than they are in a bilateral squatting motion. Single-leg movements work the big leg muscles, sometimes more than back squats, even though you’re holding less weight when you do them.
Other muscles used in this movement include the forearms to grip the weights, plus the shoulders and trapezius muscles to prevent the shoulders from being pulled down. Plus, your core muscles will work to stabilize your torso.
The elevated surface can sometimes cause uncertainty for first-timers. There are modifications you can make to steady yourself and get more used to the new movement. On the other hand, there are simple changes you can make that increase the difficulty immensely.
- Beginner: Begin by using an elevated surface no higher than ankle height. Too much of a deficit can be bad if you lack flexibility. You can also use a TRX to hold onto as you descend into the lunge to pull yourself back up. Doing so takes some of the excess strain off of your muscles and helps your balance.
- Intermediate: At first, you should hold dumbbells or kettlebells by your side. When that becomes too easy, try resting them on your shoulders in a front-racked position. Doing will pitch your weight forwards, increasing the difficulty for your front leg and forcing you to use your arms and core to stabilize the weight.
- Elite: To take this exercise to the next level, and make it even more realistic, wear a pack with some added weight inside. A weighted vest works as well. This adds extra load to your body and mimics the type of weight you’ll be carrying while hunting. There's that functional hunting fitness again.
4. Deadlifts - Back, Hip, and Torso Strength
You’ll build full-body strength with this movement, which mimics picking up a heavy object from the ground. This type of strength can carry over to lifting a large animal or a heavy pack. Deadlifts were an easy choice to make our list of 5 exercises every western hunter should know.
- Step 1: Start with a barbell on the ground. Walk up to the bar with your feet about hip-width apart with the bar being somewhere over mid foot.
- Step 2: Push your butt back, flatten your spine, and reach down with your hands to grip the bar with your elbows resting against the outside of your knees
- Step 3: Rock your weight back into your heels, puff your chest out and squeeze your shoulders down to lock your spine into a flat position
- Step 4: Pick the weight up, pressing through your heels and continuing to lean back
- Step 5: As soon as the bar passes your knees, press your hips forward to meet the bar and stand straight up
- Step 6: To lower the weight, push your hips back and slide the bar down your legs, keeping your spine flat, until the weight rests on the ground - bend your knees as soon as the bar passes your knees
Deadlifts work a group of muscles called the “posterior chain.” These muscles include the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and latissimus dorsi. Strengthening these muscles can help prevent back pain and of course, bear whatever stress you're hauling through in the wild.
Muscles such as the erector spinae and multifidus in the lower back help stabilize your spine. Plus, the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and teres muscles hold your shoulder blades and upper back in place as you lift heavy weight from the ground.
You can modify this movement to work around back pain, or simply make it easier to learn - making this a highly accessible exercise. There are also ways to make it more challenging, other than adding as much weight as possible.
- Beginner: Kettlebell deadlifts are a friendly alternative to the barbell deadlift, and can help beginners master the movement. Place a kettlebell on the ground, stand over it, and perform a deadlift by picking it up from the ground. Make sure you hold the handle with both hands.
- Intermediate: The trap bar is another piece of equipment you can use to modify the deadlift. Even if you’re comfortable with the barbell, using the trap bar can offer an alternative to the traditional deadlift that works the quadriceps muscles more, and gives you a new challenge to conquer.
- Elite: Make the traditional barbell deadlift even more difficult by adding a deficit. To do so, put a flat weight plate on the ground, or another short but sturdy surface. Stand on the plate, then perform a deadlift. Whatever you use should only be two or three inches off of the ground at first, to make sure you’re comfortable with the movement. This is a very advanced movement so start light, stay tight, and be very careful if this is your first deficit deadlift attempt
5. Spider Crawls - Hip Mobility and Balance
This bodyweight exercise forces you to use balance, coordination, and flexibility. Focus on form when you do this movement, and make sure you don’t rush. Don't let the coolest name on this list fool you into thinking it's easy. When done correctly, this could be the hardest exercise in your workout.
- Step 1: Start in a push-up position
- Step 2: Lower yourself by bending your elbows, until your chest is hovering above the ground
- Step 3: Reach your right hand up, like you’re climbing a rock wall. At the same time, lift your left foot, bringing your left knee up to your right elbow
- Step 4: Stay low to the ground as you move. Reach the opposite arm and leg forwards
- Step 5: Continue as far as you can, or until you get tired. You can move forwards and backward, depending on how much space you have
The leg muscles that are most involved in this movement include the quadriceps and hip flexors, which keep your knees and hips in the air. Your core will work hard to stabilize your spine and move you with control as you hover above the ground. The internal and external obliques, which are active during twisting motions, will perform the bulk of the work for your core.
The same upper body muscles you’d use in a push-up are needed for the spider crawl. This includes the shoulders, triceps, and chest muscles, which you’ll feel as you traverse through this exercise.
Doing this movement with proper form requires flexibility and being strong enough to hold your bodyweight. Start in push-up position, one arm forward - one arm back, bring your knee to the back arm, then bring that back arm forward then extend the leg to the now back arm. That's a tall order. If you can’t meet this one head-on, or you need some way to make the exercise more challenging, check out some of these modifications:
- Beginner: Start at the top of the push-up position. Instead of dropping your body low to the ground, keep your elbows straight and tuck one knee up towards the elbow on the same side of your body. Then, place the foot down and switch sides.
- Intermediate: Put a slider under each foot, then perform the movement in almost exactly the same way. The big difference is that, instead of stepping one foot forwards, you’ll slide your leg up to meet your elbow.
- Elite: If sliding spider crawls aren’t challenging enough, try resting a weight plate on your mid-back. Adding weight not only challenges your muscles more, but it also forces you to maintain balance so that the weight doesn’t slide off of your back.
Strong Legs Take You Places
Don’t let your next trip be ruined by a lack of confidence in your legs, or being fooled into thinking your legs are fit for the task when you never challenged them correctly. And by correctly, we mean never putting them to the rigors of movements you need to be great at in the backcountry, not ones that only make sense behind gym doors.
You’ve worked hard on improving your hunting skills, but your legs have to put you in a position to be able to use them. Improving your strength and mobility will make you less likely to be injured, and help you navigate whatever lies ahead.
Choosing the correct exercises for hunting is important. Many gym programs don’t take into account the challenges you’ll face in the wild. Focus on single-leg movements and powerful full-body exercises like the ones in this article to get you where you need to go. There’s not enough time in the day to sit down and make yourself a workout routine that incorporates everything you need. Save yourself time, energy, and potential injury by trying us out for 14 days, at no cost. If you're serious about hunting workouts, the Backcountry Hunter training program will help you maximize your potential. Many hunting fitness programs only cover preseason, like training begins in August and ends as soon as hunting season begins.
We take issue with that, which is why our Backcountry Hunter program covers the entire calendar year of training, split into 4 major programs throughout. There's a purpose to every phase. And yes, we have the preseason covered; the Backcountry Hunter Preseason Prep is one of the programs we're famous for.
Thousands of mountain athletes choose MTNTOUGH to get their bodies and minds ready for hunting season, so we're confident once you give it a shot in our free trial, you'll like how you feel and perform.