In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and reasons why strength training is an absolute must for your outdoor activities, whether you’re out on the walking trails, competing in an ultra or on your first alpine ascent.

A stronger you, is a stronger you – but what does this really mean?

Strength is a state of mind. To be strong is to be strong in your mind, body in soul. Strength implies resilience, both mentally and physically. Strength is having the mental fortitude to keep going even when things get tough. Strength is being able to cope with the knocks, scrapes and setbacks. Strength is dealing with atrocious conditions and environmental upsets that weren’t part of your original plan.

Wilderness and adventure sports and activities have a major difference with most other forms of physical activity. As well as having to be fit enough for our given sport, to be able to cope with the rigours of the physical activities involved, we also have a major – and I mean major – wild card to throw in the mix: environmental conditions. The best laid plans of mice and men are often laid bare by changes in the environment.

The Value of Strength

When considering training and getting fit for an adventure, those who solely focus on the cardiovascular aspect (which, to be honest, is the majority of would-be explorers) we are doing ourselves a major disservice.

As well as specific strengthening for your given activity, you should have a strength and conditioning element that will improve general robustness and resilience – beyond your ability to hammer tent pegs into hard ground.

The stronger you are, the less likely you are to get injured. No, it’s not a magic cloak that will protect you from rolled ankles or broken limbs, or from slipping down wet and muddy gullies, but in general improving the strength and conditioning of your muscles will reduce your chances of minor injury, while also improving your ability to recover in the case one does occur.

Even just feeling stronger will help your confidence and self esteem in adverse situations.

Ladies and gents, this is a very important point, so listen up: the aim here is to increase your strength to bodyweight ratio as much as possible. It is not to simply get bigger or heavier (or, conversely, smaller and lighter. There are accurate ways of benchmarking your actual strength as it relates to your body weight, and this is what we’re seeking to increase in this type of training. Nobody wants to be hauling an extra five kilograms up a hill regardless of whether that five kilos is muscle mass or otherwise – it still impacts on your energy expenditure as it is still extra mass that requires fuelling.

Trail and ultra runners, as well as some other outdoor enthusiasts regularly misinterpret strong for heavy and for that reason tend to overlook strength and conditioning as part of a healthy preparatory training regime. This may be because, for many people, strength training conjures up images of Arnold Schwarzenegger and big, bulging muscles, pumping iron in testosterone-fuelled gyms. For women there may be a concern about losing the feminine form in acquiring those same, bulging muscles and perhaps a square jaw to boot.

But this is most definitely not what I advocate, nor is it what results from the work I do with the adventurers I train, both male and female. We train in a very specific way so that we get the benefits of the strengthening of our frame without large fluctuations in body mass.

How to Gain Strength

 Strength training

Two examples of strength training workouts.

We train for – mainly – three types of strength.

For virtually all wilderness sports, we train for maximal strength, maximum sustained power training and strength endurance. Some adventure sports also need a certain degree of explosive power as well.

Strength and power is increased by the manipulation of load (weight), repetitions (the amount of times you lift that load), sets (the amount of times you repeat lifting that load) and recovery (the length of time you wait before you can safely lift that load again).

Unlike other types of training regimes, in preparing for wilderness adventure, we do not go until failure on any repetitions (lifting until failure stresses the muscles, thereby causing micro tears that the body then repairs and builds upon – the basic premise bodybuilders work from to get bigger). We want to stress the muscles and the nervous system in a way that it contracts more efficiently, so that the body recruits muscle fibres more effectively.

So how is this achieved? This is the bit that is counter-intuitive for many people. We train with heavier loads for fewer repetitions, as well as taking longer rests in between sets.

This concept is particularly hard to convince certain segments of the community of. At the risk of being crucified, I’ll even name the two worst offending segments. Before I do, keep in mind that I don’t consider this to be a generalisation, as I’m purely expressing my personal experience, and of course there are always exceptions. However, for the most part two groups have the hardest time believing heavier loads with less repetitions is best for improving strength without gaining mass: women and trail runners. I can only hope that in reading this, some individuals within this group are more likely to consider the practice as an integral part of their adventure training routine.

So how is the optimal strength and conditioning routine achieved? In short, it’s all in the preparation. You must prepare the body for stresses and strains that it will undergo during its preparation for your big adventure.

The Adaptive Phase 

During this phase, we are essentially preparing the body for the work to come. As I said in Part Two of the series (see Wild 153) this period is six-to-eight weeks long. We want to be stressing the muscles, the joints and the connective tissues, to get them into a good place for the work we will be doing during the next phases. It really is an ‘adaptive’ phase.

Doing circuits with a medium load of around 8-10 reps, never going to the point of failure is an easy and effective way of handling this stage of training. At Joe’s Basecamp our go-to exercises are the:

• Goblet squat

• Push up

• Single leg deadlift

• Pull up

• Lunge or step up

• Supine row

• Hollow hold

Start with two rounds and add a round each week. Rest for two-to-three minutes after each round.

The Base/Accumulation Phase

The exercises here will change depending on what you are training for, but your exercise selection gets smaller. This is such an important part of training that pays huge dividends on the mountains and trails. Adventurers, climbers and trail runners alike should be doing two dedicated strength sessions per week. This is not doing crossfit or high intensity-style work. This is just working your strength base, building a more robust and resilient frame.

Ideally, both the workouts depicted would be performed each week, with a day or two between them. For the workouts themselves, complete the exercises labeled with a given letter in a circuit, before moving onto the next letter (i.e.: A1 and A2 are a circuit, complete these before starting on B1 and B2).

For someone who is gym savvy and has been training regularly, an advanced technique we use is dubbed ‘Maximum Sustained Power’ as used by endurance athlete and author Mark Sissons to great effect. This technique is introduced in the second half of the accumulative/base training phase and continues on in the specific phase. Workouts based on this model are designed to increase the length of time an individual can work at maximum. For trail runners, back country skiers and mountaineers, it’s great to use with lower limb exercises, while for climbers it’s great for pull-pattern movements.

Lets use the squat as an example:

• Work out at a weight you can comfortably lift for over five sets

• Repeat the exercise as many times as you can without failing

• Rest for 10-20 seconds

• Lift again, also for as many times as possible without reaching failure

• Continue to repeat, until you can only achieve one repetition

Again, I must stress that the idea is to reach a maximum number of repetitions that falls short of failure, especially for this technique. If you’re regularly failing it means you’ll be building muscle mass and that will impact your strength-to-weight ratio.

Rather, if you follow these routines correctly and without reaching the point of failure, you’ll find you’ve built strength, as well as the ability to sustain that performance, as well as your overall endurance.

Most Importantly

Do not attempt a workout without clearance from your doctor as well as an assessment on your biomechanics from a registered physiotherapist, especially if you have a history of illness or other congenital condition. If possible, find someone to coach you through all movements rather than just relying on Coach YouTube. If you are relying on the online coach, you do so at your own risk.

Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up and have no pre-existing injuries or niggles.

In our next instalment we will look at the ‘specific pause’ and how to best tailor your workouts for your given activity.

This article originally appeared in Wild issue 154. Subscribe now to stay up to date with the latest tips from Joe Bonington.