I’m a guy who is interested in gaining muscle, but my partner wants to lose weight and get fit. She wants to go hiking and I really want to support her! We tried it and both loved it. My question is: can I still gain muscle while hiking once or twice a week? I’ll still be going to the gym and lifting heavy 4-5 days per week. I’m worried that the cardio from the hiking will keep me from adding muscle mass.
Hiking a couple of times a week shouldn’t have a massive impact on your muscle gain. There are a couple of factors here that lead me to this answer.
Strength training while also training for aerobic capacity (cardio fitness) is called concurrent training. (This is a necessity for most sports.) The research says that this may diminish progress in either or both types of training. One popular theory about why this happens describes an “interference” between the adaptations caused by cardio or strength exercises. These very different types of exercise create very different responses in the muscle, some of which may counteract each other.
However, cardio training is Not Guaranteed to diminish strength or muscle mass gains. This interference effect seems to vary a lot depending on the individual as well as the type, duration, frequency, and intensity of training. Some people even see improved responses from concurrent training.
Hiking as concurrent training
The most common interference effect is a decreased strength and muscle gain response with concurrent training – that is, when doing cardio and strength sessions on the same day or same week. Doing more cardio seems to create an “overreaching” response. In other words, taxing the body more can make it harder to A) get the same quality strength workout and B) delay recovery from all workouts. But this doesn’t seem to apply to all cardio across the board. It appears to be most caused by high-volume, high-intensity, or high-frequency cardio workouts.
My guess is your couple-times-a-week hiking isn’t especially high in volume or intensity. I would be more wary of very long hikes, up very steep terrain and/or with a heavy pack, all of which will increase the intensity of the hike. On the other hand, frequency also plays a part. If you have a long or hard hike every so often, it shouldn’t create too much interference. It’s a drop in the bucket, so to speak.
The other thing to keep in mind with concurrent training is that interference is usually body part specific. A big (long, heavy) hike might knock your legs around a little, so you might not have a great leg workout the next day. An upper body day would probably be fine though. You could get around this by planning your strength training days so that you hike after leg days. You might be a little more sore or tired, but it wouldn’t disrupt your muscle gains anywhere near as much.
Another benefit to hiking
There’s some benefit to hiking in this situation as well (other than strengthening your relationship!). Non-paved trails are full of rocks, divets, branches, and other varied surfaces. As you step over and around these, you challenge different ranges of movement. This gives your brain lots of rich information to work with, strengthens your physical resilience (aka decreasing injury risk), and helps you recover from your gym sessions. Plus, getting outside has many psychological benefits. It’s nice to get a break from the indoor world sometimes.
Bottom line, hiking has a pretty low chance of being a serious risk to your muscle mass goals. Be smart about how you structure your training, and get out there with your partner and enjoy the fresh air!