In a field overtaken by whole body vibration platforms, wearable accelerometers, high speed treadmills, and a whole host of other “revolutionary” technological advancements, sometimes the physical and psychological divide between the process and the end goal grows too great, and a return to more relatable training means becomes necessary.
Besides a human opponent, and perhaps a log or rock, there is no more tangible, natural, or intuitive training tool than a hill. When asked why men were risking life and limb to first bag the summit of Everest, mountaineer George Mallory responded by saying, “Because it’s there.” If asked why I personally would choose a hill as a primary means of training, I would echo Mallory’s response, but include the addendum, “…and because it works.”
“The direct simplicity of hill training allows for unencumbered physical expression and provides concrete motivation in the form of summiting”
No matter the goal, hill work provides an incredible training stimulus with a minimum of hoopla, and the sheer, natural simplicity of it, and the almost palpable reward of summiting, allows athletes to fully engage with their task and put forth maximal effort. Whether for strength, speed, endurance, or even upper body conditioning, hills are a one-stop shop for athletes from nearly all sports and should form the backbone of most any training plan.
Besides its ease of use and primal nature, I favor hill training for two primary reasons:
- It allows high intensity loading with minimal risk of muscle or joint injury
- It allows resistance training over nearly the entire force-velocity with very sport-specific joint angles and muscle activation patterns.
Due to its very nature, the level of elastic-driven, eccentric loading in hill work is relatively muted, while the level of voluntary concentric output is increased. This allows for powerful, ballistic muscular contractions without the same joint-pounding impacts one would experience when training on level ground.
In a way, a hill sprint is analogous to a box jump, while flat sprinting would be likened to hurdle hops, and downhill running would be depth jumps.
Granted, all training means can have their time and place, but when considering most populations over most of the training year, minimizing wear and tear is probably the safest bet. Beyond joint stress, hills are also useful in that they allow unilateral ballistic loading without the high chance of hamstring injury inherent in sprinting on level ground. This makes them accessible to heavier athletes and those with an injury history that might contraindicate other forms of sprint work.
Regarding the biomechanical advantages of hill training, it is first necessary to outline the shortcomings of most other popular forms of resistance training. Whether utilizing the power lifts, Olympic lifts, machines, or kettlebells, the fact of the matter is that most weight room exercises load the body in a very “unathletic” manner.
Most popular lifts are performed with both feet planted, weight over the heels, body situated symmetrically, and/or a minimum of rotational or lateral torque. This is in marked contrast to the conditions under which most sports take place, ie: feet in constant motion, weight distributed through the forefoot, body situated at any given odd angle, and high levels of rotational and lateral torque, usually generated on a single leg.
Hill training exists as an effective compromise between the realms of conventional resistance training and sport practice, and allows for increased levels of muscular loading while retaining the “athletic” body positions and contraction patterns necessary for on-field performance.
Beyond understanding its benefits and actually doing it regularly, the only trick to hill sprinting is adjusting parameters to suite individual goals.
When using hills for the specific purpose of replacing, or supplementing, conventional weight training, the focus is less on sprinting, and more on slogging. Options here include uphill walking lunges driving through the forefoot, heavy sled pulls, farmer’s carries, and heavy pack marches with long steps.
“Using hills for the specific purpose of replacing, or supplementing, conventional weight training, the focus is less on sprinting, and more on slogging”
Stimulus can be shifted to the adductors and abductors via performing the aforementioned movements laterally in a shuffle or with a crossover step. In this context, a steeper hill is usually better, and for most movements, a long staircase can be an effective substitute for a slope. Perform each set at an intensity which will cause fatigue by roughly the 40-60 second mark (where the primary energy systems contributions shift from anaerobic to aerobic).
When using hills for power, intensity can be modulated by choice of movement and/or steepness of grade. Hill bounding, both one-legged and two-legged, is more of a strength-speed activity, while hill sprinting is more of a speed-strength activity. Furthermore, the steeper the grade, the further to the left of the F/V curve the activity will sit, while the shallower the grade, the further to the right it will sit.
Regardless of whether or not the focus is on speed or power, this sort of work is best kept to ~10 seconds in duration and rest periods should allow for full regeneration between sets. Stairs work well for bounding, but limit stride length when sprinting and are not recommended.
When training for anaerobic endurance, hill sprints seem to work better than bounding, lunging, or sled pulls. Adjust the intensity, set duration, volume, and rest periods depending on your goals (single effort, repeated effort, phosphagen dominant, glycolytic, etc). Even though the preferred movement here is sprinting, stairs are an acceptable hill substitute since the focus is on the energy pathways and not maximal power generation.
For aerobic endurance training, we forego the hills and head out to the mountains instead, and I suggest that everyone else do likewise. There’s nothing quite like climbing a mountain, and the psychological boost it provides is unlike any other form of cardio I’ve come across. Fartlek work in the mountains is mentally engaging, provides unlimited variations of foot strike and body orientation, and generally motivates athletes to push harder, with less complaint, than they would under other conditions.
“For aerobic endurance training, we forego the hills and head out to the mountains instead”
LSD training in the mountains provides amazing physical and psychological rejuvenation, and while getting most athletes to jog for four hours would be nearly impossible, few balk at the prospect of spending an entire afternoon up in the crags. Almost without exception, my fittest athletes are those who spend the most time out in the mountains, and the more they get out there, the better they get.
Beyond standard lower body training, hills also provide a unique environment for training the upper body pressing muscles. Bear crawls, lateral bear crawls, wheelbarrow walks, and crab walks performed up and down a slope can be used effectively to build strength and coordination without any additional equipment. As with the lower body, crawling uphill favors concentric development while limiting impact forces, and crawling downhill favors eccentric development and involved higher impact forces. Adjust movement choice, duration, and volume to suit individual goals.
All in all, hills are a cheap, versatile, effective training tool, and should be taken advantage of whenever possible. Athletes perform best when they can engage both physically and mentally, and the direct simplicity of hill training allows for unencumbered physical expression and provides concrete motivation in the form of summiting. Hills can form the base of a program, or can be used as an odd accessory, but I suggest everyone use them in some way or another.
About Roger Nelsen Jr.
Roger Nelsen Jr. CSCS is the strength and conditioning coach for the 212th Rescue Squadron, a special operations unit in Anchorage, Alaska. He also currently runs Body Mechanics Personal Training with his wife, and fellow CSCS, Christal Nelsen, and loves nothing more than bringing people of all ages, backgrounds, and medical histories up to high levels of performance.
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