Build Strength with Just a Backpack


No weights, no gym, no problem: Get crazy-strong with these three backpack-only exercises.

Dustin Diefenderfer, the founder of online training platform MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab, has been developing training programs for military groups since 2016. “When COVID hit,” he says, “some of the military teams we work with were quarantined in 10x10 rooms. Since all they had to train with was their packs, they asked us to develop a special program for them during that time.”

But, like a few good things that have come from the pandemic (WFH, anyone?), the idea of utilizing a backpack for do-anywhere strength training stuck.

“Most people have a pack and can find something heavy to put in it,” says Diefenderfer, who recommends filling various-sized drybags with peat sand or pea gravel to create 5-, 10-, and 20-pound options which can be quickly and easily mixed and matched inside your pack for different moves. He suggests purchasing two sets of bags that come in small, medium, and large, and creating two 20-pound bags (“the large works great,” he says), a 10-pound bag or two (medium), and two 5-pound bags (small).

An added benefit of training with a backpack instead of with traditional weights: specificity. “One of the things we’ve found is that you can train a lot in the gym, but still feel that burden of a heavy pack on your first few outings in the field, whether you’re backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, or hunting. Training with a heavy pack makes that burden go away. It helps get your hips and traps ready for wearing a pack, because you’ve trained with a pack.  

A man uses a backpack to do a Heavy Pack Bent-over Row Photo: MTNTOUGH

Here are three moves you can do with a backpack at home, or anywhere, to achieve full-body fitness. Note the recommended load per move, based on male or female, and beginner, intermediate, or elite.

1. Pack Sit-up Military Press

How:   Lying on your back with your legs straight, hold your pack with both hands at chest level. Perform a sit-up and press your pack overhead. Keep your shoulders back and extend your head through your straightened arms before returning to starting position. Repeat for 15 reps.

Why: “This move builds a really strong core,” says Diefenderfer. “It also targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps as you press the pack up and overhead.”

How Heavy: Female: beginner 10 lbs./intermediate 20 lbs./elite 30 lbs.; Male: beginner 20 lbs./intermediate 30 lbs., elite 40-50 lbs.

2. Pack Deficit Lunges

How: Set up a weight plate, block, or stack of wood that’s somewhere between 2 and 6 inches high. (Start with 2 inches and build up over time.) Wearing your loaded backpack as you would to go hiking, with the waist and sternum straps adjusted and clipped, step with both feet on the elevated object. Perform a reverse lunge by stepping back with one leg, lightly touching your back knee to ground before returning that leg to meet the other. Alternate legs for 10 reps each (20 total).

Why: “The elevated plate or block puts your front leg in a deep squat position when you’re doing the reverse lunge, which is just awesome for a mountain athlete,” says Diefenderfer. “You’re in that position a lot when climbing steep slopes. This move helps with knee stability, and makes your legs extremely strong as it works the quads and hamstrings. Plus, the heavy pack on your back means your core has to be really tight for you to remain stable.”

How Heavy: Female: beginner 10 lbs./intermediate 30 lbs./elite 40-50 lbs.; Men: beginner 20 lbs./intermediate 40 lbs./elite 50-60 lbs.

3. Heavy Pack Bent-over Row.

How: Start in a bent-over row position, where you’re standing with your legs shoulder-width apart and slightly bent, and you’re folded at the waist. Pick up the top and bottom ends of your pack, one with each hand. Pull that pack to your chest in a bent over position, keeping your back strong and your core engaged. Repeat for 12 reps.

Why: “It can be tough to build a strong back at home with free weights. This move works your back muscles and your biceps with the rowing motion. It also gives you a really good hamstring burn because of your body position.”

How Heavy: Female: beginner 20 lbs./intermediate 30 lbs./elite 40 lbs.; Male: beginner 30 lbs./intermediate 50 lbs./elite-60-80 lbs.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.