In this article, we investigate the mechanics of nonlinearly induced inter-modal energy tunneling between flexurally-dominated and axially-dominated modes in phononic waveguides. Special attention is devoted to elucidating the role played by the coupling between axial and flexural degrees of freedom in the determination of the available mode hopping conditions and the associated mechanisms of deformation. Waveguides offer an ideal test bed to investigate the mechanics of nonlinear energy tunneling, due to the fact that they naturally feature, even at low frequencies, families of modes (flexural and axial) that are intrinsically characterized by extreme complementarity. Moreover, thanks to their geometric simplicity, their behavior can be explained by resorting to intuitive structural mechanics models that effectively capture the dichotomy and interplay between flexural and axial mechanisms. After having delineated the fundamental mechanics of flexural-to-axial hopping using the benchmark example of a homogeneous structure, we adapt the analysis to the case of periodic waveguides, in which the complex dispersive behavior due to periodicity results in additional richness of mode hopping mechanisms. We finally extend the analysis to periodic waveguides with internal resonators, in which the availability of locally-resonant bandgaps implies the possibility to activate the resonators even at relatively low frequencies, thus increasing the degree of modal complementarity that is available in the acoustic range. In this context, inter-modal tunneling provides an unprecedented mechanism to transfer conspicuous packets of energy to the resonating microstructure.