Tired of your regular walking workouts? TikTok is buzzing with a trend to spice things up: backward treadmill walking.
One TikToker posted how walking backward on the treadmill has helped strengthen his knee, and another shared that reverse treadmill walking improved his balance and stability, increased quad definition, and enhanced knee and ankle health.
But how beneficial is backward walking, and is it safe? Here’s everything we know about backward walking, and how to add it to your treadmill regimen.
Benefits of Walking Backwards on a Treadmill
Backward walking is backed by physical therapists and has tons of perks for fitness and rehabilitation alike. Here are a few reasons to try it the next time you hop on the treadmill.
Improves Gait and Mobility
Backward walking can improve mobility in your knees, hip, and ankle—plus, it can prevent pain and shock absorption in comparison to regular walking. In some cases, physical therapists use reverse walking to improve gait after an injury, surgery, or illness (1).
Particularly in ankle injuries, it can be painful to toe-off during regular walking. Walking backward can help to “reset” your gait, improving your ability to walk forwards.
With knee injuries, or after knee surgeries like ACL construction, a common deficit is the inability to straighten out the knee. Walking backward naturally forces the knee joint to straighten, which can increase your range of motion.
Boosts Heart Rate and Calorie Burn
Walking backwards can multiply your workout efforts. One study found that it can boost your heart rate (2). Plus, it’s known to burn more calories than walking forward.
Exercise energy expenditure is ranked in the ACSM Compendium of Physical Activities, and a brisk walk at 3.5 miles per hour can rack up 4.3 METs (metabolic equivalents) while walking backward at the same speed earns 6.0 METs— that’s an overall boost of 60 percent in calorie burn per minute of exercise.
This crowns backward walking as a simple way to increase the intensity of your workout. Plus, even if you walk backward slower, you’ll still boost your calorie burn. Next time you want to level up, skip bumping up the speed or incline and give backward walking a go.
Improves Quad Function
Reverse walking may help to improve the function of the quadriceps muscles also known as your upper thighs (4). Your quads are super important for straightening your knee, and tightness or weakness in your quads can lead to knee pain. Exercises that isolate the quads involve straightening your knee, like leg extensions, or walking backward.
As you walk backward, your quad is active as your knee straightens and you move from toe to heel. Walking at a slow pace of 0.5 to 1.0 miles per hour will help you get the hang of walking backward, which can feel awkward at first. Focus on activating your quads through each step.
Builds Strength and Stability
Aside from increasing quad strength, walking backward tones different muscles than regular walking, and can help to strengthen the muscles around your ankle joint like small muscles in the foot, calves, and shins.
This functional strength can help increase your balance and stability and is especially helpful for everyday scenarios like walking on uneven sidewalks, or during running workouts when you’re picking up the pace.
How To Walk Backwards on a Treadmill
Before giving backward walking a try, if you have an injury or pain, it’s important to check with a PT to ensure walking backwards on a treadmill is safe for you.
Once you’re cleared, start slow to get into a good rhythm. Backward walking will put your coordination and balance to the test, so you might find that simply walking backward at a slow speed is enough of a challenge to start.
You can increase your speed in small increments as you get the hang of it. Depending on your comfort level, it might take multiple sessions to work your way up, or more athletic individuals might feel ready to crank it up right away. Listen to your body, and play safe.
To safely walk backwards on the treadmill:
- Stand on a treadmill facing towards the rear of the machine, placing your feet on either side of the belt.
- Attach the safety clip. This will automatically stop the belt if you get too far away from the front on the treadmill to minimize your risk of falling.
- Start the treadmill, and check the treadmill is moving at its slowest speed.
- Grab onto the handrails of the treadmill.
- Hop onto the treadmill, and start walking by reaching one leg backward and landing on your toes. Roll onto your heel as your knee naturally straightens as it comes under you.
- Repeat. As you get more comfortable you can increase the speed, or ideally have a friend, trainer, or PT increase the speed slowly for you.
How Long to Walk Backwards on a Treadmill
The length of your workout will ultimately depend on your goal. If injury or surgery rehab is your focus, we recommend starting with slow one-minute intervals focused on building strength, coordination, and mobility. Start in small increments and build up to little increases in speed, or time as you can handle it.
If you’re walking backward for general knee and ankle longevity, doing a few short intervals one to two days a week is enough to maintain your strength and mobility. Try adding it at the end of your workout, and stay slow to focus on muscle activation (rather than speed where form can start to break down).
For people looking to push intensity, intervals at higher speeds, or reverse walking for longer periods of time ranging from five to 20 minutes will help jack up your heart rate and burn more calories.
Handrails When Walking Backwards?
Definitely use the handrails to start. Walking backward with your hands off the side rails should only be done once you’ve built the confidence in your balance to do so. Moving backward requires core and ankle stability, and strong legs, so if you notice any weakness, keep your hands on or close to the handrails for stability.
Walking backward without gripping the handrails will help build more strength and balance because without them your body will have to work to hold itself up. When you’re ready to wean yourself off of the handrails, first try holding just one, and then try not using them at all.
Treadmill On or Off?
Walking backward with the treadmill turned off is called reverse deadmill walking. Deadmill walking has gained popularity because it requires your muscles to work harder to power the belt forward. When the treadmill is turned on you aren’t up against resistance, and the treadmill will keep moving whether you do or not. But with the power off you have to do all the work.
If you’ve mastered backward walking and are ready for your next challenge, reverse deadmill walking is a great progression. Just keep in mind that some treadmills aren’t designed for use when turned off, and it could damage the motor.
The best treadmills to use for deadmill walks are manual treadmills which are designed specifically for this kind of workout. And, some even include adjustable resistance, so you can continue to push heavier loads as you get stronger.