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At my gym, I often see people working out backward on StairMasters and StepMills. Yesterday, I even saw someone running backward on the treadmill. Why do people do this? Is there some added benefit to working out backward?
There are a number of reasons why people walk and run backward on the treadmill or use other machines backward. They are:
- Rehabilitation (postsurgical or after muscle injury) of the hip, hamstrings (back of thigh), quadriceps (front of thigh), knee, ankle (sprain or Achilles rupture), low back, or shin splints
- Balance training
- To improve the pattern of muscle firing (the neural network) between the brain and the legs (via the nervous system), particularly the hamstrings
- To improve performance in sports where backward walking or running is necessary
Walking or climbing backward helps rehabilitate joints and muscles because:
A. It is gentle on the knees since it decreases the maximum knee range (angle) of motion of the knee, particularly as speed increases during walking.
B. According to some studies, backward walking shows almost a 95% reversal of the use of muscles as compared with forward walking. This means that if the hamstrings were in need of strengthening, then backward walking at moderate intensities would be an excellent way to do it.
C. There is less force when landing because the toes land before the heels, and the toes can absorb more shock than the heels. In forward walking, the heels land first, and there is greater shock.
Walking or climbing backward improves balance because of the challenge that it provides. It's important not to hold on to the side rails when walking backward if you want to maximize the balance effect. It is important to start off very slowly (less than 1.0 miles per hour) until you get the hang of it.
Walking or climbing backward helps challenge the brain to activate muscles in different patterns.
Specificity of Training
Like it sounds, specificity of training means that you train for a particular activity by doing that activity specifically. Walking and running backward is a complex task, and athletes who need this skill for their sport can benefit by training specifically for it.
Start out at slow speeds if you decide to try backward walking or climbing. Also, as mentioned, try not to hold on to rails if balance improvement is your objective. You can start by holding on if you're afraid you'll fall, but if you can, try starting slow enough so that you don't have to hold on. As you practice, you will get better. If you decide to try backward walking or running outdoors, make sure to check frequently by looking over your shoulder and ask a friend to walk or run alongside you and be your eyes. You don't want to trip over an object.
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"The Effects of Backwards Running Training on Forward Running Economy in Trained Males"
Ordway JD et al
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research