Walking Backwards on a Treadmill – Benefits, Muscles Worked and Is It Right for You?

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Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back, to move forwards…

And in this instance, we’re not talking metaphorically, we’re literally talking about the benefits of physically stepping backwards.

Walking backwards on a treadmill is trending… and for good reason. It’s a simple way to boost quad activation around the knee, which can subsequently help reduce pain/injuries and improve lower body biomechanics.

But with any fitness trend, there’s a lot of conflicting (not to mention, incorrect) information around the benefit from walking backwards on a treadmill, so we wanted to provide a clear overview of what this exercise entails, including how it differs from walking forwards, muscles worked and how to include it in your workout routines.

Quick Summary

  • Walking backwards on a treadmill helps to improve knee stability by strengthening the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) muscle.
  • This helps to reduce the risk of knee injuries.
  • Use a manual treadmill or switch the treadmill off to begin with and only gradually increase the speed.
  • If you have existing knee pain, speak to a Physical Therapist before you start any new exercises.

Walking Backwards on a Treadmill Benefits

VMO Activation

Walking backwards on a treadmill is an effective way to target the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), a key muscle located on the inner part of your thigh near the knee.

The VMO is really important in stabilizing the knee and is often underworked in regular forward walking or running… not to mention general workout routines.

When you walk backwards, you’re essentially reversing the muscle engagement pattern of forward walking, which places more emphasis on the VMO.

This increased activation can help strengthen the VMO, leading to improved knee stability and potentially reducing the risk of knee-related injuries.

VMO Exercises

Step Up variations like the Petersen Step Up and Poliquin Step Up are other ways you can boost VMO activation too.

Improve Knee Mobility

Backward walking on a treadmill can also help improve knee mobility. When you walk backwards, your knees have to bend more than they do when you walk forwards.

This increased range of motion can help to improve the flexibility and mobility of your knee joints.

In some instances, Physical Therapists may also use backward walking because it places less strain on the front of the knee, and it can therefore be a beneficial exercise for people with knee pain or those recovering from a knee injury.

Regularly practicing backward walking can also help to maintain knee health in the long term, potentially preventing stiffness and mobility issues as you age.

Calories Burned

Believe it or not, walking backwards on a treadmill can burn more calories than walking forwards… assuming you’re going at the same pace.

This is because backward walking requires more effort and coordination, which increases your heart rate and energy expenditure.

In fact, some studies suggest that you could burn up to 30% more calories walking backwards than forwards at the same speed (this will vary from individual to individual).

So, if you’re looking to add a bit of variety to your treadmill workouts and boost the calories you burn, backwards walking could be worth a try.

Improved Hamstring Flexibility

Walking backwards on a treadmill can also lead to improved hamstring flexibility.

When you walk backwards, your hamstrings – the muscles at the back of your thighs – are stretched more than they are during forward walking.

This increased stretch can help to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, which is useful for a wide range of movements in daily life and sports, as well as strength training exercises like single leg RDLs.

Improved hamstring flexibility can also help to reduce the risk of injuries, such as hamstring strains, which are common in activities that involve running or jumping.

Reduce Risk of Falling Down Stairs

Probably the most significant benefit of walking backwards in any manner is the reduced risk of falling… which correlates to increased longevity.

When you walk backwards, you’re training your body to move in a direction that it’s not typically used to.

This can help to improve your balance and coordination, as well as knee strength, which are key for safely navigating stairs.

The increased strength and flexibility gained from backward walking can further enhance your stability and reduce the risk of falls, especially down stairs (which is a common cause of injury for over 70s).

No Treadmill? No Problem

Although a treadmill makes it very practical to walk backwards for a longer duration, you can gain these benefits from just walking backwards in your local park too. The ability to hold onto treadmill handles and control the pace, are two noticeable advantages of using a treadmill though.

Improve Coordination

Backward walking is a more complex movement than forward walking, requiring greater coordination and body awareness.

This can help to improve your overall coordination, which is useful for many aspects of daily life, from playing sports to simply moving around more efficiently.

Sled Pull Warm-Up

Finally, walking backwards on a treadmill can serve as an effective warm-up for sled pull exercises.

Sled pulls are a great way to build strength and power, but they require a good warm-up to prepare your muscles and joints.

Walking backwards mimics the movement pattern of a sled pull, helping to warm up the relevant muscles and get your body ready for the exercise.

Walking Backwards on a Treadmill Muscles Worked

Walking backwards on a treadmill engages your muscles differently than walking forwards. Here’s how the muscle activation changes:


When walking forwards, your quadriceps are primarily used during the swing phase to extend the knee.

However, when you walk backwards, your quads have to work harder during the stance phase to control the backward movement and stabilize your knees. This increased activation can help to strengthen your quads and improve knee stability.


During forward walking, the hamstrings are used to extend the hip and flex the knee.

When walking backwards, they are stretched more and have to help generate power for the backward motion, which can help to improve hamstring flexibility and strength.


Your glutes are used in both forward and backward walking to extend the hip. However, in backward walking, they have to work harder to get the motion in gear, especially as you’ll find you naturally hinge at the hips slightly.


Your core muscles, including your abs, obliques, and lower back, are engaged during both forward and backward walking.

The increased balance and coordination required in backward walking can lead to greater core engagement, helping to strengthen your core and improve overall balance and stability.

Elephant Walks

Elephant walks are another great way to practice activating the quads as you straighten your legs.

How Should You Actually Walk Backwards on a Treadmill, Anyway?

Walking backwards on a treadmill can be a bit tricky at first, but with a little practice, you can get the hang of it. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get started:

Start Slow – To start with, use a treadmill switched off or a manual treadmill. This allows you to get used to the sensation of walking backwards without losing your balance or trying to adapt to a fast pace.

Hold On – Use the handrails for support, especially when you’re first starting out. As you get more comfortable, you can try to walk without holding on.

Stand Tall – Maintain good posture by keeping your back straight and your head up. Avoid looking down at your feet, as this can throw off your balance.

Take Small Steps – Try to take small, controlled steps. This can help you maintain your balance and ensure that you’re engaging the right muscles.

Gradually Increase Speed – As you get more comfortable with backward walking, you can gradually increase the speed. But, always prioritize control and good form over speed.

Actively Engaging Your Quads

The benefits of walking backwards largely comes from technique… and those who can focus on activating their quads to create more stability around the knee as they walk backwards, will gain more benefits.

Things to Consider

Fitness Goals

Consider your fitness goals. If you’re looking to add variety to your workouts, target different muscles, or improve your balance and coordination, then backward walking could be a great option.

For us, backwards walking is more about longevity and injury prevention, than it is improving current athletic performance.

Knee Pain

If you have knee pain, backward walking could potentially help by improving knee mobility and strengthening the muscles that support the knee.

However, it’s always important to listen to your body and stop if you feel any discomfort. If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or a Physical Therapist, to ensure backwards walking is suitable for you.

Other Exercises

Consider how backward walking fits in with the rest of your exercise routine. It can be a great way to add variety to your workouts and target different muscles, but it shouldn’t replace other important forms of exercise, such as strength training and flexibility exercises.

Although backwards walking on a treadmill can strengthen your VMO, it’s harder to add load that other exercises (such as a sled pull).

Is It Right for You?

Walking backwards on a treadmill can be a great exercise for many people, but it might not be suitable for everyone. Here’s who it might be right for, and who might want to think twice:

Who It’s For

People looking for variety – If you’re getting bored with your regular treadmill routine, walking backwards can add a new challenge and keep things interesting.

Those wanting to target different muscles – Backward walking targets different muscles compared to forward walking, which can help to improve overall muscular balance and strength.

Individuals wanting to improve balance and coordination – The increased balance and coordination required for backward walking can help to improve these skills, which are important for overall fitness and daily life.

Who Might Want to Think Twice

People with balance issues – If you have balance issues or are at a high risk of falls, walking backwards on a treadmill might not be the best choice, unless you are supervised.

Those with certain health conditions – If you have certain health conditions, such as severe arthritis or heart disease, it’s important to talk to your doctor before trying new forms of exercise like backward walking.


Walking Backwards on a Treadmill On or Off?

This boils down to personal preference, but we tend to opt for turning the treadmill off or using a manual treadmill. This means you can really focus on driving power from your legs and not worry about keeping up with a pace that might encourage poor technique. As you get more comfortable, you can turn it on and gradually increase the speed.

Should you Use Hand Rails When Walking Backwards?

When you’re first starting out, it can be helpful to use the handrails for support. However, as you get more comfortable and confident, try to walk without holding on. This can help to develop your balance and engage your core muscles more.

Walking Backwards on a Treadmill Speed

The speed at which you walk backwards on a treadmill will depend on your comfort and fitness level. Start slow, and gradually increase the speed as you get more comfortable.

Bottom Line

Walking backwards on a treadmill can be a unique and effective way to add variety to your workouts, target different muscles, and improve your balance and coordination.

Always start slow, use the handrails for support if needed, and prioritize control and good form over speed.

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