Walking has amazing health and fitness benefits, but if you do want to boost the challenge, there is one thing you can do: incline walking.
The benefits of uphill walking on a treadmill or outside outweigh those of walking on flat ground. It’s tougher than it looks, but you won’t want to go back once you see and feel the benefits!
What Is Uphill Walking?
Uphill walking is simply walking at an incline instead of on flat ground. You can do it on an actual hill outdoors, or you can walk uphill on a treadmill by setting it to an incline.
What Muscles Does Incline Walking Work?
When walking uphill, you’ll mainly use the muscles in the posterior chain. That is, the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and back.
The calves activate more than usual to propel you uphill against gravity. As you move forward and upwards, your hamstrings work harder to straighten the thigh. The glutes are also activated and help to stabilize you as you walk on an incline.
The lats, core muscles, and erector spinal muscles also activate to maintain balance. You can also get some good upper-body muscle activation if you pump your arms in a controlled manner while walking uphill.
Lastly, your peroneal muscles—those to the side of your calf muscles, coming down into the peroneal tendons—also get an excellent workout, which helps to strengthen the ankles.
Is an Incline on a Treadmill the Same as Walking Uphill?
While technically walking up a hill outdoors and on an inclined treadmill serve the same purpose, there are some significant differences.
One, when you’re walking outdoors, you have to rely on the hills that are there. There’s no way to increase their incline—you have to make the best of what you have.
With a treadmill, you can set the incline to whatever feels right for you, and you can increase it as you become more used to it so you maintain a constant challenge.
Two, there’s also the downhill factor in uphill walking outdoors. Unless you have a getaway driver waiting at the top of the hill to bring you down again, you’ll need to take another walk!
Treadmills eliminate the need for any downhill walking. Just stop, lower the incline, and you can walk a bit more or finish your workout.
Three, when walking up a hill outdoors, you also have no control over the terrain. There could be a chance of stepping in a hole or on a rock and twisting an ankle as you walk uphill.
The treadmill surface is smooth and uniform. There’s less chance of injuring yourself as you walk, although you may also miss out on some ankle-strengthening benefits.
Ultimately, both work the same muscles and can be done at the same intensity. However, the treadmill’s ability to choose your own incline, elimination of the decline, and the more uniform surface may give it a slight advantage.
Benefits of Walking on an Incline
Walking on an incline offers some benefits over regular flat walking. Here’s what you can expect if you’re walking uphill.
1. Strengthens Your Posterior Chain
When your posterior chain is weak, you may suffer from back pain, poor posture, and a limited range of motion. Strengthening the posterior chain is the remedy to these things.
The main muscles worked during incline walking are the lower posterior chain—glutes, hamstrings, calves—if you walk uphill often, you can expect to develop a stronger posterior chain.
In turn, this should lead to improved back pain and better posture, as long as you’re trying to maintain your posture while seated.
2. Improves Cardiovascular Fitness
Walking on an incline increases your heart rate more than on a flat surface. Your muscles must work harder to combat gravity, so they need all the nutrients and oxygen they can get!
The faster your heart beats, the quicker oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood reaches the muscles. In turn, your lungs get a signal to breathe deeper, which can help to increase your lung capacity.
This activity strengthens both your heart and your lungs. The more often you do it—150 minutes per week is the recommended minimum, according to the CDC—the stronger your heart and lungs become.
As a result, you’ll be able to perform better during exercise with the same amount of energy expended.
3. Increases Muscle Strength and Tone
Walking uphill is particularly good for building muscle in the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. This is an excellent way to increase activation in the glutes, as these leg muscles are often neglected or aren’t activated enough when walking normally.
Steeper inclines will work the muscles harder, so you’re likely to tone your legs and develop strength. You’ll also build those stabilizing muscles, which can be hard to work even if you’re cross-training in the gym.
4. Increased Strength and Endurance
The more you walk on an incline, the stronger you’ll get as you work that posterior chain. Also, the more your body becomes used to it, the better your cardiovascular system will become.
This leads to better strength and endurance during your cardio workouts. You’ll be able to walk for longer before becoming fatigued, which means you’ll most likely be able to improve your PR regularly.
5. Improved Joint and Ligament Strength
Incline walking is amazing for the joints. It gives you all the benefits of running, but minus the impact on the joints of the feet.
Whether you’re already struggling with joint problems and looking for a way to minimize pain, or you’re trying to lower your chances of developing joint issues… Incline walking is a great choice.
Not only does it significantly lower the impact and the resulting vibrations through the foot joints, but the movement of the feet also helps to strengthen the joints and the supporting ligaments.
There’s also evidence to suggest that incline walking improves biomechanics in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
6. Better Posture and Balance
The stronger your posterior chain, the better your posture and balance. You may not think posture and balance are that important for running, but you’ll be surprised! Improved posture equals better walking form, leading to a lower risk of injury.
Better balance means you’ll likely have a better cadence and a smoother stride, increasing your running efficiency.
7. Increased Calorie Burn
Generally, the more intense the exercise, the more calories you burn. Incline walking is significantly more intense than regular walking, so you can expect to burn a few more calories.
This study shows that the metabolic cost—the energy you expend and calories you burn—increases by up to 2 percent as you increase to an incline of 10%. That means, ultimately, you’re burning 32 percent more calories per incline walk than you would on a normal walk!
If you’re walking for weight loss, this can have a positive impact. For the same amount of time per exercise, you’ll burn ⅓ more calories, making it easier to stay in a calorie deficit and lose those extra pounds.
Tips for Incline Walking on a Treadmill or Outside
If you’re new to incline walking, follow these tips to start safely and do it effectively!
Warm Up Before You Start
Warming up before any normal walking is important. But considering the load on the posterior chain, warming up is even more important when you’re about to go for an incline walk.
A short 5-min walk at a moderate walking speed and some dynamic stretches will do the job. This will prime those muscles for the physical activity that lies ahead.
There’s no need to rush into your walks, especially in the beginning. The more your body becomes used to the mechanics of uphill walking, the more intensely you can walk. You’ll still get great benefit even doing it at a low intensity to begin!
Increase the Incline Gradually
Start with a low treadmill incline—around 3 percent is a good one to start with. Once you start to find that fairly easy, you can increase it by 1 percent every few weeks.
You may not be able to figure out the incline on the ground outside. However, if you have a smartwatch that measures elevation, you can work it out.
Measure the vertical gain—in feet—for every 100 feet of the route. That will equal the incline percentage of that piece of ground.
For example, measuring a vertical rise of 3 feet in 100 feet on the ground equals a gradient of 3 percent.
Shorten Your Steps
Avoid overstriding up steep inclines. Shortening your steps is the key to getting up an incline quickly and effectively. Overstriding will place excess strain on the muscles of the lower posterior chain, which could result in an injury.
Shorten your steps—increase your cadence. That means you’ll take more steps in one minute than you would when walking normally, but it will improve your performance and reduce injury risks.
Lean Sightly Into the Incline
Rather than trying to stand upright, leaning slightly into the incline as you walk is better. However, don’t make the mistake of hinging at the hips—this only places excess strain on the muscles as you walk and may lead to injury.
Rather, you want to lean from the ankles. This may take some practice, but be mindful of where you are leaning from as you walk.
Make Sure You Maintain Proper Form
Make sure you keep your cadence, lean from the right place, and keep your head looking straight on. Be mindful of your form as you walk and maintain it properly. This will improve your performance and reduce injury risk.
Keep an Eye on Your Heart Rate
If you’re used to walking on flat ground, you may find that incline walking is noticeably more intense. To make sure you’re not overdoing it, keep an eye on your heart rate.
You want to make sure you don’t exceed your maximum heart rate. To find out your maximum heart rate, deduct your age from 220. For example, if you’re 40 years old, your maximum heart rate should be 180.
Monitor Your Perceived Effort
Can you continue to have a conversation while you’re walking? The walk may be too easy for you. Are you gasping for breath and feeling faint? Then it may be too hard!
Keep monitoring how you feel when walking. Even if you don’t have a smartwatch or fitness tracker, your “perceived effort” is a reliable way to determine if you’re doing too little, too much, or just enough.
You should be able to get a sentence out, but only have a full-on conversation if you get short of breath. This is the sweet spot and how you know you’re at the right intensity level.
Use the Handrails or Trekking Poles
You can always use the handrails on a treadmill or trekking poles on hills if you need a bit more stabilization. If you have a weak core and weak stabilizer muscles, you may need extra support until your muscles have developed.
The key is to use them sparingly throughout your walk. You can use them later in your walk, as your lower body muscles begin to fatigue and you need more help pushing through the last bit of your walk.
Cool Down Stretches
Don’t forget to cool down as well. Just a few minutes of easy walking on flat ground and some light stretching will be good for coming down from your more intense workout.
What Goes Uphill Must Come Down Outside
If you’re uphill walking outdoors… Well, you’re going to come downhill at some point! You must also do this with great form to avoid injury and strain on your body.
- Slow down—there’s a greater risk of losing your footing.
- Shorten your steps—overstriding can lead to injury.
- Avoid leaning backward—stay upright to keep your balance.
- Don’t lock your knees—keep them slightly bent throughout.
- Walk at an angle—going down semi-sideways can keep you more stable.
- Use trekking poles—they can help you to stay balanced and stable.
Example of Incline Treadmill Workout
Want to get started with incline walking on a treadmill? Here’s a beginner-friendly incline treadmill walking workout you can try!
- Warm-Up: 5 minutes at 0% incline, easy pace
- 1st Interval: 3 to 4 minutes at 2 to 3% incline, normal pace
- Rest Period: 1 to 2 minutes at 0% incline, easy pace
- 2nd Interval: 5 minutes at 2 to 3% incline, speedy pace
- Rest Period: 1 to 2 minutes at 0% incline, easy pace
- 3rd Interval: 3 to 4 minutes at 2 to 3% incline, brisk pace
- Cool-Down: 5 minutes at 0% incline, easy pace