Incline Walking Is the Low-Impact Cardio You Need — Here’s Why

Turn up that treadmill incline and get ready to hike. Here's why incline walking should be part of your regular workout routine.

Incline Walking
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Think about the last time you walked uphill. Even if the hill was only slightly steep, chances are you could feel your lower body working extra hard to propel you upward. And once you reached the top of the hill, you likely found yourself winded.

The idea of climbing a hill as part of your workout routine probably doesn't sound that appealing. But when done regularly and intentionally, there are plenty of benefits to incline walking — which can easily be done and tracked on a treadmill if you live in a flat area without access to rolling hills and hiking trails.

"Walking on an incline is a full-body workout that can burn as many calories as you would while running [on a flat surface]," explains Holly Roser, NASM-certified personal trainer.

Incline walking requires your body to work harder because you're fighting against gravity to propel yourself upward. Because of this, the workout increases your heart rate (which is the reason you find yourself out of breath) and provides a host of cardiovascular benefits. Studies also show incline walking increases the activation of the hip, knee, and ankle extensors more than walking or running on a flat surface.

Ready to learn more? Here's everything you need to know about incline walking.

What Is Incline Walking?

Simply put, incline walking refers to walking uphill at an incline rather than on level ground. While this can be done on an actual hill, incline walking on a treadmill with the grade set to at least 3 percent is a safer option for your joints since you never have to switch directions and walk downhill. "Walking downhill creates a stressful environment for your knees," explains Roser. "It's unstable and [your knees] hit the ground forcefully, trying to stop your body from falling forward." Research backs this up: In a study on knee proprioception (aka your body's ability to sense movement and positioning within muscles), participants reported impaired proprioception when walking downhill, which increases the risk of injury.

Incline walking on a treadmill also allows you to set the incline to the percentage of your choice and to continue to challenge yourself by increasing the incline over time. Plus, a rainy day or snowfall won't thwart your incline walking treadmill workout.

What Muscles Does Incline Walking Work?

Incline walking works your entire body, but it especially targets the lower-body muscle groups.

"The steeper the incline, the greater the muscular demand on the muscles of the posterior chain, which include the glutes, hamstring, and calves," as well your lats and erector spinae (which help keep you upright as the incline increases), explains Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified personal trainer at EvolveYou. Walking at an incline adds a natural resisting force of gravity to your workout, which activates the glutes and posterior chain more than walking on a flat surface, continues Kendter. "If you want a firmer, more pronounced butt, add [inclines] to your walking routine," says Kendter.

The upper body and core muscles are also activated during incline walking. As you walk uphill, you need to lean forward to keep your balance — which works your abdominals as you fight to stay upright. Pumping your arms as you incline walk brings the upper body into play, says Kendter. Swinging your arms helps keep you balanced while walking on an incline and also adds the momentum you need to crest that hill.

The Benefits of Incline Walking

On its own, walking boasts plenty of benefits, such as lowered stress, stronger joints, and reduced risk of heart disease, as Shape previously reported. But incline walking comes with its own unique upsides that may make you consider taking a hike on the tread. Here are a few key benefits of adding incline treadmill walking to your workout routine.

Improves Heart Rate

Incline walking adds more intensity to your movement, causing your heart to work harder in the process. "From a cardiovascular standpoint, the incline work can increase your heart rate at a higher level than when flat, leading to more calories burned and improved endurance," explains Jason Greenwald, ISSA Certified Group Fitness Specialist at Life Time. Incline running delivers a significantly higher cardiovascular output than running on a level surface. When compared to flat running, one study found that running on an incline increased heart rate by 10 percent. And that increased heart rate pays off over time by increasing your cardiovascular endurance (aka how long you can perform any given cardio exercise), which also improves your heart health, lowers your risk of chronic disease, and makes it easier for you to tackle strenuous activities (such as lugging a suitcase through the airport).

Builds and Strengthens Muscles

When you're incline walking, your body is working against the added resistance of gravity — which means you're calling on your lower-body muscles (such as glutes, calves, and hamstrings) and core to reach the top of the hill, explains Kendter. If you've ever felt like your muscles were on fire after climbing a steep hill, it's because these muscles are working hard to propel you uphill.

People who frequently incline walk will notice a difference in their strength output over time. "Muscular strength is improved as you recruit more leg muscles in your posterior chain on your way up the hill," says Greenwald. But heads up: Incline walking shouldn't totally replace resistance training in your routine — here's why you should be strength training regularly.

Burns More Calories Than Flat-Road Walking

While burning calories doesn't have to be the main purpose of any workout — and can be ignored altogether if that's more your style — adding an incline to your walk or run has serious calorie-burning benefits. One study found that compared to walking on a flat surface, participants burned 17 percent more calories at a 5 percent incline and 32 percent more calories at a 10 percent incline. If walking on the treadmill is already part of your fitness routine, increasing the incline is an easy way to maximize your next workout.

Who Should Try Incline Walking?

Incline walking is a safe and effective workout that can benefit just about anyone. "It's a great low-impact workout and, when done effectively, can deliver a high-intensity and heart-racing workout depending on your speed and incline," says Greenwald.

Because incline walking is a low-impact workout, it's an ideal option for anyone with concerns about protecting their joints. "Incline walking can be a more comfortable and safer form of exercise for those with osteoarthritis, joint injuries, and low bone density," says Kendter. That's because incline walking delivers a similar aerobic intensity to jogging but with less stress on the bones and joints.

The Best Incline Walking Exercises To Try

When incline walking, posture is of utmost importance to reap the benefits and avoid injury. "Keep your posture upright, and try to avoid using the handrails so you don't put undue stress on your upper body and neck" by leaning too far forward, says Kendter.

Pay attention to your footwork as well. "Always ensure your feet are pointing straight ahead and you wear supportive sneakers," says Roser. If your feet are out of alignment (think: if you're walking with your toes slightly outward or slightly inward), you may feel knee pain. If you experience discomfort, try wearing a running shoe with stabilization or a neutral sneaker to position your ankle and foot properly, suggests Roser.

As with trying any new workout, starting slow and going at your own pace is key. "Build up the duration, speed, and incline gradually — doing too much too soon can cause muscle strains or burnout," says Kendter.

Ready to start incline walking? Here are a few suggestions on how to incorporate incline walking into your workout routine.

Gradually increase your incline.

If you're new to incline walking, start slow and increase as you go, Greenwald suggests. Try incline walking for 30 minutes, starting at a walking pace that feels comfortable and doesn't make you lose your breath while speaking. Begin at a 3 percent incline and add a 1 percent incline every three minutes until you reach a 12 percent incline. "Lower your speed before lowering your incline if it starts to get challenging and don't forget to cool down," says Greenwald.

Swap your regular walk or run for an incline walk.

If you already incorporate the treadmill as part of your workout routine, try swapping your flat walk or run for an incline one to two times per week, suggests Kendter. If you're new to the treadmill, don't be afraid to test-drive the different features and get familiar with the machine. "Try various types of incline workouts on a treadmill such as incline walking intervals, a steady incline, a steep incline, or a speed walking incline," says Kendter.

Try the 12-3-30 workout.

Popularized on TikTok by creator Laurin Giraldo, the 12-3-30 workout is simple to follow. Set your treadmill incline to 12, then walk for 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour. It's important to note that beginners should expect to work up to the 30-minute mark and should take breaks as needed. For those who are new to incline walking, start out at an incline of 3 percent, and increase as you get more comfortable.

Incline walk to your favorite musical artists.

Walking on an incline for 30 minutes might sound boring — but what if you could do it to 10 of your favorite songs that are perfectly paced to match a certain treadmill speed and incline? Thanks to creators on TikTok, there's no shortage of treadmill workouts to choose from. The Taylor Swift Treadmill Strut and Lizzo Treadmill Strut are just a few fun examples.

Here are a few more treadmill workouts for incline walking:

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