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HIIT Methods: Incline Treadmill Walking

Fitness centers present the client with an endless array of cardio training entertainment.  You can spin a bike, wheel around on an elliptical, run on a treadmill, row, ski,…  My recommendation is that we all start performing more incline treadmill walking intervals.  There are three big benefits you get from incline treadmill intervals that you do not get from any of the other cardio contraptions.

Single leg stance stability is a skill we all need to keep in our fitness programs.  Our independence and well-being is based upon being able to repeatedly balance, load, and then drive forward off a single leg.  Since we are all sitting more, we need to make an effort to practice the elaborate leg to leg “game of catch” that happens when we walk.  It is a sad fact that most of the more popular training devices in the gym have made exercise easier by eliminating the single leg stability demand.

Hip extension is the movement of your thigh bone (femur) behind your body.  Hip extension keeps your hamstring and gluteal muscles strong and responsive.  Well functioning hamstrings and gluteals keep your knees and lower back healthy and happy.  In the age of perpetual sitting and very little squatting and sprinting, hip extension has become a lost movement pattern.  Improving hip extension strength should be part of every training session.

Walking on an incline reboots the postural reflexes that hold us tight and tall.   Prolonged sitting, improper training, and weakness shuts down the team of muscles that keep our spine stable and upright.  As fatigue sets in, you can slouch over on a bike, slump onto the elliptical, or fold into a rower and continue to exercise.  If you lose your posture on the incline treadmill walk, you slide down the belt.  Many fitness clients report this is the hardest part of an incline treadmill session–their muscles in the middle fatigue before their legs.

Finding your initial incline and walking pace will be a trial and error endeavor.  My suggestion is that you start easy.  I find most newbies to incline treadmill intervals do well with a 5% incline and a 3.5 mph pace.  Incline treadmill training makes you stronger in all of the most neglected places.  Many people report they are able to significantly advance incline and speed with four months of dedicated training.  For the best results, frequently vary the intervals that you perform.  These are some of the sessions I have found work well for fitness clients.

90 seconds on / 45 seconds off

Walk for ninety seconds.  Step off the treadmill and rest for forty five seconds and repeat for three to six intervals.  The two to one work / rest ratio works well for nearly all fitness clients that are new to incline treadmill walking.

Quarter Mile Repeats

Get a stopwatch and track your performance on this interval session.  Set the treadmill speed and incline.  Walk ¼ of a mile.  Rest as needed and then repeat.  Perform four ¼ mile incline walks.  Record your time to complete all four ¼ mile walks.  I find this to be a good test of cardiorespiratory recovery capacity.  Work toward a faster performance.

10 seconds on / 10 seconds off x 10

This comes directly from Dr. Gibalas research on HIIT.  This protocol has been shown to be as or more effective at improving insulin sensitivity and cardiorespiratory capacity than longer training sessions.  Set the treadmill at a slightly higher incline.  Walk ten seconds and then step off and rest for ten seconds.  Perform ten of these ten second intervals.

2/10th, 3/10th, 5/10th Mile Interval Session

Get a stopwatch and track your performance on this interval session.  Set the treadmill speed and incline.  Walk 2/10th of a mile.  Rest as needed and then perform 3/10th of a mile.  Rest as needed and then perform 5/10th of a mile.  Record your time to complete all three intervals.   As you get stronger your times will improve.

For more information on the many benefits of HIIT read the The One Minute Workout by Dr. Martin Gibala.

Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS

PDFTreadmills are found in virtually every gym.  Read the six treadmill facts you need to know.  Meet a Fenton Fitness member who learned how to manage her back pain, and read about the seven best TRX exercises.  Do you have limited time to exercise?  Be more efficient with HIIT.

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The most popular method of exercise in commercial exercise equipment rental centers is the treadmill. Several studies have shown that treadmill training gives us the greatest cardiovascular challenge with the lowest rate of perceived discomfort. The modern treadmill allows us to train free of the dangers of inclement weather, angry dogs, and poor pavement. However, the way we use the treadmill often places us at risk for injury. In an effort to keep you productive and injury-free, I have some recommendations as to how to properly use a treadmill.

Home Treadmill Safety

Modern treadmills have powerful electric motors with exposed belts underneath the unit. Any object that gets under the unit while it is operating can actually liftreadmillt the unit off the ground with you on it. Pediatric friction burn injuries are becoming more common with greater home treadmill ownership. I know of two family pet fatalities brought on by treadmill accidents. When setting up the treadmill in your home keep this in mind. Be aware that a treadmill makes noise, and if you are concurrently listening to your i-device, you may not hear everything that is happening around you.

Kick the Holding Habit

Holding onto the rails, control console, or heart rate monitor handles of the treadmill significantly alters the reactive forces that travel through your body. It inhibits the reflexes that make walking/running automatic and prevents a normal gait pattern. Holding on exerts greater compressive forces on the shoulders, lumbar, and cervical spine. I have treated many patients whose cervical and lumbar pain abolished when they stopped holding on while using the treadmill. Holding on greatly reduces the amount of work you perform (35% to 60% decrease) and devalues the time you spend exercising. The saddest sight in the gym is the guy or gal trying to lose weight by walking uphill on the treadmill while clinging to the front of the machine. If you cannot walk on the treadmill without holding on, you are better served by staying off the treadmill.

Pay Attention

Think about what you are doing while on the treadmill. Your posture should be tall with the head back and gaze forward. The arms should swing by your sides and the pelvis should rotate with each stride. Studies demonstrate that reading while walking or running on a treadmill shortens the stride, inhibits rotation, and alters posture. Listening to music increases lateral sway and widens foot placement in novice treadmill walkers. I have treated many headache patients whose pain symptoms can be traced back to reading while on the treadmill. Pay attention because falling off a treadmill is a painful and embarrassing experience that can dramatically impair your efforts to become more fit.

Whoa Thunderfoot

If your neighbor can hear you running on the treadmill from his front porch, you should rethink using a treadmill as a training method. Modern treadmills have suspended decks that absorb force. Anyone who runs on a treadmill and creates a lot of deck noise does not possess an efficient gait and is much more susceptible to overuse injuries. To land softer, try limiting the vertical component of your gait. Improving hip extension mobility, posterior chain strength, and postural awareness can make you a quieter and more efficient runner.

-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

For the last two years, Janet had been “bothered” by lower back and hip pain.  When the symptoms made walking and getting out of bed difficult, she sought medical attention.  Janet had X-rays and Magnetic Resonance Imaging of her lumbar spine that showed she had some arthritis and stenosis in her lower back.  She, then, underwent ablation of nerves in her lumbar spine and injections into her sacroiliac joints.  These treatments decreased the pain in the lower back, but pain in the left hip and sacral region persisted.  Three months after her last injections, Janet was referred for physical therapy.

On her initial physical therapy evaluation, Janet had none of the pain that caused her to seek medical attention.  She stated the pain was present in the morning and with prolonged standing.  She could stand for no more than ten minutes when the pain would become so intense she had to sit down.  Sitting for fifteen to twenty minutes would resolve her pain.  Janet had good spinal mobility, excellent hip range of motion, and normal strength in both legs.  Her core stability was limited to a poor grade, but otherwise, she passed all functional tests.  On further questioning about her lifestyle and activities, Janet failed a big test.

Physical Therapist:  What do you do for exercise?shutterstock_135632903

Janet:  I walk on a treadmill every day.

Physical Therapist:  How long do you walk?

Janet:  One or two miles.

Physical Therapist:  I thought standing caused you to have pain?

Janet:  I do not have pain if I hold onto the rails.

Treatment:  Stop walking on the treadmill.

Janet was skeptical.  After all, walking was good exercise, and she wasn’t in pain if she held the rails.  How could something good for you perpetuate the pain?  Janet, however,  was willing to try anything to get rid of her pain, so she agreed to a one week break from the treadmill.  Ten days later Janet was pain- free.

When you walk on a treadmill you perform 2,000-2,500 step repetitions per mile.  With every step taken, you must decelerate and then accelerate one and a half to two times your body weight.  Holding onto the rails or the console of the treadmill can easily add 10-15% more load through your spine and pelvis.  A woman who weighs 135 pounds walks with a fifteen pound weight vest on her back when she holds onto the treadmill.  Torso and pelvic girdle rotation is a key component of normal locomotion–watch any speed walker.  Holding onto the rails restricts the free flowing, rotational component of gait.  Thousands of repetitions of a restricted gait pattern, with extra load, performed on a daily basis, can create lots of pain problems.

Treadmill gripping is a common driver of pain problems.  As is often the case, the pain is not experienced during the treadmill exercise session, so the patient does not connect the activity with the symptoms.  Patients with head, neck, lower back, and leg pain symptoms often have this same well-intentioned exercise habit.

-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

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