Walking is a wonderfully low-impact activity that’s highly beneficial for the body and the mind. While walking forward is the most frequent motion we engage in, walking backwards is an often overlooked alternative that can have additional benefits. Before you hit the road and start taking backwards strides around your local area, read through this article to find out the advantages and drawbacks of walking backward and how it could help with knee pain, coordination, and muscle activation.
Walking backwards causes muscle activation in the glutes, hamstrings and calves.
Walking backwards can help improve stability and coordination.
Start slowly and make sure you have something to hold on to as walking backwards for the first time can be challenging.
Once you feel confident with walking backwards you can add weights or walk backwards uphill to challenge your muscles further.
As the name suggests, walking backwards entails changing the direction of your steps from your usual forward motion. Although it may seem contradictory at first, this type of exercise can challenge your balance in ways that forward walking cannot while also working various different muscles.
Is walking backwards good for you?
Including walking backwards in your exercise plans can be a great way to enhance your workout and give your body some extra variety in movement. It works muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, and calves that aren't usually used when walking forward.
By activating these muscles you may experience the following:
- Enhanced balance
- Increased muscle endurance
- Greater overall strength
- Increased activation of cerebral pathways
A 2021 pilot study also showed that after only 4 weeks of just 30 minutes of walking backwards per day, 3 times per week, adults suffering from chronic stroke displayed improvements in both balance and speed of walking.
Benefits of walking backwards
The benefits of walking backwards include:
- Muscular strength and endurance. Walking backwards causes diverse muscle engagements, offering a distinctive stimulus for the development of strength and endurance. It can aid in toning the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and lower body as well as the glutes.
- Joint mobility. Walking backwards can improve joint mobility, especially in the hips and ankles. The motion can aid in extending the range of motion of certain body parts, in turn improving flexibility, improving joint health, and easing stiffness.
- Balance and coordination. Walking backwards is challenging for your balance and coordination abilities, making you work harder to stay balanced. Improving your coordination can reduce the risk of falls and enhance proprioception (awareness of body position).
- Brain stimulation. Walking backwards needs more concentration and focus, which stimulates several neural pathways in the brain. This can raise mental sharpness, enhance spatial awareness, and improve cognitive performance.
Risks of walking backwards
While walking backwards can be beneficial, it's important to be mindful of potential risks. Here are a few considerations to be aware of before adding it into your workout routine:
- Safety. Because your range of view is constrained, traveling backwards can be trickier than walking ahead. To avoid accidents, pick a setting that is free from obstacles or dangerous hazards.
- Neck strain. Because you have to swivel your head to see where you're going, walking backward for a lengthy amount of time might strain your neck. To prevent undue strain, it's best to keep your head in a neutral position and sometimes gaze forward.
- Balance and falls. It's vital to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity because walking backwards challenges your balance. Until you feel more confident, using support — such as handrails or a walking partner — can help you maintain stability.
How to walk backwards
Although it seems like it would be obvious, walking backwards actually takes a while to get used to. It’s not quite as simple as putting one foot behind the other. Follow these steps when you first try walking backwards:
- Pick a flat even surface to begin with, preferably with a handrail you can use to guide you.
- Make sure any shoelaces are firmly tied to avoid tripping.
- Stand with your feet facing forward at hip width apart.
- Look behind you to check for any obstacles.
- Bend your right leg at the knee and move it behind you making sure to take a smaller stride than if you were walking forwards.
- Once your toe finds contact with the ground, lower the foot, bring your weight into the back leg and step back with the left leg.
- Move slowly and mindfully until you get the hang of it.
Walking backwards outside
Walking backwards outside can be a great way to switch up a hike or a short stroll around the park. However, if you plan on walking backwards outdoors, make sure you aren’t crossing roads or walking on uneven paths as you could be more prone to accidents.
Once you've built your confidence you can even try walking backwards uphill which further improves gait, balance, and coordination.
Walking backwards on treadmill
When the weather outside or a lack of space prevents backward walking outdoors, using a treadmill might be a convenient alternative. Safety should be a priority when using a treadmill to walk backwards. Take your time and start with the speed set low. As you feel more comfortable, slowly increase the speed, staying mindful of the fact that the backwards movement can initially be confusing.
Walking backwards with weights
Once you get comfortable walking backwards confidently, the challenge of walking backwards while carrying weights can be added to your fitness routine.
However, it's essential to use weights sensibly. As your strength and coordination increases you can add in light dumbbells or ankle weights and progressively increase the burden. To reduce the chance of injury, pay close attention to maintaining good form and technique, and don’t push yourself too hard before you are ready.
Can walking backwards help knee pain?
There are many different exercises to try if you prefer low impact and are concerned about your joints and knees, but does walking backwards help your knees?
For anyone who has experienced, or is currently suffering with knee pain, waking backwards could be a valuable tool in your healing journey.
Backward walking distributes the load differently and reduces stress on the joints, whereas forward walking particularly stresses the knees. If you already have knee problems, it's crucial to speak with a doctor or a physical therapist before trying reverse walking to make sure you don’t exacerbate the issues.
Walking backwards vs. forward
Both forward and backward walking have advantages. For the majority of people, forward walking feels more natural and comfortable, targets several muscle areas, and is good for the heart. On the other hand, walking backward has distinct difficulties, uses more muscles, and improves balance and coordination.
One is not inherently better than the other — although walking forwards is definitely more practical for getting from A to B. Rather than trying to swap out walking forwards for walking backwards, think of it as something to add into your exercise routine to challenge yourself.
Switching up your walking direction can be a useful addition to your workout. It has advantages like increased joint mobility, enhanced balance and coordination, improved muscular strength and endurance, and cognitive stimulation.
Be safe, remember to check for potential hazards, and put safeguards in place if you need to before you shift to walking backwards.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The effect of walking backward on a treadmill on balance, speed of walking and cardiopulmonary fitness for patients with chronic stroke: a pilot study.
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Therapeutic efficacy of walking backward and forward on a slope in normal adults.
- Activities, Adaptation and Aging. Effects of backward walking training on balance, mobility and gait in community dwelling older adults.