Why Incline Treadmill Walking May Be Your Favorite New Workout
Pick up the pace without pounding pavement.
By Team Peloton•
March 24, 2023
No matter your fitness level, age, or goals, if you want to spice up your workout routine and see results faster, you’re going to want to try incline walking. “In my opinion it's the biggest bang for your buck,” says Peloton Tread instructor, Rebecca Kennedy. When you walk on an incline treadmill, you reap the benefits of the added challenge: a bigger bang for your buck and incredible lower-body toning.
Incline treadmill walking is perfect for anyone looking to take their fitness to the next level. Whether you're a seasoned runner looking for a new challenge, a beginner looking to build cardiovascular endurance, or anyone looking to target specific muscle groups—such as the glutes, quads, and hamstrings—walking on an incline treadmill is a great way to get in shape and achieve your fitness goals.
So, put on your workout shoes and get ready to take your fitness to the next level with incline treadmill walking!
What’s covered in this article:
What is incline walking?
Beginners: 1% - 4% incline
Moving up safely
Advanced: >10% incline
Risks of incline walking on a treadmill
What’s better: speed or incline?
What’s the 12-3-30 workout?
Go at your own pace
What Is Incline Walking?
Incline walking is a simple yet effective way to add intensity to your treadmill routine. By raising the incline, you not only burn more calories but also target different muscle groups in your legs. It's a great way to mix up your cardio routine, making it more challenging and effective. It's like hitting the refresh button on your workout.
Benefits of Incline Walking
The primary benefits of an incline treadmill workout include that it:
Targets different muscles. Additionally, incline walking targets different muscle groups in your legs, such as your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves – making it an effective way to tone and strengthen these areas. It’s also a great core workout, says Rebecca. And because you’re building strength in your core and glutes, it can help reduce low back pain.
Burns more calories. One of the main benefits of incline walking is that it helps burn more calories than regular treadmill walking or walking on a flat road. When you walk on an incline, your body has to work harder to move forward, which means that you'll burn more calories in the same amount of time.
Is low-impact cardio. Incline walking is a low-impact exercise, which makes it great for people of all fitness levels and ages. An incline treadmill workout is especially beneficial for people who are recovering from injuries or have joint pain since it puts less stress on the joints than running or other high-impact exercises. “The impact on your back, hips, knees, and ankles by running is immediately reduced without reducing the cardio, metabolic, and strength benefits,” says Rebecca.
And better yet? “You get comparable results of running without the impact on your joints,” she explains. For example, she says that walking on a 12% incline at a 3.5 is the equivalent of jogging on a flat road at a 5.4. “You can easily PR on these hikes because of massive output,” Rebecca says.
Improves health and fitness. Incline treadmill workouts are also a great way to boost your cardiovascular health and your endurance. By gradually increasing the incline, you'll be able to challenge yourself and improve your overall fitness level. “Hiking is great for your heart; it improves our cardiovascular endurance so much,” says Rebecca.
As an added bonus, since incline treadmills walking is easier on your joints than running, it’s easier mentally to show up regularly to this type of workout, helping you be more consistent.
It can help you prep for outdoor adventures. Planning a hike or backpacking trip? Incline treadmill walking is a great way to prepare because it simulates the motion and resistance of walking uphill. In fact, it can help you prepare for any type of outdoor terrain, like doing a lot of walking in cities when traveling or helping you get some easy mileage and good conditioning for race training without the impact, suggests Rebecca.
How to Get Started with Treadmill Incline Walking
First thing first, “It is important to warm up your feet, calves, and shins beforehand,” says Rebecca. She recommends a Warm Up Walk or Ankle and Feet Mobility class on the Peloton App before you begin. “This will help when your feet are in dorsiflexion the whole hike, because being in that position makes your shins and calves constantly work hard throughout the hike,” she explains.
Before you crank up the incline, it's important to start at a flat incline of 0%. This allows you to get used to the motion of walking on the treadmill and to find your stride. It also allows your muscles to get ready for the workout ahead, reducing the risk of injury. Think of it as a warm-up lap before the real race.
Instead of going from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds, starting flat allows you to ease into your incline treadmill workout, and gradually work up to your desired intensity. This not only makes for a safer workout, but it also helps prevent burnout.
And let's be real, nobody wants to burn out before they've even hit their desired incline. So, the next time you're getting ready to hit that incline button, remember to start flat and work your way up. Your body will thank you.
Don’t forget to check your heart rate at regular intervals—either every 10 minutes or at the beginning, middle, and end of your workout. This can ensure your incline treadmill workout is appropriate for you based on your age and overall health.
Incline Walking for Beginners: 1% - 4% Incline
Anyone new to an incline treadmill should begin with a 1% to 4% incline. An incline of 1% - 2% is thought to mimic the natural changes in elevation of outdoor walking or running.
It’s important to note the greater you set the incline, the harder it will be on your hips and low back. Ultimately, your ideal incline may differ dramatically from anyone else’s, depending on factors unique to you, such as your age, overall health, as well as your fitness goals.
Starting with a low incline also allows new users to focus on proper form and develop the necessary muscle strength and endurance before progressing to higher inclines.
Rebecca also recommends starting with shorter durations, like 10-15 minute walks. As you become more accustomed to incline treadmill walking, and your fitness level improves, the incline and your time can be gradually increased so you can continue to challenge yourself and achieve additional fitness goals.
Moving Up Safely
The whole point of using an incline treadmill is that it is more challenging than a flat surface. Plus, it allows you to burn more calories and tone your legs. While you may be tempted to quickly increase your incline levels, we’re here to say that it’s important to do so at a rate that’s safe and effective for you.
You’ll definitely hit your target heart rate faster on an incline than a flat surface. A 2013 study revealed that an incline anywhere between 2% to 7% was enough to raise the heart rate of study participants by 10%. At these incline levels, you should enjoy a more intense cardio workout on your incline treadmill.
Speaking of your target heart rate for cardio exercise, you should aim for it to be 60% - 80% of your maximum age-related heart rate (220 minus your age), according to Cleveland Clinic. This means your target heart rate may be wildly different from others. For a 30-year-old, your heart rate should be 114-152. For a 40-year-old, it’s 108 - 144 bpm. And, for a 50-year-old, it’s 102 - 136 bpm. You get the idea.
Once you become more capable and comfortable with incline walking, it's time to step up your game. An incline between 5% and 10% is often recommended for a moderate- to high-intensity workout. But get there slowly – try increasing incline levels by 2% at a time.
Another way to ensure you’re increasing your incline level at a pace that’s safe for you, make sure you can comfortably perform at lower inclines before turning that knob. For example, if you’re holding onto the treadmill arms (relieving the work your legs are doing), or if you’re leaning back (instead of slightly forward) on the incline, you may not be ready to up the incline just yet.
You should be able to walk briskly, with your hands free, head up, and eyes forward for the duration of your treadmill workout before it’s safe to increase the incline level.
Advanced Incline Walking : >10% Incline
Feeling like a pro? If so, it may be time for you to take it to the next level with an incline of 10% or higher. This will provide a challenging workout that should feel like you’re climbing a steep hill. Make sure you've been incline-walking for several months before attempting this level up.
At an incline of 10% or higher, the following changes happen:
Your heart rate increases, which can lead to significant cardiovascular effort.
Your glutes, quads, and hamstrings are targeted more effectively, helping to increase muscle tone and strength.
The impact on your joints is also increased, which can lead to injury if you are not careful or if you’re not using proper form on the treadmill.
Common Mistakes When Incline Walking on a Treadmill
The most common mistakes made on an incline treadmill include:
Starting at too high of an incline: Starting at too steep of an incline can put too much stress on the joints and increase your risk of injury. It's important to start at a lower incline and gradually increase the incline as your body adapts to the new workout.
Not warming up: It's important to warm up before starting an incline treadmill workout to prepare your muscles for the increased intensity. A proper warm-up can help to prevent injuries and improve performance.
Poor form and posture: Maintaining proper form and posture while walking on an incline treadmill is important to reduce the impact on your joints and prevent injury. It can also put unnecessary stress on your hips and low back. Rebecca recommends that you don’t hold on to the treadmill while doing incline walking workouts, unless you’re doing it for safety. “This way you can lean into the hill and use your core more while maintaining traction and power landing your feet underneath you versus in front of you.”
Not monitoring heart rate: Monitoring your heart rate during an incline treadmill workout is important to ensure that you are staying within your target heart rate zone and to prevent overexertion.
Not adjusting speed or incline: Not adjusting the speed or incline during a workout can lead to a lack of progress and the inevitable plateau. By varying the incline and speed, you will continue to challenge your body to achieve your fitness goals.
Not stretching: Stretching after a workout can help to prevent injuries and improve flexibility. Neglecting stretching can lead to tight muscles, soreness, and cramping.
Not listening to your body: It's important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard. If you're feeling tired or in pain, stop the workout and take a break.
As with any workout, it's important to be aware of the risks. Incline walking can put more stress on your joints than walking on a flat surface alone, especially the hips and low back, so it's important to listen to your body and stop if you feel any pain. It's also not recommended for people with certain health conditions, such as knee or hip problems.
What’s Better: Speed or Incline?
Why choose between speed and incline when you can have both? Speed and incline both can have a significant impact on the intensity of your incline treadmill walk. In general, incline is great for toning your legs and building endurance, while speed is great for cardiovascular health and burning calories.
Increasing the incline on a treadmill simulates the feeling of walking uphill, which can burn more calories, engage the glutes and leg muscles more, and improve cardiovascular fitness. The steeper the incline, the harder the workout will be, as you will have to work harder to lift the body up the incline.
Increasing the speed on a treadmill can also increase the intensity of your workout because it requires you to take more steps and cover more distance in a shorter amount of time, which can also burn more calories, improve cardiovascular fitness and engage the muscles.
The best incline treadmill workout will vary both incline and speed, as this will provide a well-rounded routine that will allow you to keep improving. If you’re looking for fun treadmill walking workouts, the Peloton Tread features easy-to-adjust speed and incline knobs and an auto-incline feature to adjust with instructor cues. You can also use the Peloton App with any treadmill.
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What’s the 12-3-30 Workout?
Have you heard of the viral 12-3-30 workout? This incline treadmill routine spread like wildfire after being shared by influencer Lauren Giraldo on TikTok in 2020. It’s simple enough to remember.
You start by setting your treadmill’s incline to 12% and speed at 3 mph, then you walk for 30 minutes. 12-3-30. It's a great way to burn calories and get your heart pumping. However, for those new to an incline treadmill, it’s better to start out at a much lower incline level—say, 1% to 4%—and work your way up, as you feel more comfortable doing so.
The 12-3-30 workout is a quick, intense workout achieved by walking instead of running on an incline treadmill. But don’t be fooled, that doesn’t make it easy. As noted above, an incline of 10% or higher is meant for those who are already active and have already built up their strength and stamina on an incline treadmill.
A couple important notes about the 12-3-30 treadmill workout:
It’s not interval training. There’s no variation in incline or speed during the 30 minutes, so the 12-3-30 routine isn’t considered high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—although it is intense.
Warm up first. Walk briskly on the treadmill for the length of a song before you add any incline. Ditto for afterward—cool down on a flat incline for 5 minutes.
Build up to the 30-minute walk. Try doing just 10 or 15 minutes at first, then take a break and check your heart rate. Even the workout creator had to do this before she was able to accomplish the entire 30-minutes in one go.
Variety is best. While the 12-3-30 workout is one type of incline treadmill workout, it's always best to keep your muscles (and brain) guessing with new workout types. The Peloton App offers a variety of incline treadmill workouts to keep you motivated and includes variations in incline and speed for a fun challenge.
Go at Your Own Best Pace
Overall, incline walking is a great way to burn calories, strengthen your legs, and improve your cardiovascular fitness. It's a low-impact exercise that is suitable for people of all fitness levels. It can be a great addition to your cardio routine, providing variety and a more challenging workout.
Remember, the most important thing is to listen to your body. Everyone's fitness level is different, so it's important to start at a level that's comfortable for you and gradually increase the incline as you become more comfortable. With consistency and persistence, you'll be able to achieve your fitness goals and enjoy the many benefits of incline walking on a treadmill.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
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