Walking Backwards On A Treadmill Is A Godsend For Knee Pain

TikTok is onto something.

Originally Published: 
How walking backwards on a treadmill can benefit your knees.
Getty Images/Siraphol Siricharattakul / EyeEm

Treadmills are so in right now. Whether you want to do the hot girl walk, the 12/3/30 workout, or an 18-minute treadmill challenge, TikTok has made it clear that this piece of fitness equipment is the place to get your sweat on. A short walk on a treadmill has even become a much-buzzed-about way to improve knee pain — a topic that has over 577 million views on the social media platform. The catch? Instead of walking forward or on an incline, you walk backwards.

Walking backwards on a treadmill — also called retro walking — is a little trick physical therapists recommend as a way to improve knee pain. Whether that pain is caused by an overuse injury, muscle imbalances, or tendonitis, walking in reverse can be a big help, says Kris Ceniza, PT, a physical therapist, trainer, and manager for KneeForce.

According to Ceniza, you’re working the same muscle groups when you walk backwards as you do when you walk normally — the only thing that change is what he calls the synergy. “Walking normally works out your entire lower body and so does walking backwards,” he explains. “The difference is that when walking forward, your quads and hip flexors contract concentrically to swing your legs forward while your glutes and hamstrings contract eccentrically to control your legs' forward momentum.”

That combo helps you propel forward while you walk. The trouble is, for many folks — especially if you have tight hamstrings from a sedentary lifestyle — the muscles might be skewed, and that can put unnecessary pressure on your knees. With that in mind, here’s what experts say about what walking backwards can do for your all-important knee joints.

The Benefits Of Walking Backwards

You can think of walking backwards as a nice little break for your knees, as well as an easy way to build up leg strength in a brand new way. The idea is that when you walk backwards on the treadmill, you reverse the role of all those aforementioned muscle groups. The hamstrings and glutes will do the job of the quads and hip flexors, and vice versa.

This simple switch can help you create more balance in your legs, Ceniza says, and also improve “poor biomechanics” in your body that lead to your knee pain in the first place. In fact, a 2019 study of a 6-week retro walking program found that it was effective in reducing knee pain and overall function. It also helped improve quad muscle strength and performance. Take a look at other TikToks that show off the trend, and you’ll see that some folks mention it helped with their balance and stability, too.

While you might want to try a retro walk if you have achey joints, Ceniza says just about anyone can benefit from it thanks to the way it fixes muscle imbalances, strengthens the quads, and promotes coordination. “I would recommend it to nearly everyone, including those who don't have knee pain,” he says.

How To Walk Backwards On A Treadmill

To try this walk without face-planting, set the treadmill to a slow speed and hold onto the handrails. “Don't worry about swinging your arms when you first start; focus on footwork instead,” Ceniza says. “When your lower body rhythm feels comfortable, go ahead and start taking your hands off the rails and do what feels natural. Relax and you should instinctively start swinging, especially as you go up in pace.” As you get used to it, you can bump up the speed or add a slight incline for a challenge.

Feel free to walk backwards multiple times a week, or even every day. “It doesn't have to be long and intense either,” Ceniza says. “At minimum, I'd say 10 to 15 minutes of walking backwards on the treadmill will get you benefits, but you can go longer depending on your fitness level. For safety purposes, though, just remember to stop before you fatigue and go at a pace where you can still talk.”

Studies referenced:

Alghadir, AH. 2019. Effect of 6-week retro or forward walking program on pain, functional disability, quadriceps muscle strength, and performance in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial (retro-walking trial). BMC Musculoskelet Disord. doi: 10.1186/s12891-019-2537-9.

Alghadir, A. 2016. Effect of retro and forward walking on quadriceps muscle strength, pain, function, and mobility in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a protocol for a randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. doi: 10.1186/s12891-016-1021-z.

Cha, HG. 2016. Therapeutic efficacy of walking backward and forward on a slope in normal adults. J Phys Ther Sci. doi: 10.1589/jpts.28.1901.


Kris Ceniza, PT, a physical therapist, trainer

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