Walking Backwards on the Stairmaster Has Its Benefits, but Here’s What You Need To Know Before You Try It

Photo: Getty Images/ FOTOGRAFIA INC.
When you walk through the gym, there are all sorts of things that you may see that could seem odd, but are ultimately beneficial, like people lifting barefoot, for example—which is, in fact, a great way to build strength, FYI. But it’s always worth vetting any tips or tricks before you try them out yourself. One in particular that feels like it deserves a closer look is walking backwards on the Stairmaster.

While the Stairmaster is widely praised as a great piece of equipment to warm up on, like all forms of steady state cardio, working out on one can become repetitive quickly, which is why people are always looking for creative Stairmaster workouts to keep things interesting. But besides looking like a coordination nightmare, is there anything to be gained by walking backwards up steps? To learn whether backward walking on the Stairmaster is a good or bad idea, we spoke to Stephanie Thomas, a certified personal trainer and health coach.

Why do people walk backwards on the Stairmaster?

The Stairmaster is an exercise machine that involves a revolving set of steps that you climb. It was designed to be used facing forward so that you ascend the stairs while facing the console. Thomas says the primary motivation for walking backwards up the stairs is to burn more calories and use different muscles.

“Walking backwards in general uses up more energy in the body,” she says. “This variation on the StairMaster can increase the heart rate and strengthen your endurance.” Thomas also notes that forward walking and stair climbing primarily use your hamstrings, glutes, and calves, while climbing backwards targets the quads.

“Walking backwards is also a great way to improve your balance and mobility,” she explains. “You are moving your body in a way you normally don't, so it can help work different muscles and help increase balance and proprioception.” That last word just means being able to understand where your body is in space.

So, should you hop on the trend and start climbing the stairs backwards?

Thomas says not necessarily. “Walking backwards on a Stairmaster intensifies the movement and should not be done by individuals with sensitive knees or physical conditions like arthritis,” says Thomas, who instead recommends these individuals walk backwards on a flat surface because it puts less pressure on the knees.

If you are generally in good health without the above conditions, than you can proceed with caution—and a few best practices.

Tips for walking backwards on the Stairmaster

1. Hold onto the handrails

Although Thomas says that it’s good practice to not hold the handles when walking forward because it makes for a much more vigorous workout, this isn’t safe when walking backwards.

“It is easier to control the movement of the exercise and feel more balanced when you are using the Stairmaster in the traditional way, but walking backwards makes it much more challenging, so it is a good idea to hold onto the handles at all times,” she advises.

2. Go slow

Thomas also recommends reducing the speed. “Don’t rush it,” she warns. “At first, the goal would be to feel more comfortable with this movement so you can approach it safely. Then, gradually increase the speed.”

Can you get the same benefits from walking backwards on regular stairs?

If you don’t have access to a Stairmaster, it is possible to reap some of the same benefits if you climb regular stairs backwards. However, your workout may not be as intense, so your heart rate and energy output may be lower.

“The Stairmaster's speed settings make it easier to keep up at the selected pace,” says Thomas. “If you were to do the exercise on regular stairs, you'd need to rely on yourself to keep up with your desired intensity.”

What are the risks of walking backwards on a Stairmaster?

“Because you use your quadriceps more when you’re walking backwards,” Thomas says, “you may be putting more pressure on that area, resulting in potential sensitivity in your knees. Another risk is not feeling balanced. When we walk, we normally push off the ball of our foot and toes, but when you walk backwards on a StairMaster, your toes hang off, so you don’t use them to push off the ground.”

Given this, if walking backwards on the Stairmaster doesn’t feel like the right choice for you, there are some safer options.

Alternatives to walking backwards on the Stairmaster

1. If your goal is cardio and endurance

Thomas suggests that you walk forwards on the StairMaster and gradually increase the speed. Alternatively, she suggests running intervals on the treadmill.

2. If your goal is to strengthen your leg muscles

She suggests strength training exercises, such as using the leg extension and leg curl machines.

3. If your goal is to improve your balance

Thomas says you can walk backwards on a flat surface, practice yoga, or do tai chi.

This 20-minute yoga flow is a great place to start: 

Lastly, Thomas says that if you’re new to exercise, walking backwards on the Stairmaster is probably something you should avoid altogether. “It’s best to focus on safety first, and do exercises you find enjoyable,” she advises.

Otherwise, barring knee issues or joint pain, walking backwards on the Stairmaster may help you break up the monotony of working out on this exercise machine, while improving your endurance and balance, so it’s worth a try as long as your proceed with caution.

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