5 Ways to Level Up Your Treadmill Workout

Treadmill Workouts

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

Working out on a treadmill is an excellent way to begin an exercise regime. Walking is the most natural action possible and can be amped up on a treadmill by walking faster, jogging, running, or sprinting. But walking or running on a treadmill alone isn't a full-body exercise, and it might not enable you to reach all of your fitness goals. We wanted to know more about how you can use a treadmill to get a complete workout in, so we asked WeStrive App trainers Torra Wolf of Mind Body Burn and Tommy Hockenjos of Compass Performance

Meet the Expert

  • Torra Wolf is a certified personal trainer and co-owner of Mind Body Burn
  • Tommy Hockenjos is a student doctor of physical therapy, certified personal trainer, and founder of Compass Performance.

The Benefits: What The Treadmill Targets

Let’s first look at what treadmills on their own are useful for. Walking and running on a treadmill will “have positive systemic benefits, including cardiovascular, mental health and metabolic health,” says Hockenjos. He adds, “the treadmill is built to improve cardiovascular fitness, burn calories, and lose fat.”

For the most part, the acts of walking and running on treadmills will target your leg muscles. These include:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Quads

Wolf tells us that if you add in arm movements while you run, which many people do, you will also work your shoulders and back instead of holding on to the treadmill railing. She continues, “although treadmill workouts are mainly known for endurance and cardiovascular training, strength training can also be accomplished. For example, when running sprints at an incline, the quad muscles are being strengthened. There may be better options than using the treadmill to accomplish certain goals, but if the only available equipment you have is a treadmill, we can make it work!”

It’s wonderful to know that a treadmill alone can help you accomplish your goals, but if you have access to additional equipment, your workout life will be easier. Here’s why. 

The Downside: What Can’t Treadmills Alone Do? 

The biggest downside to using just a treadmill for your workouts is that its focus is so innately on your lower body. That means getting a full-body workout is most easily accomplished with strength training for your upper body also. Additionally, the only weight-bearing occurring is that of your own body while walking or running. Since your body is already used to carrying you around, this isn’t terribly helpful for building strength. Hockenjos says that a treadmill “is not built to maximize muscle growth or strength.”

Additionally, treadmills aren’t a low-impact workout. That means that if you have any joint problems or injuries, the act of running, or even speed walking, on a treadmill could make them worse. Running is a high-impact activity and may not be suitable for some people. Even walking, if done too quickly, can put unnecessary pressure on your joints. 

Treadmills may be all you need for a high-impact cardio workout, but if you’re looking to build strength or muscles, it can’t easily get you closer to those goals. However, there are ways to do more than walk or run on a treadmill. We’ve compiled a list of treadmill workouts for every fitness level to help you use the treadmill to do more than you thought you could on it.

Treadmill Workouts

If you like the treadmill but want to get more out of it than you are currently, try one of these workouts on it.

01 of 05

Walking And Running Backward

Admittedly, when I asked our trainers about their favorite treadmill workout ideas, I thought they would all be arm and upper body focused. It didn’t even occur to me that simply walking or running backwards would target different muscles than a treadmill usually does or that doing so has a host of benefits. Hockenjos tells us that “In older populations, backwards walking has been shown to have many benefits, including improvements in dynamic balance, proprioception, quadricep strength and activation, plantar flexor(calf muscles) endurance.” 

Additionally, “in patients with runners knee (Patella Femoral Pain syndrome), backwards walking has been shown to reduce pain.” And “for individuals with knee Osteoarthritis, backwards walking has also been shown to reduce pain and optimize their functional abilities.”

Even if you’re young and in perfect shape, backwards running may be a valuable training option. Hockenjos says, “backwards running has a similar motor pattern as forward running; however, it requires more energy to perform. Research has shown that backwards running during training has led to improvements in running economy and increased change of direction capabilities.”

02 of 05

Leg Lifts

In addition to backward running and walking, you can level up your treadmill game—without getting your upper body involved yet—by using weights and resistance bands for your legs. To do leg lifts on the treadmill, Wolf says that you can do both lateral and posterior leg lifts by placing a resistance band above your knees. You’ll want to set the treadmill at a slow pace, and then all you have to do is resist against the band. 

For a lateral leg lift, you’ll push one leg at a time out to the side. For a posterior leg lift, you’ll press one leg at a time back behind you. 

To do these leg lifts with weights instead of resistance bands, you can place small weights around your ankles before moving one leg to the side or back. Again, you’ll want to set the treadmill to a slow speed. 

03 of 05

Power Walking With Dumbbells

Once you are ready to get your upper body involved in your treadmill workout, you can try walking quickly while holding dumbbells. Choose a weight that you’re able to hold for some time; going too heavy on this one could disrupt your balance. Wolf suggests that in addition to simply holding the dumbbells while you swing your arms, you can do bicep curls or jab

cross punches as well.

04 of 05

Farmer Carry

You don’t have to be a farmer to benefit from this exercise. You do want to make sure you have sufficient strength first, though.

To do a farmer carry on the treadmill, you’ll set the treadmill to a slightly slower pace than usual at first to make sure your balance isn’t impacted. Then, you’ll add either a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell to each side. You’ll hold these weights down at your sides, with your arms flexed just enough not to be locked. 

Hockenjos says that “carries are one of the basic movement patterns that should be included in any training plan.” That’s because “holding a weight on both sides will develop not only a strong grip and shoulder strength but also core strength.” If this alone isn’t challenging enough for you, he suggests making it even harder by carrying the weight in just one arm. Though instinctively that sounds easier, not more difficult, he says it’s extra challenging because holding just one weight “will cause you to resist lateral flexion and demand even more from your core.”

05 of 05

Overhead Carry

Here’s one for the more advanced athletic types. For an overhead carry on a treadmill, you’ll hold similar heavy weights in your hands to farmer carries. Unlike farmer carries, though, rather than holding your arms at your side, you’ll instead hold them over your head. 

Like with a farmer carry, you’ll want to set the treadmill to a controllable speed for you initially, and that won’t risk offsetting your balance. Hockenjos tells us that having both arms over our head carrying weight while we walk helps to “increase tension through our anterior line,

which will strengthen our core and help build shoulder stability.” If by chance this exercise on its own becomes too easy for you, you can make it more difficult in the same way as a farmer carry: try an overhead carry with a weight only on one side.

The Takeaway

While you can’t necessarily accomplish all of your fitness goals without doing any other activities than walking or running on a treadmill, you can definitely get closer to them by using the treadmill in some new and inventive ways.

Related Stories