Benefits of walking backwards for knee pain

TikTok can be a source of inspiration for everything from DIY home projects and recipes to useful hacks and workout tips. The problem? Because both amateurs and professionals have equal access to sharing their “skills” on the platform—and who knows how algorithms help a video go viral—it can be difficult to separate the helpful from the harmful.

So when we came across a backwards walking treadmill workout by TikTok user @samanthafit_ish, whose real name is Samantha Kunes, we had to test whether the video claimed it could actually help with knee strength.

Does walking backwards really do anything to help your knees?

The good news: physical therapist and holisticDPT, Annie Kader, DPT, CHN, founder of Certin. DN, said that Kunes may be onto something.

“Some of the notable benefits of walking backwards on a treadmill are increased quad activation, and increased range of knee extension compared to walking forwards,” says Dr. Kader. “It can help increase lower extremity strength, functional mobility and gait mechanics after injury.”

In fact, one study found that, compared to walking forward, walking backwards on a treadmill led to more significant improvements in knee pain and quadriceps strength after six weeks in people with osteoarthritis.

Dr. Kader says it’s the differences in biomechanics that make walking backwards more beneficial for the knee. With a forward walk, you step forward one foot at a time, landing on your heel and rolling off your toes. During the swing phase of the gait, your knees are bent and your toes are lifted up toward your shins,” she says. To control these motions, the quadriceps and hip flexors contract concentrically (shorten) to advance the leg, and the glutes and hamstrings contract eccentrically (lengthen) to control the descent.

However, this muscle contraction can potentially reveal knee pain.

“Concentrated contraction of the quads and hip flexors, along with immobility of the hamstrings, often causes knee discomfort due to muscle imbalances and undue stress on the structure,” explains Dr. Kader.

But changing the direction of movement changes the activation of the muscle. “In reverse walking, you’re landing on your toes first and then your heel off,” she says. “Backward walking requires more hip and knee extension during the stance phase and more knee flexion when you return to step.”

When you walk backwards, the same muscle groups are involved, but their actions are reversed: the quadriceps and hip flexors lengthen, while the glutes and hamstrings shorten. It can put less stress and compressive force on the knee.

So how to reduce this knee pain?

Dr. Quader says many people with knee pain have limited range of motion in their knees, which can compromise normal walking patterns and cause discomfort.

Walking backwards can help restore some mobility. “The repetitive and low-intensity nature of walking backwards can improve knee extension for people without putting a lot of force or pressure through the joint, making it more comfortable,” says Dr. Kader. “When you walk backwards, you have to extend your knees more than if you were walking forwards. The quadriceps are responsible for knee extension and the strength of this muscle is key to managing and preventing knee pain, especially in the population with osteoarthritis.

He believes that walking backwards on a treadmill can be a great addition to other strengthening programs to improve knee mobility, strength and function. Plus, he says it can improve hamstring flexibility, a common problem among people with knee pain.

How to walk backwards on a treadmill safely

You can incorporate backwards walking into your workouts as a warmup, cooldown, or even as a stand-alone activity. But it may seem awkward at first. Dr. Kader shares a few tips for doing this safely:

  1. Start at a slow pace (1 to 2 mph) and hold onto the handrails for balance. You can release them when you become more comfortable.
  2. Use the security key by attaching the lanyard to your shirt at hip height. It will automatically stop the belt if you are too far away from the console.
  3. Start with 5 to 10 minutes and gradually build up your endurance.
  4. Think of reaching back with your leg, landing on your toes and rolling up to your heel before lifting your other leg.
  5. Focus on taking equal strides, keeping your stride length the same in both directions.
  6. Engage your core muscles and stay as straight as possible, avoiding the tendency to lean forward.
  7. Add slight inclines as you get stronger to reap additional benefits.
  8. If you have poor balance or are unsure, seek the help of a qualified trainer to avoid injury.

But don’t forget forward walking, or other strength workouts. “We won’t be walking backwards all day (hopefully)!” Dr. Note to whom. “Reverse walking is a useful tool, but I don’t consider it a replacement for a properly structured strengthening program. And always listen to your body and don’t push into something that doesn’t feel right.”

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