Not since the advent of the moonwalk has walking backward had such a moment. TikTok and Instagram are filled with videos of physical therapists and fitness influencers touting the benefits of walking backwards, aka retro walking.
You may have also noticed people at the gym (and not just that one attention-seeking weirdo) walking backwards on the treadmill or seen runners and walkers switch direction mid-workout.
Despite its seemingly newfound popularity, reverse walking is nothing new. It’s actually a well-studied practice that movement professionals have been using for years.
Depending on your health history and fitness level, it may be worth incorporating into your personal fitness routine.
What Does Walking Backward Do?
Walking backward alters your entire gait pattern and, in turn, how you use your leg.
“When you walk forward, you use the normal gait pattern of heel-to-toe walking. Reverse walking is the opposite, where it is a toe-to-heel gait pattern,” explains Hilary Granat, P.T., D.P.T., M.S., doctor of physical therapy and owner C.O.R.E. Physical Therapy in Washington, D.C.
“Walking backward places more emphasis on the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The demand on the calf muscles and anterior tibialis [located near your shin bone] increases as they work eccentrically to control the backward motion,” she adds.
Is Walking Backward Good for You?
Granat and other physical therapists say that walking backward can help knee pain, although it’s always important to speak with your physical therapist or medical professional before deciding if it’s right or wrong for you.
It’s typically part of the treatment plan for patients struggling with a wide range of knee-related issues, including “those rehabbing from knee surgery, knee arthritis, or those who have lost knee extension (straightening the knee) range of motion,” Granat says. “Reverse walking helps increase knee extension, as your bent knee straightens while you are moving from your toes to your heel.”
Even if you don’t struggle with knee issues, walking backward can be good for your body and brain, as it switches up your typical forward movement patterns.
“Doing the opposite of what we usually do can create balance in the body, and walking backward is no exception. Walking in this way challenges joints and muscles in ways that they aren’t accustomed to, which can be beneficial,” says Jordan Duncan, doctor of chiropractic and owner of Silverdale Sport and Spine in Silverdale, Washington.
And while you walk or run without a second thought, walking backward is a bit of a brain teaser. “It forces us to focus and concentrate more intensely than walking forward. Like learning any new skill, it is great for brain health,” Duncan adds.
Walking backwards on a treadmill vs. flat ground
Granat says that walking backward on a treadmill and flat ground are both suitable options. “But, I recommend trying it on flat ground first before trying on a treadmill,” she says. That way, you can pause or switch up your speed as needed. Just be mindful of obstacles, uneven surfaces, other walkers, and cyclists.
“Personally, when I go for a walk outside, I will do a couple blocks backward or walk backward uphill just to use different muscles,” she says.
If you opt for the treadmill, use the handrails and a safety strap. Start slow — even slower than you think you can go — and focus on controlled movements. “I would recommend having someone nearby for your first time trying it,” Granat says.
Benefits of Walking Backward
If you’re looking for reasons to try reverse walking for yourself, there are plenty. Beyond being accessible and appropriate for people of all fitness levels, it offers a variety of health-related benefits. (And, once you get the hang of it, it’s kind of fun.)
1. Promotes knee health
As noted above, backward walking increases the emphasis on your quadriceps, and the toe-to-heel movement pattern forces the muscles in your lower legs to work harder to control your body’s movement.
“All of this requires increased engagement of the muscles around the knee joint,” Granat says, so it can be helpful for people who have knee pain or joint instability or are recovering from an injury and need to rebuild their strength.
In one study, participants struggling with mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis who engaged in a six-week retro walking program experienced a greater reduction in pain and functional disability than those who did not incorporate reverse walking to their routine.
2. Burns more calories
Any exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight by burning calories, but you may use up even more calories by taking your standard walk and putting it in reverse.
According to the 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, which estimates the energy expenditure of over eight hundred different activities, walking on a level surface at 3.5 mph for 10 minutes burns 46 calories. Walking backward in the same conditions burns 64. Walking backward uphill? Just a five percent incline brings the calories burned up to 85.
3. Improves cardiorespiratory fitness
Because reverse walking is physically demanding, it may also benefit cardiorespiratory fitness.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that college-aged women who participated in six weeks of backward walking and running improved their predicted VO2Max, a metric for how efficiently the body uses oxygen. Participants also saw a significant drop in their body fat percentage.
So, if you’re sick of cranking out the same 30 minutes of cardio every time you hit the gym, try incorporating some backward walking into your workouts.
4. Engages your brain
Chances are, you put one foot in front of the other without thinking much about it. Try putting one foot behind the other, and it’s a whole different story.
Reverse walking engages your brain in ways that forward walking doesn’t, and some research shows that it may also improve your short-term memory.
One study found that participants who “experienced backward motion” either by walking backward or just thinking about walking backward performed better in short-term memory tests than participants who didn’t.
5. Bolsters balance and proprioception
“Because it is something that we are unaccustomed to, backward walking can help improve proprioception (the perception of the position and movement of the body), which in turn helps improve balance,” Duncan says.
6. Develops mobility and range of motion
Grinding out the same movement patterns (e.g., walking, running, pedaling a bike) over and over again with little variation can leave you feeling tight and inflexible.
You can also develop muscle compensations that lead to pain and injury. Walking backward can “grease the wheel” by moving your joints in new ways, opening up your range of motion.
“In the clinic, I use backward walking to improve range of motion of the hip, knee and ankle, improve [lower body] strength, and improve the lower extremity mechanics related to gait,” Granat says.
Tips for Walking Backward Safely
Despite feeling a little awkward at first, reverse walking is relatively safe, as long as you take a few precautions.
- Wear comfortable shoes that are appropriate for walking, and make sure your laces are tied and double-knotted.
- If you’re walking on a treadmill, pick one that has handrails and a safety strap, and use both.
- Consider having a “spotter” stand next to you the first time you try backward walking on a treadmill. They can help you adjust your speed or safely step off the treadmill in case of any issues.
- If you plan to walk outside, pick a less populated area and make sure you’re aware of traffic, other people, cracks or bumps in the sidewalk, and obstacles like signs and lamp posts. If possible, head to a well-lit track.
- With each step, focus on extending your knee, making initial contact with your toe, and rolling back to the heel.
- Maintain an upright posture. Keep your chest stacked over your pelvis and avoid bending forward at the waist.
- Start with just a few minutes at first and move slowly, gradually increasing your time and speed as you gain strength and confidence.
- If you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe while walking backward, stop.
Who Should Try Backward Walking?
People with knee pain or instability, those who wish to improve their balance and proprioception, or anyone who wants better mobility in their hips, knees, and ankles should try backward walking. If you have any injuries or medical conditions, get your doctor’s OK first.
Disadvantages of Reverse Walking
Reverse walking may not be appropriate for people with severe balance issues or certain neurological conditions, as these can increase the risk of falling and injury. While backward walking is challenging, it should always feel safe and comfortable.