Treadmill Training: Incline and Handles
The treadmill is one of the most common tools for cardiovascular training in the gym. Although seemingly ordinary, there are many ways one can modify their workout on the treadmill whether walking or running. Most are familiar with the speed adjustment, but let’s take a look at some research related to two additional features of the treadmill, namely, the incline and the side handles.
Ehlen et al. (2011) sought to determine the differences between walking quickly on the treadmill and walking slowly at an incline on the treadmill. In this type of research, experimenters will often measure the demand of an exercise to an individual with a process called respiratory gas analysis. Related to calorie burn, this demand is determined by measuring the amount of oxygen in the air that someone exhales while they are performing cardiovascular exercise. The researchers concluded that walkers can achieve a similar cardiovascular workout while walking 3.3 miles per hour at 0% incline, or at 1.7 miles per hour at 10.5% incline. Not only did the researchers find a similar cardiovascular benefit to these two conditions, but they found that walking slowly at a high incline resulted in a 20-25% decrease in knee loading. Therefore, walking at an incline may be a less stressful alternative to new exercisers or those with knee issues.
The one caveat: the walkers were not allowed to hold onto the handles during the inclined walking trials. To further examine the effects that grasping the handles may have on the workout, we can look to the work of Berling et al. (2006). These researchers recorded from healthy subjects walking at a constant speed with and without the use of the side handgrips. During these trials, they measured how hard the exercisers thought they were working (called Rating of Perceived Exertion) and how hard they were actually working, similar to the previous study. The group found that the rating of perceived exertion decreased about 20% when the exercisers were allowed to grasp the handles. Unfortunately, they also found that the actual cardiovascular demand was reduced by the same 20%! Based on these results, much of the benefit of walking at an incline very well might be reduced by holding onto the handrails.
To summarize: One can achieve the same cardiovascular benefit by either walking quickly on the treadmill, or walking a little slower at a moderate incline. However, these benefits are diminished when you grasp the side handles for additional support. Keep all of these factors in mind during your next treadmill workout to make sure you can maximize your results to help reach your fitness goals.
Cory Hofmann, M.S.
Research Project Manager
Cybex Research Institute
Berling et al. (2006) The effect of handrail support on oxygen uptake during steady-state treadmill exercise. J of Cardiopul Rehab 26: 391-4.
Ehlen et al. (2011) Energetics and biomechanics of inclined treadmill walking in obese adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 43(7):1251-9.
Cybex is a provider and manufacturer of premium commercial fitness equipment. Content featured in the Cybex Fitness Blog is meant to inspire healthy living and wellness and should not be taken as medical advice. For medical advice please consult a doctor.