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Weird Workouts: Treadmill Variations for Fitness Gains

By Russ Klettke

A common fitness error is bifurcating our goals of weight loss and muscle gain into distinct modalities, “doing cardio” and lifting weights, respectively. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m doing pretty good at lifting but I need to ramp up my cardio to lose a few pounds?"

  In fact, it’s a false distinction. Nutrition issues aside (weight management is largely a function of proper diet), this two-track approach misses how increased muscle mass from any type of exercise raises your metabolism and thus burns more calories. Also, it ignores how smart, variegated cardiovascular work can increase the size and density of certain muscles.  

One trick is to make the cardiovascular activity challenging. Far too often a gym’s treadmill/elliptical/stair-climber room—an architectural mistake, I believe, because it supports this false separation of cardio and weight lifting—is filled with people spending 30, 45 or 60 minutes engaged in steady-state exertion, something they probably do with regularity. Unfortunately for them, such regular routines lead to stagnation.  

Weirdness = Progress
No one wants a stagnant body. But steady-state cardio (one speed, one incline level, one plane of movement) generally results in no physical improvement after the first month or two. The core and leg muscles will not develop further if not presented with new challenges. It beats channel surfing from the sofa, but at best you’re maintaining without improving. 

If that’s what you’re doing, then it might be time to go weird. By "weird" I mean challenging your muscle memory with new movement patterns, such as walking backwards, lateral shuffles or super-steep inclines. According to Jeremy Strom, education manager at FreeMotion Fitness (an equipment manufacturer), mixing up how you use a treadmill is a smart approach. “It’s an excellent way to train speed, agility and quickness as it promotes proper joint angles,” he said. “It also allows for specificity in movement and added muscle activity.”

  Research at the Medical College of Ohio (DJ Cipriani, et al., 1995) and Texas Tech University (TL Hooper, et al. 2004) back this up. By putting 27 healthy subjects through a backward walking protocol, the Texas study found that heart rate and oxygen consumption are higher walking backwards versus forward. The Ohio study concludes “backward walking up an incline may place additional muscular demands on an individual.” 

Of course, most cardiovascular equipment offers manufacturer-set interval programs, calibrated to the standard, forward-motion way of doing it. If you have never tried those variations, that much experimentation will yield benefits. But by going weird—shuffling sideways or walking backwards, forcing the muscles to work in new ways—you can reap several benefits:  

  1. Increased post-exercise oxygen consumption means that you will burn calories for many hours after the exercise
  2. Stimulation of respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and nervous systems
  3. Greater use of fat stores for energy
  4. Increased aerobic capacity such that your body will become more efficient at using oxygen
  5. Less time needed as mixed intervals and intensities basically halve the time you need to spend at that exercise
  6. Raise the level of growth hormone (testosterone)
  In other words, you can achieve the holy grail of fitness progression when your unorthodox cardio exercises challenge new muscles at higher levels of strenuousness. 

Sample workouts
Creative use of the treadmill can include a mix of walking, running, shuffling and even upper-body resistance training. Here are some ways to do that: 
  1. Treadmill intensity intervals: Start by walking, then running, on a level treadmill at a medium pace. After one minute, increase the incline and/or the speed to a degree sufficient to increase the intensity to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. (Your 100 percent maximum HR is your age subtracted from 220). Maintain that for two minutes, slow to an easier pace for 30 seconds, then cycle up again to the intense level for another two minutes. Intensity can be achieved through increased speed, increased incline, or a combination of both.
  3. Four directions: With a moderate incline, walk at a brisk pace facing forward for one minute. Next, rotate your body 90 degrees to the right and shuffle laterally (sideways) for a minute, then turn another 90 degrees to walk backward for a minute, finishing out with another 90 degree turn to the right and shuffling in that direction.
  5. On-off-on-off: Place a set of moderate-weight dumbbells next to the treadmill. Try four minutes of running at a brisk pace, slowing it for 30 seconds, jumping off to do a set of ten or more burpees and light shoulder presses with the dumbbells, then jumping back on to walk backwards another four minutes, followed by a set of shoulder presses, back to the treadmill for two minutes of running at a high incline, ending with 30 seconds of a cool down. Rest one minute, then repeat the cycle. (NOTE: If competition for treadmills is at a premium in your club, you will probably have to do this during off-hours, or, alternate with a friend who is following the same workout).
  7. All backwards, with incline and weights: For safety’s sake, start out at a moderate pace, with moderate incline and moderate hand weights (10-15 pound dumbbells). Hold the weights at your side with a slight bend at the elbow. Do not do this if the weights impede your movement or if the handrails are too close together. The idea is simply to add weight to your load; it would be distracting to try to also do dumbbell curls while performing this exercise (save those for later). Raise the levels of intensity (speed, incline and weight) as best you can manage, but always prioritize your own safety and that of others around you.
  How do you know if it’s working? When you are sweating and panting for air, you are accomplishing the goal. Better yet, when you experience new post-workout soreness the next day or two, it’s always a solid indication that the muscles were stressed in new ways, building size and strength. Cardio and lifting aren’t so different, after all. 

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a business writer, an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and in more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see