6 Health Benefits Of Walking Backwards + Workout Guide

How practicing walking backwards can offer strength, balance, and other physical and mental fitness benefits for runners and non-runners alike.

Rarely is the average individual likely to think about walking backwards or its benefits.

However, walking backwards, also known as ‘retro walking’, has a long history of being used for health benefits, potentially dating back to ancient China.1https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=a3eb9cebfbedc1c0f164bc6b01b32886c504fa25#page=402&

As strange as it looks and feels initially, walking backwards can be a fantastic ace up your proverbial running jacket sleeve.

If you’re like most runners, you’re probably either scratching your head or laughing at this suggestion and trust us, we were initially dubious, too. 

However, after putting together this guide on walking backwards, we are now converts and believe that adding walking backwards to your training program is the perfect way to shake things up and add some fun, function, and challenge to your routine.

Two people walking and experiencing the benefits of walking backwards.

6 Unexpected Benefits of Walking Backwards

We have to get the obvious question out of the way: “Why would you walk backwards?” when, after all, we are theoretically “designed”—or at least conditioned—to walk forward.

Well, the benefits arise from the fact that walking backwards challenges your body and mind differently, offering significant potential benefits for physical health and mental health.

#1: Walking Backwards Utilizes Muscles Differently

One study found significant differences in muscle activation between forward and backwards walking and running as demonstrated by electromyography (EMG) and joint kinetics.2Flynn, T. W., & Soutas-Little, R. W. (1993). Mechanical Power and Muscle Action during Forward and Backward Running. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy17(2), 108–112. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.1993.17.2.108

In forward running, muscle activity of the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis oblique (quads) was found to be largely eccentric and concentric, whilst the same muscles contract isometrically and concentrically during backwards running.

While this may sound like a relatively useless finding, it has potential therapeutic benefits for physical therapy and rehab settings. Isometric contractions of the quads can improve knee extensor strength more safely and effectively than eccentric contractions. 

In practical terms, this means that running or walking backwards, rather than forward, might be more helpful when trying to build quad strength or return from a knee injury or knee pain brought about by quad muscle weakness. 

For example, one of the primary causes of runner’s knee is weakness in the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), so training different muscles through backwards walking or running in your rehab program may be an effective way to increase strength and stability in this muscle.

A person balancing on a log.

#2: Walking Backwards Improves Balance and Stability 

According to one study, walking backwards can improve balance, step length, and walking speed.3Cha, H.-G., Kim, T.-H., & Kim, M.-K. (2016). Therapeutic efficacy of walking backward and forward on a slope in normal adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science28(6), 1901–1903. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.1901

In particular, walking backwards has been shown to strengthen the back muscles responsible for spine stability and flexibility, with studies reporting reduced lower back pain in participants after backwards walking.4Ansari, B., Bhati, P., Singla, D., Nazish, N., & Hussain, M. E. (2018). Lumbar Muscle Activation Pattern During Forward and Backward Walking in Participants With and Without Chronic Low Back Pain: An Electromyographic Study. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine17(4), 217–225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcm.2018.03.008 5Document – Gale OneFile: Health and Medicine. (n.d.). Go.gale.com. Retrieved March 25, 2024, from https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA361184670&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=10979751&p=HRCA&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7Ea8823e2b&aty=open-web-entry

Further lower back benefits are also offered from the hamstring stretching effect of backwards walking, which reduces lower back stress.

Additionally, balance is especially challenged by walking backwards because you can’t see where you are going, so you lack visual inputs to assist your spatial and body awareness.

Hence, if you struggle with the mind-body connection or your kinesthetic awareness (meaning the inane sense of where your body is in space), adding backward walking to your routine can potentially help you have a better sense of your limb and body positioning.

#3: Walking Backwards Burns More Calories

If you’re looking to lose weight through exercise, walking backwards is a more efficient route than walking forwards, burning nearly 40% more calories per minute.

The Compendium of Physical Activities notes that a brisk normal walk at 3.5 mph is about 4.3 METs (metabolic equivalents) while walking backward at the same speed is 6.0 METs. The higher the METs, the higher your caloric expenditure.62011 Compendium of Physical Activities. (n.d.). https://download.lww.com/wolterskluwer_vitalstream_com/PermaLink/MSS/A/MSS_43_8_2011_06_13_AINSWORTH_202093_SDC1.pdf

Moreover, this metabolic demand and energy expenditure increases even more substantially if you walk backward up an incline. Walking backwards at a 5% grade is 8.0 METs. In this way, you can do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in a low-impact way by walking backwards uphill or up stairs, resulting in even greater weight-loss benefits.

A person drying their sweat from exercising.

#4: Walking Backwards Can Improve Your Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Runners and non-runners alike can gain cardiopulmonary health benefits through improving their VO2 max, a measure of aerobic capacity. 

Especially for runners, in addition to hitting your race pace intervals and speed workouts, there is also evidence to suggest that a training program consisting of backward walking can improve cardiovascular fitness and body composition.7Terblanche, E., Page, C., Kroff, J., & Venter, R. E. (2005). The Effect of Backward Locomotion Training on the Body Composition and Cardiorespiratory Fitness of Young Women. International Journal of Sports Medicine26(3), 214–219. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2004-820997

After completing a backwards training intervention program, subjects had a significant decrease in oxygen consumption during both forward and backward exercise on treadmill at submaximal intensities, and their predictive VO2 max values for the 20-m shuttle test improved significantly. Finally, their body fat percentage decreased by 2.4%.

A person holding their knee in pain.

#5: Walking Backwards May Reduce Knee Pain

Walking backwards may be a good idea if you have osteoarthritis in your knees.

One study compared the effects of a 6-week backward versus forward walking program versus a control group on pain, functional disability, quadriceps muscle strength, and physical performance in participants with knee osteoarthritis.8Alghadir, A. H., Anwer, S., Sarkar, B., Paul, A. K., & Anwar, D. (2019). Effect of 6-week retro or forward walking program on pain, functional disability, quadriceps muscle strength, and performance in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial (retro-walking trial). BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders20(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2537-9

At the end of the intervention, the backwards walking group had a greater reduction in pain intensity and functional disability than the control group, along with greater improvement in the quadriceps muscle strength. 

Results were similar when compared to the forward walking group (the backwards training was slightly more effective, but not to a statistically significant degree), showing that either forward or backwards locomotion can be beneficial for reducing pain and improving function and leg strength in individuals with knee osteoarthritis.

Walking backwards is also likely beneficial for those recovering from knee injuries because the range of motion of the knee joint is reduced, and more of the impact from each step is absorbed by the ankle, both of which aid in rehabilitation.9Donno, L., Monoli, C., Frigo, C. A., & Galli, M. (2023). Forward and Backward Walking: Multifactorial Characterization of Gait Parameters. Sensors23(10), 4671. https://doi.org/10.3390/s23104671

Of course, if you are struggling with knee pain or a suspected knee injury, make sure to speak to a physical therapist or healthcare professional for a medical diagnosis and advice.

#6: Walking Backwards Is Good for Your Brain

Much like learning a brand new sport, walking backwards puts your brain out of its comfort zone and challenges your coordination and movement patterns in ways that we rarely experience as adults. This keeps your brain sharp and builds new neural connections, working to improve your cognitive function.

Some experts say that walking backwards can also foster more creativity, and most people find it fun.

A close-up of someone's sneakers.

Specific Benefits Of Backwards Walking For Elderly Individuals

Whilst most individuals can likely benefit from adding backwards walking to their exercise routine, there are specific benefits of backward walking for older adults.

This is because older adults are more likely to struggle with reduced stability, strength, mobility, and cognition, all of which reverse walking can help to improve.

In particular, increased stability means a lower risk of falls and associated injuries.10Walking Backwards—Is It a Leap Forward for Healthy Aging? (n.d.). Blog.insidetracker.com. Retrieved March 25, 2024, from https://blog.insidetracker.com/walking-backwards-for-healthy-aging

How to Walk Backwards Safely

Walking backwards is as simple as it sounds, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

Reach back with your big toe, and then roll through your foot towards your heel. Use your arms to reach back with each stride. Keep your torso upright and chest up.

For safety, it’s best to start indoors in a hallway or somewhere where you won’t crash into things, or in an open grassy area away from cars and obstacles.

You can also practice walking backwards on a track or treadmill. When using the treadmill, start at a very slow speed and use the handrails if necessary. Over time, work up to a speed of 3.5 mph or so.

How Long You Should Walk Backwards For

We would recommend trying walking backwards for 5-minute periods at a time for as many days of the week as possible, and gradually increasing this to 20-minute periods at a time.

If you are looking for some more substantial walking-based training, check out our Run Walk Marathon Training Guide.

A line of treadmills.


Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

4 thoughts on “6 Health Benefits Of Walking Backwards + Workout Guide”

  1. For a long time I’ve been using backwards walking for one minute as part of my walking and jogging warm up. After reading these studies that ask people to walk backwards for as long as 30 minutes I have decided to try to increase the amount of time I walk backwards.
    I like this article because it explains how exactly you should be moving when you walk backwards. I can also say that I have experienced pain relief from walking backwards. Broke my foot many years back and so my right leg can have issues. Walking backwards for a spell has alleviated the pain during a walk more times than I can remember.

    • Hi Diane:
      I so agree with your assessment
      Ent of walking backwards. I do it all the time when walking out yellow lab. My knees are beginning to not hurt as much as they did when I wasn’t doing that. It works. About 1/3, or about 1 mile on a 3 mile walk does do the trick, daily.

  2. I’ve intuitively done A little backwards walking in my exercise programs in the pbut. More recently, I came across the knees over toes guy on YouTube and have seen how incredibly beneficial it can be and have started doing a little bit of uphill backwards. Walking very recently as my 65 year old news or not as Trouble free as they used to be. Thank you for the article and keep on trucking backwards and forwards.
    Peace, love and prosperity to one and all…😁💜💜😁


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