Treadmills provide an effective and efficient workout for all fitness levels without having the brave the elements outdoors. But it's important to use it correctly so that you get the most out of your walk or run.
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Though it's tempting to brace yourself against the handrails, especially when you crank up the incline, they're primarily there to help you get on and off the machine safely. Holding on while you exercise can reduce the effectiveness of your workout, affect your gait and balance and put extra stress on the treadmill.
What's Wrong With Holding on to the Handrails?
Treadmills are designed to mimic natural walking stride while controlling the pace and, sometimes, incline. Holding on throws off that natural stride.
"Using the handrails transfers the workload meant for your legs and core into your upper body," says Amanda Foland, CPT, a Swiftwick athlete and certified personal trainer. You'll burn fewer calories, won't activate your core and throw your body out of alignment, she says.
"Pressure on the upper body results in raised shoulders and a possible forward neck," says Morgan Rees, an ACE-certified personal trainer who holds a BS in kinesiology. So while holding on reduces energy cost (which may seem like a good thing when you're getting tired), you're cheating yourself out of an effective workout and worsening your posture.
Holding onto the railings also isn't great for your treadmill. It creates drag on the tread, which can eventually overheat the motor and damage your machine. Putting excessive pressure on the rails as you exercise can also loosen the handrails over time, which can cause a safety issue.
A treadmill is a big investment, and using it properly ensures it will stay in good working order for as long as possible.
When Is It OK to Use the Handrails?
"Handrails are for safety only," Foland says. "They serve as a place to rebalance and help you to stay in the middle of the belt."
While some trainers suggest starting out holding on to get used to the machine, Foland recommends a safer alternative: "For beginners, the best scenario is to start slowly and work with no incline. From there, you can progress in speed and incline."
Occasionally, a health professional will recommend supported treadmill use under supervised conditions.
"If someone is recovering from a stroke or accident where their neuromuscular connection in the lower body is compromised, holding onto the rails improves gait economy," Rees says. But she adds a note about safety: "When the legs are no longer working as hard, you could easily trip or become unstable."
So How Bad Is It Really to Hold on to the Treadmill Railings?
The consequences of holding on to the treadmill railings — fewer calories burned, decreased performance, poor posture, wear and tear on the machine — aren't the worst things that can happen during your workout, but they're certainly not ideal.
So unless you're getting on or off, need to hop off for a quick pause, feel yourself losing your balance or have been specifically told by your physical therapist to hold on during your rehab workouts, leave the handrails alone.
And if you do feel the need to grab hold of them mid-workout, it's probably an indication you should lower your speed or incline so that you can safely keep pace with the belt using just your legs.