It’s no secret that walking uphill leaves you out of breath. Adding incline training to a walking or running workout also gives your muscles a challenge, increases your heart rate, and boosts calorie burning.
Like any other type of exercise, walking on an incline has some benefits and downsides.
This article covers common incline gradients, benefits, downsides, calories burned, and how incline walking compares with regular walking.
The gradient or incline is determined by how steep the land or treadmill is below your feet.
When outdoors, you may notice road signs that indicate the grade of a hill. For example, a sign signaling 6% grade means the road elevation changes 6 feet for every 100 feet of horizontal distance (1).
You can see how this could become complicated when trying to determine the incline or grade of every hill or uneven terrain you’re walking on outdoors.
Unless you’re walking or running up the same hill each time, the landscape constantly changes, which means the incline or grade also changes.
What makes treadmill training ideal when tracking inclines is the ability to set the gradient yourself. Most treadmills come with preset programs that change the incline as you progress through the workout. However, you can also manually adjust or set the incline.
Most treadmills offer settings that start at 0% and move up by 0.5% increments to a maximum of a 15% incline or grade.
To match the changes you experience with outdoor terrain, consider using one of the workouts that simulate uphill and downhill walking in a varied pattern.
The common treadmill gradients range from a 0% incline to a 15% incline at 0.5% increments. Outdoor incline training requires an elevation map or an app that calculates the incline.
Changing things up when exercising can help improve performance, break plateaus, and keep you motivated. One change that’s easy to make is adding inclines to your walking or running workouts. Here are five benefits of walking on an incline.
Boosts your heart rate
Any type of physical activity causes an increase in your heart rate. At rest, your heart rate is typically the lowest. This is called your resting heart rate.
When you begin to exercise, this number climbs in relation to the intensity of the activity until you reach the maximum level you can sustain — also known as your maximum heart rate (2).
Somewhere between your resting heart rate and maximum heart rate is a range that’s ideal for aerobic exercise.
Walking or running on a flat surface will raise your heart rate. When you increase the incline on a treadmill or start walking or running up a hill, your heart rate will climb, even if your speed slows. Studies show that running uphill increases your heart rate with each bump in incline.
Researchers analyzed the heart rate increases of 18 well-conditioned male runners. They started running for 5 minutes at a 0% incline, which resulted in an average heart rate of 148 beats per minute (bpm).
After a 5-minute active recovery, they increased the incline to 2% for 5 minutes of running, which raised the average heart rate to 155 bpm.
Finally, the incline was increased to a 15% incline for 5 minutes of running, which resulted in a heart rate of 180 bpm. The speed was kept the same the entire time (
Conditions the body for realistic terrain
Going about your daily routine typically requires walking uphill or on a slight incline — even for a brief period of time. Sticking to one route or terrain can stall your training progress.
If you only walk on flat surfaces, either outdoors or on the treadmill, you miss out on the challenge created by an incline.
Plus, it’s a great alternative for runners looking to cross-train but still reap the benefits of a workout that promotes a higher heart rate and greater calorie burning.
Targets the posterior chain muscles
Regular walking or running on a flat surface relies more on the quadriceps and less on the hamstrings and glutes, which are part of your posterior chain. Yet, when you shift to incline mode, you’ll feel the posterior chain muscles working with each step.
That’s why it’s common to hear people say their glutes and hamstrings are “on fire” after walking up a hill. Strong posterior chain muscles can prevent injuries, improve posture, boost athletic performance, and help counteract sudden forces (4).
Increases activation of lower leg muscles
Your lower leg, which comprises your calves and shins, is home to several muscles, including the tibialis anterior, peroneals, gastrocnemius, and soleus. When you change from a flat surface to an incline, these muscles are activated.
Research shows that walking on a medial incline ramp activates the peroneal muscles significantly more than walking on a normal or flat surface.
These findings support the use of incline walking to strengthen the peroneals and help people with weak ankles (
Another smaller study showed that muscle activity in the medial gastrocnemius muscles in the calves increased as participants changed inclines levels from 0° to 3° to 6° when walking on a treadmill (
Increases calorie burning
The number of calories you burn while exercising is based on a variety of factors, including your weight and the activity you’re performing. It can also change when you increase the intensity, such as when you walk or run on an incline.
In fact, the metabolic cost of level walking versus incline walking is higher. Data from 16 participants showed the following increase in metabolic rate (
- at a 0% incline, the metabolic cost was 3.3W/kg
- at a 5% incline, the metabolic cost increased to 52W/kg
- at a 10% incline, the metabolic cost increased to 113W/kg
In general, a 155-pound (70-kg) person who walks at 3.5 mph (5.6 kph) on a flat surface for 1 hour can burn approximately 267 calories. If they keep the same speed but walk uphill, they could burn up to 422 calories (8).
Adding hills or inclines to a walking workout can increase your heart rate, calorie burning, and activation of the hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles. Exercising on an incline also allows you to train for a realistic terrain.
While the pros of incline walking definitely outweigh the cons, there are some downsides to consider.
When you switch from a flat surface to one with an incline, additional stress is placed on both the front and back lower leg muscles. These muscles include the tibialis anterior, peroneals, gastrocnemius, and soleus.
Because of this, you may notice increased soreness in these muscles until your body adjusts to incline walking or running.
Some people experience shin splints, which you can treat with ice, stretching, and rest. That said, if the soreness persists or becomes painful, see your healthcare provider or a physical therapist.
If you have low back pain or chronic issues with this area, consider working with a physical therapist to set an incline that does not aggravate your back. The higher the gradient, the more strain that’s placed on the back and hips.
You can get the same benefits and reduce the likelihood of lower back pain by starting at a lower incline, such as a 1% incline. As your posterior chain muscles become stronger, slowly add 0.5% until you reach an incline that’s challenging but not painful.
Walking on an incline may increase low back pain in people with back issues. To avoid discomfort, start slowly and increase only when pain is absent. You may notice increased soreness in the lower leg muscles until your body adjusts.
Walking is an excellent way to get your exercise. To make the activity more intense and target different muscle groups, consider adding incline training.
You can vary the incline on a treadmill or by walking uphill or on uneven terrain outdoors.
Just make sure to pay attention to any soreness or discomfort in your legs and lower back. Start slowly, and only increase the intensity when your body has adjusted to the change in incline.