I hope you aren’t unwise enough to don the weighted backpack, jack up the treadmill incline, then HOLD ON as you “walk,” thinking you’re preparing yourself for a backcountry hike!

I couldn’t believe what I saw today at the gym: A young man with a weighted backpack walking on a treadmill incline – but holding onto the front bar!

What kind of hike or backcountry trek was he preparing for?

Or maybe he just wanted to add some intensity to his cardio workout? Even if that’s the case, gripping the bar is just the most backwards thing to do at a gym.

Wearing a weighted backpack or vest while walking a treadmill incline is a fantastic heart pumping workout – IF YOU DO NOT HOLD ONTO THE TREADMILL.

Yes, I had to shout that out, because I just cannot believe how many people hold onto the treadmill and think this will train their bodies for hiking or backpacking.

Training for Backpacking Requires Simulating the Activity

• In outdoor backpacking, you’re not holding onto anything in front of you for support.

• Thus, it stands to reason that indoor training means don’t hold onto anything for support.

• I don’t know of any mountain trails in which a bar is moving a few feet ahead of the hiker so that they can keep their hands on it for support.

Walking around with a weighted backpack, let alone hiking with one, puts stress on the low back muscles.

This is why many unprepared hikers soon get an aching low back when wearing a weighted rucksack.

Holding onto an Inclined Treadmill Denies Training to the Low Back Muscles

“Holding onto the rails of a treadmill while training with a weighted backpack certainly defeats the purpose,” says Dr. Tom Carpenter, corrective exercise specialist, certified personal trainer and chiropractor, inventor of Stand Corrected™, a portable harness-like stretching tool that helps alleviate back, neck and shoulder pain.

Dr. Carpenter continues, “Instead of engaging the strength and balancing mechanisms required to walk with a backpack, holding on eliminates the need for the core muscles to engage adequately (providing the necessary counter balance to the added weight). Instead, the load is transferred to the arms and chest.”

• When walking an incline outdoors or one indoors without holding on, the low back muscles must work to keep your body vertical, to prevent it from toppling backwards.

• Over time, walking an incline without holding on will strengthen and condition the low back muscles.

• If you hold onto the treadmill, even while wearing a weighted backpack or vest, your arms, as Dr. Carpenter points out, will take over the task that the low back muscles are supposed to perform.

• As a result, your low back muscles will “learn” to become inefficient at inclines (unless you hold on, of course).

So if you keep walking on a treadmill incline, wearing a weighted vest or backpack – AND holding onto the machine … sorry folks, but your first backpacking trip will be a nightmare for your low back.

I used to be a member of a mountain club. Prior to joining, I had made a regular habit of walking inclines on a treadmill – never holding on.

However, I never wore a weighted vest or backpack, either.

Interestingly, when I went on my first backcountry hike, wearing a backpack, out in the wilderness for hours…my low back never got sore.

This was because all that incline walking, without holding on, even without adding the weighted rucksack, provided sufficient conditioning to my low back muscles.

However, if you’re planning on some major backpacking ventures in the near future, anticipating heavy loads, I recommend wearing the weighted rucksack or vest during your incline treadmill workouts.

BUT DO NOT HOLD ON! If your low back starts killing you, then lower the incline and/or speed of the treadmill.

The goal is to mimic a real outdoor excursion. Holding on will totally defeat the purpose!

dr. carpenter

Photo credit: Aleesia Forni

Used daily and over time, the Stand Corrected™ stretching tool can reverse back damage caused by years of poor posture.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 

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Top image: ©Lorra Garrick