What’s the point of doing a side shuffle on a treadmill if you’re holding onto the rail?

Why do able-bodied people feel they must hold on just because they’re walking sideways?

Walking sideways without a shuffle is not an unnatural way for the human body to move.

It’s actually quite natural, as our ancient ancestors (hunter-gatherers) surely had to rely on this method of ambulation quite often when stalking prey or moving through thick brush and other challenging terrain.

What’s not natural is sustaining this kind of ambulation. It’s naturally done for only very short lengths. We’ve all had to “slip through” narrow spaces at least once in our life.

Yet nearly every person I’ve ever seen walking sideways — as well as shuffling (trotting sideways) — on a treadmill was holding onto the rail.

I can’t help but take notice of this, being that I’m a former personal trainer, lifelong fitness and treadmill enthusiast, and have always preached employing smart and efficient form and mechanics when exercising.

How to Walk Sideways or Shuffle on a Treadmill: What NOT to Do

• Don’t set the speed faster than what you can side step without holding on. This may mean only half a mile per hour, depending on your athleticism.

• Don’t use an incline (no need; you’re a beginner).

• Don’t hold onto the rail. This may sound unsafe, but these guidelines are for able-bodied adults and teens – and the speed should be SUPER SLOW for the first time.

People who feel they’ll fly off without holding on have the speed too fast.

When we walk sideways naturally to move through narrow spaces, it’s done quite slowly. The speed should be much slower than a typical walking pace.

What You Should Do

Slow Speed
• Start at 0.5 mph. Yes, one-half a mile per hour. This very slow speed will encourage you to keep your hands off the rail.

• As your body adjusts to staying upright and balanced sideways on a moving tread, you can increase the speed in small increments, such as to 0.7 mph, then 0.9, then 1 mph.

• There’s no need to aim for maximal speed on your first session. If 1 mph feels really awkward, then don’t go faster. Work on acclimating to 1 mph – hands off the rail. Over time you’ll want to increase the speed.

• As you do more sessions, you’ll feel more capable and be able to increase the speed.

Hopping or walking?
There’s no need to hop or have a skipping motion as a beginner at very slow speeds.

However, at around 2 mph (maybe less for some people), the inclination to hop or “shuffle” will be there.

At 3 mph, I find it a lot easier to shuffle than to try to walk this.

Again, do not hold on. You shouldn’t feel a need to if you’ve acclimated your body up to this point.

Mistake Most People Make
They hop or trot right away at 1.5, even 2 mph without first acclimating their body to the idea of keeping balanced sideways on a moving surface. As a result, they hold onto the rail.

But what’s wrong with holding on?

Four words: It defeats the purpose!

Ask yourself why you want to move sideways on a treadmill. Whether it’s because you think it’s cool, or you read somewhere it helps strengthen knees, or it’s to enhance sports performance, alleviate boredom from forward walking or improve balance – whatever the reason – holding onto the rail will defeat the purpose.

Furthermore, holding on will put your body in bad posture. Observe people holding on. Take note of their skewered posture.

Now if you keep your hands free, letting your arms and hands move in natural synch with your lower body to keep yourself steady, this will FORCE your body to have great posture and will engage the core more.

Keeping your hands off the rail will force your neuromuscular system to make adaptations to the demand of staying balanced and steady.

Your balance, agility and kinesthetic awareness will improve, and fairly quickly, too.

If you hold on, this will cheat your neuromuscular system from improving and will intercept any other desired results.

When I see people side shuffling on a treadmill and holding on, these are able-bodied people without canes or walkers.

Almost always they are non-overweight women who appear to be in their 20s. This is not an issue of mobility impairment.

We can’t assume that moving sideways on a treadmill somehow attracts neurologically impaired women in their 20s.

So why do they hold on?
Because they either lack confidence in letting go, or, they don’t realize how sabotaging this is. And to be fair, I’ll point out that I’ve seen men holding on, too.

It’s universal. I’ve witnessed only a few people over the past two decades NOT holding on.

Training your body to shuffle sideways at 2 and especially 3 mph without holding on means that you’ve upgraded your body’s ability to “catch itself” in the real world should you ever find yourself off-balance or at the start of a slip-and-fall. Even at just 1 mph will enhance the body’s recalibration system for correcting unsteadiness.

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 and fitness.