How to Kick the Treadmill-Gripping Habit

Learn to Let Go of the Handrails for a Better Treadmill Workout

Man holding onto treadmill
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Holding onto the rails while walking or running on the treadmill is a bad habit that research shows reduces the good effects of your workout. Some people think walking on a treadmill is akin to balancing one foot on a log in the water. Thus, the idea of taking their hands off the machine is unthinkable.

The good news is that I’ve had people with many situations, including Meniere’s disease (a balance disorder), obesity, and advanced age, release their hands.

Not one of them fell.

Treadmill Handrails Don’t Need to Be Used

Many treadmill-grippers are young, not overweight, and have no medical ailments. Thus, it’s safe to assume that most people hold on for no other reason than because the rails and front bar are there. They may be there, but you probably don't need to use them except to take your heart rate with the pulse sensor. Here is how to wean yourself away from using the handrails.

 If you have any significant impairments, discuss your exercise needs with your doctor and physical therapist to see what modifications are appropriate for your condition.

Slow Down the Treadmill to Walk Hands-Free

Start walking hands-free with the speed set lower than you are used to using. Many people I’ve spoken to never needed to slow down before letting go. All they needed was my suggestion to slow down the speed. On the other hand, many people indeed have the machine’s settings too high for their abilities.

Hands-Free on the Treadmill Walking with Zero Incline

If you don’t think you have a balance problem, simply let go at the speed you normally use. You’ll instantly feel many more muscles working. Keep straight and focus on posture. If you’re scared to let go, then first reduce speed. Go down to 2 mph, if you must.

If you’re challenged, set it even slower. Cruise at one mph if this is what it takes to acclimate your body to real walking.

If you feel self-conscious about being seen walking this slowly, then realize that this doesn’t look half as silly as holding on at a faster speed. Your body will adjust to this new stimulus very quickly.

If you prefer no incline, do short speed-walking intervals alternating with slower walking. Or, stay at one challenging pace for sustained periods. If you can’t let go because your eyes are pasted to the TV or a magazine, then give up the TV or magazine.

Use the Right Amount of Treadmill Incline

People set the incline too high for the speed, or the speed too fast for the incline. Thus, they have no choice but to hold on. If releasing your hands is too difficult, regardless of your fitness level or age, then lower the settings. Many people believe that in order to get a sizzling cardio workout, they must keep the speed at least 3.5 or 4 mph for incline walking. At a high incline, this is unrealistic as a sustained pace.

Think of your last uphill hike outdoors. You were probably climbing at only 2 or 2.5 mph. Even three mph outdoors can be difficult. Set the tread at a pace similar to that of your outdoor hikes. Be realistic. I’ve seen people on the treadmill (no hands) get smoked out just by walking only 2.5 mph at 15% for only 10 minutes.

Treadmill Interval Training

1. High Incline - Level Recovery: Walk a high incline for a few minutes (hands off), then go level for two minutes to recover. Alternate tough, high inclines with easy, low inclines at a fixed speed for 30 minutes. Do not keep the incline high and simply hold on for your easy intervals. Instead, lower the angle and keep your hands off. For fitness results, you must mimic reality.

2. High Incline, Vary Speed: Maintain a 15% grade, but vary the speed. For instance, alternating one-minute intervals between 4 mph and 2 mph. Don’t think two mph is too slow; you may still be wheezing after only one minute at this recovery interval, especially as time progresses into the routine.

3. High-Intensity Interval Training: If you’re in great shape, set your training intervals at a grueling intensity (6 mph at 15%). It’s OK for a training interval to last only 15 to 30 seconds. Your one- or two-minute recovery intervals can be a 3 mph, flat-level walk or a 2.5 mph, 15% walk.

4. Steady Pace: If you don’t prefer intervals, then walk or jog sustained at an incline low enough to permit releasing your hands, but high enough to charge up your heart rate. Raise the incline one percent every week or two.

5. Experiment: Experiment with different grades, speeds and interval times for varying degrees of intensity. If you initially feel dizzy or unsteady, it’s because you’re used to using your arms as anchors. Stick it out and you’ll soon be walking like a Marine or running like the wind. If your lower back aches while using the incline, it’s because those muscles are working for the first time.

Lorra Garrick is a certified personal trainer and certified longevity wellness specialist. 


Berling J, Foster C, Gibson M, Doberstein S, Porcari J. "The effect of handrail support on oxygen uptake during steady-state treadmill exercise." J Cardiopulm Rehabil. 2006 Nov-Dec;26(6):391-4.

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