Stop Holding On when on the Treadmill

Let Go Of the Handrails to Burn More Calories With Better Posture

Man on Treadmill
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Holding onto the treadmill is always wrong, regardless of your size, age, experience, weight or goals (save for momentary heart-rate check or brief turn to look behind yourself).

Problems Created by Holding Onto the Treadmill

    Holding Onto the Treadmill is Make-Believe Walking and Fake-Running

    Holding on when on the treadmill never simulates actual walking or running. Some people press their palms down against the side rails, lifting their bodies partially off the tread, creating a body weight that’s lighter than what they must deal with once off the machine. While legs wistfully go through mere motions, shoulders sway to and fro in an unnatural pattern that can strain them. Some men take heavy or exaggerated steps, trunk leaning forward, arms bent while hands are clamped to the rails, body bobbing up and down like a buoy in the ocean.

    Many people also grip the front bar, yanking their body forward with each step. Any kind of holding on eliminates walking and running weight-bearing benefits. Your legs get a free ride.

    Holding on with one hand is still cheating, creating unequal stresses to the body — even if you alternate hands.

    Even "resting" your hands on the machine compromises efficacy. Besides, the moment the speed or incline is increased, those resting hands will tighten. I’ve witnessed people don leather gloves for increased grip traction!

    Cheats the Lower Back Muscles: The lower-back muscles are called the erector spinae: They keep you erect while walking or jogging in daily life, and stabilize the spine.

    Holding onto the treadmill cheats the lower back out of doing work, weakening these important core muscles.

    Holding Onto the Treadmill Ruins Posture

    Tall people who hold on are especially at risk for developing forward, slumped posture. View a tall person from the side who’s clinging to the machine. Note the disrupted posture, which may include a butt that’s sticking out. No back specialist alive would endorse this, even if the walker is 80 years old. Regardless of your height, holding on produces an unnatural, inefficient gait.

    Spinal Alignment: Hanging on skewers spinal alignment, and unteaches your body how to walk or run efficiently. Your leg cannot extend fully prior to the foot’s contact with the tread. A shorter step length results. Taking longer strides to compensate for this (which the walker will invariably do) will cause ballistic action in the hips, creating risk for repetitive stress injuries. Gripping at fast speeds raises blood pressure.

    Risk of Repetitive Strain Injuries: If you luck out and never experience RSIs, then don’t get smug: Every minute you hold on is a minute wasted.

    I’ve instructed men and women (including martial artists and bodybuilders)—who were hardcore grippers at fast speeds and high inclines—to walk hands off at 15 percent incline, but at only 3 mph. Within two minutes, they were panting and had to lower the incline!

    Holding Onto the Treadmill Burns Fewer Calories

    When the machine's settings are high, the calorie display shows a very big number. But this reading is triggered by the program settings only! If you put your 8-pound puppy on the tread, or even let the tread move without anything on it, it would still show the same impressive calorie total. Because holding on eliminates substantial workload from the legs and even the shoulder girdle, the actual calories burned is far lower than the bright red number flashing on the console.

    Walking or running hands-off burns 20 to 25 percent more calories for the same length of time. Don't think that you’re smoldering up heaps of calories by tugging with your arms and hands during a fast pace on a high incline. The leg and gluteal muscles are the largest muscles in the body. Large muscles burn the most calories. Divert work from the legs? You get minimal calorie burn.

    The Incline

    Think about your last hike on an uphill trail. What were you holding onto? It makes no sense to hold onto the treadmill while using a grade.

    When you grab onto the front bar or console, your body tilts back, making it perpendicular to the inclined tread surface. This is the same angle relationship as when walking on a level course! In other words, if the tread incline is at 15 percent, and you’re gripping the machine, your entire body is angled back—at 15 percent!

    You’ve just cancelled out the effect of the grade.

    Picture somebody hiking up a hill. His legs bend quite a bit at the hips and knees; his body is vertical while it's moving up a slope. Now, observe a person gripping an inclined treadmill. His body is leaning back like a water skier's, and his legs are as straight as they would be at zero incline. And guess what! Leaning forward (while still holding on) will not correct this flaw; you'd be pulling yourself forward with your arms, cheating your legs out of the climb. Placing your hands on the side rails will subtract some of your weight off the tread, so forget that. You always lose when you hold on.

    Find an outdoor trail that inclines like your treadmill routine. Walk it at your treadmill pace (which will seem faster outdoors). See how long you can last. That lean person you see striding for 30 minutes at 4 mph at 12 percent grade, hands glued to the machine, would be breathless on a 12 percent outdoor trail within two minutes at the same speed.


    The real world is full of uneven surfaces that you must walk on. Sensors in your feet and legs relay nerve impulses up to your brain, where they are interpreted: smooth asphalt, uneven concrete, lumpy grass, a bed of rocks, puddles to step around, etc. Your brain constantly sends signals down your spinal cord to help you navigate just where your body is in space, thus preventing you from falling.

    Holding onto the treadmill interferes with these signals, thus downgrading your coordination. If you hold on, even lightly, you take valuable work away from your neuro-musculoskeletal system. In short, holding on outright deactivates your body’s balancing mechanism.

    Let Go!

    Ask yourself: How will holding on make me more efficient in the real world, where there’s nothing to hold onto?

    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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