Want a Better Workout? Just Add Gravity

4 min read

Nov. 15, 2023 -- Maybe physical activity should be an uphill battle.

When we think about progressing our workouts, we tend to juggle the typical variables: Lift heavier dumbbells, run longer distances, swim faster than the sharp-toothed predator torpedoing toward us. 

But if you really want to ramp up your workout, you can just, well, ramp up. 

Incline training -- using natural hills or the incline setting on a cardio machine -- has total-body benefits that can improve your fitness and protect you against injuries. Whether you’re walking, running, cycling, or hiking, adding hills can challenge your body in new ways.  

By increasing a workout’s intensity, incline training offers several benefits, said Bonita L. Marks, PhD, professor emeritus of exercise physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

  • Improved cardiovascular health. Some research links incline exercise on a treadmill with an increase in heart rate and oxygen consumption compared with level ground.  
  • Higher calorie burn in less time.small 2022 study showed that fat oxidation was higher when participants walked at a 6% gradient compared to when they walked on a flat surface. The researchers concluded that walking on an incline may be more effective than walking on level ground for preventing and reducing obesity.
    A stronger lower-body and core. Research shows that uphill running puts a greater demand on calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, compared with flat or downhill running.  

At the same time, you’re putting less stress on your body’s connective tissue (like your tendons) because your foot strikes the ground sooner than it would have on a flat surface. This means the tendons don’t elongate as much, reducing the risk of strains, said Jace Derwin, head of performance training at Volt Athletics in Seattle.

“There’s more return on investment and less total mileage on your tendons and bones than what’s happening on flat ground,” Derwin said. 

How to Add Hills to Your Workout

Don’t trust all the hill workouts you see on social media. 

“Incline training became popularized on TikTok during the COVID-19 shutdown period, and some of the recommendations were not wise,” Marks said. For example, the most popular variation (12-3-30) may be too intense for beginners; that’s 30 minutes walking at a 3 mph pace at 12% incline.

Here are smarter ways to approach incline training: 

Don’t pick the biggest hill. The key is to start low and gradually build up to greater/steeper inclines. “Going ‘high’ too soon can cause injury to the lower back, hips, and legs,” Marks said. If you’re running or walking on a treadmill, start with a 2% incline; if that doesn’t feel like much of a challenge aerobically (that is, you’re still breathing easily on the incline portion), try starting with 5%. 

Go two at a time. Increasing the incline by 2% weekly is a slow and safe way to progress, if you’re training at least twice a week, Marks said. 

Play with your variables. On any hill or inclined cardio machine (for stationary bikes, you’d increase resistance rather than gradient), you can change the amount of time you’re alternating between an incline and flat surface, you can change the speed, or you can change the percentage incline. The variety keeps your body from fully adapting to the same workout, improving fitness over time. 

Walk backwards. If you’re training outside on a hill (repeating going up and down it for a set period), consider walking backwards downhill, said Derwin. Walking frontwards downhill can be strenuous on your quads -- and put you at risk of developing knee pain -- if you’re not used to it.

Add strength exercises. You may try pushups or lunges on a hill to put your body through a different range of motion, which can improve your mobility, Derwin said. Incline pushups (with your hands on an elevated surface) would feel easier than standard ones, while decline pushups will feel more difficult. Doing lunges uphill may allow you to sink deeper into a lunge if you have trouble with full range of motion.

Get outside if you can. While a treadmill or stationary bike allows you to control the incline or resistance, the variability of natural hills can provide a challenging workout. “It’s why hiking is the greatest low-skill fitness activity you can do. You put your muscles under work and get to be outside," Derwin said.

Sample hill workout (about 30 minutes): Find a hill that takes about 2 minutes to walk up, or that’s about a tenth of a mile (500 feet).

Warm up with a brisk 5-minute walk.

Do eight “ups” on the hill, moving at your own pace. On odd numbers, try a medium-intensity pace. On even numbers, pick up the pace a bit more (jogging all the way up to sprinting, depending on what you can handle). Walk down at an easy pace.

At the top of each hill, use the incline to do one set of a strength exercise -- for example, incline pushups on odd numbers, lunges on even numbers.

Cool down for 3 to 5 minutes.