The site recently published several articles on leg development. Let me enlighten you on a technique that I've used in the past and haven't seen mentioned in many years - backward running and walking.
If you are looking to refine some of the muscular development in your legs, rehabilitate from an injury, bust some plateaus, or improve your athletic coordination, backwards running and walking should be included in your training regime.
Retro movement has application for both the bodybuilder as well as regular athletes. Backward motion is an essential part of many sports including soccer, basketball, rugby, tennis, lacrosse and football.
Most of the time, backward running is performed in short bursts on a court or field during these events. However, the amount of time dedicated to training and improving backward running is usually minimal.
Backward running appears to be a forgotten, old-school practice these days.
However, some notable historic success with backward running must be considered:
- Champion Boxer Gene Tunney ran four to eight backward miles a day in his training.
- Muhammad Ali, known for great foot speed, used backward running in his roadwork.
- Steve Reeves used backwards running to concentrate development of his calf muscles.
A Different Perspective
The act of walking or running backward is more than just a reversal of the forward motion. To start with, backward running is a learned skill. Compared to forward running, which is developed early, backward running has its own motor program that requires practice to improve efficiency. If you play sport, you will note that an individual may be the fastest forward runner, but the same individual may not be the fastest backward runner.
Part of the reason why an individual may be best at forward running but average at backward running is the significant physical difference in backwards locomotion. Backward running enlists the quadriceps muscles more than the hamstrings when compared to forward running.
In addition to working your quads more significantly, backward running also provides a greater hamstring stretch than forward running. This is because your maximum knee extension happens when your hip is maximally flexed (and your foot is on the ground). The best way to picture this is to think of the stretch achieved when you rise up on the balls of your feet.
Data also indicates that retro motion is more stressful to the cardiovascular system when performed at the same forward velocity. In a study on walking backwards, researchers demonstrated that VO2 and heart rate were 78 and 47% greater than forward walking at matched speeds.
Calculate Your Heart Rate
To determine your Maximum HR, use the calculators below. The simple formula: Take 220 and minus your age which is accurate to approximately +15 BPM. You then take that number and multiply it by .75 -
.85, which will give you your percentages of 75% -- 85% of your Max. HR.
This is the Target Range or Zone that you want to stay in when doing any type of cardiovascular (aerobic)
activity. When in this range your body is getting an optimum workout with maximum benefit, and it stays in a Fat Burning mode.
There are two different ways to calculate your maximum heart rate and your target heart rates. The method I just explained is the simple method. Read the full article here.
Simple Target Heart Rate Calculator
Using the 220 - Age formula.
Another significant difference is that you can't run as fast backward as you can run forward. The reason for this is due to the limited flexion-extension movements of the lower extremities.
Additionally, stride length is shorter in backward locomotion than forward motion, requiring a greater number of repetitions for a given amount of distance. When you consider this need, you can understand why backward locomotion is a good means of increasing calorie expenditure while on a weight loss program.
Backward locomotion can benefit individuals rehabilitating from injury. One of the unique aspects of backward locomotion is the toe-heel versus the heel-toe foot contact pattern in forward locomotion.
By landing on the toe, there is less shock transferred to the knee joint during rehabilitation.
Some other conditions and injuries that can benefit from backward locomotion as part of a rehabilitation routine include:
- Muscle strains of the lower back, hip and hamstring
- Ankle and Achilles tendon injuries
- Knee surgery
- Shin splints
- Stress fractures of the foot
- Groin strains
I recommend that backward locomotion be started at slower speeds until you are accustomed to the motion, impact and even navigational differences.
Additionally, you should consider starting any backward locomotion program on a track, in a gym or on lightly traveled roads to improve safety. I recommend avoiding sidewalks because of the varying grades often found with them. If you are considering using a treadmill, ensure it is equipped with side rails for balance and safety.
You can also consider using the elliptical training machine. Although it does not provide the range of motion that walking or running, the elliptical trainer does allow you to exercise in a backward direction to work on antagonistic muscle groups. I have found the elliptical trainer easy to use and a convenient means of doing backward motion exercises during the winter months.
There are several other benefits of including backward locomotion in your routine. Cardiovascular fitness can be improved with retro motion. One early Army study from 1994 found that walking or jogging backward required more physical effort and increased the heart rate higher than when going forward.
At a rate of 6 miles per hour, running backward used a third more calories per minute than forward running.
Improved posture is another benefit of retro locomotion. Individuals lean less forward when moving backward compared to forward. Being more erect strengthens the back/hip region and leads to better posture both during and post exercise. Additionally, by working the antagonistic muscles, you can expect better muscle balance and coordination for those muscles.
After you begin a backward running program and find yourself needing a greater challenge, you could consider the New York Road Runners' annual backward mile race.
I mentioned plateau busting in the opening. Studies have shown increased quadriceps strength after routines incorporated backward running.
Additionally, as evidenced by the Steve Reeves example, significant development of the calves can also be accomplished by including backward locomotion. If you need a change to your routine and a new means of attacking your lower body, using some backwards logic may be the solution.
The race is held on April Fools day and draws a good crowd of runners and spectators. Winning times this past year were 6:28 and 7:58 respectively for the top male and female finishers.
Backward locomotion is a technique that can be used by both bodybuilder as well as regular athletes. My successful use of backward walking and running to rehab from several ankle and foot injuries made me a life-long supporter of retro locomotion. It is an "old school" technique that should be used more often to improve modern bodies. I know I will continue to use it in my training.
- Flynn T.W., et.al., Comparison of cardiopulmonary responses to forward and backward running. Med. Sci. Sports Exer. 26:89-94, 1994.
- Winter D.A., Pluck N. and Yang J.F., Backward walking: a simple reversal of forward walking? J. Mot Behav. 21: 219-305, 1989.
- Grasso R., Bianchi,L. and Lacquanti F. Motor patterns for human gait: Backward versus forward locomotion. J Neurophysiol. Oct; 80(4):1868-85.1998.
- Arata A.W. Kinematic and kinetic evaluation of high speed backward running. Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado USA. Online.
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