The Worst (And Most Dangerous) Piece of Equipment in Any Gym
In my years as a trainer, I’ve seen people doing a lot of dumb and dangerous things in the gym (I’m looking at you, behind-the-neck-lat-pulldown). I get that there’s a lot of bad
information out there, and people just don’t know better. But the number one injury causing piece of equipment in any gym is surprising: it’s the treadmill. In a 2016 study that reviewed exercise related Emergency Room visits, 34% of women and 31% of men reported that they were using the treadmill when their injury occurred. And certainly this doesn’t take into account the injuries that weren’t reported like sprained ankles or shin splints.
Yet, treadmills remain one of the most popular pieces of equipment in any gym. Why? Because they’re easy— and you can walk for a certain number of minutes and feel like you have accomplished something. (Yes, I know it’s possible to push yourself and burn a lot of calories by running and increasing the incline, etc. The majority of people, however, walk at a slow to moderately slow pace.) They don’t require any knowledge or any sort of program, which leaves them a favorite of those just getting started in the gym. Never mind the misconception that doing hours of cardio is the best way to drop pounds. It’s not. I’ll talk more about that in a future article, but for now, check out “Why Walking For Weightloss is Worthless.” Besides all this, time on the treadmill is “mindless”. You can zone out and listen to music or watch tv— you don’t have to think in the same way that you would with other types of exercise. Even though this type of exercise should require the same amount of focus as any other type of training, the truth is that most people are treadmill zombies.
But not everyone is such a fan of the equipment. In fact, if you talk to serious runners, they’ll tell you that they’d rather run in the cold and rain than run on a treadmill. And for the reasons I’m about to list, one of the very first things the owner of the gym told me when he hired me as a trainer, was that if I ever put someone on a treadmill without an exceptionally good (and defensible) reason, I’d be fired on the spot.
But what’s so bad about them?
Changes to Your Gait
First things first, let’s talk about the changes it causes to your gait—which is how you naturally walk or run. When walking on a treadmill, the treadmill naturally draws the leg backwards, instead of the gluteal muscles doing it. When running outside, the glutes work to extend the leg. However due to the neurological response (stretch reflex) that is created from the backward motion of the treadmill, the hip flexors are more quickly activated than they would be when running outdoors. This inhibits the hip extensors, limiting their activation. Hip flexors are much smaller muscles, with smaller attachments, and it is easy for them to be overworked and to become strained. Annnnd, if your core muscles aren’t strong enough to counteract it, the overworked hip flexors will bring your pelvis forward, increasing the strain on your spine. This is the Keep-It-Simple-Stupid version of what’s happening, because it’s important to understand.
In addition to the above, the same backward pull of the belt causes a stretch to the hamstrings (muscles from your butt to the back of the knees) which creates a weakened response from your quadriceps (your thigh muscles).
Further, the unnatural movement of the treadmill creates ankle dosiflexion (pulling your toes toward your shins), which causes a greater heel strike pattern. Helllllooooo, shortened calf muscles and Achilles injuries.
Exacerbated Joint Dysfunction
Many people that walk on treadmills are heavy, and think they are going to lose weight because a doctor or dietitian told them to do this. However, in these cases, these individuals have poorly developed quadriceps, hamstring, and gluteal muscles— which leads to instability and poor movement patterns. The unnatural movement of your body on a treadmill absolutely makes these problems worse, especially when combined with inclines and speeds that the individual is not capable of using with proper form. But, for a person that is carrying extra weight, the problems compound even faster. For every pound of body weight a person has, there is four pounds of pressure on their knees, hips, and ankles. People carrying these extra pounds don’t have muscles strong enough to support these joints, creating joint instability. This can lead to a myriad of problems, including the oft diagnosed “patella femoral syndrome”. Ladies, whether heavy or not, are already prone to something called knee Valgus (where the knees rotate inward), due to the shape of your able-to-birth-babies hips. Combine that with some extra weight and the unnatural movement patterns created by using a treadmill and you have a recipe for a perfect disaster.
The Tendency to Use Poor Form
Treadmills are bad enough on their own, but the ways people use them make them so
much worse. Here’s what I see on a daily basis: a person has the machine set at a very high elevation— and they are leaning backward, holding on to the rails. People do this when they are not capable of maintaining the speed and incline with proper form. But when was the last time you stood at the bottom of the hill and tried to “Frankenstein Walk” your way up the hill? Right. Because you’d be laughed out of town. You can’t do this outside, so why would it be ok to do this on a treadmill? Got me.
How the Treadmill Fails—Especially Compared to Outside Running/Walking
Less Caloric Burn
When you are running outside, your body is having to consider and respond to a number of factors like outside temperature, random obstacles like curbs and potholes (and small, yappy dogs for whom your calf muscle looks like a giant snack), and wind resistance. This forces your body to recruit more muscles, creating a greater effort, creating a greater caloric burn. Besides that, the treadmill allows you to go on about your walk or run at a nice steady pace, whereas running outside will naturally cause you to vary your pace at least a little. In addition to all these things, the treadmill is moving your foot for you! The net net of all of this is less work = less caloric burn. The treadmill is cheating your body out of some of its work, so you’re not getting the same benefits.
Increased Risk of Overuse Injury
If you’re running outside, hopefully you’re taking different routes and changing things up sometimes to prevent overuse injuries. Think about a car on a track, going round and round in the same direction. Pretty soon there is going to be some ugly wear on two of the tires. Your body is the same way. One of the things my trainer taught me about running was to make sure that I was constantly varying directions— even on a track. So, yes, I’m that person often going a different direction than everyone else. My knees are happier, so I’m kind of unconcerned with the funny and/or annoyed looks I’m getting. Another of the reasons using the treadmill is such a terrible plan is because you are always moving the exact same direction, creating an even greater likelihood of a repetitive motion injury.
So what should you do instead?
If you’ve been using the treadmill for a purely cardiovascular workout, think about this: the heart doesn’t know the difference between running on the treadmill and other types of training (including interval training) that involves an elevated heart rate. Additionally, perhaps you’ve heard that running increases bone density. It does indeed. However, there are other ways to create that same bone stimulation response that will spare your joints the impact. A well crafted strength training program can achieve everything you thought you were achieving on a treadmill and more.
We teach you how to not only improve your cardiovascular endurance, but how to increase your lean muscle at the same time— without you spending hours in the gym. Done with the mindnumbing, ineffective treadmill workout? Looking for a way to step up your training game and actually see results (without the injury)? Talk to Joey or Kim. We’d love to help you train for success.
If you’re serious about losing fat and getting (or staying!) healthy, stay off the treadmill. Your body will thank you. After all, there’s a reason runners call it the dread-mill.