Treadmills and Ellipticals: What are the limitations?

It’s hot out now, but before you know it, it’s going to be winter again, and for most people that means moving their exercise routine indoors.  Treadmills and elliptical machines can be a practical way to maintain conditioning in colder months, but exercising on them is different from moving on solid, unmoving ground.

What are the drawbacks of treadmills?

  1. Strained shin muscles–The moving belt of a treadmill “grabs” your lead foot more quickly than if the surface was still and your leg muscles had to pull your body forward.  This motion mimics walking or running downhill more than running on a flat surface.  It puts strain on the front shin muscle, which has to work harder to decelerate the leg.  To compensate, strengthen the front of the shins by spending some time walking backward.
  2. Weakening glutes–Your glutes don’t have to work as hard to pull your leg back each stride on a treadmill.  You’re not doing your butt any favors this way.
  3. Tighter hip flexors and low back pain–The fact that you’re under-working your glutes means that you’re overworking your front hip flexors in turn.  This leads to an imbalance and a shortening of these hip flexors, which leads to an increased arch in the lower back, which leads to pain.  To compensate, you should do extra work to strengthen your glutes.  Lunges are the best way to do this.  When you do any treadmill exercise, also do at least five lunges on each side.  Another way to compensate is to do some bridges: lie on your back with your arms crossed or at your sides.  Put your feet on the ground, with your knees gently bent.  Use your glutes (squeeze!) to lift your hips and back off the ground.  Count to three as your hips come up, count to three while you hold the bridge, and count to three again as you lower your hips back down.  Do three sets of 8-15 reps, three times a week.
  4. Tighter achilles and calf muscles–The motion of the belt causes an increase in heel-strike and greater flexing in the foot.  This can cause shortening of the calf muscle.  Foam roll the calves to help them relax and stretch out.
  5. Injuries–Treadmills are one of the most common causes of injuries in fitness centers, and they are the number one cause of injury in the cardio equipment category.  According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 72,900 injuries associated with treadmills between 2012 and 2014.

What about ellipticals?

Using an elliptical does not allow your foot to move naturally.  The motion of an elliptical uses far fewer muscles than running does, especially the hip muscles.  These muscles are designed to work together, and when you exercise some of them without exercising all of them, you can develop your body in a way that makes you more prone to injury.  The arm movements of an elliptical aren’t natural either, and they can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain.  Ellipticals can also cause repetitive-motion injury or exacerbate certain existing conditions.  They are one-size-fits-all, so people with narrow hips may have to spread their legs farther apart, and people with broader hips may have to bring their feet closer together into an unnatural stance.

If you can, it’s best to exercise by doing things your body was built to do–like walking, lifting, pulling, pushing, and so forth.  If you must use mechanical exercise equipment, make sure you perform exercises to compensate for the imbalances they create: stretching and foam rolling are key, and lunges can help reduce the risks of treadmills.

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