The elliptical machine is a smooth, low-impact alternative to treadmills and jogging. In addition to working out your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes and abs, these machines also can be operated in reverse, breaking the monotony of always going forward. While the forward and the backward motions exercise the same muscles in your body, there are a few slight differences.
According to a 2005 study done by Willamette University, the muscle group most affected by pedaling forward vs. backward is your quadriceps. When pedalling backward, the only muscle in the leg that saw significantly higher activity was the rectus femoris muscle in the quadriceps, likely because the rectus femoris helps to lift your lower leg by flexing the knee and hip.
The same study found that only one muscle, the biceps femoris, produces more activity when pedalling forward than back. The biceps femoris is part of your hamstrings, and plays a part in both knee and hip flexion, contracting to move you along the elliptical while also stabilizing your body as you walk forward.
A 2007 study done by the University of Wisconsin stated that pedalling backward does have a bigger impact on your cardiovascular health. The study showed that pedalling backward at both low and moderate intensity raised your heart rate more than pedalling forward, with a significant increase at moderate intensity.
If you were hoping to get a more thorough workout for your calves, glutes or abs by striding backwards, unfortunately, the Willamette study claimed that there is practically no difference between forward and reverse on the elliptical for these muscle groups. When you finally decide to start walking backward, make sure to start slowly. The mechanics of reverse striding take time to master, and rushing it may throw your posture and body alignment out of whack.
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