Does Peddling Backwards on an Elliptical Machine Hurt Your Knees?

Good posture will protect your knees.

Good posture will protect your knees.

Once an exclusive feature of chic gyms, ellipticals marry a skiing-like glide with a stair climbing cadence. They've become mainstream ever since inexpensive models sprung into the marketplace. High-end units ring with complex gadgets and fluid front and back pedaling. However, some lower-end ellipticals require strong quads to pedal the unit -- and that's even before adding resistance. Check with your doctor before exercising on an elliptical, especially if you've had a prior knee injury.

Back, Not Forward

Pedaling in reverse can feel a tad awkward. After all, how many people do you know who run or walk backwards? It may actually be what the doctor orders for injured knees, though. If you want to rehab your knees, then switch directions, suggests research from Elmarie Terblanche, Ph.D. Terblanche studied 39 people with knee injuries and asked one group to pedal in reverse and the other to pedal forward. Her study found that those who pedaled backward developed stronger quads and hamstrings, which support the knee. Nine percent finished the study with greater aerobic capacity compared to the forward pedaling group.

Check Your Form

Want a shapely butt and tighter thighs? An elliptical can do that, but not when you're slouching over the console or have your head down, buried in a best seller. Straighten up, gaze into the distance and grasp the movable handlebars. No movable handlebars on your elliptical, you say? Gently hold onto the handlebars next to your console then. And don't hunch your shoulders. Lead into each backward step with your heel, not your forefoot, to protect your knees.

Stretch Before You Pedal

You're asking for trouble if you work out on the elliptical with cold muscles, regardless of the direction you are pedaling. Backpedaling puts more stress on your calves and hamstrings. Deal with them first when stretching and focus on active stretching. Calf raises and leg swings increase blood circulation to your calves and hamstrings. Stand and dip your heels 10 to 20 times for a standing calf raise or do more depending on how many it takes to tire your calves. Do this facing a wall and step back about one foot. It's okay to hold the wall, just keep your arms high, near shoulder-level. Straighten your legs and raise both heels. Lower them and repeat.

Insist On The Best

Quality counts. Pedals should move effortlessly and not catch or click. And squeaky belts are a no-no. Pedaling in reverse may take more effort, but pedals shouldn't stick or feel like you're pushing against lead. If so, lower the resistance or switch elliptical machines if possible. Before buying an in-home machine, take a 10-minute spin on several units that fit your budget. Do they hurt your knees? Check your form and try again. If it's still a problem, try a more expensive model and start saving towards its purchase. Or join a gym and use the ellipticals there.

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About the Author

Having studied at two top Midwestern universities, Catherine Field holds degrees in professional writing and patient safety. Writing since 2000, Field has worked with regional newspapers while publishing fiction online. She conducts medical communication research at a Midwestern medical institution and is slated to write a book based on her research findings.

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