Are hills the new speed?

Incline training is gaining in popularity, but there's a right way to do it. This Tier 3+ trainer will make sure you're on the up-and-up.

You may have a seen a resurgence in popularity of previously-snubbed machines like steppers and stairmills—maybe you've noticed exercisers donning old-school ankle weights as they climb their way through a workout. While the calling card of cardio had been your max interval speed, there's good reason more exercisers are heading for the hills: “You receive numerous benefits from hill training,” says Ian Sample, a Tier 3+ trainer at New York City's Greenwich Avenue location. “First, you’re increasing hip and knee flexion, which causes you to use more muscle fibers, and the more fibers you use, the harder your heart has to work, so essentially you’re strengthening more muscles and increasing your cardio capacity at the same time.” To boot, a recent study found that doing 30-second intervals on a 10 percent incline twice a week boosted long distance runners’ performance more than completing 2+-minute intervals on a flat surface. But not all climbs are created equal, and mimicking a true outdoor hill workout at the gym isn’t easy. Follow these tips to make sure you see benefits from your next uphill battle.

hop on the stairmill (or jacob's ladder).

“This is one of the best ways to challenge your glutes and work your entire posterior chain,” says Sample. Start with 10 minutes at a steady, moderate pace (about level 6) and slowly increase your time/intensity from there.

engage your glutes.

“They are your biggest and most powerful muscles, so you should let them do the most work when you climb,” says Sample. An easy way to activate is to lean forward slightly and, when walking, push off with the part of your foot that is as close to your heel as possible. “Pushing off with the ball of your foot or toes puts unnecessary stress on the knee,” he notes.

ease into it.

“Don’t kill yourself the first time out. If you’re running hills, maybe start by adding 10 short uphill sprints into your workout the first week, add 12 more in the next week and so on,” suggests Sample. Measure your progress by how much incline or intensity you’ve gained, number of intervals you’ve added, or rest time you’ve reduced between each over the course of a month (or three).

turn off your treadmill.

“Walking or running at an incline on the treadmill is beneficial, but even though you’re being challenged more, your posterior chain still doesn’t receive the same benefits as if you were running outside since the belt automatically pulls your foot underneath and behind you, which doesn’t allow your hamstrings and glutes to do all of the work,” notes Sample. Instead, try doing a workout with the treadmill turned off. Run, manually pushing the belt behind you, at a steady pace for 20 seconds, followed by a 20-second rest interval, and repeat. Push for 20 more seconds, rest one minute, and then repeat the circuit two more times.

maintain your pace.

“For rolling hills, keep an even pace to help stay in a steady aerobic zone—don't sprint up and then coast on the declines. And for steep hill sprints, keep your knees high, arms pumping by your sides and back tall,” says Sample.

mix it up with sled work.

One exercise that helps engage similar muscles as hill training is the sled push, notes Sample. Start off doing three sets of five reps, pushing a sled about 15 yards, using a weight that’s comfortable for you.

if you want to add resistance, try a weighted vest.

“Every now and then I see people with ankle weights doing stairs or incline walking/running. I’m not against it per se, but it’s not something I would typically recommend. I don't usually add weights to cardio workouts, especially when it has to do with a person's gait or stride. However, if I were to add weights (for calorie burning purposes or something like that), I'd much rather add a weighted vest, which distributes the weight more evenly,” he says.

don't ignore the decline.

“I think an important part of incline training is to always incorporate decline training into your routine as well. If you run uphill, jog—don’t walk—back down it. This strengthens your muscles and teaches your body control and deceleration, so that after you build all that power and strength to move up, you’ll also have the balance and strength to slow it down and stay injury free,” says Sample.
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