Benefits of Walking Uphill and How to Do It Right

Shot of a senior couple hiking together out in the mountains

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Many walkers have a love/hate relationship with walking uphill. It takes extra exertion, so you know it is probably doing good things for your body. But that exertion gets you huffing, puffing, and sweating. The benefits make it worth the sweat, especially when you take the time to walk uphill with good technique.

Top Benefits of Walking Uphill

When you add incline to your walks, you get a more efficient workout, along with several other bonuses for your body.

Work Different Leg Muscles

Walking uphill works the muscles at the front of your thighs (the quadriceps) as well as your buttock muscles more than walking on level ground. That is good for balancing your leg muscles, so you don't end up overtraining your glutes and hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thighs) while neglecting your quadriceps.

Burn More Calories

Walking uphill, you are burning an extra 3 to 5 calories per minute over what you would burn walking on the level. You can also measure this difference in metabolic equivalents (MET). Walking at a typical exercise pace on flat ground rates 4.3 MET, while walking uphill rates 5.3 MET (for a 5% grade) and a whopping 8 MET for grades from 6% to 15%, giving you the same exertion as jogging.

Improve Your Metabolism

Some small research studies show that uphill walking can help your body metabolize both glucose (blood sugar) and lipids (cholesterol), meaning it could be beneficial for people who are pre-diabetic or at risk of heart disease. These studies also showed some benefit to downhill walking, so plan a route that takes you both up and down.

Increase Exercise Intensity

Walking uphill boosts your heart rate, even at a slow pace. That means you are walking at the moderate to vigorous intensity level of exercise, where you will get the most benefits for reducing health risks and building fitness. Hills add high-intensity intervals to your walking routine, so you get more bang for your workout buck (the same, or more, benefits in less time).

How to Walk Uphill

Get the most out of your incline workouts by using these techniques.

  1. Warm up. Going uphill will work your muscles more intensely. They are going to be lifting you as well as propelling you forward. Warm up with a walk on the level for five minutes before you tackle a steep hill.
  2. Shorten your steps. Like a bike shifting to a new gear to go uphill, shorten your steps when you are walking uphill. This will make it easier to lift your body up the incline with each step.
  3. Maintain or quicken your step rate. With shorter steps, you won't be going as far with each step. You can maintain your step rate, knowing it will take a bit longer because of the hill. Or, you can try shorter, quicker steps on the hill if you want to maintain your pace.
  4. Lean only slightly into the hill. It is natural to lean into the hill a bit, but the lean should come from your ankles, not from bending at your waist. Try to keep that lean to a minimum. If you lean too much, you will put yourself off balance. Keep your torso over your hips. Do not lean backward, as that will unbalance you. Leaning too far in either direction or bending at the waist can strain your lower back.
  5. Don't raise your knees too high. You shouldn't be lifting your knees higher than six inches. If you find yourself raising your knees too much, you need to shorten your step even more.
  6. Monitor your exertion level. Hills raise your heart rate, breathing, and exertion level as more muscles are used to carry you both up and along. Make sure you can still speak in sentences, rather than just gasping out single words. That may mean that you go slower.
  7. Check your heart rate. Hills are a good way for slower walkers, or highly fit walkers, to achieve a higher heart rate level. Check your heart rate on hills to see what various rates feel like for exertion and breathing intensity. You can use a heart rate monitor, a heart rate app on your mobile phone, or a fitness band that detects your heart rate.
  8. Use trekking poles if desired. Some people use trekking poles for walking or hiking uphill. These can give a little assist from your upper body in helping you go uphill. They also can help stabilize you when you go downhill.
  9. Keep practicing. If you are going to be walking in a hilly area, such as on the Camino de Santiago, it is good to train with hills beforehand. Walking uphill will get easier the more you do it.

Don't Neglect Downhill Walking Technique

If you do your uphill walking on a treadmill, you won't have to do any downhill walking (unless your treadmill has a negative incline setting). Out in the real world, you usually have to do both.

Be sure you have the right downhill walking technique. Bend your knees and allow your stride to lengthen when you go downhill. Going downhill is harder on your knees than walking uphill.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pickle NT, Grabowski AM, Auyang AG, Silverman AK. The functional roles of muscles during sloped walking. J Biomech. 2016;49(14):3244-3251.  doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2016.08.004

  2. Philippe M, Gatterer H, Eder EM, et al. The effects of 3 weeks of uphill and downhill walking on blood lipids and glucose metabolism in pre-diabetic men: A pilot study. J Sports Sci Med. 2017;16(1):35-43.

  3. American Heart Association. American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids.

  4. Butler SL, Bonci L, Stanten M. Walk your butt off!: Go from sedentary to slim in 12 weeks with this breakthrough walking plan. Rodale Books, 2013.

  5. Adhikari S, Patil PP. Effect of uphill, level, and downhill walking on cardiovascular parameters among young adults. Indian J Health Sci Biomed Res. 2018;(11)2:121-124. doi:10.4103/kleuhsj.kleuhsj_79_17

Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.