© 2015 IOP Publishing Ltd. Natural substrates like sand, soil, leaf litter and snow vary widely in penetration resistance. To search for principles of appendage design in robots and animals that permit high performance on such flowable ground, we developed a ground control technique by which the penetration resistance of a dry granular substrate could be widely and rapidly varied. The approach was embodied in a device consisting of an air fluidized bed trackway in which a gentle upward flow of air through the granular material resulted in a decreased penetration resistance. As the volumetric air flow, Q, increased to the fluidization transition, the penetration resistance decreased to zero. Using a bio-inspired hexapedal robot as a physical model, we systematically studied how locomotor performance (average forward speed, vx) varied with ground penetration resistance and robot leg frequency. Average robot speed decreased with increasing Q, and decreased more rapidly for increasing leg frequency, ?. A universal scaling model revealed that the leg penetration ratio (foot pressure relative to penetration force per unit area per depth and leg length) determined vxfor all ground penetration resistances and robot leg frequencies. To extend our result to include continuous variation of locomotor foot pressure, we used a resistive force theory based terradynamic approach to perform numerical simulations. The terradynamic model successfully predicted locomotor performance for low resistance granular states. Despite variation in morphology and gait, the performance of running lizards, geckos and crabs on flowable ground was also influenced by the leg penetration ratio. In summary, appendage designs which reduce foot pressure can passively maintain minimal leg penetration ratio as the ground weakens, and consequently permits maintenance of effective locomotion over a range of terradynamically challenging surfaces.