Walking the Walk: breaking down the subtle & significant strengths in the way we walk

By: Carla Ricalis

We all walk a little differently and understanding the basic, fundamental movement patterns that happen when we do is an important element to optimizing our strides.

By no means a complete list, here are some key parts of this complex patterning that we do everyday.

Hip Swing/Stance Leg:

When we step forward the leg being swung through needs to have the strength of the quadriceps, calf muscles (gastrocnemius, soleus), hamstrings and gluts to absorb the impact of the heel striking the ground in front of us.

Additionally, that hip needs to have the tempo and range to be able to swing directly under and forward without deviating too much to the side. This proprioceptive awareness is something we’ve turned into an unconscious, competence pattern because of the repetition of walking in our everyday lives.

Simultaneously, the opposite or stance leg, needs strength in the abductors and adductors muscles, which lie along either side of the leg, to assist the pelvis in staying level; the core muscles, specifically the obliques, lats and smaller muscles along our spines, also contribute to this pelvic stability.

Take away: Leg, pelvis and core muscles are key in a strong gait pattern.

Heel Strike/Pelvis Transfer:

As the swing leg hits the ground, the first point of contact is the heel. Moving forward, the foot makes a complex movement pattern that is almost a gentle roll to the outside before pressing off our toes, with the big toe propelling the brunt of our weight forward. Simultaneously, the knee extends, the hip moves through flexion into extension and our pelvis weight transfers forward.

Takeaway: Strength and dexterity of the feet, toes and ankles are essential for strong steps forward.

Moment of Balance/Weight Transfer: There is a brief balance between the legs when both feet are in contact with the ground. The back foot begins a propulsion forward as we continue to move through the front foot. The strength of our calf muscles to create a push-off that is smooth and strong works in conjunction with the support of the torso muscles allowing for this transfer to be efficient, This creates only the necessary impact required through the leg joints.

Takeaway: Strength in the calf muscles is required for a strong, fluid step off the back foot.

Push Off/Back Foot Propel:

As we push off the back foot, the back hip moves into extension. If the hip is tight or restricted, the entire leg, pelvis and potentially the upper body, will compensate to maintain the stride rhythm and repetitiveness.

While the pelvis will rotate in response to the leg movement, the pelvis shouldn’t have a dominant swing or rotation to it. We want to keep ‘hips pointing forward’ an easy cue as we walk.

Takeaway: Strength is key but so is flexibility. If hips are too tight, we’ll compensate with too much pelvis swing and rotation.

Torso Rotation/Opposite Arm Swing:

The upper body also plays a key role in our walk. If we’re too stiff in the torso we’ll force unnecessary load and impact through our leg joints. But if it’s too loose and without dynamic stabilization, the impact of the foot strike foot strike on the ground won’t be properly absorbed up through the legs and into the various joints of the spine (especially in our lower backs).

We want to think of the spine as doing a very gentle and almost unnoticeable rotation that allows for a contralateral (opposite side) arm swing to the forward swinging leg.

Takeaway: striking a balance between too much and too little stability means having dynamic stability throughout the body allowing for loads and weight transfers to be absorbed without increasing force and unnecessary impact through the body.

Our walk is a complex movement pattern integrating the entire body in subtle and significant ways.