We think it’s easy and it just is what it is, but what if you could walk in such a way that it protects your joints, is breast health protective, improves circulation of the blood and lymph, breathing capacity, develops even muscle tone including the pelvic floor. How you walk like a lot of other movement patterns came about because of the way you have moved your body throughout your life and from watching others as you were growing up parents, friends, grandparents and then things like growing up and doing ballet or in the military, or the Manchester swagger to fit in with your friends, or the model’s sway, or the bouncy perky trot. All ways of walking. How you’ve moved throughout your life affects your gait, including old injuries, how much you sit and what shoes you habitually wear
Most people (due to the list of causes above), tend to walk by lifting their leg out in front of them, leaning forward and falling onto that outstretched leg. What this does is limit the amount of calories you burn because you’re not very active, you’re simply falling forward, and it also means your feet, knees, hips and spine have to absorb the force of that ‘fall’. If you’re ‘falling’ like this with every step and you’ve got your Fitbit strapped to your wrist, then you can literally count the number of steps or microtraumas to your joints!
So if we’re not meant to fall forward and catch ourselves, how are we supposed to walk? Well, throwing in a little physics here… for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So if you want to go forward then you have to push backwards. Think ice-skating or rollerskating, swimming or rowing a boat. The only way to propel yourself forward is to push backwards either against water or the floor. When walking however, we can simply lean and fall, but that doesn’t make it the right way to move yourself about the place.
I often joke with my clients that we are supposed to be rear-wheel drive. That is our engine should be in the back – not a great analogy, I know, but I’m a girl. When you walk, the front leg lands on the heel and the back leg should be behind you for you to then use the back leg butt muscles and hamstrings to literally push you forward. Once the leg has done that, it then simply swings through with very little effort and the cycle begins again. When we’re used to sitting and are perhaps a little tight through the hip flexors or we don’t have the strength in the muscles, the flexibility in the hips and so on, then instead of the back leg doing the pushing, we get lazy and pick the front leg up (using the hip flexors) and falling onto it.
When we walk we are usually aiming to get from A to B. Taking your body between those two points should be a smooth affair, with the shoulders and hips moving straight towards our goal. That is to say that there shouldn’t an excessive twisting of the shoulders or hips OR a dropping of the pelvis to one side. Constantly twisting and dropping means the lower back takes a beating. If our gait is smooth and even and controlled (i.e. not falling), then our joints are protected, we are more metabolically active and walking becomes a whole body movement extravaganza that we were literally BORN to do.
It is very difficult to see whether you’re leaning forward yourself and you might need to ask someone or video yourself walking. Try standing on one leg and see what happens. Do you feel your weight shift forward, back, side to side, do you drop the hip, bend the knee, have to put your arms out etc. Does your pelvis shift forward so you’re over your toes or can you stay on your heel?
If you’re wobbly or have to bend your knee, then you’re potentially more of a faller than a walker. If your pelvis shifts forward, so your weight is on the forefoot, then you’re lacking the strength in the butt and hammies to keep your alignment centred. If you’re pelvis is dropping side to side then you’re likely lacking strength in the side hip muscles which help to keep this from happening and also assist with balance.
For your pelvis and centre of body mass to move smoothly through space, with no bobbing up and down and no twisting, hitching, dropping etc. then your feet have to work well. You need enough mobility in the feet that you can land on the heel, progress through a flat foot, keep the heeling down long enough to engage the hammies and glutes, and then toe off to push yourself forward. If you don’t begin with a good heel strike, then your body finds it difficult to use muscles on the back of the body, particularly hams and glutes to move you forward, this weakness in the glutes and hamstrings is usually associated with weak pelvic floor muscles as well, and then you have no alternative but to lean forward and fall into your steps with the associated issues this causes.
The forward leg should land with a relatively straight leg, the deeper the knee bend, the more you use your quads as a braking force and the more pressure goes through the knee. The foot should also land fairly close to your centre of gravity… that is to say that the length of your stride should be dictated by the back leg reaching back more so than the front leg reaching forward. The further forward the front leg reaches in front of you the more force you’re going to land on it with and the harder this is on your joints. Unfortunately we are so tight through the calves and hamstrings, landing with a straight leg is nearly impossible for most people and as we lose the ability to keep the heel down long enough for a good push off, then so begins a slow decline of the ability to extend the hip behind, which shortens the stride, focuses more on the lifting and falling and eventually becomes a shuffling gait. The weakness in the hips results in a loss of balance, and if you’re wearing shoes that don’t allow your feet to sense the environment, then you’re not just going to be falling to walk, but you’re going to be falling as you age – not a great place to be.
The ability of the calf muscles to lengthen enough for you to keep your heel down with a straight leg is directly related to how early the heel lifts and your ability to push off strongly. When the heel lifts early it may look like the leg is behind you because the foot is, but in reality the thigh bone is just vertical and hasn’t gone back very much if at all. This means that your glutes aren’t doing the work to push you forward and you’re back to falling to walk because you have no alternative.
Have a look around you when you’re next out and think about your own butt… can you see it or has it gone? Very common in menopausal women (and non menopausal women and men), is the tendency of the buttocks to disappear. Muscle loss, yes, but also a tendency to tuck the bottom under or to shift the pelvis forward. This forward shift or tucking motion makes the bottom look flat but it also eventually leads to a flat bottom because the glute muscles just can’t work in that alignment – well, not efficiently or well anyway. The big butt muscles on the back are what help you to take the leg back behind you when you walk. If they’ve gone then you’re back to starting to shuffle eventually. That tucked position is also not great for the pelvic floor muscles to do their job well and if you’re a leaker or have a prolapse then untucking your butt is a good alignment point to begin with.
One of my heroes, Julie Wiebe, has this checklist for what she calls the ‘junkless trunk’…
So how do you know if this is you? Here is your junkless trunk checklist:
- Can you fill your jeans up in the rear like you used to?
- When you squat down do you get that underwear revealing gap between your waistband and low back (it’s not just the cut of the jeans ladies)?
- Do you have low back, hip, knee or SI pain that gets worse with exercise?
- Do you leak while you exercise?
If the answer to these questions is no, then likely you’re losing/lost/not using your butt well. Consider as well that tucking the butt and losing your butt muscles mean that you tend to lose your lower back curve as well. NOOOOOOOOOOOO! I hear you shout – yes I heard you and I know what you’re going to say – I do, yes, I do… you’re going to say I’ve always had a big butt and it’s always stuck out and my physio/medical doofer/mother/personal trainer or other significant well meaning individual in your life has said that in order to get rid of that excessive curve in your lower back you need to tuck your butt under…. AND this is where it becomes really important if you are going to take advice from anyone that you’re not doing it in a class where cues aren’t tailored to you. If you have an excessive lumbar curve then there may be some benefit to lengthening that curve and stretching the lower back muscles. However, this is VERY, VERY different to tucking and flattening the curve. The whole reason that curve is there in the first place – among other things – is for shock absorption when you walk/run. However, I’ve gone off topic a bit there. Suffice to say that tucking your butt under is a less than ideal way to spend your walking time.
Another hero, Katy Bowman, says “If in doubt stick your butt out”. I find this is more often the required cue for my clients who tend to be fifty or better female runners at or around menopause. Menopause alters the fat deposits, body composition and muscle mass so that the loss of the bottom is even more obvious.
So, what about the upper body? Unfortunately, it’s just as important as the lower body, so therefore there’s another great big essay coming 😊
First off, your arms should swing. They should swing forward and back, NOT side to side. If your arms aren’t swinging, then chances are you’re a faller. The arms ‘tell’ the legs what to do. That is to say that walking is a whole body exercise, the movement from the feet, up to the legs, into the spine, up to the shoulders and into the head – it’s a gentle twisting motion for the spine and a great core and pelvic floor trainer for that reason. But all of this amazing complexity should all happen at the same time in a dance of spiralling from foot to head. Your legs obviously weigh quite a bit and as they’re swinging forward (good), being hoiked up and through (bad), then that momentum is going to pull on the pelvis and therefore try and twist it from side to side as the legs move. The arms, by swinging in the opposite direction, help to balance out that twisting motion, essentially dampening the potential force that it would otherwise have on the spine, and instead creating the spiralling upwards effect that we’re after (that doesn’t mean bounce).
The arms should swing straight back and straight forward, and again, this arm swing should be a reach back, not a forward motion. When you reach back with the arm, the triceps have to work which works out the bingo wings – always a bonus, and much like the hamstrings of the back upper thigh, the hamstrings of the back upper arm, help to propel you forward.
Again, have a look around, you might see people lifting and pumping the arms in front of them when they’re walking, probably in some delusion that this is going to increase the calories they burn. What it actually does is tighten up those already tight muscles in the chest, neck and shoulders, our computer and driving muscles and that’s really the last thing they need (tighter muscles burn less calories as well, incidentally). In contrast, however, when you reach back with the arm, using the tricep muscles, you’re essentially stretching the tissues in the front of the shoulder and the chest with every step… think Fitbit, 10,000 chest/shoulder stretches without having to think about it too much.
If you aren’t swinging your arms behind when you walk then there’s nothing to balance out the torque or twisting from the legs/pelvis except your lower back. So if you have weak triceps, do you have a tight lower back? If yes, then maybe getting your arm swing on will take the strain off your lower back.
Have a look at people walking and see how many people swing their arms side to side – this is so much chest and shoulder tension that the arms bones are actually rotating inwards and their swing is now simply a dangle caused by the momentum of the body falling forward. The other arm swing I see quite often is the elbow swing. This looks suspiciously like an arm swing, but again it’s a bit like the lower leg phenomenon where the leg looks like it’s behind you, but really it’s just the foot because of the bend in the knee. With the arms, the elbow bends and it looks like it’s swinging, but unlike a true arm swing, which would happen at the shoulder and involve the muscles of the upper arm, with the elbow swing, it’s just the lower arm being thrown about again due to the momentum of the body.
The alignment of your upper arm should look like the elbow pit pointing forward and the thumb nail pointing forward, which means the tricep is then ideally placed to pull the arm back and then gravity takes over and the arm swings forward – much like the leg interestingly enough 😊 Try it. Lift your arm behind you, feel the tricep kick in, and then let it go and watch it swing forward slightly of your body. Bending and pumping your arms is not only going to increase tension, which is not the desired result of walking, but it’s going to conserve energy – which might be a goal for a tiny fraction of the population, but for the majority of us we really need to be getting those muscles working and therefore stretching, moving and bending and pulling on our joints to keep us healthy. Leaving the arms bent in – think power-walking style – is the direct opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
Now all that being said, you’re – and here’s my own Yorkshireism – pissing into the wind – for anyone from any other part of the country or world reading this it means wasting your time – if you’re trying to walk better whilst wearing normal shoes! And yes there are more posts coming or already here that are this length all about shoes and feet – I can sense your excitement 😊
Okay, so assuming you’re interested, have got this far, and are prepared to take your shoes off every now and again, what do you do about it?
- Sort your shoes out. Seriously get some minimal shoes going on and get your feet out occasionally and walk barefoot as much as possible. To speed up the process of going minimal, which eventually will lead to a more mobile and stronger foot, you can do mobility and strengthening exercises for your feet.
- Don’t walk with your feet turned out. Sometimes this is due to tightness in the calf muscles and things going at the hip, but sometimes it’s habit. Start to bring your feet back to a more straight position. You can’t push off effectively if you’re turning your feet out and it’s more likely to give you bunions!
- Stretch your calf muscles and hamstrings. These muscles need to be long and strong in order to push you forward. Bear in mind however that if you’re stretching for a few minutes a day and then spending a huge proportion of the rest of your time sat in chairs, then you’re… what? Yep, you got it, urinating into a strong breeze. You can’t undo hours of chair sitting with a few hamstring and calf stretches. What should you do? Stop sitting.
- Sort your alignment out – untuck your butt. This is an old style Pilates cue, but I’m gonna butcher it here… imagine a golden thread running up your spine and out through the crown of your head, drawing you up to the sky. That’s one way of getting taller and more aligned. You could also imagine the gold thread attached to the top of your butt crack and lifting your butt up, creating a smooth even curve in the lower back. If you’re struggling with any of this alignment stuff and knowing what’s enough curve and what isn’t, then you need the eyes of a teacher on you to make sure you’re not overdoing it and potentially causing more problems trying to fix it.
- Strengthen the parts you need to walk well. Butt muscles, the ones at the back and the sides, the inner thighs, the calves etc. A tight muscle is not a strong muscle. All of your muscles should be able to contract strongly for strength, but they also need to be able to relax fully. This motion of contraction and relaxation means they’re getting the most movement, the most blood flow, the most benefit. Tight muscles don’t work well, they don’t get great blood flow and although we might value a set of tight abs or a set of tight chest muscles – t-shirt fillers as I once heard them called – they’re actually not great for us, they pull on the joints and cause excessive wear and tear.
After saying all of that, the question then remains, do you actually walk? Because if you’re not walking 3-5 miles or more per day, preferably outside in nature and focusing on how you’re moving, then you can’t possibly expect to walk well at all. And if you’re a runner, think about this, if your walking form is poor, then chances are your running form is poor. Walking is about 1.5-1.75 times more force than simply standing through your joints and running 2-3 times more than that. So you might want to obey the old adage of walk before you run – literally.
If you’re 50 or better, a female runner in or around menopause in the Lytham St Annes, Fylde Coast, Blackpool area and you want some eyes on coaching around running/walking gait, foot health and whatnot, get in touch. If you’re further afield, I do video coaching as well. Please get in touch.
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