But what is a shocker is that a huge percentage (in my experience, about 75%) of our physical pain is a direct result of imbalances in how we walk. The GOOD NEWS is that it is possible to eliminate pain by correcting how we walk. Get it right and you’ll walk like you’re 20 years old, even if you’re 70. Get it wrong and you’ll walk like 70, even if you’re 20.
To give this subject the attention it deserves, I’m going to publish it as a two-part entry. This is Part 1: Correcting Your Walk. The second will be Part 2: Eliminating Pain.
Gait Cycle Analysis, or the science of how we walk, can be reduced to 4 simple things we’re all doing wrong. Each of these is a weak link in our chain of muscles, and like any chain, the weakest link is where we’ll feel pain.
The 4 steps are:
THE 4 STEPS OF PERFECT GAIT
2. Stride length
3. Thoracic rotation
4. Arm swing
DORSI-FLEXION (ANKLE FLEXION)
A: What is it? Lifting up the ankle to a 45º angle when you walk. I had to use skeletal images because I couldn’t find a single image on the internet of someone walking with proper dorsiflexion. The fact is, virtually nobody does this properly, so don’t feel bad, but bear in mind that people who walk like the example on the left will have a much higher incidence of knee pain as they age. They’re also much more likely to need a knee replacement. In this case, improving dorsiflexion can reduce the need for a knee replacement by minimizing the impact of walking on the knee joint.
B: Why should I do it? Its hard to demonstrate why this is so important without doing a muscle testing evaluation on you, but basically, the act of dorsiflexing during gait activates a muscle in your lower leg called the Tibialis Posterior, and that muscle is one of the weakest links in your entire body. If it is unused (for anatomy buffs, it is normally used when returning to the ground, eccentrically from dorsiflexion) your whole body will be weak. When you dorsiflex, it strengthens Tibialis Posterior and in turn, your whole body.
C: Why have I been doing it wrong? By only lifting your ankle up 1º to 10º, you are able to move around, but you are not moving into a position where you can activate Tibialis Posterior, so the muscle atrophies. People don’t fail to dorsi-flex from lack of motivation, they simply can’t lift their foot that high. The ankle is a lever system, and the muscle on the opposite end of the lever, the Gastrocnemius, is too tight to allow dorsiflexion. In walking, this leads to reduced dorsiflexion and in running it leads to “shin splints”. The solution for both is the same. Dorsiflex during gait.
D: How can I fix it? Since most people can’t dorsiflex because of a tight Gastrocnemius, beginning to dorsiflex involves a dual process of trying to do it, and then stretching the gastrocnemius so you’re able to do it. It will be natural to feel mild muscle fatigue on the front of your lower leg, which means you’re getting a workout and becoming stronger.
A: What is it? Stride length is how long of a step you take with each leg. In the pictures below, it may seem that both runners are running properly, but look at how short the stride length is on the left-side image. This is a person who is relying on youthful tendon elasticity to compensate for poor form, and who is headed for a hip replacement at 70. In the right-side image, look at the intrinsic power associated with a longer stride. I used images of runners to illustrate this because stride length is most apparent in running, but the same form, to a lesser degree, applies to walking.
B: Why should I do it? Just like the ankle is a lever system involving two dominant muscles, so is the pelvis. A long stride relaxes the Psoas at the front of the pelvis, allowing for full activation of the Gluteus Maximus at the back. By correcting the stereotypical short stride of the retired senior, you can prevent back pain, reduce the likelihood of sciatica and even build up “buns of steel”. Its never too late, and you have a better chance of doing so by taking a longer stride than if you bought a “thigh master” or some other silly dust collector.
C: Why have I been doing it wrong? Look closely at the picture below. The runner is barely bringing her left leg back past a neutral position. This is what everyone does wrong. By taking too short a stride on one leg, the opposing leg not only doesn’t get a stretch in the Psoas muscle, but its counter-lever, the Gluteus Maximus (your so-called “buns of steel” muscle) doesn’t move into a position where it can be worked. The result is a tight pelvis and weak Gluteus. This means your lower back is going to absorb more of the stress from walking, and your pelvis will have less stability because the Gluteus isn’t doing its job. Pain and instability are a recipe for injury, and the people I work with who have major hip problems all have to work on their stride length before we can make progress.
D: How can I fix it? Since most people can’t take as long a stride as they are supposed to because of a tight Ilio-Psoas muscle group, increasing stride length involves a dual process of trying to do it, and then stretching the psoas so you’re able to do it. It will be natural to feel a light stretch deep inside your pelvis each time you take a step, which means you’re both improving your flexibility and making your pelvis/gluteus stronger.
A: What is it? Thoracic rotation involves a light 10º rotation of the mid back (specifically, the thoracic vertebrae) while you walk. It was easy enough to find an image of someone NOT doing it, but the only picture I could find of a person actually doing it was that of a cross-country skier. That’s actually a good way to think of it: you should be walking a bit like you cross-country ski. Minus the flask of whisky… People who walk with thoracic rotation are a lot less likely to have chronic back pain, and will be less prone to sciatica or their hips locking up.
B: Why should I do it? By performing 10º of rotation while you walk, it is possible to tone the muscles of the lower and mid-back. Most people think having a strong “core” involves strengthening the abdominals but in fact, your “core” muscles are those in your lower back (for the anatomy buffs out there, we’re talking about 5 of them: 1. Quadratus Lumborum, 2. Iliocostalis, 3. Multifidus, 4. Longissimus, and 5. Spinalis). There is a muscle test for each of these muscles, and it is often interesting to see how many aren’t working at all. The average is 2 out of 10 working, the rest are usually weak and atrophied. These are the people who complain of chronic back pain. Eg. Everyone…
C: Why have I been doing it wrong? People joke that models have a distinctive walk, but all joking aside, that slightly exaggerated rotation during gait (minus the see-through clothing) is actually the best way to activate your back muscles. Walking like a tree is not as good–it turns the back muscles into mush. Like a skier, each shoulder/arm should move forward and back with its opposing leg, resulting in 10º of rotation in the mid-back. We’re only talking 10º, but its the difference between a solid back and feeling weak all the time. I can’t count the number of people who have told me they felt like they needed to strengthen their “core” without realizing it was their back, via their walk, that needed work. Thoracic rotating is WAY more effective than abdominal crunches, especially for those people who feel pain in their backs when they do abdominal work.
D: How can I fix it? There is no stretch for this. You just have to do it. I’ll specify here that it should look normal (not ridiculous) but because you have been taking 5-10,000 steps/day the wrong way for 20 to 70 years, anything different from what you’re doing now will FEEL ridiculous, so FYI, this one is not going to be easy to implement. Usually, Gait Coaching is required, since an outside perspective is the only way to bridge the gap between what feels right and what IS right…
A: What is it? Moving the arms back goes hand-in-hand with Step 3, Thoracic Rotation. As in the above picture, the arms needs to move back and forward coincident with the movement of the legs. In the picture below, we see two different degrees of arm swing. The one on the left will have a much higher risk of shoulder injury because the muscles that should stabilize the shoulder never get a workout. If the left-side image were enlarged, an atrophy of the posterior deltoid (back-of-the-shoulder muscle) is already apparent.
B: Why should I do it? The act of swinging the arm back during gait serves two functions. The first is to tone the upper back muscles, specifically the Rhomboids (but also the Latissimus Dorsi and Posterior Deltoid). The second is to stretch out the Pectoralis Minor in your chest. In this case we can see the shoulder muscle as a pulley-system similar to the ankle, where the Pectoralis Minor pulls on one side and the Rhomboids pulls on the other. It is not uncommon for someone with no arm-swing to have shoulder pain, a tight Pectoralis Minor and pain underneath the shoulder blade (where the Rhomboid should be working but isn’t).
C: Why have I been doing it wrong? I’m thinking you’ve seen too many zombie movies. Seriously though, the arms need to move when we walk. What I see people doing most often isn’t walking like a zombie but swinging their arm at the elbow. This is also useless. It leads to elbow pain, and quite often, I’ve seen people get diagnosed with “tennis elbow” who don’t play tennis. Figure that one out… Overuse of the elbow joint during incorrect gait leads to inflammation and tennis elbow. Another common mistake is swinging the arm, but swinging it in front and across the body (towards your opposite hip). This tightens the Pectoralis Minor even more. There needs to be back-swing as in the “correct” image above.
D: How can I fix it? In cases where arm-swing has been reduced or forgotten, fixing it involves a dual process of beginning to arm-swing during gait and then stretching the Pectoralis Minor. In many cases, particularly those where acute shoulder pain is present, the Pec Minor will be painfully tight, and may need a good, old-fashoined digging-into before it loosens up enough that it even can be stretched.
THE 4 STEPS, REVIEWED
If we could take these four people and blend them into one, we would have perfect gait. The result would be a fully balanced body with all the right muscles doing the right things. If this were you, you would feel strong, flexible and for the most part, be pain-free. But…
…as we know, nobody’s perfect. It is virtually impossible to modify these 4 steps of Gait without outside feedback. Someone is going to need to coach you. Ideally, someone schooled in Gait Coaching. If you have access to any of my VTS L2 students in Canada, all of them will know how to help you with this.
What I find troubling about the North American and European health care systems is that most people are unaware of why they need gait coaching; or why correcting gait is so fundamental to eliminating pain. Perhaps because pain killers are such a big part of the economy, its easier to reach for a tylenol than find a reliable information source that takes the time to explain what pain is, how it operates, how much it is a function of gait and what needs to happen on a gait-level to eliminate it.
So, for your reading pleasure, and assuming I haven’t put you to sleep by now with all these pictures, we proceed to Part 2 of this article: Eliminating Pain…
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